“A Bas Ben Adhem” – By Ogden Nash

My fellow man I do not care for.
I often ask me, What’s he there for?
The only answer I can find
Is, Reproduction of his kind.
If I’m supposed to swallow that,
Winnetka is my habitat.
Isn’t it time to carve Hic Jacet
Above that Reproduction racket?

To make the matter more succint:
Suppose my fellow man extinct.
Why, who would not approve the plan
Save possibly my fellow man?
Yet with a politician’s voice
He names himself as Nature’s choice.

The finest of the human race
Are bad in figure, worse in face.
Yet just because they have two legs
And come from storks instead of eggs
They count the spacious firmament
As something to be charged and sent.

Though man created cross-town traffic,
The Daily Mirror, News and Graphic,
The pastoral fight and fighting pastor,
And Queen Marie and Lady Astor,
He hails himself with drum and fife
And bullies lower forms of life.

Not that I think much depends
On how we treat our feathered friends,
Or hold the wrinkled elephant
A nobler creature than my aunt.
It’s simply that I’m sure I can
Get on without my fellow man.
Ogden Nash

 

One has to read Leigh Hunt’s Abou Ben Adhem ,in order to fully understand the poet’s lighthearted dig at mankind as a species. Leigh Hunt’s poem made fine undergraduate reading with an exquisite moral at the end of the poem. We understood the poem was about the greatness of the human species in the eyes of God. The Angel there noted Abou Ben’s name on the top of the golden list of all those whom God loved because his name figured not in the list of those who loved God but on the contrary ,in the list of those who loved humanity. The moral is exquisite and is not easily lost on a world where a renewed faith in humanity had just taken roots after a dark era of obscurantist religion and superstitious beliefs had come to an end with the flowering of reason and science. Of course one wondered if a “high moral” message can be turned into a poem merely by setting it to meter. And what is so special about it as a “poem”, one wondered.

Ogden Nash might have had a similar reservation about the poem. Actually he may not have anything against the poem or the poet. Here he merely debunks the myth that the human species is far superior to the other species, by way of higher intelligence and usefulness. Where was the usefulness of man against the other species in the reproductive functions which the other species are also equally capable of. His only claim to fame is that he comes from the stork instead of from the eggs. A playful jibe at mothers who tell their children the babies will arrive brought in by the stork, at their unwillingness to reveal the reproductive side of their bodies to children.The bird mom is not shy about where its chicks come from.
The only answer I can find
Is, Reproduction of his kind.
If I’m supposed to swallow that,
Winnetka is my habitat.
Isn’t it time to carve Hic Jacet
Above that Reproduction racket?

The lines sound like a limerick with a humorous play on words. “Winnetka is my habitat” ,just like any other species which has its habitat to which it belongs not out of its own choice but is born in and grows out of it. Reproduction of own kind is no big deal nor the habitat, made not by choice or design but by nature. Now is the time to call the bluff in the reproduction argument and give it a decent burial, carving “hic jacet” (here lies) for its epitaph. Mark reproduction racket the word used not just because it rhymes with jacet (as usually happens in limericks) but because of the noise they make claiming an anthropocentric universe.

The humanist argument goes that it is mankind that has a central role to play in the universal scheme of things and his reproduction is a continuous necessity in the universe that makes it a responsibility on the human species to multiply itself.That is the racket that the poet seeks to give decent burial to.

To make the matter more succinct:
Suppose my fellow man extinct.
Why, who would not approve the plan
Save possibly my fellow man?
Yet with a politician’s voice
He names himself as Nature’s choice.

Here the poet is not talking about the extinction of the human species as a whole, only of the “fellow man”, who names himself nature’s choice. The poet is of course speaking about the generic man but one in whose role at the center of the universe he himself is not a part. Of course he is making the fellow man extinct merely to make the matter more succinct. Who would not approve the plan except of course the fellow man himself , who is charged with the responsibility of running the world being Nature’s choice. That is merely hypothetical because no body will approve such a thing.

The fellow man is bad in figure and ugly in face and has none of the beauty of nature’s other species. But

Not that I think much depends
On how we treat our feathered friends,
Or hold the wrinkled elephant
A nobler creature than my aunt.
It’s simply that I’m sure I can
Get on without my fellow man.

It is not that our feathered friends or elephant are nobler creatures  than our aunt but we sure can get on with the fellow man whose contributions are only such things as the cross-town traffic, the Daily Mirror and News and Graphics, among other things. And so many other trite things like the pastoral fight and the fighting pastor, the Lady Astor arriving from America by the ship Queen Marie.

A Bas Ben Adhem is a play on the words A Bas (French for “down with”) and the poem seems a spoof on the original Abou Ben Adham of Leigh Hunt.The humor of Ogden arises out of a gentle playfulness without rancor. At the most it raises a laugh like any limerick verse and equips us with the ability to laugh at ourselves as a human species.

 

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“The snowman”- By Wallace Stevens

 

 
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
 
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
 
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
 
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
 
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
 
I call this a nature poem , a beautiful poem about the winter landscape. Do not project yourself on to the environment and call it by the name of what goes on in your mind, says the poet. When we perceive the snow-covered landscape we look at as it is and not humanize it ascribing qualities of bleakness and despair that may be prevailing in our  preoccupied minds. One must have a mind of winter to perceive its beauty.
 
On the other hand, be the winter you are perceiving, with the junipers shagged with ice and regard the frost and the boughs of the pine trees crusted with snow as though you too were, with the mind of the winter, engaged with them as part of the landscape. As if you too have been cold a long time and crusted with ice .
 
There is nothing bleak about the wind, which blows in the leaves, and has always been blowing irrespective of the state of your mind. The wind is not howling or being plaintive merely and you carry with you your own misery, that  has nothing to do with the sound of the wind.  The listener should  listen in the snow and nothing himself , and behold nothing that is not there and the nothing that is there.That is how the beauty of the place will come home to him.
 
I love the amazing visual imagery in “pine trees crusted with snow” , ‘junipers shagged with ice”, spruces rough in the distant glitter”. You now have a mind of winter and you behold the boughs of the pines which seem so rough and shaggy, being crusted with ice , they have been cold a long time, you see. A kind of time-lapse picture of snow slowly forming a crust around the bare branches and when the mind of winter beholds it , it is already crusted and can only see the branches swathed in ice.  Now when the mind of winter extends its glances across the landscape it will perceive the spruces rough in the distant glitter, when the sun shines brightly on them. For God’s sake let not the mind  perceive all this as an extension of one’s own misery because there is nothing bleak about it. Incidentally , watch out for the roughness image that continues throughout. The crust of ice is rough, the junipers  shagged, and the spruces rough in their sun-glitter. But the roughness here enhances beauty adding to its texture, the visual splendor of the landscape instead of depressing, with the loss of natural shape by the trees and the boughs.