In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle enjoys the comic verse by one of the most ‘miserable’ poets in English literature
‘The Crocodile or, Public Decency’ is not one of the best-known poems of A. E. Housman (1859-1936), the classical scholar and poet who failed his Finals at Oxford but went on to become Professor of Latin at Cambridge (and to inspire the character of Inspector Morse, I might add).
The best critic who has written about Housman’s light verse is the best critic who has written about virtually anything he has written on: Christopher Ricks. Back in the 1960s in an essay on Housman’s poetry, Ricks observed that the ‘method’ Housman uses in his serious verse – ‘indirections, disparities, and emotional cross-currents’ – is ‘at its clearest in nonsense-verse’. Certainly Housman’s light verse can help us to pinpoint the more absurd or surprising elements in his serious poetry – elements which are designed to move us in the serious verse, and make us laugh in the lighter poems. And besides, not all of his serious verse is serious – this, for instance.
‘The Crocodile or, Public Decency’ was published in the University College London Union Magazine in 1911, without Housman’s name attached to it. It was when reprinted privately (with Housman’s permission) at UCL in 1935, along with ‘The Amphisbæna’ and ‘The Parallelogram’, two other examples of Housman’s light verse. I’ll have to discuss those poems in a future Secret Library post, since pretty much every Housman poem – even the frivolous ones – deserve to be shared and analysed.
The Crocodile or, Public Decency
Though some at my aversion smile,
I cannot love the crocodile.
Its conduct does not seem to me
Consistent with sincerity.
Where Nile, with beneficial flood,
Improves the desert sand to mud,
The infant child, its banks upon,
Will run about with nothing on.
The London County Council not
Being adjacent to the spot,
This is the consequence. Meanwhile,
What is that object in the Nile,
Which swallows water, chokes and spits?
It is the crocodile in fits.
‘Oh infant! oh my country’s shame!
Suppose a European came!
Picture his feelings, on his pure
Personally conducted tour!
The British Peer’s averted look,
The mantling blush of Messrs. Cook!
Come, awful infant, come and be
Dressed, if nothing else, in me.’
Then disappears into the Nile
The infant, clad in crocodile,
And meekly yields his youthful breath
To darkness, decency, and death.
His mother, in the local dells,
Deplores him with Egyptian yells:
Her hieroglyphic howls are vain,
Nor will the lost return again.
The crocodile itself no less
Displays, but does not feel, distress,
And with its tears augments the Nile;
The false, amphibious crocodile.
‘Is it that winds Etesian blow,
Or melts on Ethiop hills the snow?’
So, midst the inundated scene,
Inquire the floating fellaheen.
From Cairo’s ramparts gazing far
The mild Khedive and stern Sirdar
Say, as they scan the watery plain,
‘There goes that crocodile again.’
The copious tribute of its lids
Submerges half the pyramids,
And over all the Sphinx it flows,
Except her non-existent nose.
‘The Crocodile or, Public Decency’, like Housman’s other forays into light verse, is best classified as just that: light verse rather than nonsense verse. It lacks the fantastical or absurdist elements we associate with, say, Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear: talking animals, nonsensical actions, imaginary landscapes. However, the final, exaggerated image of the crocodile’s tears flooding the plain certainly fits the ‘nonsense’ bill.
And although the poem is meant to be enjoyed as a piece of comic verse, and we would be unwise perhaps to go looking for a deeper meaning, the poem is clearly very much ‘of its time’ in its references to the British Empire and European travellers in Africa. Indeed, here we might recall another poet with whom Housman has often been compared, Christina Rossetti (1830-94), who wrote a curious poem, ‘My Dream’, about a crocodile that grows bigger and bigger by eating up its smaller fellow crocodiles:
Each crocodile was girt with massive gold
And polished stones that with their wearers grew:
But one there was who waxed beyond the rest,
Wore kinglier girdle and a kingly crown,
Whilst crowns and orbs and sceptres starred his breast.
All gleamed compact and green with scale on scale,
But special burnishment adorned his mail
And special terror weighed upon his frown;
His punier brethren quaked before his tail,
Broad as a rafter, potent as a flail.
So he grew lord and master of his kin:
But who shall tell the tale of all their woes?
An execrable appetite arose,
He battened on them, crunched, and sucked them in …
This triumphant crocodile proceeds to cry the proverbial ‘crocodile tears’ over what he’s done.
Although its symbolism is ambiguous, this poem has been interpreted as an allegory (an alligator-allegory, almost, we might say) for imperialism, and specifically the British empire, especially when we are told that ‘all the empire faded from his coat’. Did Housman pick up on this subtext, one wonders, and was it in his mind – or even at the back of his mind – when he penned his piece of light verse (which is perhaps closer to Hilaire Belloc’s cautionary tales than Lewis Carroll’s nonsense verse)? Perhaps. Certainly the crocodile’s sophistic reasoning with the infant – that it should climb into his mouth because running around naked would bring shame on Egypt if any European travellers were to see such a thing – reminds us of the presence of the British in Egypt at this time. Between 1882 and 1956, Egypt was under British rule.
But of course the main thing about ‘The Crocodile or, Public Decency’ is that it’s fun: designed to amuse and raise a smile, and be enjoyed by children as well as adults. The same cannot be said of Housman’s main oeuvre, which is best discovered when going through the painful years of adolescence, with all the talk of lost and unrequited love, death, and disappointment.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.