EVENING STANDARD AND ST. JAMES’S GAZETTE May 2, 1906
ON LYRIC WRITING.
Lyric-writing is like golf—it looks easy, but there is a great deal more in it than the casual spectator would imagine. If the casual spectator doubts this, let him try. Sometimes, of course, a good tune will be strong enough to carry a pointless verse on its shoulders, but not often. There is a world of difference between the demeanour of an audience when it merely likes a tune and when it finds the words amusing as well. The lyric-writer’s difficulty lies in deciding what the public will consider amusing. He has not the same chances as the man who is writing verses for a paper. However poor a point is the reader can generally see it. And there is a certain doggedness, about the average newspaper reader. He argues with himself, after reading a poem which does not seem at first sight to contain any meaning, that the editor would probably not have printed it if there was not a point wrapped up in it somewhere, and he proceeds to attack it again. After that he consults a friend, and they have a dash at it together. And in the end, when the day is far spent, they see the writer’s idea.
But there are no second chances on the stage. There is just the instant in which the audience sees or misses a point. Then all is over. And mere toleration is useless. A newspaper reader may feel that a set of verses are passable, though he does not see his way to more than a gentle smile at their humour. But in a theatre the laugh has to be a big one, or it might as well not be laughed at all.
Nearly all the weapons of the writer of occasional verse are denied to the lyrist. There is the trick of humorous grandiloquence, for instance. To quote an example, from a “Punch” poem:—
Among traditions which explain
Our wonted lordship o’er the waves,
And why we steadily disdain
The bare idea of being slaves,
There is a dictum taught, no doubt,
Upon the playing-fields of Eton;
That Britain’s sons are born without
The gift of knowing when they’re beaten.
In “Punch” this is pleasantly humorous. For the lyrist it is merely an excellent example of what to avoid. The long suit of an audience at a musical comedy is not wide range of vocabulary. Thus such words as “wonted,” “disdain,” “dictum,” and “playing-fields” are useless to him. They would not “go.” Some brainy genius in a private box might understand them, but the gallery to a man would ask loudly what it was being given, and why.
Allusions, again—the main plank of the comic poet’s platform—though not absolutely barred to the lyrist, call for much thought in their selection. “The playing fields of Eton” would be sure to misfire. Even if the audience in their calmer moments knew the allusion, they would not have time to grasp it. The song would be over before they had got their brains into marching order. The ideal lyric should give at least two warnings before the point of a verse is reached. Instead of being distributed over eight lines, as in the instance quoted above, the point must be concentrated on the last line. Absence of point in the earlier part of the stanza is a merit. Absence of point in the latter half of the refrain kills the song.
Topical allusions are a gamble. A good topical allusion is the safest point of any. But here again the difficulty is to grasp the exact extent of the audience’s knowledge, to know what is a “topic” and what is not. The amount of space given to a subject in the papers is no criterion. Some subjects get their two columns a day for a fortnight without becoming topics in the lyrical sense of the word. Others are given a paragraph on Monday and bring down the house on Tuesday. It is difficult to give instances, but it may be said that the society craze for Plato, advertised as it has been, is not a topic. The Oetzmann furniture case, on the other hand, is what Americans call a “sure fire.” There is only one way of deciding such points, and that is by trying. But it is hard on the singer. As Mr. Seymour Hicks once put it to me, “The public may complain, but the real man to pity is the singer. He is up against it. He is It! Do you know the feeling when you’re playing a trout with a very light tackle? There rises up in front of you the face of the man who sold you the gut. When you’re singing a rotten verse you see in a sort of mirage the face of the lyrist, and you feel, ‘You let me in for this!’ ” It is a tragic moment for all concerned.
But lyric-writing is not a thing of unredeemed gloom. In the first place, a lyrist is allowed considerably more latitude in the matter of rhyme than is the newspaper poet. The latter couples “phenomena” with “commoner,” and the blue pencil puts in its deadly work. The lyrist may rhyme “ships” with “six,” and no questions asked. Then there is the pleasure of hearing one’s words sung, and invariably well sung. And, if a song is a success—fame! Imagine the feelings of the man who wrote “Bill Bailey”! If I had been that great man, most of my remarks would begin with the words, “I recollect when I was thinking out the scheme of ‘Bill Bailey’ ”—or, “During the South African War, a few years before I got the central idea of ‘Bill Bailey’ ”—or something similar. But these are vain dreams.
Printed unsigned in newspaper; entered by Wodehouse in Money Received for Literary Work.
The Punch poem is the first stanza of “The Decline and Fall-Off” by Owen Seaman, which appeared March 9, 1904.
Plato: “From sheer curiosity, writes a London society gossip, I went to the most recent of the much-boomed Plato lectures at Claridge’s. Everybody is talking of Dr. Emil Reich, who is giving them, and he certainly may well be proud of his audience.” (Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, March 30, 1906) “Each new fad of the hour, from the cake-walk to Plato, has been an absorbing craze at which the lookers-on have laughed.” (“Society Fads,” by Mrs. W. Desmond Humphreys, in Our Day, March 1907)
The Oetzmann furniture case was settled in March 1906 after lengthy litigation in three separate courts. The Jewell sisters of Eastbourne, keepers of a boarding house, sued Messrs. Oetzmann, furniture dealers, for unlawfully seizing furniture some of which was under a hire-purchase agreement, and some of which had been paid for. The Cheltenham Chronicle’s headline of March 24, 1906 described the case as a “cause celebre.”