Last week, Jeremy Corbyn tweeted an advert for Poetry for the Many, his anthology of poetry co-edited with Len McCluskey, with a quotation from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy. Even though Twitter seems to be in its extended death throes, Corbyn still managed to tweet up a storm, with twitterers attacking the quotation as, among other things, ‘Vogon poetry’, a reference to aliens from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy notorious for torturing prisoners with poetry recitals. Twitterers had mistaken Shelley’s poem for one of Corbyn’s and attacked it on account of its weird scansion, inauthentic lions and even its lack of anti-semitism (Twitter was and is and continues to be, for now, a strange place). The social media platform then divided into a preponderance of retweeters gleefully pointing out the mistake; some twits determined to dislike the poem even after the mistake had been pointed out, attacking Shelley’s elite background as somehow disqualifying him from writing poetry for the many; and commentators bewailing the state of the discourse. As newspapers have become accustomed to trawl Twitter for news items, The Guardian waded in with a piece on the furore, ending with a sneering dismissal of Shelley’s poem as out of date and quoting W H Auden’s dictum that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ whilst forgetting its important codicil, ‘it survives, /A way of happening, a mouth.’
As a left-leaning Romanticist who also loves Douglas Adams, I feel like I should at least dip my toes into this pool, however muddied. First of all, the anthology looks fascinating, including reflections from Corbyn, McCluskey, and other contributors on what the selected poems mean to them, with an explicit desire to appeal to a working-class readership and to connect poetry reading to political activism. I look forward to it being reviewed in Romantic Textualities and elsewhere. Next, I want to close read the extract from the poem that Corbyn selected for his tweet, before comparing it with an example of Adams’ ‘Vogon poetry’. The Shelley extract reads:
Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many—they are few!
This stanza works apart from the rest of The Masque of Anarchy as a powerful poem in itself, emphasizing the aims of the anthology it is being used to advertise: it is a cry to liberty and liberation; it emphasizes the political power of a mass of like-minded citizens against a minority of antagonists; and it engages with complex imagery likening the process of liberation to waking up, to removing metaphorical chains (suggesting metallic heaviness) by shaking them off like dew (an action imagined as light and easy). In the context of the rest of the poem, it functions as a refrain reminding English men of their common power against an out of touch, violent, and corrupt elite. Both in and out of context, the refrain combines optimistic political encouragement to the ‘many’ it imagines as its sympathetic listeners with a threat directed at the antagonistic ‘few’. Part of the furious response to the tweeted poem last week surely picks up on the implicit threat in its words.
In contrast, Vogon poetry looks like this:
Oh freddled gruntbuggly,
Thy micturations are to me, (with big yawning)
As plurdled gabbleblotchits, in midsummer morning
On a lurgid bee,
That mordiously hath blurted out,
Its earted jurtles, grumbling
Into a rancid festering confectious organ squealer. [drowned out by moaning and screaming]
Now the jurpling slayjid agrocrustles,
Are slurping hagrilly up the axlegrurts,
And living glupules frart and stipulate,
Like jowling meated liverslime,
Groop, I implore thee, my foonting turlingdromes,
And hooptiously drangle me,
With crinkly bindlewurdles, mashurbitries.
Or else I shall rend thee in the gobberwarts with my blurglecruncheon,
See if I don’t!
The use of ‘Vogon poetry’ as a dismissal of the Shelley poem mistaken for Corbyn’s own is meant to connect the extract from The Masque of Anarchy to nonsense verse, so bad it notoriously hospitalises and even kills auditors, as can be seen in the above extract when words are ‘drowned out by moaning and screaming’. Ironically, the refrain from The Masque of Anarchy and this example of Vogon poetry shares an interest in implied and explicit violence. In between the nonsense words Adams introduces, this example of Vogon verse, like Shelley’s poem, suggests violence at first in the ‘rancid festering confectious organ squealer’ which prompts moaning and screaming and then in the final threat to ‘rend thee in the gobberwarts with my blurglecruncheon / See if I don’t!’ Adams’ poem shifts from sounding something like a pastoral in its garbled depiction of a ‘midsummer morning’ filled with Jabberwocky-like nonsense formations to something which sounds perversely erotic: ‘Groop, I implore thee, my foonting turlingdromes, / And hooptiously drangle me’. Part of the joke here is that auditors of the poem really don’t want to know what a foonting turlingdrome is or what it means to hooptiously drangle a Vogon.
There are key differences between the Shelley poem and Vogon verse. The refrain from The Masque of Anarchy that Corbyn uses to advertise his anthology is written in simple and accessible language, even if the imagery demands some decoding. Vogon poetry both obfuscates meaning and hints darkly at disgust and discomfort: ‘jowling meated liverslime’, for example gestures towards recognisable words – jowl, meat, liver, slime – to create a revolting image. Both contain threats of violence, although Vogon violence works against its auditors whereas Shelley’s aims to provoke principled action against elite corruption.
Rather than ending with the Auden quote chosen by The Guardian in its reporting of this to do, the whole affair made me think of Marianne Moore’s ‘Poetry’, cutting to the heart of reactions against Corbyn’s tweet and the sometimes reluctant defences of it, such as The Guardian‘s. In a version of the poem cut down to three lines, Moore writes a staccato dismissal (it… it… it… it…) of the titular ‘poetry’ which nevertheless, almost against her will and the wills of her readers, leads to something authentic:
I, too, dislike it.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine.
If you would like to write for us about an example of Romanticism in the news, please get in touch (Digital@romtext.org.uk), and we could feature you on the blog!