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).
Et tunc curat
Ludo mentis aciem
Dissolvit ut glaciem
And here is how some rather clever person says he misheard the lyrics: