Black humor?

What’s “Miniver Cheevy” doing in a collection of light verse?

Life (as Horace Walpole didn’t quite say) is a comedy to those who think, but a tragedy to those who feel.

By that standard, it seems to me that the editors of the Library of America, and in particular John Hollander, who edited American Wits, a collection of light verse, have been thinking too much. (They also seem to have terrible taste in book jacket designers, but that’s a different problem.)

The selection — consisting, according to the flyer I recieved, of poems “urbane, exuberantly irreverant, and sometimes gleefully silly” — includes Ogden Nash, Dorothy Parker, Ambrose Bierce, and Edward Arlington Robinson.

If this is intended to be a game of “Which item does not belong on this list?” all I can say is: Ask me a hard one.

Robinson is represented by “Miniver Cheevy:”

Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,

Grew lean while he assailed the seasons;

He wept that he was ever born,

And he had reasons.

Miniver loved the days of old

When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;

The vision of a warrior bold

Would set him dancing.

Miniver sighed for what was not,

And dreamed, and rested from his labors;

He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot,

And Priam’s neighbors.

Miniver mourned the ripe renown

That made so many a name so fragrant;

He mourned Romance, now on the town,

And Art, a vagrant.

Miniver loved the Medici,

Albeit he had never seen one;

He would have sinned incessantly

Could he have been one.

Miniver cursed the commonplace

And eyed a khaki suit with loathing;

He missed the mediaeval grace

Of iron clothing.

Miniver scorned the gold he sought,

But sore annoyed was he without it;

Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,

And thought about it.

Miniver Cheevy, born too late,

Scratched his head and kept on thinking;

Miniver coughed, and called it fate,

And kept on drinking.

Now compare that with Dorothy Parker’s “Unfortunate Coincidence,” also in the volume:

By the time you swear you’re his,

Shivering and sighing,

And he vows his passion is

Infinite, undying —

Lady, make a note of this:

One of you is lying.

Parker’s verse is bitter, no doubt — as it had reason to be, given her sad life — but it’s a sardonic, comic bitterness. She has performed the humorist’s alchemy of making what is genuinely sad also genuinely funny, and the reader goes away from the poem more, rather than less, cheerful. (Having read her biography, I find it hard to really enjoy her verse any more, since it makes me think of the suffering that produced it. But that’s not a criticism of the verse.)

Robinson’s portrait of Cheevy is something else again. Yes, the poet pokes fun at Cheevy’s arrogant self-deluded longing for an imagined past (“He missed the mediaeval grace/of iron clothing”), but it would take a heart of stone to find this portrait of an embittered miserly lonely alcoholic basically funny.

Parker writes gallows humor: the humor of the one doing the suffering, which gives it a certain nobility. If “Miniver Cheevy” is read as humorous, then it is (in Vonnegut’s distinction) not gallows humor, but black humor: the humor of Pulp Fiction, which finds reason for laughter in the suffering of others.

Robinson probably belongs where I found him, in an eleventh-grade English reader along with the likes of Alfred Noyes. “Miniver Cheevy,” like many of the other Tilbury Town sketches, can justly be criticized as sentimental, and Robinson written off as a competent minor poet, a lesser Robert Frost. But he’s no black humorist.

“Miniver Cheevy” is “light verse” only if a “light” poem is just a bad “heavy” poem. (It might be closer to the mark to put “Miniver Cheevy” in Orwell’s category of a “good bad poem,” which Orwell defines as “a graceful monument to the obvious.”)

So if you want to laugh at Robinson as a second-rater, go ahead. But Robinson, who on the evidence of his verse had a compassionate heart, didn’t intend us to laugh at sad drunken Miniver. Nor should we.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com