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November 14, 2015

Statue of Big Dog with Fleas

You remember that poem of Samuel Taylor Coleridge which begins:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure dome decree

Where Alph, the sacred river ran

Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless Sea.

I understand that Coleridge claimed he dreamt it; but I believe it’s been suggested that the poem was written under the influence of opium, which seems perhaps more likely. Anyway, some time in the 1950s  a man called John Press, in  The Fire and the Fountain : an Essay on Poetry parodied  these lines thus in order to prove a thesis:

In Bakerloo did Aly Khan

A stately Hippodrome decree

Where Alf, the bread delivery man . . .

…Collided with a draper’s van

While doing sixty-three.

The last two lines were in fact added by a participant  in a competition in in the British magazine The Spectator. But that’s by the way.  The point Mr Press was trying to prove—or rather disprove—was that the beauty of poetry depends on the sound of the words, rather than on their meaning. He argued  that while Coleridge’s original is a fine poem, his own parody is nothing of the kind—but both sound much the same.

While thinking about this my mind took a bit of a leap and it occurred to me that we often  misunderstand or mishear words and phrases, particularly in song and hymns. My Aunt Christabel, as a child, used to have to sing Parson Toplady’s Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me, written in the 18th century. One line goes: “Foul I to the Fountain fly.” Aunt Chris thought for several years that Toplady was comparing himself to a bird, rather than a repentant sinner: “Fowl I to the fountain fly.” (The hymn is still popular among American Baptists, who travel in coach tour buses  to Burrington Combe in Somerset where  the original Rock of Ages stands. Toplady  was inspired to write the hymn while sheltering there during a  thunderstorm.)

Then there is the little girl whose teddy bear had a squint, so she called him Gladly, as in Gladly the Cross I’d Bear.

Sorry, I am rambling. But to illustrate the point further, take  Carl Orff’s O Fortuna from the  Carmina Burana.  These are the words of this medieval Latin Lyric (not a very good one, and not worth translating).

O Fortuna
Velut luna
Statu variabilis
Semper crescis
Aut decrescis
Vita detestabilis
Nunc obdurat
Et tunc curat
Ludo mentis aciem
Dissolvit ut glaciem

And here is how some rather clever person says he misheard the lyrics:


One comment

  1. My very young daughter Laura lustily joined in with the Ora pro nobis chorus on a pilgrimage many years ago. Or at least, that’s what I thought she was singing. When I listened more carefully, what she was in fact singing was “All up our noses”!

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