Saturday, December 4, 2021

Poetic Elves in the 1920s

I was discussing "twee" with a friend and remembered a nifty poem I read about thirty-five years ago.  Of course I had to go find it, and it's as good as I recall, so I'll share it here.

How to Treat Elves

by Morris Bishop

I met an elf-man in the woods,
the wee-est little elf!
Sitting under a mushroom tall—
'twas taller than himself.

"How do you do, little elf," I said,
"and what do you do all day?"
"I dance 'n fwolic about," said he,
"'n scuttle about and play;

"I s'prise the butterflies, 'n when
a katydid I see,
'Katy didn't!' I say, and he
says 'Katy did!' to me!

"I hide behind my mushroom stalk
when Mister Mole comes froo,
'n only jus' to fwighten him
I jump out 'n say, 'Boo!'

"'N then I swing on a cobweb swing,
up in the air so high,
'N the cwickets chirp just to hear me sing,

"'N then I play with the baby chicks,
I call them, chick chick chick!
'N what do you think of that?" said he.
I said, "It makes me sick."

"It gives me sharp and shooting pains
to listen to such drool."
I lifted up my foot, and squashed
the God damn little fool. *

The poem first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post for 3 April 1926 (it was reprinted in an anthology edited by Thomas L. Masson, Laughs: A Sovereign Remedy for Boredom, published in November 1926). That makes it nearly contemporary with Lord Dunsany's poem, "Ode to a Dublin Critic," apparently first published in Fifty Poems (1929). Here are the first two stanzas (of five):

        Ode to a Dublin Critic
        Through steely gaps that I have known 
           In mirage mountains, upon wings 
        Has my imagination flown 
          To bring you news of magic things.

        And lesser journalists have said, 
          That cannot see such things themselves, 
        The man is clearly off his head 
          To write of things like gods and elves

Of course earlier in the same decade, J.R.R. Tolkien was writing of 'Tinfang Warble" in a fairy poem first published in 1927. It is a conception Tolkien would (thankfully) abandon.  Here are the first eight lines.

Tinfang Warble

O the hoot! O the hoot!
How he trillups on his flute!
O the hoot of Tinfang Warble!

Dancing all alone,
hopping on a stone, 
Flitting like a fan, 
In the twilight on the lawn, 
And his name is Tinfang Warble!


* The text of "How to Treat Elves" is that given in Bishop's collection Spilt Milk (1942). The poem also appears in Bishop's earlier collection Paramount Poems (1929), but I have not seen that appearance.

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