Wednesday, 6 January 2010

A punchy meme

In the comments to More fierce and most fierce of all ..., Felix and I have just been discussing addictive jingles, so as the inspirational rhyme
Good, better, best,
May I never rest
Til my good is better
And my better best.
and the jingle coined by Alfred Bester in The Demolished Man (the protagonist deliberately lets himself be infected with an earworm to prevent superficial telepathic scanning).
Eight, sir; seven sir;
Six, sir; five, sir;
Four, sir; three, sir;
Two, sir; one!
Tenser, said the Tensor.
Tenser, said the Tensor.
Tension, apprehension,
And dissension have begun.
Not so new. Mark Twain ran into the phenomenon in 1876, when he ran into a jingle written by Isaac Bromley and Noah Brooks, and colleagues, of the New York Tribune, who had been inspired by a streetcar sign.
Conductor, when you receive a fare,
Punch in the presence of the passenjare!
A blue trip slip for an eight-cent fare,
A buff trip slip for a six-cent fare,
A pink trip slip for a three-cent fare,
Punch in the presence of the passenjare!


Punch brothers! Punch with care!
Punch in the presence of the passenjare!
Twain was badly infected. His story, A Literary Nightmare, tells of the experience:
I came across these jingling rhymes in a newspaper, a little while ago, and read them a couple of times. They took instant and entire possession of me. All through breakfast they went waltzing through my brain, and when, at last, I rolled up my napkin, I could not tell whether I had eaten anything or not. I had carefully laid out my day's work the day before a thrilling tragedy in the novel which I am writing. I went to my den to begin my deed of blood. I took up my pen, but all I could get it to say was, "Punch in the presence of the passenjare." I fought hard for an hour, but it was useless. My head kept humming, "A blue trip slip for an eight-cent fare, a buff trip slip for a six-cent fare," and so on and so on, without peace or respite. The day's work was ruined I could see that plainly enough. I gave up and drifted down town, and presently discovered that my feet were keeping time to that relentless jingle. When I could stand it no longer I altered my step. But it did no good; those rhymes accommodated themselves to the new step and went on harassing me just as before. I returned home and suffered all the afternoon; suffered all through an unconscious and unrefreshing dinner; suffered, and cried, and jingled all through the evening; went to bed and rolled, tossed and jingled right along, the same as ever; got up at midnight frantic, and tried to read; but there was nothing visible upon the whirling page except "Punch! punch in the presence of the passanjare." By sunrise I was out of my mind, and everybody marvelled and was distressed at the idiotic burden of my ravings.
- Mark Twain; his life and work; a biographical sketch, c1894, Internet Archive

A Literary Nightmare (later republished as Punch, Brothers, Punch!) quotes the jingle. As described on page 422 of Mark Twain: the complete interviews (Mark Twain, Gary Scharnhorst, University of Alabama Press, 2006) this led to slight grief from the authors, as it rapidly become popularly assumed that Twain had written the verse. Brown himself wrote up the story of the creation of the genre of "Horse-Car Poetry", writing as Winkelried Wolfgang Brown in Scribner's Monthly, April 1876, and even inflicting a tune on the world.

It acquired such popularity that The Western, St Louis, produced a Latin spoof ...
Pungite, fraters, pungite!
Pungite cum amore,
Pungite pro vectere,
Diligentissime pungite!
... and a French version also appeared:
Le Chant De Conducteur

Ayant etc paye, le conducteur
Percera an pleine vue du voyageur
Quand il recoit trois sous un coupon vert,
Un coupon jaune pour six sous c'est l'affaire,
Et pour huit sous c'est un coupon couleur,
De-rose, en pleine vue du voyageur.


Done, percez soigneusement, mes freres,
Tout en pleine vue des voyageurs, etc.
A number of Twain biographies say that this is by Swinburne and that he "is said to have done" it for the Revue des Deux Mondes. As usual, I'll believe that one when I see the primary source, as Revue des Deux Mondes is well-covered on Wikisource and a Google site search doesn't find it (whether by Swinburne or not). reproduces a couple of 1915 New York Times pieces on the meme: Two Painful Poems and The Haunting Doggerel. See Acephalous for the full text of A Literary Nightmare.

PS: The NYT Two Painful Poems piece mentions another meme, "Is This Mr. Reilly?". This appears to refer to a song that appeared in variants including:
Is that Mr Reilly, can anyone tell;
Is that Mr Reilly that owns the hotel?
Well, if that's Mr Reilly they speak of so highly:
Upon me soul Reilly, you're doing quite well.
- Ray

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