Tag Archives: Humor

Summa Meteorologica

French illustration of the four seasons

After the manner of the Angelic Doctor, St Thomas Aquinas, we now inquire into the seasons of the year, whether they exist.

Objection 1: It seems that the seasons exist. Spring follows upon winter, winter follows autumn, autumn follows summer, and summer follows spring, in annual fourfold succession, as all attest.

Objection 2: Further, the seasons are observable in the changes they work upon plants in their sprouting, flowering and fruiting, and in the alterations of weather proper to each: cold and snow for winter, decreasing chill and intermittent rain for spring, heat and cloudlessness for summer, decreasing heat and intermittent storms and fogs for autumn.

Objection 3: Further, as it is written (and as Pete Seeger and the The Byrds have memorably repeated), “to every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven” (Eccles. 3:3).

On the contrary, the seasons cannot be said to exist, but they belong to the imagination. They may be said to subsist by human custom, but not in the regularity of manner commonly ascribed to them.

I answer that the arbitrariness of seasons is proved by the fact that the “season” assigned to 45 degree north latitude on the Ides of October (autumn) is not the same as the “season” assigned to 45 degrees south latitude on the same date (spring). Furthermore, the meteorological characteristics commonly ascribed to the seasons (e.g. heat, cold, rain, snow, fog, etc.) express themselves with notorious irregularly. The present winter on the western coast of North America, for example, has proved markedly unseasonal with a superfluity of warm, rain-free days. Seriously, it was like 80 degrees the other day. What the hell is up with that? A more suitable manner of calculating seasons might allow for the irregular assignment of spring, summer, autumn, and winter days throughout the year based on actual weather conditions. By such a scheme, any day of 70 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter – whether it occurs in February or in August – may be called a “summer day.” Likewise, any day of 35 degrees Fahrenheit or colder, or any day whatever with snowfall, may be called a “winter day,” even if it occurs in June. As prevailing conditions dictate, it may be that more summer days than winter days occur in the month of February, and more winter than summer days in the month of August. Likewise, the balance of the seasons need not be equally proportional but may favor summer one year, spring or autumn or winter the next.

Reply to Objection 1: Popular attestation, even if it be universal, does not establish the existence of any object or phenomenon.

Reply to Objection 2: At the equator there is no observable difference of vegetation or of weather to accord with the seasons as they are commonly differentiated one from another in more temperate regions.

Reply to Objection 3: The prophet Daniel affirms the arbitrariness of the seasons and their mere subsistence in custom when he says of God that “He changeth the times and the seasons” (Daniel 2:21). Further, human pretensions to meteorological knowledge are made null by our Savior himself when he says (Acts 1:7) that “it is not for you to know the times or the seasons.”

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Marginalia, no.344

World’s Largest Earwig Is Declared Extinct

~ BBC headline

Flush with cash after his starring role in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the Giant Earwig spent more than three decades in a drug-addled stupor until he was recently found dead in a North Hollywood gutter.

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Opera singers rehearsing at Lewisohn Stadium in New York City, 1916

It was the end of a brilliant career when, straining for a low note, Gloria accidentally summoned the ghost of last night’s cabbage soup.

Opera singers rehearsing at Lewisohn Stadium, NYC, 1916. Library of Congress.

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Let Us Now Praise Awful Poets

I’ve been camping, hence the radio silence. I wrote the following article for The Dabbler and it was published there a week ago, but I wanted to share it here as well. Enjoy, if you dare.

It is a sad truth not often recognized that the glory days of bad poetry – no less than the glory days of good poetry – are behind us. In the dewy springtime of bad verse a sorry line or a limp sonnet was received with joy. “Dalkey, you know, has written a truly rancid couplet,” you might say to a friend over coffee in 1781, and he would foam at the mouth till able to confirm it for himself. In our own benighted era, the best that Dalkey’s great-grandson can manage to elicit is a shrug or a fart.

The trouble is not that people no longer write poetry. A casual browser of blogs today may be tempted to conclude that the Internet exists primarily to facilitate the distribution of amateur verse. It’s nose-deep in the fervid free-verse emotings of approximately 1.6 billion teenage poetesses and balding, fifty-year-old beta males. But none of them is worth reading. None is sufficiently terrible, or terrible in the right way. Verse published offline suffers the same curse: none of it is especially good, but none of it is bad enough to be anything very special.

The patron saint of awful poets is William Topaz McGonagall, the “Tayside Tragedian,” born in 1825. Stephen Pile in The Book of Heroic Failures writes that McGonagall was “so giftedly bad he backed unwittingly into genius.” Memory of that genius was so pungent and enduring that more than a half century after his death he inspired a bit-character on The Muppet Show. Performances of Angus McGonagle the Argoyle Gargoyle (who “gargled Gershwin”) were about as well received as the real McGonagall’s public recitals, which often closed in a storm of rotten veggies. “The Tay Bridge Disaster,” McGonagall’s most famous poem, opens with these immortal lines:

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remembered for a very long time.

Equally winning, in my opinion, is McGonagall’s poem commemorating the premature demise of Queen Victoria’s fourth son, “The Death of Prince Leopold.” A particularly moving stanza reads:

Oh! noble-hearted Leopold, most beautiful to see,
Who was wont to fill your audience’s hearts with glee,
With your charming songs, and lectures against strong drink:
Britain had nothing else to fear, as far as you could think.

Not all connoisseurs of bad poetry appreciate McGonagall. Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee, in their introduction to The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse (1930), distinguish between “bad Bad Verse and good Bad Verse.” McGonagall they exclude as too clearly a producer of the former. The better bad stuff may be the off-day work of poets positively gifted. It may be grammatical and keep its meter. It is typically marked, however, by such qualities as bathos, sentimentality, and unintended humor.

So in The Stuffed Owl we are not surprised to find Wordsworth (“Spade! with which Wilkinson hath tilled his lands”), Henry Vaughan (“How brave a prospect is a bright backside!”), Tennyson (“He suddenly dropt dead of heart-disease”), Leigh Hunt (“Not without virtues was the prince. Who is?”), and Browning (“Irks care the crop-full bird? Frets doubt the maw-crammed beast?”). But the work of less familiar names is no less delightful. Christopher Smart (1722-1771), for example, spent years in Bedlam and was devoted to drink and prayer without ceasing but in Book II of his long poem “The Hop-Garden” he offers this bit of sound advice:

When in the bag thy hops the rustic treads,
Let him wear heelless sandals; nor presume
Their fragrancy barefooted to defile…

Meanwhile, John Dyer (1700-1758), whose magnum opus, “The Fleece,” was heartily denounced by Dr Johnson, gives us the following iambs on lambs:

Wild rove the flocks, no burdening fleece they bear,
In fervid climes: Nature gives naught in vain.
Carmenian wool on the broad tail alone
Resplendent swells, enormous in its growth:
As the sleek ram from green to green removes,
On aiding wheels his heavy pride he draws,
And glad resigns it to the hatter’s use.

Another poet with a gift for untrod subject matter was Samuel Carter, who published a volume of verse titled Midnight Effusions in 1848. In a poem titled “London” he praises the metropolitan sewer system:

Magnificent, too, is the system of drains,
Exceeding the far-spoken wonders of old:
So lengthen’d and vast in its branches and chains,
That labyrinths pass like a tale that is told:
The sewers gigantic, like multiplied veins,
Beneath the whole city their windings unfold…

Though not included in The Stuffed Owl, it turns out that Frederic the Great of Prussia – “Der Alte Fritz,” his soldiers called him – was a backward student of the muse as well. In Francis Parkman’s Montcalm and Wolfe (a history of the Seven Year’s War), we learn that “surrounded by enemies, in the jaws of destruction, hoping for little but to die in battle, this strange hero solaced himself with an exhaustless effusion of bad verse.” I’ve looked in vain for some of Old Fritz’s stuff in English translation but all I could find was a scrap of erotica (“Everything that speaks to eyes and touches hearts / Was found in the fond object that inflamed his parts”).

But I like this notion, in Parkman’s quote, of turning to bad poetry for solace at one’s failure to die in battle. It contains, I perceive, an accusation against our own weakling age, and a likely explanation for the decay of bad verse. Unfortunately, you see, no one nurses the ambition to die in battle anymore. Hence no one finds himself in need of solace on discovering at the end of the day that he has, yet again, failed to do so. And hence it also follows – o tempora! o mores! – that no one really gives it the old college try when it comes to writing bad poetry.

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Marginalia, no.327

Discharge of a nuclear weapon will be deemed a warlike act even if accidental.

~ Insurance policy for a violin

It’s one of those exclusion clauses you don’t even blink at because you’re sure it will never apply. But the gods are not mocked and I had just started playing when Uncle Jim, the lazy bastard, shifted on the couch and detonated the warhead in his back pocket. What a mess! He apologized, and of course it was an accident. But we all know you can’t trust Jim to compensate you for things like that. He’ll buy you a burger at In-N-Out one day and call it even.

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Bill Murray

My wife informs me that she had a romantic dream the other night involving Bill Murray. I asked her whether it was Ghostbusters-era Bill Murray or present-day Bill Murray. She wasn’t sure but said that his hair was definitely gray. It seems that as we age our notion of what’s attractive in members of the opposite sex keeps pace with us. When I was eighteen, I remember thinking it impossible I could ever find a thirty-eight-year-old woman appealing. Now I’m amazed to think that I ever found eighteen-year-olds appealing. When I’m seventy, I suppose that fifty-year-olds will look like pre-adolescents. At any rate, I can hardly blame Mr Murray for taking his chances with my wife.

Meanwhile our cat has died. More precisely, she was euthanized. It turns out that she had cancer in her bowels, which probably explains why she had taken to shitting in the hallway and vomiting over par this last year. She was just shy of twenty. I married into her acquaintance, but my wife had adopted her as a kitten from the Humane Society, back when Bill Murray was notably less gray than he is now. I used to make morbid jokes about the cat, as if I might willingly hasten her departure from this vale of tears. But in fact I miss her getting in the way when I’m reading on the couch. I miss her too-early good-mornings and the patter of her little feet on the wood floors.

Praying at bedtime with the kids, we ask God’s mercy on the soul of our cat. I suppose that cats must have souls as well as people. Why not? We miss them similarly when they’re gone. Reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey the other day, I found this poignant bit on mortal farewells: “The world gives and takes away, and brings sweethearts near only to separate them again into distant and strange lands; but to love is the great amulet which makes the world a garden; and ‘hope, which comes to all,’ outwears the accidents of life, and reaches with tremulous hand beyond the grave and death. Easy to say: yea, but also, by God’s mercy, both easy and grateful to believe.” It’s the kind of passage I might like to have read at my own funeral, by Bill Murray.

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Marginalia, no.307

Hell was happy to oblige.

~ Andrea Wulf, Chasing Venus

People are always inviting hell, and it always is happy to oblige. But the Hell intended here is Maximilian Hell, a Jesuit astronomer who observed the 1769 transit of Venus from the Scandinavian arctic by invitation of Denmark’s Christian VII. Now, it is a fact that an old name for the planet Venus is Lucifer. It is also a fact that Fr Hell brought a pet dog named Apropos along with him. Which makes it tempting and plausible (and strikingly Miltonic until you get to the pooch) to say that “Hell watched Lucifer pass before the sun, and when the Hell-hound barked it was only Apropos.”

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