Monday, October 17, 2005

An aside from the eighteenth century

about comic writing and similes. I'm just typing up my notes on Fielding's The Life of Mr. Jonathan Wild, the Great, and I can't stop thinking about Neil Gaiman and the long long long history of the simile in English comic writing. Gaiman shares with Terry Pratchett and a number of others (in the twentieth century you can see it going back to P. G. Wodehouse, A. A. Milne and Alan Coren, as
Gaiman pointed out in an interview with Andrew Lawless at Three Monkeys Online, and perhaps to Oscar Wilde as well) a talent for tweaking similes so that they deconstruct themselves in a peculiarly witty and enjoyable way; the gift's especially in evidence in Anansi Boys, a novel so delightful that I wish everyone would read it. (Here's my previous post on similes and Anansi Boys. Do not be put off by the strange and really rather perplexing negative-ish review in the NYTBR, which began with these words: "There is something about running into the words 'banyan tree' near the beginning of a novel that makes you dread all the pages to come, in the same way that you would dread the meal to come if your host for the evening announced that he or she had been taking lessons in Moroccan cuisine - that is, of course, unless that person happened to be Moroccan." If anyone can sensibly parse this for me, please leave word in the comments!)

Don't get me wrong, when it comes to Fielding and similes Tom Jones is really much funnier than Jonathan Wild, which has other charms. But Jonathan Wild has its simile-related moments nonetheless. This one comes just after the narrator (imprisoned in Newgate) catches his best friend in the arms of his lovely wife:

As the generous Bull, who having long depastured among a Number of Cows, and thence contracted an Opinion, that these Cows are all his own Property, if he beholds another Bull bestride a Cow within his Walks, he roars aloud, and threatens instant Vengeance with his Horns, till the whole Parish are alarmed with his bellowing. Not with less Noise, nor less dreadful Menaces did the Fury of Wild burst forth, and terrify the whole Gate. Long time did Rage render his Voice inarticulate to the Hearer; as when, at a visiting Day, fifteen or sixteen, or perhaps twice as many Females of delicate but shrill Pipes, ejaculate all at once on different Subjects, all is Sound only, the Harmony entirely melodious indeed, but conveys no Idea to our Ears; but at length, when Reason began to get the Better of his Passion, which latter being deserted by his Breath, began a little to retreat, the following Accents leapt over the Hedge of his Teeth, or rather the Ditch of his Gums, whence those Hedge-stakes had by a Pattin been displaced in Battle with an Amazon of Drury. (IV.xi)

Fielding turns what might be a by-now-standard mock-heroic simile, with its clear gesture towards Homer, into something much funnier and sillier: Wild and the bull have too much in common for it to be a really decorous choice of image, and the second simile of the 15-32 schoolgirls chattering at the tops of their lungs ("ejaculate" doesn't have a strong sexual sense in eighteenth-century writing, but it's hyperbolic diction for the subject) is juxtaposed to the ludicrously elevated language of "Accents [leaping] over the Hedge of his Teeth" (only he doesn't have any teeth, and the over-literal correction of "Ditch of his Gums" again heightens the comedy). The Amazon of Drury is a whore, the diction again comically elevated.

All right, back to the salt mines....

1 comment:

  1. Does the mid-eighteenth century have the modern term "bulls***"? Does Fielding have it in mind? and if there's an 18th-c tradition of this sort of comic simile, does it start after Pope's Iliad?

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