“Dippy Verses,” John Barth, and Tolkien

John Barth’s collection The Friday Book: Essays and Other Nonfiction contains an excellent piece on what I take to be the novel as vacuum cleaner, or, to use his title, “The Prose and Poetry of It All, or, Dippy Verses.” A reviewer called four lines—in his estimation, three and half—of verse/poetry at the beginning of Barth’s novel Sabbatical: A Romance “dippy,” leading him point out that a) of course they’re dippy, given that they’re a joke between the protagonist and his wife, b) they’re intended ironically, and c) they’re part of a novel, a genre that is by its nature pastiche, and therefore should be considered part of its whole and not poetry as such. If poems within a novel happen to work as standalone poems, all the better, and if not, they should be evaluated as part of the whole.

“The Prose and Poetry of It All, or, Dippy Verses” is worth reading in full, especially for Barth’s wonderful extended metaphor on osprey nests, conservationists, shoal lights, and solutions, which is too long to repeat in full here, and to summarize it would be to admire a small bird in the wild, kill it with a shotgun, and then bring the results home to prove how beautiful the bird is. Much criticism works this way to a lesser extent anyway, but in this case it seems particularly egregious.

The topic arises in part because an upcoming conference session on Tolkien will focus on his poetry, which probably would not be judged much good by the Modernist standards of the mid-Twentieth Century, but that’s of little importance: for one, he wasn’t trying to write modernist poetry—he was presenting poetry in its Medieval and older role—and for two, he was working from pre-printing press cultures. Part of Tolkien’s beauty is the extent to which he recreates that earlier time. When books and parchment are exceedingly expensive, transport tenuous at best (see The Pursuit of Glory: 1648 – 1815 for more on historical developments in that field), and history transmitted generationally from person to person, verse made memorizing and disseminating oral information easier. Some scholars have speculated that the reason for the variations in titles in The Iliad, The Odyssey, and the like, where references to “giant-killer Hermes” and “Prince Telemachus” abound, those two picked at random from a page of The Odyssey. Tolkien’s doing something similar. The distinctions we have among genres and among fiction and nonfiction weren’t well developed until sometime around the Seventeenth or Eighteenth Century, as Michael McKeon argues in The Origins of the English Novel. Therefore, to characters in Middle-earth, poetry is not just artistic, but historical documentation.

I’m only too happy to see Tolkien’s poetry analyzed as such, but what’s embedded in Lord of the Rings should be judged a component of a novel, that most slippery and contaminated of art forms. I don’t know what if anything Barth thought of Tolkien, but his essay more than defends the aesthetics of judging the works within works that many novels contain.

As for The Friday Book more generally, it’s probably the most hilarious literary essay collection I’ve read, particularly because Barth is as skeptical of and engaged with the writing of essays as he is with the writing of novels. At one point, he says “[…] I don’t much enjoy analyzing my own [work]. It’s sobering enough to see what curious things my novels say to other people; never mind what they say to me.” Elsewhere, the simple and profound gets wrapped in the cloak of the ridiculous, or perhaps vice versa, as when he notes “Of painful searching and futile running around, our literature is unavoidably full […]” Above I implied that “The Prose and Poetry of It All, or, Dippy Verses” cannot be given in even an adequate form save in the one it takes, as with most good essays. It did, however, leave me with deeper and stranger thoughts about its subjects than when I began, which is the test that matters. That many apply to other fields—including Tolkien—is just another bonus.

3 responses

  1. Pingback: Quid plura? | "I'm gonna bank to the left, then move to the right..."

  2. Jake, interesting post, and without having read the Barth essay, I’m going to make a couple of replies. First, yes, I agree that one ought to consider the poetry embedded in a novel as part of the whole; it’s not necessarily meant to be evaluated independently, as you say, though it sometimes can be. However, this does not mean that just because Tolkien’s novel, The Lord of the Rings, is an acknowledged masterpiece one cannot also say some of its poems are blemishes. I’m not going so far as to say that myself, just to point out that readers have the right to do so.

    I also agree, as Barth seems to say, that embedded poems ought to be considered in the light of the author’s (and speaker’s, if appropriate) intent and background. For example, one would evaluate Sam’s silly poems differently from the elegy for Boromir, Gollum’s riddle-poems differently from the Elves’ incantation to Elbereth. They must be judged on completely different standards. Barth would agree, yes?

    And finally, I think you want to be careful about some of the claims you make in your ¶3. You’re right that, for *some* of his poems, this is what Tolkien was doing, but in other cases, his verse-craft (especially the earlier) owes more to Victorian fairyology than to medieval transmission of history. Don’t forget that the Tom Bombadil poems, for instance, were originally written *outside* Middle-earth, and only later did Tolkien incorporate them into his larger legendarium. In some cases, the “fit” therefore seems imperfect, and the poems may be (and have been, by some) judged more harshly as a result.

    You also say, “to characters in Middle-earth, poetry is not just artistic, but historical documentation” — but while that’s true, there’s more to it than that. Sometimes, their poetry is religious invocation, sometimes schoolboy fun, sometimes purely spontaneous. It isn’t always “historical transmission” on the order of Homer or Virgil. Be careful of oversimplification.

    I will be interested to see what the poetry session at Kalamazoo next May has to offer on the subject.


  3. Oh dear; I’d just about decided not to attend /present at the ‘zoo this year, and now I see this . . .

    Keep in mind that, while Tolkien was less than fond of Medieval Irish, he could, and did read it, and would have been quite familiar with the way the Irish mythic cycle, the Táin and related tales, combine prose and poetry in a single work.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: