Dissed in Verse

The art of the poetic insult.

Some years ago April was declared Poetry Month. Is that a good idea or a bad one? A vulgarizing gesture or a democratic one? Or completely unimportant? As in previous years, Slate will attempt to straddle all sides of this issue: this time, with a little anthology of poems that deliver insults or express personal dislike.

Poetry of bad personal feeling, insult, revenge: It’s central to the art. The best-known poem in the category may be Walter Raleigh’s epitaph on the Earl of Leicester:


Here lies the noble Warrior that never blunted sword;
Here lies the noble Courtier that never kept his word;
Here lies his Excellency that governed all the state;
Here lies the Lord of Leicester that all the world did hate.

Part of the trick is the bluntness of the last line: the very absence of wit, after the opening sarcastic reversals, constitutes its own kind of wit.


The tradition of poetry as a way of being mean is an ancient one. The inventive range of Greek and Latin put-downs suggests that they were playing variations on a long, rich tradition of barbs and comebacks reaching back into prehistory. Dudley Fitts’ Poems From the Greek Anthology includes lyrics of personal derogation like this one, attributed to the Emperor Trajan:


            Lift sunward your considerable nose, 
                                    fling wide th’abyss of yr mouth,
            And you’ll make a presentable sun-dial for all who pass by.

The image is unfair, unkind, and funny, like Paul Engle’s epigram on the Duke of Alba as painted by Goya:

This is the kind of face that sheep
Must count at night, when they can’t sleep.

The Roman poet Martial devised an imaginative put-down, translated in a rhymed couplet by Francis Davison in 1608:

I muse not that your Dog turds oft doth eat;
To a tongue that licks your lips, a turd’s sweet meat.

The observation regarding the habits of dogs is sharp, but the rhyme of “eat/meat” is dull. The modern poet (and student of Martial) J.V. Cunningham (1911-1985) comes up with a more interesting rhyme, along with a brilliantly double-edged spatial metaphor:


This Humanist, whom no belief constrained,
Grew so broad-minded he was scatter-brained.

That “broad-minded” and “scatter-brained” are so close in literal meaning, yet opposite in feeling, is funny; that “constrained” is their spatial opposite creates an explosive intellectual energy. The three terms come together in a braininess of composition that slaps the Humanist’s bland face.

Cunningham deploys fierce wit. Marianne Moore achieves a similar effect from control of tone: Her dry, precise idiom is a literary version of social agility. Her title is unbeatable: “To Be Liked by You Would Be a Calamity”—and she ends the poem with a pithily articulate insult: “in your hearing words are mute, which to my senses/ Are a shout.” Moore’s poem is, paradoxically, about not using words: on her side, because they would be wasted on her listener; on the other side, because her opponent is verbally incompetent. Putting away her verbal sword, the poet bows her antagonist out with a gesture. This is a classy, fast, and subtle version of the old joke about declining a battle of wits because the enemy is unarmed. Dealing a this candid poltroon, to whom words are toneless, Moore feels like someone in a country where she understands neither the language nor the behavior. The final word “shout” suggests bad manners or danger, and the poem is about both. For Moore there is something fearsome, as well as rude, about someone who can physically hear but remains intellectually tone-deaf.


One of the great insulters in English poetry, Ben Jonson, like Moore, sometimes wrote out of an angry despair at those for whom words count for little. On such grounds, Jonson (who wrote masques as well as plays and poems) seems to have particularly hated his theatrical collaborator, the great 17th-century architect and special-effects set designer Inigo Jones, to whom he refers as “Inigo, Marquess Would-Be.” Legend has it that Shakespeare did a good impression, onstage and in private, of Jonson—in righteous anger, one imagines.

Jonson’s rage at Inigo Jones exceeds that of any screenwriter upstaged by computer graphics in his over-the-top “Expostulation with Inigo Jones.” (“O showes! Showes! Mighty Showes!/ The Eloquence of Masques! What need of prose/ Or Verse, or Sense, t’express Immortall you?”) In another, calmer poem, adapting the Latin of Martial, Jonson imagines his enemy fearing that he might be named in a savage poem and then contemptuously imagines putting the man’s fears to rest:


Since Inigo doth fear it as I hear
(And labors to seem worthy of that fear)
That I should write upon him some sharp verse,
Able to eat into his bones and pierce
The marrow! Wretch, I quit thee of thy pain
Thou’rt too ambitious: and dost fear in vain!
The Lybian Lion hunts no butter flyes,
He makes the Camel and dull Ass his prize.
If thou be so desirous to be read,
Seek out some hungry painter, that for bread
With rotten chalk, or Coal upon a wall,
Will well design thee, to be viewed of all
That sit upon the Common Draught, or Strand!
Thy Forehead is too narrow for my brand.


Jones is unworthy even of being insulted, a better target for anonymous graffiti than for the poet—or so says Jonson, disregarding how many times he returned to the subject of Jones and Jones’ undeserved honors.


It’s also worth noting that Jonson makes Jones’ distinctive given name explicit, right at the beginning of that poem. Withholding particular names, and attacking an entire class of people, can be a way of attacking particular people; surely, William Butler Yeats had some specific examples in mind when he wrote:


Bald heads forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s innocent ear.

All shuffle there; all cough in ink;
All wear the carpet with their shoes;
All think what other people think;
All know the man their neighbour knows.
Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?


It is sad to think that in his time and place Yeats had to endure literary academics who were self-righteous, driven by intellectual fashion, reluctant to think independently, socially provincial, self-important, and timid.

Anonymity cuts more than one way: It can cut against self-importance. The Harvard University Press absolutely refuses permission to quote whole poems by Emily Dickinson on the Web, under any circumstances, no matter what the fee. (The Harvard legal department fears the publisher’s potential loss of control.) So, here is the second half of Dickinson’s poem that begins, “I’m Nobody! Who are you?”:


How dreary—to be—Somebody!
How public—like a Frog—
To tell one’s name—the livelong June—
To an admiring Bog!


(Slate readers are invited to compose epigrams on the Harvard University Press’ stewardship of Emily Dickinson’s poetry and send them to that press in Cambridge, Mass., 02138.)

The best anonymous lines I know in this category were composed during World War II, possibly by various British soldiers, or by one inspired soldier. The lines are sung to the tune of the “Colonel Bogey March”:


Has only got one ball.
Has two, but very small.Himmler
Has something similar,
But Goebbals
Has no balls
At all!

Hitler was said to have had an undescended testicle; fact or legend, this piece of writing makes the most of it, superbly. The technical word for rhyming between two languages is “macaronic rhyme”; “Himmler” and “similar” is an example, and the slight imperfection of the rhyme (two syllables rhyming with three) makes it funnier—and suggests dialect pronunciation.


The 19th-century Englishman Walter Savage Landor writes the following stanza about an eminent Romantic poet’s planned or rumored marriage for money—addressing a specific person, like Jonson’s Inigo, without quite naming him:


Weep Venus and ye
Adorable Three
Whom Venus forever environ:Pounds, shillings and pence
And cold sober sense
Have clapped the straight waistcoat on *****.

Ezra Pound quotes these lines in his ABC of Reading, with the observation: “Asterisks left by the author and concealing nothing.” (I can remember reading the passage in college, with relief that I could indeed fill in the name and know beyond suspicion that Byron was being treated unfairly.)

Sometimes, the poem builds up to the most ordinary, standard, one- or two-syllable terms or condemnation. Louise Glück’s poem “Labor Day” concludes with a single syllable, distinct as a slap:


Requiring something lovely on his arm
Took me to Stamford, Connecticut, a quasi-farm,
The family’s; later picking up the mammoth
Girlfriend of Charlie, meanwhile trying to pawn me off
On some third guy also up for the weekend.
But Saturday we still were paired: spent
It sprawled across that sprawling acreage
Until the grass grew limp
With damp. Like me. Johnston-baby, I can still see
The pelted clover, burrs’ prickle-fur and gorged
Pastures spewing infinite tiny bells. You pimp.


I like the way the “sprawling acreage” of the “quasi-farm” comes in for part of the poet’s contempt, and then how just before the last two words her observation and expert appropriation of natural detail—those irritating burrs and bells—set up the final rhyme.


The great nonsense poet Edward Lear sets the category of insult on its head, or makes it do somersaults, in his poem mocking himself:

How pleasant to know Mr. Lear,
Who has written such volumes of stuff.
Some think him ill-tempered and queer,
But a few find him pleasant enough. His mind is concrete and fastidious,
His nose is remarkably big;
His visage is more or less hideous,
His beard it resembles a wig. He has ears, and two eyes, and ten fingers,
(Leastways if you reckon two thumbs);
He used to be one of the singers,
But now he is one of the dumbs. He sits in a beautiful parlour,
With hundreds of books on the wall;
He drinks a great deal of marsala,
But never gets tipsy at all. He has many friends, laymen and clerical,
Old Foss is the name of his cat;
His body is perfectly spherical,
He weareth a runcible hat. When he walks in waterproof white,
The children run after him so!
Calling out, “He’s gone out in his night-
Gown, that crazy old Englishman, oh!” He weeps by the side of the ocean,
He weeps on the top of the hill;
He purchases pancakes and lotion,
And chocolate shrimps from the mill. He reads, but he does not speak, Spanish,
He cannot abide ginger beer;
Ere the days of his pilgrimage vanish,
How pleasant to know Mr. Lear!


In moments like the third stanza, briefly, and with the lightest of touches, Lear shows a little of the pathos in the monster of the self, that angry, yet eager-to-please, creature. Turning the aggression inward is one more literary ploy, one adapted in tribute to Lear by T.S. Eliot, who wrote:


How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!
With his features of clerical cut,
And his brow so grim
And his mouth so prim
And his conversation, so nicely
Restricted to What Precisely
And If and Perhaps and But.
How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!
With a bobtail cur
In a coat of fur
And a porpentine cat
And a wopsical hat:
How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!


Eliot has the good judgment to make his poem a tribute to Lear’s. An interesting question is which of the two poems is more penetrating, more genuinely self-deprecatory.

The opposite of deriding oneself may be deriding the entire human race, as does John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (1647-1680), in his “Satire Against Mankind,” which begins:

Were I, who to my cost already am,
One of those strange, prodigious creatures, Man,
A spirit free, to choose for my own share,
What case of flesh and blood I pleased to wear,
I’d be a dog, a monkey, or a bar,
Or anything but that vain animal,
Who is so proud of being rational.
The senses are too gross, and he’ll contrive
A sixth, to contradict the other five:
And before certain instinct will prefer
Reason, which fifty times for one does err.

Wilmot also supplies a conclusion for this bouquet of raspberries, by justifying the art of poetic execration, invoking his predecessors. Here are the opening lines of his “In Defense of Satyr”:

When Shakes. Johns. Fletcher rul’d the Stage,
They took so bold a freedom with the Age,
That there was scarce a Knave,or Fool, in Town,
Of any note, but had his Picture shown;
And (without doubt) though some it may offend,
Nothing helps more than Satyr, to amend
Ill manners, or is trulier Virtue’s Friend.
Princes,may Laws ordain, Priests gravely Preach,
But Poets, most successfully, will teach.