Saturday 10 February 2018

Purple cow - Michelle Lovric

According to their own originary myth, the dawn of the last century saw the birth of the ‘Re-Echo’ Club, a group of literary bon-vivants in the Boston area. Initially they were inspired by a poem about an unseen and unfortunate purple cow. The poet was Gelett Burgess. The poem went as follows:

I never saw a Purple Cow
I never hope to see one
But I can tell you, anyhow
I’d rather see than be one.

The project of the Re-Echoers was to re-render this masterpiece in the style of their literary heroes. They produced a book of their re-renderings in 1913. Discovering it in the British Library at least two decades ago, I thought it would be fun to do an illustrated version and so produced some sample designs with the talented Lisa Pentreath who worked with me on all my books for many years. Our revamped version never quite got published, but I came across the designs the other day, and started reading the poems, and was again impressed by the wit and invention. So here are a few Purple Cows for a dull February morning.

                                                                           The Keats version:

John Keats, anonymous portrait
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

 A cow of purple is a joy forever
Its loveliness increases. I have never
Seen this phenomenon. Yet ever keep
A brave lookout; lest I should be asleep
When she comes by. For, though I would not be one,

I’ve often imagined ‘twould be a joy to see one.

John Milton by
William Faithorn
courtesy of Wikimedia
The John Milton reworking:

Hence, vain deluding cows.
The herd of folly, without colour bright
How little you delight,
Or fill the Poet’s mind, or songs arouse!
But, hail! Thou goddess gay of feature!
Hail! Divinest purple creature!
Oh, Cow, thy visage is too bright
To hit the sense of human sight.

And though I’d like, just once, to see thee,
I'd never, never, never'd be thee.

 Percy Bysshe Shelley too salutes the purple cow in characteristic style:

Hail to thee, bright spirit!
Cow thou never wert;
But in life to cheer it
Playest thy full part
                             In purple lines of unpremeditated art
And Wordsworth has his gentle way with the violet one:
She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dee;
                                                        A cow whom there were few to praise
                                                         And very few to see.
                                                       A violet by a mossy stone
                                                         Greeting the smiling East
                                                           Is not so purple, I must own
                                                        As that erratic beast …
William Wordsworth by Robert Haydon
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Thomas Gray’s rendition:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea;
I watched them slowly wend their weary way
But, ah, a Purple Cow I did not see.
Full many a cow of purplest ray serene
Is haply grazing where I may not see;
Full many a donkey writes of her, I ween,
But neither of these creatures would I be.

And Swinburne waxes lyrically and purply:

Oh, cow of rare rapturous vision,
Oh, purple, impalpable Cow,
Do you browse in a Dream Field Elysian,

Are you purpling pleasantly now?
By the side of wan waves do you languish?
Or in the lithe lush of the grove?
While vainly I search in my anguish,
O Bovine of mauve? ….

I’ll spare you the second stanza.

The papers of the Re-Echo Club (1913) – plus those of a later edition The Diversions of the Re-Echo Club – are classified under the editorship of one Carolyn Wells. In my days as an anthologist, I frequently had recourse to her work. She was a kind of proto-Dorothy Parker, holding her own in a circle of male writers. She was also prolific – 170 books are attributed to her. She wrote children’s books, crime, short stories, newspaper series and articles, an autobiography and much light verse.

The Re-Echo Club convened a number of times. It also rendered into the words of the greats the following limericks

‘There was a little girl
and she had a little curl …’

 ‘There was a young lady of Niger,
Who smiled as she rode on a tiger …’

 And the nursery rhyme ‘Peter, Peter, Pumpkin eater’.

 ‘Lally’ Tennyson, ‘Dan’ Rossetti and ‘Teddy’ Poe gamely took on Cubism, encouraged by ‘Rob’ Browning: ‘I was born cubic. You see, you just symbolize the liquefaction of the essence of an idea into its emotional constituents, and there you are!

But as we are betwixt the retail frenzies of Christmas and those of Valentine’s Day, I think I’ll end with the Re-Echo club’s re-rendering of Shakespeare on the subject of seasonal gifts.

To give or not to give, that is the question;
Whether ‘tis nobler on the whole to suffer
The old exchange of trinkets, gauds and kickshaws,
Or to take arms against this Christmas nuisance,
And, by opposing, end it? To buy – to give –
No more’ and by that gift say we end
The Christmas obligations to our friends
We all are heir to! To buy – to give;
To give – perchance to get; ay, there’s the rub!
For in those bundles gay what frights may come
When we have shuffled off the ribbon bows

And tissue paper! Who would gifts receive
Of foolish books and little silver traps,
That make us rather keep the things we buy,
Than get these others that we know not of!
This Christmas doth make cowards of us all,
And, notwithstanding our good resolutions,
Each year we bandy gifts, and follow out
The same old Christmas programme.

Michelle Lovric's website


Joan Lennon said...

Now that HAS made me smile! Thanks, Michelle!

AnnP said...

That has certainly cheered me up on the dull, wet morning here. Thank you.

Lesley Downer said...

Thank you! Most amusing!

Caroline Lawrence said...

So clever! I love the idea of rewriting a simple poem in the style of a literary great! We could do it with prose, too...

Sue Purkiss said...