Keats/Kipling Smackdown

Peter Hitchens is getting his knickers in a knot over the fact that the winning team on University Challenge: Manchester University seemed unfamiliar with that old stalwart of Autumn: Keats’s ‘Ode to Autumn’. Could that have something to do with technological advances which mean that people have to specialise much earlier than they used to? And wasn’t it Einstein who said that only monomaniacs ever get anything done?

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,-
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Truly magical and truly tragic if you live your entire life unfamiliar with these words. Hitchens goes on to bemoan the fact that even he, in all his intellectual brilliance, cannot measure up to the educational standards of his father’s generation. That would be my late grandfather’s generation too. Towards the end of his army career he was an NCO and his job was to train national service boys, a sizeable minority of whom could barely read or write but they could shoot straight, could run fast, hold their drink, play a mean game of poker and tell delightfully vulgar jokes. These men may have only been dimly aware of the existence of ‘Ode to Autumn’ but you can bet your bottom dollar that they knew this next little gem by heart.

TOMMY
Rudyard Kipling

I went into a public-‘ouse to get a pint of beer.
The publican ‘e ups an’ sez, “We serve no red-coats here.”
The girls be’ind the bar they laughed an’ giggled fit to die,
I outs into the street again an’ to myself sez I:

O it’s Tommy this, and Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, go away”;
But it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins,” when the band begins to play,
The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,
O it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins,” when the band begins to play.

I went into a theatre as sober as could be,
They gave a drunk civilian room, but ‘adn’t none for me.
They sent me to the gallery or ’round the music-‘alls.
But when it comes to fightin’, Lord! They’ll shove me in the stalls!

For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy wait outside”;
But it’s “Special train for Atkins” when the trooper’s on the tide,
The troopships’ on the tide, my boys, the troopship’s on the tide,
O it’s “Special train for Atkins” when the trooper’s on the tide.

Yes, making mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an’ they’re starvation cheap;
An’ hustlin’ drunken soldiers when they’re goin’ large a bit
Is five times better business than paradin’ in full kit.

Then it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy ‘ow’s your soul?”
But it’s “Thin red line of ‘eroes” when the drums begin to roll,
The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll,
O, it’s “Thin red line of ‘eroes” when the drums begin to roll.

We aren’t no thin red ‘eroes, nor we aren’t no blackguards too,
But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you;
An’ if sometimes our conduck isn’t all your fancy paints:
Why, single men in barricks don’t grow into plaster saints;

While it’s Tommy this an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy fall be’ind,”
But it’s “Please to walk in front, sir,” when there’s trouble in the wind.
There’s trouble in the wind, my boys, there’s trouble in the wind,
O it’s “Please to walk in front, sir,” when there’s trouble in the wind.

You talk o’ better food for us, an’ schools, an’ fires, an’ all:
We’ll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.
Don’t mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face
The Widow’s Uniform is not the soldier-man’s disgrace.

For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!”
But it’s “Saviour of his country,” when the guns begins to shoot;
Yes, it’s Tommy this an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please;
But Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool – you bet that Tommy sees!

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