August 10, 2010
Some days my job takes me in strange directions. Last Friday afternoon it found me in the grand Main Reading Room in the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, paging through a slim volume, The Poetry of Geology, searching for the worst couplets I could find. (It links tangentially to an upcoming article in the magazine.)
Poetry about geology need not be bad. Emily Dickinson tried her hand at it, as did, more recently, Colorado poet Bob King. Science has been a frequent topic of poetry, as this extensive list illustrates. And it continues to inspire, as with the Symphony of Science project, which goes in a slightly different direction, finding poetry in the words of scientists and setting it to music.
But this particular volume I was reading, with poems from the 18th and 19th centuries, was full of bad rhymes (beneath/breathe) and sometimes tended towards the exceedingly long (one poem was 12 pages of free verse!). I shared some with a colleague yesterday and she got a fit of giggles.
Even one poem by a writer famous in her own time—Felicia Dorothea Hemans influenced poets like Longfellow—had some clunkers. Here’s her “Epitaph on a mineralogist”:
Stop, passenger, a wondrous tale to list—
Here lies a famous mineralogist!
Famous, indeed,—such traces of his power
He’s left from Penmanbach to Penmanmawer,—
Such caves, and chasms and fissures in the rocks,
His works resemble those of earthquake shocks;
And future ages very much may wonder
What mighty giant rent the hills asunder;
Or whether Lucifer himself had ne’er
Gone with his crew, to play at foot-ball there.
His fossils, flints and spars of every hue
With him, good reader, here lie buried too!
Sweet specimens, which toiling to obtain,
He split huge cliffs like so much wood in twain:
We knew, so great the fuss he made about them,
Alive or dead, he ne’er would rest without them,
So to secure soft slumber to his bones,
We paved his grave with all his favorite stones.
His much loved hammer’s resting by his side,
Each hand contains a shell-fish petrified;
His mouth a piece of pudding stone encloses,
And at his feet a lump of coal reposes:
Sure he was born beneath some lucky planet,
His very coffin plate is made of granite!
Weep not, good reader! He is truly blest,
Amidst chalcedony and quartz to rest—
Weep not for him! but envied be his doom,
Whose tomb, though small, for all he loved had room
And, O ye rocks! schist, gneiss, whate’er ye be,
Ye varied strata, names too hard for me,
Sing ‘O be joyful!’ for your direst foe,
By death’s fell hammer, is at length laid low.
Ne’er on your spoils shall —— —— riot,
Shut up your cloudy brows, and rest in quiet!
He sleeps—no longer planning hostile actions,—
As cold as any of his petrifactions;
Enshrined in specimens of every hue,
Too tranquil e’en to dream, ye rocks, of you.
Though I do have to admire her for rhyming a word like Penmanmawer.
However, my job is to find the worst couplet possible, and I’m having trouble deciding. Perhaps you can help with this poll:
Have you written any poetry devoted to geology or another branch of science? If so, share it in the comments below.
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