Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Bad luck with gazelles

At an Unreal Nature thread on Sod's Law (a.k.a Murphy's Law) - "the atheist’s reflex concession to magical thinking" - Dr C just mentioned the particular exposition

I never had a slice of bread,
Particularly large and wide,
That did not fall upon the floor,
And always on the buttered side.

The annoyance of dropping bread on the buttered side is timeless enough to be a truism. You can find it, for instance, in the 1807 precursor to Grumpy Old Men, The miseries of human life; or The groans of Samuel Sensitive, and Timothy Testy: or the groans of Samuel Sensitive and Timothy Testy : with a few supplementary sighs from Mrs. Testy : in twelve dialogues, by James Beresford, where it's listed as one of the miseries of the table. But the above four-line verse has a more specific history.

I first recall it from Arnold Silcock's Verse and Worse (a lovely collection of humorous verse, in print on and off since 1952) where it's credited to James Payn (e.g. Oxford Dictionary of Quotations says Chambers's Journal, February 1884). But the highly reliable The Yale Book of Quotations tracks it back to the Huron Reflector, 23rd November, 1841, and it can also be found uncredited in The Knickerbocker; Or, New York Monthly Magazine in 1835 as:

I never had a piece of toast,
Particularly good and wide,
But fell upon the sanded floor,
And always on the buttered side!

However, we start hitting source for this particular form with Thomas Hood the Younger:

I never nursed a dear gazelle,
To glad me with its dappled hide,
But when it came to know me well,
It fell upon the buttered side.

- from Muddled Metaphors, "By a Moore-ose Melodist", Thomas Hood Jr (date unknown), A Nonsense Anthology, Carolyn Wells, by BiblioBazaar, LLC, 2007

This identifies it as a parody of lines from Thomas Moore's The Fire-Worshippers, one of the four segments in his 1817 work Lalla Rookh, an Arabian Nights-style romance partially based on the story of Al-Muqanna (see The Poetic Works of Thomas Moore). In The Fire-Worshippers, a tragic sub-story, the heroine comes out with these deeply fatalistic lines:

Oh! Ever thus, from childhood's hour,
I've seen my fondest hopes decay;
I never loved a tree or flower,
But 'twas the first to fade away.
I never nurs'd a dear gazelle,
To glad me with its soft black eye,
But when it came to know me well,
And love me, it was sure to die!

These lines (which portray a life at the level of Unlucky Alf from The Fast Show) tickled the Victorian funny-bone, and there are many parodies, such as CS Calverley's Disaster, Henry Sambrooke Leigh's 'Twas ever thus, Lewis Carroll's Tèma con Variaziòni, a reference in Charles Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop (Chapter 56, where Mr Swiveller paraphrases it as "...and love me, it was sure to marry a market-gardener"), and Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Death of a Wombat 1.

I never reared a young Wombat
To glad me with his pin-hole eye,
But when he most was sweet & fat
And tail-less; he was sure to die!

One might wonder why such an obscure poem should attract such ridicule, but it wasn't obscure then; it was a bestseller from the start, and stayed in the public eye via reprints and stage adaptations: see Gill Stoker's Lalla Rookh page. Maybe the problem was the bizarre choice of animal (as Terry Caesar says in I Quite Forget What--Say a Daffodilly: Victorian Parody, "his rather unfortunate choice of an exotic gazelle to illustrate his trite presentation of life's fragility"). Maybe there was an undercurrent of hostility because some saw Lalla Rookh as Irish nationalist allegory, as argued in "The Standard of Revolt": Revolution and National Independence in Moore’s Lalla Rookh (Jeffery W. Vail, Romanticism on the Net, Numéro 40, November 2005).

Thomas Moore is overall another writer whose reputation has diminished (at least, outside his native Ireland). In his lifetime he was considered on a par with Lord Byron (for whom he was literary executor), but is now probably best known for his song lyrics, particularly The Minstrel Boy, The Last Rose of Summer and Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms.

"Dear gazelle" references, incidentally, also crop up in James Joyce's Ulysses and PG Wodehouse's Joy in the Morning (see Bully Says: Comics Oughta Be Fun!: A Wodehouse a Week #25).

"I shall miss you, Jeeves."

"Thank you, sir."

"Who was the chap who was always beefing about losing gazelles?"

"The poet Moore, sir. He complained that he had never nursed a dear gazelle, to glad him with its soft black eye, but when it came to know him well and love him, it was sure to die."

"It's the same with me. I am a gazelle short. You don't mind me alluding to you as a gazelle, Jeeves?"

"Not at all, sir."

1. It's little known that the Pre-Raphaelites were obsessed with wombats: see Rossetti's Wombat: A Pre-Raphaelite Obsession in Victorian England, National Library of Australia.
- Ray


  1. Thanks for all of this, Ray. I confess to being stumped by the rhyme you posted in my comments, especially the gazelle -- and didn't have time to Google it into making sense.

    In the linked article about the Pre-Raphaelite wombat obsession, the choice of The Germ as the name for "a journal dedicated to art, poetry and literary criticism" set me into a fit of laughing. Awesome choice of name.

  2. Can't match this. Excellent. We still have some old 78's with "Oh the days of the Kerry Dances." But Wombats? I thought they were confined to Tasmania.

  3. I have a question, maybe you could help me. I have just found in a novel by Agatha Cristie a paragraph in which she says that Lord Byron wrote a famous poem "I never loved a dear gazelle". I tried to find that poem but I couldn't. Would you tell me if it is true or it is just a mistake?
    I see that you are very good at literature.
    Thank you and I'm looking forward to receiving your answer. Monica

  4. That would be from Cards of the Table?

    Though unacquainted with Lord Byron's famous poem, "I never loved a dear gazelle," etc., its sentiments were at that moment hers.

    I'm pretty certain it's a mistake. The "dear gazelle" poem definitely tracks to Thomas Moore; Byron's gazelle poem is The Wild Gazelle, from his collection The Hebrew Melodies.

  5. Thank you very much for your answer. I had a suspicion related to Thomas Moore and you just confirmed it.
    Have a nice day!