15 June, 2006Issue 5.2EuropeLiteraturePoetry

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Parody and Coteries

James Womack

Maurice Bowra
New Bats in Old Belfries
eds. Henry Hardy and Jennifer Holmes
Robert Dugdale, 2005
167 pages
ISBN 0946976112

A parody’s success depends on the way the audience relates to it. In order to work, the parodist’s target, and the parody’s subject, must be elements which—and with which—the audience can easily identify. For example, Cyril Connolly’s hilarious ‘Bond Strikes Camp’ (1962) depends on the contrast between its use of Ian Fleming’s butch style and the events it describes—James Bond’s undercover entrapment of a Soviet agent at a drag club:

‘One more question, sir. I have no wish to weary you with details of my private life but I can assure you I’ve never dressed up in “drag” as you call it since I played Katisha in “The Mikado” at my prep school. I shan’t look right, I shan’t move right, I shan’t talk right; I shall feel about as convincing arsing about as a night-club hostess as Randolph Churchill.’

M. gazed at him blankly and again Bond noticed his expression of weariness, even of repulsion. ‘Yes, 007, you will do all those things and I am afraid that is precisely what will get him.’

The parody’s success comes from the way it laughs at the tics of the James Bond formula and reveals the ridiculous side to Bond’s overt manliness (‘what every man would like to be, and what every woman would like to have between the sheets’ as the traditional cover blurb has it). The absurdity of Bond’s gadget-fetishism and his weakness for brand-names is easily taken off. Connolly obviously works at a great advantage: the Bond style is so well-defined and recognisable that even people who have only come into contact with James Bond via the movies will get the joke.

A more difficult case is what happens when coterie parodies are written to appeal to a select audience, as is the case with Connolly’s friend, Maurice Bowra. How much mileage can a reader, as an average non-initiate, get from these parodies? How effective is such writing when presented to a wider public? If an author writes perfectly competent parodies of A.E. Housman that describe imagined acts of sexual congress between the author’s friends, can he expect there to be much of a market for them—apart from among his peers?

Bowra, Warden of Wadham College between 1938 and 1970, was a keen writer of verse and composed a large number of satirical and parodic poems, which imagine, at great length, the various sexual combinations of most of his intimates, from John Betjeman to Kenneth Clark, from Isaiah Berlin to Rosamund Lehmann. These poems have been gathered and edited by Henry Hardy and Jennifer Holmes, thoroughly introduced by Julian Mitchell, and published in a handsome annotated edition.

In the introduction, two reasons are advanced for publishing the collection: completism and the actual qualities of the work. Regarding completism, Henry Hardy writes of his first meeting with Bowra’s verse:

The poems first came to my attention through Isaiah Berlin, another of their author’s […] close friends, whose writings I have been editing on and off for the last thirty years. Berlin and [John] Sparrow had started making notes on them, identifying various people referred to, sometimes obliquely, by Bowra; they had it in mind to annotate the text sufficiently to make the poems comprehensible to readers not already able to understand the many allusions they contain—allusions which are becoming increasingly obscure as time goes by. Unfortunately, though, both Berlin and Sparrow died before much progress had been made. It seemed to me desirable to complete this work, not only because it was one of Berlin’s literary projects, but for its own sake.

These poems therefore saw public light partly because they were a side-project for someone more famous.

It was on Hardy’s initiative that the project progressed. As he states in his introduction, ‘publication was the obvious next step, though it is unclear whether this was in the minds of the original editors, who almost certainly felt more cautious.’ One of the reasons for caution on the parts of Berlin and Sparrow must have been concerns about the quality of the poems; whenever the poetic merit of Bowra’s verse is mentioned, Hardy and Mitchell equivocate. Hardy writes, ‘Many of those who have read the poems (myself included) think them remarkable and sui generis. The best of them are surely masterpieces of their admittedly slight kind.’ Mitchell corroborates: ‘Unless we are scholars of the period, we are not likely to find these early squibs very funny, though the poem about [Marcus Niebuhr] Tod, an imitation of a parody, is funny enough.’ Such reticence suggests that it may be difficult to drum up much enthusiasm for Bowra’s work. Just how good are these poems? How easy is it for the non-initiate—me, you, anyone with no obvious reason to be interested in Bowra—to get anything out of them?

Take for example these lines from ‘The Architect to His Lady,’ a representative poem in that its concentration is on sex: ‘Her quim in neo-Georgian style / Presents the glories of the Strand, / Where, like Bush House’s organ pile, / Erect, rectangular I stand.’ Is this any more than a form of erudite graffiti? The poem ‘Major Prophet’ emphasises another aspect of Bowra’s poetry—the concern for his small and intimate audience:

Piled on the gorgeous russet carpet
Are Russian texts of Marx and Verne
From Tel Aviv the radio’s calling,
The gas fire and the electric burn.
In asymmetrical relations
He can distinguish S from P;
He is the class of all the classes,

The final flower of PPE.
From Riga, Prague and Nuffield College
Gathers the Philosophenbund
With Rachmilevich, Count Zamoyski,
Katkov, Hourani, Wiesengrund.

Hark to the early English music,
Byrd’s motet for a single string!
See the young girls’ enraptured faces

To the adagio listening.
Oh, hark, for sex-appeal is calling
And ripples down those bended necks.
The master calls them to attention,
Unveils the mysteries of sex.
What would they give to call him husband,
To pluck the roses from his lips,
With Mrs Halpern, Mary Fisher,
The Granta, both the Lynds and Tips?

But in the bluest blood of Riga
Pulsates a redder, stronger wine.
In Palm Beach suiting, sola topi,
Isaiah rides to Palestine.
Solomon’s temple rises for him,
The minions of the Mufti fall.
The new Messiah stands conducting
Beethoven by the Wailing Wall.

Though Coupland show a pair of aces,
Full house with jacks and jokers wins,
With Stephen Spender, Uncle Isaac,
One Frankfurter and both Berlins.

In Hardy and Holmes’s edition, the poem is fully annotated, so readers can find out the identities of all the characters mentioned without too much trouble: the footnotes remind us that ‘Wiesengrund’ is the philosopher Theodor Adorno, or that ‘Tips’ was the nickname of ‘Rachel Walker (1913-92), Somerville PPE 1931-4, a pupil of Berlin’s who fell in love with him. She later became mentally ill.’

All this is helpful, but the achievement of a poem that begs extensive explanatory notes can only be limited. What do we have if we look at the poem without the encumbrance of notes? A piece of Betjeman-esque light verse that revels in its limited appeal, its namedropping. It makes a few Oxford in-jokes, references scandals and arguments, and it does not seem likely the average reader would get much out of it. Of course, there has been good comic poetry written about short-lived arguments, such as G.K. Chesterton’s attacks in the 1920s on the politician F.E. Smith (another Wadham alumnus). There has also been good poetry written as private communication between friends, such as W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice’s ‘Last Will and Testament’ from Letters From Iceland (1937). But Bowra’s verse lacks the wit that animates the latter, or the indignation that drives the former. It is cosy poetry which may have seemed marginally less cosy at the time of composition—Bowra was allegedly terrified of the poems falling into the wrong hands—but which now seems impossibly arch and ephemeral.

Nor is it possible to enjoy the poems on purely aesthetic grounds. Hardy’s claim that Bowra’s ‘versification is often exhilarating’ is a gross overstatement. By and large, Bowra’s approach is conventional—even in his parodies of Edith Sitwell and T.S. Eliot—and this makes his occasional slips seem clumsy. In ‘Major Prophet,’ for example, he does not decide whether or not to elide adjacent vowels: the line ‘The gas fire and the electric burn’ has to be scanned as ‘The gas fire and th’electric burn’, whereas ‘To the adagio listening’ has to be scanned as written. This is not exhilaration; this is predictable disappointment. And so, largely, are the other aspects of Bowra’s poetry. His tone and his method are camp, a mode that has produced great (or at least enjoyable) art in the past—Cyril Connolly’s Bond story, written with its dolled-up, farouche tongue in its dirty cheek, is a case in point. But Bowra’s is a sub-Sadean uninteresting camp. This is an unnecessary book.

James Womack is a DPhil student in English Literature at Wadham College. His thesis deals with W.H. Auden and translation. New Bats in Old Belfries is stocked at Blackwell’s and the QI Bookshop in Oxford, and at the Book House in Summertown. Copies can also be ordered from Henry Hardy: henry.hardy@wolfson.ox.ac.uk