Saturday 26 January 2013

Bysshe. Rhymes with sissy.

In 1811 a small printing company in the sedate south coast resort of Worthing produced a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism in which its ninteen-year-old author made an eloquent case for disbelief in a Divinity. The writer was an undergraduate at University College Oxford named Percy Bysshe Shelley, and he opened his polemic with an appeal to rationality (a bad move, it turned out), arguing that reason is founded primarily on the evidence of our senses and that the senses are the source of all knowledge upon which the mind makes decisions, and that the experience of others - espcially the religious experience - 'occupies the lowest degree' of evidence supporting the existence of God. This went down badly with the authorities and Shelley was promptly  'rusticated' - expelled - from the University. Four months later he eloped to Scotland to marry his sixteen-year-old mistress. Ten years later he was dead, and famous - an exemplary radical, a trailblazing subversive.

Shelley doesn't appear in W. H. Auden's Academic Graffiti (1971), a lacklustre collection of clerihews, with fifty examples of the form alphabetically arranged from Henry Adams to Socrates' wife Xantippe. They are all donnish, whimsical, and erratically amusing although the witty illustrations (by Fillipo Sanjust) do most of the work, as Auden conceded in his introduction. Here's a random example:
Fulke Greville
Wrote beautifully at sea level;
With each rising contour his verse
Got progressively worse.

And another (with its clumsy use of take/taken):

William Blake
Found Newton hard to take,
And was not enormously taken
With Francis Bacon.

This slim volume is not the book for which Auden would want to be remembered. Neither is it, as one critic optimistically claimed, Auden's attempt to rival the popularity of Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. A world-conquering musical based on a collection of four-line squibs about Thomas Aquinas, Rider Haggard, Karl Kraus and Nietzche would tax even the fertile genius of Andrew Lloyd Webber. But Academic Graffiti is good clean fun for the ten minutes or so it takes to skim, and if you're the kind of person who enjoys this sort of thing you'll leave the house with a spring in your step and a smile on your face. But to return to the point, the clerihew that particularly snagged my attention, and which links to the rusticated poet of paragraph one, is this:

Among the prosodists, Bysshe
Was the syllable-counting old sissy,
The accentual pest.

Even by the book's highbrow standards these are vanishingly obscure figures. Auden (or his editor) provides a helpful gloss identifying the two men as Edward Bysshe and Edwin Guest, authors respectively of Art of Poetry (1702) and History of English Rhyme (2 vols, 1836-38). What comes as a shock is that, according to Auden, Bysshe rhymes with sissy.

For as long as I can remember I've referred to the author of Ozymandias and The  Masque of Anarchy as Percy Bysshe (to rhyme with 'fish') Shelley. I've never heard anyone pronounce Bysshe to rhyme with sissy. Have you? Of course you haven't. Nobody has, because nobody does. And if, in a moment of wild daring, you ever once ventured to pronounce Bysshe to rhyme with sissy in public, you'd never do it again because you'd be drowned out by the hoots and howls and catcalls. It would be like pronouncing 'Goethe' correctly to the citizens of Rancho Cordova . . .

Let me explain. In this Californian town there was, until quite recently, a public place called Goethe Park. It has now been renamed River Bend Park, and this is because the Goethe in question was not the author of Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (or Werthers Original as I think of it), but another Goethe entirely. Charles M. Goethe (1875-1966) was a prosperous Sacramento businessman who left his colossal $24 million fortune to California State University and he was also a complete shit - a virulent racist, keen eugenicist and Nazi sympathiser. He therefore, according to a deadpan press release from the town council, 'did not represent the general feeling of the community.' So all the institutions bearing his name - the university arboretum and botanic garden, the Charles M. Goethe Middle School (now renamed the Rosa Parks Middle School) and the aforementioned Goethe Park - have now been airbrushed out of local history and Charlie Goethe is no longer a stain on the Sacramento brand. Fair enough - he was a thoroughly nasty piece of work and we live in more enlightened times. But what interests me is that the park bearing his name was always referred to by the folk of Sacramento County as GAYtee Park, with stress on the first syllable. That, they agreed among themselves, was how Goethe, their Goethe, the wrong Goethe, should be pronounced. Like 'Frood' (for Freud) and 'Sow-crates' (Socrates) in the paradigmatic Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (dir. Stephen Herek, 1993). I admire their take on the savants of the past - "no pantywaist European pronunciation for us. We're Sacramentians, dammit." Likewise the vast majority of people now agree that 'Bysshe' sounds like 'fish', or 'fishy' and you'd be a damn fool to say it different.

Time for a tangent - have you noticed the way the assumed views of 'the vast majority of people' are now flourished as a way to defend (say) the government's position on very complex and contentious issues? It doesn't amount to anything approaching an argument but is, rather, an end to argument, with a unreflecting deployment of 'might is right' reasoning. Is there any chance of some statistician confirming that 'the vast majority of people' are just as likely to be wrong about something as right? 'The vast majority of people' - and this includes me of course - are fundamentally unsound when it comes to just about everything under the sun - economics, string theory, engineering, science, architecture, linguistics, art and literature and so on because these are all specialist domains, not for the amateur.The vast majority of people are decent, kindly, reasonable, hard-working, good-humoured and law-abiding. But that doesn't make them right.

In any case that 'vast' is hyperbolic - and certainly no improvement over what was until very recently known as 'an overwhelming majority'. (The indefinite article works well there.) In such inflationary rhetoric 'the vast majority of people' is simply an unreflecting invocation of a shadowy mob that in the speaker's view would be likely to share his prejudice. In a society that prizes - indeed fetishises - individualism, it's sobering to reflect how often we - or, if you insist, the vast majority of us - are presumed to be in total accord. It's also unnerving, in our post-secular culture, to see the decay of public discourse and the collapse of reason. Shelley would have views on this, and might even blog on the subject.

Clerihews © The Estate of W. H. Auden

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