Imitation and parody. . . You can’t have one without the other

Aristotle said to Plato,
“Do you have another sweet potato?”
Said Plato to Aristotle,
“Thanks, I prefer the bottle.”
said Socrates,
“Less rhyming, please!” »

These ancient worthies are mentioned because poetic imitation has been used to define a variety of technical things ever since Plato wrote a treatise called “Poetics”. For our purposes here, I would describe it more as a sincere form of flattery or praise. Poetic Parody takes a different approach as a humorous send-off of a specific poem, poet, or style. Let’s start with the sublime in rhyme before moving on to the worst in verse!

The most significant poetic imitation came from the pen of Alexander Pope (1688-1744) who did not hide his sources. He was inspired by the work of the Roman poet Horace and called his new versions “Imitated Satires and Epistles of Horace”. These were not translations, but rather the spirit of the Roman originals in updated passages like this.

The time was, a sober Englishman would knock
His servants rise and rise at five o’clock,
Instruct his family in all the rules,
And send his wife to church, his son to school.
To worship like his fathers was his concern;
To teach their frugal virtues to his heir;
To prove that luxury will never last,
And place, in complete safety, his gold.
Now times have changed, and a poetic itch
Seized court and city, poor and rich:
Sons, fathers and grandfathers, all will bear the berries,
Our wives read Milton, and our daughters play,
In the theaters, and in crowded rehearsals,
And all our grace at the table is a song.
When sick of Muse, our follies we lament,
And promise our best friends not to rhyme anymore;
We wake up the next morning in a fit of rage,
And call for pen and ink to show our spirit.

Horace reciting his Satires. Painting by Fyodor Bronnikov

* * *

The satires of Horace (65 BC – 8 BC) that the pope imitated were themselves imitated by Greek poets and an earlier Latin writer named Lucilius, so the process of imitation has had a long history. Horace brought out a lighter, self-deprecating side of the pope

In the forest planted by a father’s hand,
Than in five acres now of leased land.
Happy with little, I can draw here
On broccoli and mutton, all year round;
But old friends (though poor or out of the game)
Who touches my bell, I can’t turn away.

Pope himself was not immune to parody, however. Here is one of his famous verses:

It is here that spring will give its first sweetness.
Here the first roses of the year will blow.

A change of just one word and one letter, and we have this piece of slapstick:

Here is the spring that her first colds will bestow.
Here the first noses of the year will blow!

* * *

A poem often imitated, but even more often parodied, is “Song of Hiawatha” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It is written in a format called . . . Are you ready . . . unrhymed trochaic tetrameter. Most of us would recognize the opening with its four bouncing stress beats to the line:

On the shores of Gitche Gumee,
Of the brilliant Great-Water-Sea,
Stood Nokomis, the old woman,
Pointing his finger to the west,
Above the water pointing west,
To the purple clouds of the sunset.

“Take your bow, O Hiawatha,
Take your jasper-headed arrows,
Take your club, Puggawaugun,
And your mittens, Minjekahwun,
And your birch canoe to navigate,
And the oil of Mishe-Nahma.

Leaving Hiawatha. Painting by Albert Bierstadt.

* * *

Edward Newman (1801-1875), English writer and entomologist (insects), was so struck by Longfellow’s epic that he imitated it throughout a book called “The Insect Hunters” and was glad to recognize the ‘original. A fine example of imitation.

Through the greenways of the country,
Where the clematis and the bramble
Intertwine their arms in marriage,
Pause for a sip of pleasure,
Far from all that is mundane;
I ask you to read this poem,
Read this short and simple poem;
Reflect on his peaceful teaching;
Read, and then, please so,
Take the lines that I stole,
The sweet lines that I stole,
From the song ‘Hiawatha,’
And give them back, and give them back,
To their great and talented author.

On the other hand, the Reverend George Strong (1832-1912), writing under the name Marc Antony Henderson, could not stand what he perceived as the repetitive rhythm and primitive structure of “Hiawatha” and thus exposed this parody .

He killed the Mudjokivi nobles.
Of the skin he made her mittens,
Make them with the fur side in,
Make them with the skin side out.
Him, to have the warm side inside,
Put the inner side of the skin on the outside.
Him, to take the cold side out,
Put the fur side warm side inside.
That’s why he put the furry side inside,
Why he put the skin side out,
Why he turned them inside and out.

Without political bias, I must admit that I enjoyed this Hiawatha parody during the 2020 presidential campaign.

In the wigwam called the White House,
Lived the great chief known as POTUS,
Called The Donald, GOP tribe.
Fought with his rival,
Amtrak Joe, a Democrat.
A man goes out when two men come in,
Fought for days and weeks and longer,
Still fighting this mighty fight.
Who will be the winner of the POTUS?
Will the Donald leave the wigwam?
We will find out on November 3.

* * *

No less a character than Rudyard Kipling chose a well-known Wordsworth poem as ripe for parody. The original:

She dwelt among the ways uncharted
Near the springs of Dove,
A maid that there was no one to hire
And very little to like:
A violet near a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eyes!
—Beautiful as a star, when only one
Shine in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she’s in her grave, and, oh,
The difference for me!

And Kipling’s automotive version:

He wandered in the mountain
Above rated speed –
A young man with whom Justice often stayed
And usually fined.

He left alone, so no one would know
If he could drive or direct.
Now he’s in the ditch, and Oh!
The differential!

* * *

In my opinion, the master parodist is probably Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898) who used the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. He scattered lively poems in “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass”. Many readers assume these are original verses when in fact almost all are parodies of existing poems.

For example, Dr. Isaac Watts wrote an instructive poem that begins:

How is the busy little bee
Improve every shining hour,
And harvest honey all day
Of every flower that opens.

Alice remembers it this way:

How is the little crocodile
Improve its shiny tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale.

Alice in Wonderland. Illustration by John Tenniel.

* * *

You may have come across one of Robert Southey’s best-known poems:

You are old, Father William, cried the young man,
The few locks you have left are gray,
You are in good health, Father William, a warm old man.
Now tell me the reason, I pray.

When I was young, Father William answered
I remember that youth would fly fast,
And didn’t abuse my health and vigor first,
That I may never need it after all.

Using the same rhythm and slightly modifying the language, Lewis Carroll wrote this:

“You are old, Father William,” said the young man,
“And your hair has turned very white;
And yet you keep standing on your head –
Do you think that at your age is good?

“In my youth,” answered Father William to his son,
“I was worried it would hurt the brain;
But, now that I’m perfectly sure I don’t have any,
Why, I do it over and over again.

* * *

And so, you might ask, has Lewis Carroll ever parodied Longfellow? You will recognize this rhythm: “In the age of imitation, I cannot claim any particular credit for this slight attempt to do what is known to be so easy. Any sufficiently practiced writer, with the slightest ear for rhythm, could compose for hours on end in the easy running meter of Hiawatha’s Song. Having clearly stated that I take no heed in the following little poem to its purely verbal jingle, I must urge the candid reader to confine his criticism to his treatment of the subject. I get it!

* * *

VIDEO. Our video talks about parody, not to diminish the importance of imitation, but because parody is so much more fun. Here are the members of the First Poetry Quartet with George Plimpton and other guests performing first the original poem and then the BBQ version! Here are the skewered poems:

Alfred Lord Tennyson The Charge of the Light Brigade

Robert Herrick on Julia’s clothes

Leigh Hunt Jenny kissed me

Rudyard Kipling Si

But first, we start with the story of Hero and Leander. It was the Leander who used to swim across the dangerous waters of the Hellespont to visit his true love, the handsome Hero. First we will have the classic version of Lord Byron who, of course, included himself in the story, then a modern version of Brooklyn by Joseph Newman.


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