Saturday, 25 July 2015

Favourite Worst Lines

At the beginning of Aldous Huxley’s utopia Island (1965), the hero Will Farnaby lies washed up and injured on the beach at Pala after his yachting accident. Random thoughts race through his mind and, by some freak association, ‘Will remembered suddenly his favourite worst line of poetry. “Who prop, thou ask’st, in these bad days my mind?”’. The line comes from Matthew Arnold’s sonnet on Shakespeare – Arnold being, as it happens, Huxley’s great-uncle.

My favourite worst line from William Morris’s poetry comes from ‘The God of the Poor’ and is very different indeed from Arnold’s cluttered and thickly consonantal line. The squire in that poem, disguised as a poor man, has to make his way to the evil lord Maltête in order to entrap him, and as he does so Morris gives us the immortally bad first line of this couplet:

‘Now passed the squire through this and that,
Till he came to where Sir Maltête sat’.

Has there ever been a line of poetry as vapidly empty of content, as carelessly and mechanically knocked out in order to rhyme feebly with its successor? It seems indeed to be a favourite bad line with Morris himself, since he uses a variant of it just eighty lines later: ‘John-a-Wood in his doorway sat,/Turning over this and that’.

You may well have your own favourite worst line from Morris’s prose or verse, in which case please post it on the 'Comments' link below and share it.


Kotick said...

I don't know about additional bad lines from Morris, Tony, but it might be worth noting that Oxford Professor Helen Gardner, in her 'In Defence of the Imagination' (1982), announces that the first line of Matthew Arnold's Shakespeare poem is "surely a strong contender for the worst opening line of a sonnet in English" (p.53). Was she plagiarising, consciously or unconsciously, from Aldous Huxley, I wonder?

Tony Pinkney said...

And Nicholas Shrimpton, in his 1998 Everyman edition of Arnold's poetry, describes that very same line, 'Who prop, thou ask'st, in these bad days, my mind', as 'a tongue-twister'! It's from 'To a Friend', by the way, not actually the Shakespeare sonnet.

Tony Pinkney said...

My sense is that Morris first starts using the lazy 'this and that' rhyming tag in his 'Life and Death of Jason', as for instance when he tells us of the centaur Cheiron that 'to the flowery eastern slopes he gat,/Waiting the dawn, nor hoped for this or that' (Book XV, 1169-70). Are there any earlier examples anywhere in his verse?