Here is a poem by Ogden Nash, which is very tongue-in-cheek, mockingly protesting about the pervasiveness of simile and metaphor in literature in general, and poetry in particular. Wouldn’t it be clearer, less confusing and more straightforward to always call a spade a spade. Well, I guess this would satisfy those who see literal meaning everywhere, even in the face of obvious metaphor, but it would sure make reading literature more boring.
Nash takes his title, “Very like a whale”, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, (Act 3, Scene 2) when Hamlet is telling Polonius what he sees in the clouds. One of them seems like a whale to Hamlet, and Polonius, humouring him replies, “Very like a whale” – we have t assume that Polonius doesn’t get the image at all. But then there is nothing more of this in the poem itself, which instead turns its ironic attention to Lord Byron’s poem “The Destruction of Sennacherib” in which the first two lines read “The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold, And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold”.
Read on to see how Ogden Nash deconstructs this, pointing out the literal ridiculousness of Byron’s metaphor…
One thing that literature would be greatly the better for
Would be a more restricted employment by the authors of simile and
Authors of all races, be they Greeks, Romans, Teutons or Celts,
Can’t seem just to say that anything is the thing it is but have to
go out of their way to say that it is like something else.
What does it mean when we are told
That that Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold?
In the first place, George Gordon Byron had enough experience
To know that it probably wasn’t just one Assyrian, it was a lot of
However, as too many arguments are apt to induce apoplexy and
thus hinder longevity.
We’ll let it pass as one Assyrian for the sake of brevity.
Now then, this particular Assyrian, the one whose cohorts were
gleaming in purple and gold,
Just what does the poet mean when he says he came down like a
wolf on the fold?
In heaven and earth more than is dreamed of in our philosophy
there are great many things.
But I don’t imagine that among them there is a wolf with purple
and gold cohorts or purple and gold anythings.
No, no, Lord Byron, before I’ll believe that this Assyrian was
actually like a wolf I must have some kind of proof;
Did he run on all fours and did he have a hairy tail and a big red
mouth and big white teeth and did he say Woof Woof?
Frankly I think it is very unlikely, and all you were entitled to say,
at the very most,
Was that the Assyrian cohorts came down like a lot of Assyrian
cohorts about to destroy the Hebrew host.
But that wasn’t fancy enough for Lord Byron, oh dear me no, he
had to invent a lot of figures of speech and then interpolate them,
With the result that whenever you mention Old Testament soldiers
to people they say Oh yes, they’re the ones that a lot of
wolves dressed up in gold and purple ate them.
Nice perspective Mr. Nash – but Byron’s poem is pleasing enough to most, and we get what he meant.
Also note the rhyming couplets in Nash’s poem – sometimes he has to craft exceedingly long lines to make the rhymes work, and then some of the rhymes are pretty outrageous. The irony is that here he is following Byron, who also wrote his poem in rhyming couplets, some of which were also quite a stretch.
But its all in good fun, so let’s enjoy.
The Poetry Dude