Mark Steyn Club members can enjoy The Mark Steyn Show in whatever form they wish - video, audio or text. For the audio version of this episode of the show, visit this page. The transcript follows below.
Here's some rhymes for the times as we go from bad to verse. There are lots of very profound and metaphysical poems about contagion, infection and all the rest going all the way back to the Greeks. But it's the weekend and I sought something a little larkier. So this comes by way of a North American versifier, Walt Mason, born in 1862 in British North America in the colony of Upper Canada. Died in the United States in Kansas. You can see the house of his birth in Columbus, Ontario, and you can see the house all of his death in Emporia, Kansas.
Although I think when it comes to the house of his birth, if memory serves, they moved it a little ways up the street in Columbus, Ontario. Columbus is just north of the 407, which wasn't there in his day, and it's near Oshawa, and rather smaller, in fact, about 300 people these days, than it was back in young Walt's time when it had the biggest woolen mill in the area, Empire Mills. His dad, a Welshman, worked there as a dyer of wool, the dyer died, he fell down a mineshaft when Walt was 4-years-old. His mum died when he was 15, that was the way it was for many kids at that point in the nineteenth century. Walt moved north to work in a hardware store in Fort Hope. And then south to New York and west to Kansas and Emporia, which is about halfway between Topeka and Wichita and where you can visit the Walt Mason house on West 12thAvenue.
His humorous column for the Emporia Gazette, "Rippling Rhymes," was picked up and syndicated and it became the most widely read column in North America. Mr. Mason became known as "the Poet Laureate of American democracy," which is quite a title. Here is the poem that he published in hundreds and hundreds of newspapers in mid-November 1918.
Influenza, labeled Spanish, came and beat me to my knees;
even doctors couldn't banish from my form that punk disease;
for it's not among the quitters;
vainly doctors pour their bitters into ailing human critters;
they just sneeze and swear and sneeze.
Said my doctor, "I have tackled every sort of ill there is
(I have cured up people shackled) by the gout and rheumatiz;
with the itch and mumps I've battled,
in my triumphs have been tattled,
but this 'flu' stuff has me rattled,
so I pause to say G. Whiz."
I am burning, I am freezing, in my little truckle bed;
I am cussing, I am sneezing, with a poultice on my head;
and the doctors and the nurses say the patient growing worse is,
And they hint' around of hearses, and of folks who should be dead.
Doom has often held the cleaver pretty near my swanlike neck;
I have had the chills and fever till my system was a wreck;
I have had the yaller janders, foot and mouth disease and glanders,
and a plague they brought from Flanders on an old windjammer's deck.
But this measly influenzy has all other ills outclassed;
it has put me in a frenzy, like a soldier who's been gassed;
if the villainous inventor this my lodge of pain should enter
I would Use the voice of Stentor till he had been roundly sassed.
May the 'influenza vanish!
Of all ailments it's the worst;
but I don't believe it's Spanish – haven't thought so from the first;
on my couch of anguish squirmin',
I've had leisure to determine that the blamed disease is German,
which is why it is accurst.
You couldn't say that now in our crimped, self-censored times, but Walt Mason published that rippling rhyme two or three days after the armistice of November 11, 1918, when the guns fell silent on the Western front of a ruined world and in the rubble of fallen empires a new silent enemy emerged to stalk the planet. I do like the way the poet conjures it in that splendid phrase, "that punk disease." Spanish flu was a punk disease and so is this one. Walt Mason survived the Spanish flu by two decades, so a happy ending for our first of today's poets.
The Italian composer Ottorino Respighi was also stricken and laid up for two months. When he was out of his sickbed he realized that he owed Diaghilev a piece of ballet music and rather urgently. This is what he turned in, almost as frenzied, if not as cranky, as Mr. Mason on the flu.
[Music plays from c]
The irresistible Tarantella from Respighi's splendid ballet score for La Boutique fantasque, based on themes from Rossini and played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Antal Dorati.
Brian from Minneapolis left a comment the other day noting a strange synchronicity between the two big stories of the last week. The Michael Flynn case is all about "unmasking," the deep stater's term for revealing the identity of American citizens they've been listening in on, and the coronavirus is increasingly about "masking," about making non-mask wearing societies wear masks, and it reminded me of a poem by Thomas Hardy called "The Masked Face."
Hardy is better known these days as a novelist, Far From the Madding Crowd, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, all that, but he chucked the novel writing business after publishing Jude the Obscure in 1895. Some say because of the critical reaction to that book, and thereafter he focused on poetry. This poem was written at the beginning of the Great War, about a man who finds himself in a giddying place, with no firm fixed flaw, which is as good a way as any of looking at the world in say 1915, when its very foundations seem to be crumbling, and not a bad way of looking at the world a century later. And "The Masked Face" can be read either as a god like being, or as some scholars have interpreted it, a part of one's self that is somehow responsible for the wobbling, shifting, uncertain ground on which we stand.
The third stanza, about a goosequill pen taking dictation from the infinite about things beyond its comprehension, I found a bit pretentious and rightly when I was a young lad but I've warmed up to it a bit in recent years because increasingly I too feel like a stenographer of madness. I should say that Thomas Hardy was appalled by the devastation and horror of the First World War, and that if this was what Western "civilization" had wrought, it was in his view not worth saving and it was better to "let the black and yellow races have a chance."
And thus began a century of loss of civilizational self-confidence, culminating in the spring of 2020 when Chairman Xi seems minded to take Hardy up on his offer.
First published in 1917 in Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses, by Thomas Hardy, "The Masked Face."
I found me in a great surging space,
At either end a door,
And I said: "What is this giddying place,
With no firm-fixed floor,
That I knew not of before?"
"It is Life," said a mask-clad face.
I asked: "But how do I come here,
Who never wished to come;
Can the light and air be made more clear,
The floor more quietsome,
And the doors set wide? They numb
Fast-locked, and fill with fear."
The mask put on a bleak smile then,
And said, "O vassal-wight,
There once complained a goosequill pen
To the scribe of the Infinite
Of the words it had to write
Because they were past its ken."
A poem from me to you by Thomas Hardy, who gave it a striking title, "The Masked Face." Or it was striking, until we woke up to find that all faces have to be masked.
From Jean Baptiste Arband's Fantasia on Verdi's Ballo in maschera, that's Angelo Cavalo on cornet and Michele Fontano on piano.
Three centuries ago this spring, Matthew Prior published his Poems on Several Occasions. I came to it a couple of centuries later and rather circuitously. One of my most treasured books from my late teenage years, was Ira Gershwin's idiosyncratic annotated autobiographical anthology of his songs, Lyrics on Several Occasions.
The title sounds like an allusion to some earlier work. I go that it was an allusion but didn't know what it was alluding to, until I discovered a couple of years later that Ira, while writing his book, had stumbled across a volume of Matthew Prior's in his library, Poems on Several Occasions. if you have a first edition, it will say 1718 on the frontispiece, but they didn't actually get it to the public and available for purchase until two years later, 1720, which is why we're celebrating its tricentenary today.
At any rate thank you, Ira Gershwin, for leading me to Matthew Prior poet, who I realize after dipping into the book that I'd already encountered in history class, as Matthew Prior, diplomat. Mr. Prior was a negotiator of the Treaty of Utrecht, preventing the merging of the thrones of Spain and France, which would have created a destabilizing European superpower. Today we live with the consequences of that treaty because Phillip of France took the Spanish throne, where his Bourbon heirs sit to this day, while the Bourbons are long gone from the corridors of power in France.
Matthew Prior was so directly associated with the Treaty of Utrecht that in Great Britain, for which then new polity...this was one of the first international treaties. In Great Britain it was known as Matt's Peace, so from Matt's Peace to Matt's poem, from Poems on Several Occasions. Um among other things...I'm being discreet and tactful about this, the coronavirus has totally kiboshed television. No disrespect to any old friends but I find a lot of it totally unwatchable, the once glamorous, beautifully lit, beautifully coiffed, beautifully made up anchor now Skyping it in from the rec room, gaunt, wan, sallow, baggy eyed and greasy haired. I'm not even talking about the women particularly, this system does no favors to the men either, which is why I'm glad to be off the grid at Ice Station EIB for the duration.
But it reminded me that Matthew Prior had a rather pithy poem on the subject. First published in Poems on Several Occasions in 1720, by Matthew Prior, "Phyllis's Age."
How old may Phyllis be, you ask,
Whose beauty thus all hearts engages?
To answer is no easy task;
For she has really two ages.
Stiff in brocard, and pinch'd in stays,
Her patches, paint, and jewels on;
All day let envy view her face;
And Phyllis is but twenty-one.
Paint, patches, jewels laid aside,
At night astronomers agree,
The evening has the day belied;
And Phyllis is some forty-three.
A poem from me to you, from Matthew Prior's Poems on Several Occasions, celebrating its tricentenary this very spring.
The evening has the day belied, and in hopes of happy reunion, happy reunion one day with my dear hair and makeup ladies of yesteryear, I long for a bright new morn.
I said the Treaty of Utrecht was Matt's Peace. Here's George Frederick's piece about Matt's Peace. George Frederick Handel that is and his music for the Peace of Utrecht, which was actually written before the Peace had actually been successfully concluded. There's confidence for you. And in fact you could have heard it in dress rehearsal—public dress rehearsal—at St. Paul's Cathedral in March 1713 about a month before the Treaties were signed.
This was Handel's first setting of a sacred text in English. From the Jubilate, "O go Your Way into His Gates."
From Handel's music for the Peace of Utrecht, the Netherlands Bach Society conducted by Jos van Veldhoven. Has any composer written music for the Peace of Afghanistan yet? Oh. Still waiting.
Two centuries ago, April 16, 1820, Charlotte Anne Fillebrown was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At school she developed an enthusiasm for writing and one day her class was visited by Daniel Webster and Henry Clay and the teacher read out various of his pupils' compositions. After young Charlotte's, Messieurs Webster and Clay asked the schoolmaster to point out which student had written it and professed their admiration for her writing.
"I wish you were a boy," said Henry Clay, "I would make a statesman of you."
In 1843 she married J.W. Jerauld. Two years later she gave birth to a child. Three days after delivery, Charlotte Jerauld's mind began wandering and her utterances became incomprehensible. She descended into madness and died on August 2, 1845 a day after the death of her 5-day-old baby. Mother and child were buried in the same casket. Charlotte was 25.
She left behind a small collection of poems that are still around; you can buy them at Amazon. This is a sentimental one of which I am fond and which seems right for a world shut down. The other day I looked at the video of our Christmas show, which I hope many of you will have seen. Nothing spectacular or so we thought at the time. An audience, a band, me, plus singers and actors and comedians, cameramen and sound engineers, hairstylists and makeup artists. I don't know when such a day will come again. France has banned all such live musical events until the end of July. California is proposing none until fall. Los Angeles--no such events until 2021.
When will we sing together again?
By Charlotte A. Jerauld, "A Song for the Past."
A song for the past, when our hearts were young,
And the world looked bright and fair;
When we bounded along with jocund song,
And knew not the weight of care.
Then our hearts were light and our hearts were bright,
And merrily passed each day,
With the sportive glance and the joyous dance,
And the merry roundelay.
A song for the past! for the good old days
When our spirits were blithe and free;
When the bird sang gay, in the early May,
And we reveled in childhood's glee.
Then the mad–cap race, and the butterfly chase,
Gave our cheeks a ruddy glow;
And exercise gave light to the eyes,
And throned fair health on the brow!
A song for the past! for the golden days
Whose memories make us yearn
To behold again, though we know it vain,
The scenes which can ne'er return.
Farewell to my theme! like a morning dream,
The past has vanished away;
But the present lies bright before our sight—
Enjoy it then, while we may!
A poem from me to you, "A Song for the Past," by Charlotte A. Jerauld on the occasion of her bicentennial.
The past has vanished away and we should enjoy the present while we may, for who knows what lies ahead?
[Musical interlude, Mendelssohn, part of first violin sonata]
[The Mark Steyn Show is a production of Mark Steyn Enterprises and Oak Hill Media. All rights reserved.]
Comment on this item (members only)
Viewing and submission of reader comments is restricted to Mark Steyn Club members only. If you are not yet a member, please click here to join. If you are already a member, please log in here: