Blog Post

There once was a man from Nantucket, or one relation between rhyming, joking, and narrating

There once was a man from Nantucket
Whose life was a sham. It was muck. It
Was froth of the sea
Where he'd tried to be free,
The spume of the fate he'd once struck at.

My students all know the first line of the famous limerick, but it turns out that only one in thirty knows the whole thing.  And you used to need a little google-fu to find it -- just a little. If you only googled the first line you got dozens of references to T-shirts and knowing smirks. But all you really had to do was add the obvious rhyme the limerick promises to the search window and you'd find yourself Bob's nephew or niece.

When it comes up in class and they ask for the whole thing, I give them my revision, above. They know what they're expecting (the promised rhyme), and it's not that.  The point of my little variation is what Harold Bloom would call metalepsis. It's my minor version of the great trick pulled on Penn and Teller by a local small-town Indian magician. (They'd looked him and his town up because his grandfather had been a huge hit on the Ed Sullivan show forty years earlier.) The magician performed a shell-game trick on them pretty well, but, well, you know, they're Penn & Teller. Since this was on TV, they did the right thing, affected to be fooled, and pointed to the empty cup.  The magician gave them a beautiful smile as Teller picked the cup up to find... the hidden ball!  They got it immediately, as he knew they would.  He'd tricked them into thinking that he was doing the standard trick pretty well.  But he'd pwned them.  Penn & Teller were sure the cup was empty, and they were wrong.  Their smiles were as radiant as his.

This is an example of what the screen-writer Tony Gilroy (Duplicity) is after in his relation to the audience.  He sees an arms race (writes D.T. Max in The New Yorker) between viewer and writer.  As the audience gets more sophisticated, so does the writer, who must play to that sophistication -- which is a good thing.  Tristan Bernard wrote, "In the theater the audience wants to be surprised but by things that they expect."  Gilroy elaborates: "How do you write a reversal that uses the audience's expectations in a new way? You have to write to their accumulated knowledge."  We expect the rhyme.  What does the limerick have to do to surprise us?  What did the magician have to do?

So with the limerick, its first line of the limerick announces its last rhyme. We all know where it's going.  The question is how to get there. My metaleptic reversal brings out the rarity of surprises in rhyme. Generally the trick isn't rhyming: it's getting to the rhyme.  Dr. Johnson and Tennyson both wrote poems which were basically expositions of given rhymes (Johnson's birthday poem to Mrs. Thrale, which he points out, not quite accurately, rhymes in the alphabetical order suitable to a dictionary maker; and Tennyson's poem "The Skipping Rope," written in response to the semi-insulting gift of a rhyming dictionary.) Pope knew well that readers could spot the upcoming rhymes and made a joke of that too.

Because the part you don't see at a glance is the busier, denser middle of the line that gets you to the rhyme word you might see or guess at once. This is where the trick is -- where there's a kind of competition between poem and reader to see who can make the rhyme work first. It's like what happens in jokes or riddles: the poser lets the hearer take a shot, and wins if the hearer gives up (the very phrase is telling).  Jokes are a challenge and in a good joke the winner is always the teller.

The hearer tries to anticipate where the joke is going and is still surprised, just as we know where the limerick is going (in most cases) and are still surprised. Here we have both a case and a schema of the disordered or non-well-ordered preference I have been going on about.  We'd like to guess, but we like not suceeding despite our best attempt.  And the reason is that we guess but guess the wrong thing: the rhyme and not the way the poem sets it up.  It's the middle of the line that matters, not the rhyme word (Pope's "sure returns of still expected rhymes"), which just confirms the brilliance (when it is brilliant) of what leads up to it, as in Pope's illustration:

If crystal streams "with pleasing murmurs creep",
The reader's threatened (not in vain) with "sleep".

We knew "sleep" was coming, but we didn't know it was coming like that (coming as the mention of the word, not only its use). In Pope and in the heroic couplet in general, zeugma, in particular syllepsis,  might be seen as the exemplary governor of rhyme. Queen Anne at Hampton does "sometimes council take, and sometimes tea"; a young woman might "stain her honour or a new brocade."  In these instances it's usually the case that the more metaphorical meaning comes first (take council, stain honour) and then we're sent back to the literal meaning which we'd skipped over too hastily in our own interpretive speed (take tea, stain a brocade).  In logic, by the way, this is called the fallacy of equivocation.

Speed: we want to guess before we get the solution.  In a passage I quoted in an earlier entry, Austen plays a little game at the end of Northanger Abbey.  Things suddenly look pretty rocky for Catherine and Henry, and there's really no time to smooth them out.  So Austen writes:

The anxiety, which in this state of their attachment must be the portion of Henry and Catherine, and of all who loved either, as to its final event, can hardly extend, I fear, to the bosom of my readers, who will see in the tell–tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity.

We can see the last page "hastening" towards us, and don't see how Austen can get us out of this last and unexpected predicament. And then she does it perfectly, by pointing to the tell-tale compression which had worried us as the solution to the problem it itself posed. Hasty as we were, she was quicker.

But why do we like losing so much? Why is a good narrative, a good joke, a good poem one where we try but fail to guess where it's going?  One answer, which I hope to explore in greater depth later, is that once we know the punchline, we are in a privileged position ourselves.  We can tell the joke, or recite the limerick or the juicy tidbit of gossip, or look complacently at our friend watching the movie for the first time not knowing that...SPOILER...he's a ghost.  The very delight we take in losing is a delight in the combined trickiness and elegance of the solution.  And now we own that solution too. We can become tellers in our turn.  Or at least knowers of the punchline, of the truth.

Our very appreciation of the solution redounds to our credit.  I give up, and then when I'm told the answer, I get it.  There's a little gift economy going on here, and in giving up I receive. The better the joke the more I recreate its goodness in understanding it.  Like an air-guitarist really showing how much she loves that riff, I show how much I love that linguistic move.  I show it to myself at least, and then if I repeat the joke or recite the limerick or tell the story in detail, I show it to others.

Two kinds of competition go on in the joke-telling, limerick-reciting, story-narrating situation: the hearer competes with the teller (Gilroy's arms race); and the hearers compete with each other (the audience's "accumulated knowledge" -- I want to pick up on this later when I write about "common knowledge"). This is what the frame narrative in Turn of the Screw is about: the anonymous narrator is all set to have a privileged relation with Douglas, to guess better than anyone else at the old house at the significance of a story Douglas hasn't even begun to present.  Who will get there first?  The limerick, me, or some other listener?

Some people have regretted this aspect of appreciation: Bourdieu follows Burke and Bentham in seeing it as a kind of social capital.  Burke, for example, writes:

it frequently happens that a very poor judge, merely by force of a greater complexional sensibility, is more affected by a very poor piece, than the best judge by the most perfect; for as everything new, extraordinary, grand, or passionate, is well calculated to affect such a person, and that the faults do not affect him, his pleasure is more pure and unmixed; and as it is merely a pleasure of the imagination, it is much higher than any which is derived from a rectitude of the judgment; the judgment is for the greater part employed in throwing stumbling-blocks in the way of the imagination, in dissipating the scenes of its enchantment, and in tying us down to the disagreeable yoke of our reason: for almost the only pleasure that men have in judging better than others, consists in a sort of conscious pride and superiority, which arises from thinking rightly; but then, this is an indirect pleasure, a pleasure which does not immediately result from the object which is under contemplation. In the morning of our days, when the senses are unworn and tender, when the whole man is awake in every part, and the gloss of novelty fresh upon all the objects that surround us, how lively at that time are our sensations, but how false and inaccurate the judgments we form of things? I despair of ever receiving the same degree of pleasure from the most excellent performances of genius, which I felt at that age from pieces which my present judgment regards as trifling and contemptible.

Or as Bentham's serene and famous apothegm has it: "Prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry."

There's a virtuous and prosocial circle in this prejudice, which is really what Kant sees in one of the antinomies of taste: we know that aesthetic judgment is subjective but we still each of us think that our own judgment is right and that others should share it. So our most private aesthetic appreciation is also public and proselytizing.  We like things that strike us as worth sharing for two reasons: they're striking and they're worth sharing.  This means we know or think we know that others will find them striking.  We get to be the next teller, or the aptest hearer, and we get credit for the similar pleasure that we can pay forward to others.

I think this is one aspect of the disordered preferences that mark both literary characters (and authors or narrators) and our relation to them.  Being able to tell others of this disorder affects what might otherwise be well ordered.  A joke is great because I couldn't guess the punchline, so I'm glad I couldn't even though I tried.  I'm glad I didn't guess who done it.  I tried and I failed and that's what I wanted most of all, and why I think you should read this book too.

This belongs to the more general phenomenon of bargaining with fiction, to which I hope to return.  Part of the bargain, I'll just say here, requires us to trust the writer to figure out what we can't.  What can we bring in return?  Well at least appreciation, at least the sense that once we give up we'll get it. If we can't quite do the trick the way the Indian magician can, we can appreciate how beautifully he fooled us, and how much credit he gave us for being near-peers who could be fooled in just that way.  Teller and Teller both come out ahead.

William Flesch's picture
William Flesch is the author, most recently, of Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction (Harvard, 2008), and The Facts on File Companion to 19th Century British Literature.  He teaches the history of poetry as well as the theory of poetic and narrative form at Brandeis, and has been International Chair Professor at the National Taipei University of Technology (2012) and Old Dominion Fellow of the Humanities Council and Visiting Professor at Princeton (2014-15).