"Very Like A Whale"
"Very Like A Whale"
by Ogden Nash
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 whos 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 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.
That's the kind of thing that's being done all the time by poets,
from Homer to Tennyson;
They're always comparing ladies to lilies and veal to venison,
And they always say things like that the snow is a white blanket
after a winter storm.
Oh it is, is it, all right then, you sleep under a six-inch blanket of
snow and I'll sleep under a half-inch blanket of unpoetical
blanket material and we'll see which one keeps warm,
And after that maybe you'll begin to comprehend dimly
What I mean by too much metaphor and simile.
The kind of rhymed poems I love the most are the kind that I read without realising the rhyme, where rhyme doesn't overpower the poem. I know it's a personal preference, but I find rhyming to be cloying too often, and something quite difficult to master (needless to say, as a reader I think very few people have mastered it). I read through "Very Like A Whale", laughed through many parts, loved it, and read it again -- only then noticing the rhyme. Enough. I was hooked.
I love how funny it is, how clever it is, how tongue-in-cheek yet not very subtle at all it is. No doubt Leon would be able to give you a much more comprehensive analysis of the poem's structure, its syntax and syllables, but I respond to art (in general) on an unsophisticated gut level. The title, of course, is a naughty paralleling of Byron's "wolf on the fold" -- there is nothing like a whale in this poem, just as there is nothing like a wolf in Byron's.
This is actually a very incisive poem, cloaking under humour a generous dose of snarkiness. How many of us have secretly groaned at the poems of the so-called greats? Leave be the work of the definitely-non-greats and the just-not-our-cups-of-teas. This cheeky poem is a very nicely-executed reminder to not get carried away with the canonized stuff, to look at poems for what they are worth, not for what their writers' names are worth.
This is a poem about poetry, and it is wonderful in its irreverence. Nash takes on Byron himself, and wins!