In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle analyses a poem that represents the meeting-point of ancient riddle and modern nonsense
‘I Saw a Peacock’ is an anonymous nonsense poem that is included in Quentin Blake’s The Puffin Book of Nonsense Verse (Puffin Poetry), a wonderful anthology which I’d recommend to any fans of nonsense verse. I thought I’d make ‘I Saw a Peacock’ the topic of this week’s Secret Library column because is a fun little poem and a few words of analysis will help to show how clever and fun it is in its construction. It’s also not as well-known as it perhaps should be. But first, here is the poem:
I Saw a Peacock, with a fiery tail,
I saw a Blazing Comet, drop down hail,
I saw a Cloud, with Ivy circled round,
I saw a sturdy Oak, creep on the ground,
I saw a Pismire, swallow up a Whale,
I saw a raging Sea, brim full of Ale,
I saw a Venice Glass, Sixteen foot deep,
I saw a well, full of mens tears that weep,
I saw their eyes, all in a flame of fire,
I saw a House, as big as the Moon and higher,
I saw the Sun, even in the midst of night,
I saw the man, that saw this wondrous sight.
(A ‘Pismire’, by the way, is an old word for an ant.)
Included in Quentin Blake’s anthology mentioned above, this poem dates from the seventeenth century, some time before around 1665, when it appears in a commonplace book (it was printed in a book titled Westminster Drolleries in 1671). It’s an example of a kind of poem known as a ‘trick’ poem: look at how the second clause of each line describes the following object as well as the previous one. So the clause ‘with a fiery tail’ could refer back to the peacock but also forwards to the ‘Blazing Comet’. Similarly, ‘drop down hail’ refers to both the Comet and the Cloud, since both do this.
All this is broadly true, but such an interpretation delimits the poem too rigidly, and ignores some of the inventive fun the poet has with his idea (pace Virginia Woolf, this is one work by that prolific author ‘Anon’ that was probably written by a man). What qualifies ‘I Saw a Peacock’ as an early example of nonsense verse, at least two centuries before Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, is that not all of these ‘Janus clauses’ (as we might call them) neatly map onto both nouns: comets and peacocks both have tails, true, but the sea is not literally ‘brim full of Ale’, even though a Venice Glass might be. It’s also unlikely that a well would be full of men’s tears. The poet is using some poetic licence, incorporating techniques such as figurative language and hyperbole, but that adds to the fun of the poem, rather than being a weakness.
However, although ‘I Saw a Peacock’ is notable for predating – by two whole centuries – the great age of nonsense verse in England in the nineteenth century, it is part of a much older lineage: the riddle. The riddle has been a part of English poetry since pretty much the very beginning: the Anglo-Saxon riddles, written over a thousand years ago and preserved in the Exeter Book, are still great fun and rather ingenious. Far from being idle brain-teasers to divert people for half an hour during their lunch break or provide a topic of conversation at Christmas dinner, the riddle, to the Anglo-Saxons, was a serious and enigmatic poetic form, designed to defamiliarise and alienate by depriving a thing of its name or giving an animal a ‘voice’ with which to speak to us. Many of the riddles in the Exeter Book bear this out (and I am indebted to Michael Alexander, and his excellent pocket translation of Anglo-Saxon verse, The Earliest English Poems (Penguin Classics), for this observation). The two-way pulling across multiple lines that the author of ‘I Saw a Peacock’ performs upon the simplest of clauses similarly exposes the variety, as well as the interconnectedness, of things. (There’s one other notable link with the old English riddle: the construction ‘I saw’. Many Anglo-Saxon riddles either begin ‘I am’ or ‘I saw’.)
Margaret Atwood (who is a poet as well as a novelist, although her fiction has eclipsed her poetry somewhat) has described ‘I Saw a Peacock’ as ‘the first poem I can remember that opened up the possibility of poetry for me.’ Many of us who enjoy and even write poetry doubtless caught the bug when at school reading nonsense poems like ‘I Saw a Peacock’. Which poem got you hooked?
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.