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Thursday, September 12, 2013

Jane Austen The Extreme Rhyming Daughter: Connections to Mansfield Park, Midsummer Night’s Dream & the Musical 1776

As you may already know, in 1807, Jane, her sister, her mother, and her sister in law Elizabeth, all wrote rhyming poems in which every line ended with the same rhyme.

I had never studied them before today, but when, by chance, I noticed that same “extreme rhyming” pattern in a speech by Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (which I’ll describe in Part Two, below), it instantly reminded me of JA’s poem, which I remembered solely for its unique rhyming. That in turn made me wonder whether Oberon’s speech might’ve been an inspiration for JA’s poem, and also what JA’s poem was about in the first place. This post is the result of my subsequent fruitful ruminations.

PART ONE: The Austen Extreme Rhyming Poems

First here’s the link where you can read all four Austen family extreme rhyming poems in full…   [just scroll down 1/3 of the way]

..and without further ado, here’s Jane Austen’s poem in full:

Happy the lab'rer in his Sunday clothes!
In light-drab coat, smart waistcoat, well-darn'd hose,
And hat upon his head, to church he goes;
As oft with conscious pride, he downward throws
A glance upon the ample cabbage rose
Which, stuck in button-hole, regales his nose,
He envies not the gaiest London beaux.
In church he takes his seat among the rows,
Pays to the place the reverence he owes,
Likes best the prayers whose meaning least he knows.
Lists to the sermon in a softening doze,
And rouses joyous at the welcome close.

The short answer is, I love her poem, but here’s the long answer, giving all that I glean from these Austen women’s rhyme-intensive poems, considered together:

The only one of the four poems which seems to be informed by serious poetry is Jane Austen’s. Most tellingly, JA’s poem is 12 lines long, exactly the length of the body of a Shakespearean sonnet that sets the stage for the climactic final couplet. In contrast, the others have random lengths of 15, 16, and 18 lines, respectively. So only JA was writing a Poem—but whose idea was it to rhyme this way?

Elizabeth’s poem candidly reveals that she was told to write such a poem, and I believe JA was the “Tom Bertram” who one day at Godmersham suddenly exclaimed to her 3 female companions something like:

"Rhyming the same sound in every line! And why should not this conceit do for us as well as for the Knatchbulls? How came it never to be thought of before? It strikes me as if it would do exactly. What say you all? Here is a capital conceit---rhyming and theming every line on the word “rose”; a trifling image, perhaps, but the sort of thing we should not dislike…"

Now why would JA do this?  For the same reason, I suggest to you, that JA, 6 years later, had Tom Bertram make his “trifling” suggestion to perform Lover’s Vows—i.e., to safely express a subversive verboten message obliquely, and to have that message be preserved (and not burnt)--what better way to make her subversion seem as innocuous as possible than a harmless, trivial female poetry game, right?

The tone of Jane’s poem seems to me to be distinct from the tone of the other three. She alone creates a character—not autobiographical, either--whom she places in a situation fraught with satirical, dangerous potential--attendance at Sunday services at church---and then she has some subversive, ironic fun with the poor man.

In this poem, I hear more unmistakable harbingers of Mansfield Park, in several registers:

the sharp satire of Dr. Grant and the “Doze” (not the Doge), Lady Bertram;

Edmund and Henry’s lively discussion of the best sermonizing; and, above all,

the witty voice of Mary Crawford, who, we recall, loved to adapt poetry to her witty, subversive ends.  Had Mary been present at that discussion, I can readily imagine Mary contributing JA’s poem to that very same conversation in Chapter 34!  

Mary shared JA’s clear-eyed, unflinching observation of human frailty, noting the constant victory of the real over the ideal, not with a frown, but a laugh. Which is why, now that I think about it, Henry dropped in alone that day, he did not want his fearless sister to spoil the effect of his deeply affecting performance as Young Man Serious About Religion After All. After all, he could still recall her “rears and vices” bon mot shortly after their arrival at Mansfield Park, which may have preempted Henry from assuming the role of Connected Man Sincerely Interested in Helping William Obtain Advancement when Fanny was forced to speak about William—a role which he did assume not that long afterwards.

In short, I find in Mansfield Park validation of my above reading of JA’s rhyming poem—even in 1807, she saw herself as the “Rhyming Daughter” (like the Rhyming Butler of Lover’s  Vows who speaks truth to power in code, via rhyme-- albeit not extreme rhyme--in Kotzebue’s play).

I was curious to find other scholarly discussions of  these poems, but so far found only one—by the late David Selwyn---and, as I will explain below,  I found his readings to be shockingly obtuse and wrong-headed—and his is an essay that, in 2012, was considered worthy to be included in the prestigious collection of essays in  Jane Austen in Context. No wonder mythology still prevails in so much of Austen scholarly circles even today! These are serious allegations, but I believe justified by Selwyn’s judgments.

Selwyn’s favorite among the four is Mrs. Austen’s poem—bizarrely, the mother’s poem gets much more air time in his article than JA’s poem--whereas I find Mrs. Austen’s poem by far the least personal and most trivial of the four, by far. There’s no “there” there—it’s nothing more than an empty parade of verbal cleverness, no feeling whatsoever, all under a thin veneer of patently faked good cheer, and ending with smarmy false modesty.

In contrast, Selwyn minimizes JA’s offering as “a wonderful LITTLE sketch of a village labourer” in respect to which CEA’s poem is “little better”. All the harsher,  when contrasted with Selwyn’s fulsome praise for the mother’s poem the page before. And then Selwyn merely quotes a few excerpts from JA’s poem, without the slightest noting of the subversive point of the poem, which is sermon-induced boredom.

But that’s just the point, isn’t it? Clearly, Selwyn didn’t approve of JA’s sacrilegious and revealing miniature portrait of the true face of everyday piety, and therefore Selwyn chose to ignore JA’s content altogether, hoping, perhaps, that his readers would accept his dismissive verdict of her poem, and not register what JA had actually been about. That old chestnut, JA’s poetry is not worth reading, is just a variant on the older chestnuts which once prevailed—that her letters were not worth studying, that her juvenilia was not worth studying—somehow her poems and charades are the last bastion of that unfounded and deeply sexist  prejudice.

Selwyn then continues his critical rampage. He nastily disses Cassandra’s offering (“a misguided attempt to compare love to the wind” with “an unfortunate assemblage of glowing bosoms and red noses”). I suggest you read CEA’s poem, and tell me whether you, as I do, also find CEA’s poem charming , intelligent, and well conceived on the conceit of love as a rose, seen first from a negative perspective, but then a positive one.  It is clichéd, true, but it has heart and soul that Mrs. Austen’s effort is utterly devoid of, it clearly was not dashed off without some thought and care, and it does not flaunt erudition.  These are all virtues which mitigate the lack of depth.

But even Elizabeth Knight is not safe from Selwyn’s bile. All Selwyn derives from Elizabeth’s poem is that she “is clearly daunted by her clever in-laws, approaches the exercise with misgivings that are justified by the lameness of her efforts.” Whereas, what I see is actually a surprisingly (to me at least)  honest, guileless and affective expression of deep, heartfelt feeling by a young woman, who had endured  much during a decade and a half of endless pregnancies and childbirths:

Never before did I quarrel with a rose,
Till now, that I am told some lines to compose,
Of which I have little idea, God knows;
But since that the task is assigned me by those
To whom love, affection, and gratitude owes
A ready compliance, I feign would dispose
And call to befriend me the muse who bestows
The gift of poetry both on friends and foes.
My warmest acknowledgments are due to those
Who watched near my bed and soothed me to repose,
Who pitied my sufferings and shared in my woes,
And, by their simpathy, relieved my sorrows.
May I as long as the blood in my veins flows
Feel the warmth of love which now in my breast glows,
And may I sink into a refreshing doze
When I lie my head on my welcome pillows.

This poem becomes Elizabeth’s own poignant epitaph when we recall that within a year of writing it, she died a horribly painful death after childbirth. 

Did Selwyn (or the editors who accepted his article for inclusion in such an important collection about Jane Austen) know this family history? I can’t believe they didn’t---and yet, there is Selwyn’s callous, chauvinist, ignorant, slapdash judgment of Elizabeth’s poem, ignoring (as with JA’s poem) its discussion-  worthy content. Selwyn’s essay will be read by many readers over the coming years, who will all (except for suspicious readers like myself) innocently accept Selwyn’s “sermon” as gospel truth, not realizing that it deserved, at best, the response of a “softening doze”, but more fittingly, the comforting warmth of a roaring fire!


If you’re in the mood for more, I hope you’ll now enjoy a completely different side of this tale of extreme rhyming, which does strangely resonate with Part One, as you’ll see.

One of the many wonderful songs in the musical 1776 is the delightfully narcissistic rant by Richard Henry Lee, celebrating his family heritage: “The Lees of Old Virginia”. The latter half of the song is a clever extended riff on lines that fittingly keep finding a way, over and over again, to rhyme with (what else?) the name Lee:

You see it's here-a-Lee, there-a-Lee
And everywhere-a-Lee-a-Lee
Here-a-Lee, there-a-Lee
And everywhere-a-Lee

Look out! There's Arthur Lee, Bobby Lee
And General Lighthorse Harry Lee
Willy Lee, Jesse Lee

Franklin: And Richard H.!  Lee: That's ME!
And may my blood stop running blue
 If I can't deliver unto you
 A resolution on independenCY!

Yes sir, by God, it's here-a-Lee, there-a-Lee
Come on boys join in WITH ME!
Here-a-Lee, there-a-Lee!

Franklin: When do you leave?  Lee: Immediate-LY!
Here-a-Lee, there-a-Lee!
Franklin: When will you return?  Lee: Short-LY!
Here-a-Lee, there-a-Lee!
And I'll come back triumphant-LY!
Here-a-Lee, there-a-Lee!
Everywhere a-Lee-a-Lee                              Forward ho!

As 1776 has been a favorite musical of mine for over two decades, and I have listened to the above song a hundred times with pleasure, imagine my surprise and delight when, in a most unlikely place, I stumbled across what I am pretty sure was no small part of the inspiration for those lyrics all rhyming on the sound of  “Lee”.

It is Oberon’s speech to Titania in Midsummer Night’s Dream Act 4 Scene 1, which consists of eight lines all rhyming with the sound of a long  “e”, including (this is what makes it likely) two lines ending in adverbs ending in “-ly”, including (this is what makes it extremely likely)  that same exact word from the song,  “triumphantLY”!:

That number is a rousing lively ensemble in 1776, with a lot of whirling around amongst Lee, Adams and Franklin, and I similarly imagine, from that “Sound  music” that Oberon is also swinging Titania around and around as fairies provide the dancing music.

And there’s a bit more--as my eye passed over Oberon’s penultimate line ending in a plural noun followed by the word “be”, I suddenly realized that Oberon was himself echoing a much much more famous line spoken to him earlier by his minion Puck. And imagine my further delight when I turned to that earlier passage  and found that Oberon had engaged in a game of dueling consecutive  rhyming with Puck back then as well:

Re-enter PUCK


Now, my love of both Shakespeare and 1776 alone would have been enough to give me great enjoyment from this little discovery, but I would not claim any deep literary significance was intended by the late Sherman Edwards in paying what I believe to have been a clever little homage to Shakespeare, an in-joke. I would not bet my life, e.g., that Edwards was making a comparison between King George III in his capricious, arbitrary, even cruel treatment of the colonials, as somehow being like Oberon, who so carelessly and capriciously played with the lives of the mortals he sent Puck to operate on.

But, as you have now read the above in the context of Part One, where I described Jane Austen’s own version of such extreme rhyming, I leave it to you to speculate as to whether Jane Austen had Oberon and Puck in mind when she proposed her little rhyming game to her female relatives at Godmersham in 1807.

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