Having spent a week wandering down Tin Pan Alley, examining the songs of the past and the usdes and abuses applied to them, we may have forgotten that there were plenty of other sources of inspiration being offered to the postcard artist. It was one of the golden eras of Memorized Poetry, when good and useful verses were pushed into the heads of schoolchildren, either in an effort to provide them with guidance in their future lives or to give them something they could recite and convince parents that all that money spent on schools had a visible result.
So the postcard artist had a whole fund of verses to draw on that the audience would be bound to have heard in class, whether they were forced to learn it themselves or to listen as their classmates recited it.
The little verse above is particularly piquant in this connection, for it is based on a poem that was ad-libbed in ten minutes in class. Young Julia was challenged to go up to the blackboard and improvise a bit of verse, and wrote “Little drops of water, little grains of sand, Make the mighty ocean and the pleasant land.” With additions, it became a smash hit for class recitations and, with music, a standard of the Methodist hymnal.
The illustration here has nothing to do with what the poet was thinking, but I can’t say the same for the minds of the children who had to listen to it. One of the whole points of a poem parody is to turn the original thought into something quite different.
One could do this by rewriting the verse, or simply by providing an illustration which twisted the original meaning. During Prohibition, after all, one of the most famous lines from Coleridge’s The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner took on new meaning.
The poems parodied didn’t have to be gold-lined, certified classics. I have not been able to track down on the Interwebs who came up with the once-popular wedding toast/anniversary toast/Valentine verse which ran “Here’s to the wings of love; May they never lose a feather, But soar up to the sky above and last and last forever.” It’s a perfectly acceptable bit of occasional poetry, especially if you recite it too fast for anyone to object to rhyming “forever” with “feather”.
But somebody noticed the near-rhyme and decided to supply something a little better.
Maybe it was the improved rhyme, maybe it was the more specific image invoked, but whoever came up with this version actually produced something that was to be remembered at least as long as the original, and would be exploited by other artists as years went by.
I have written elsewhere about The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and its impact on the reading public over the years. The most-quoted line of that work found its way into Western culture, most memorably in the man who paid off his debts with a check, a bottle of Sauvignon, and a freshly baked baguette.
The recipient admitted he was grateful to get back to thousand dollars he’d leant, but inquired what the rest had to do with it. “Why,” said his friend, “That’s a loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and a thou.”
We will speak another time of the use of the accent in turn of the century humor, and how it may not have been the unmitigated insult so many critics of today consider it. But this heavily accented version of Omar’s sentiment seems to embody, under the thick lingo, a certain sincerity.
Of course, the sender’s sentiment has to be considered. This later version is quicker, cheaper, and has no accent, and yet perhaps it came just as much from the heart.