What Cheer: An Anthology of American and British Humorous and Witty Verse

Edited by David McCord
Most anthologies are collections stuffed into a Christmas stocking for a Christmas price. But this book has been artfully contrived; and besides its laughter, it has love and learning, and a glimpse of the history of all man and woman kind from Homo Somejerktensis who had no drawers in Java to General Montgomery who had his brought out of England by a bishop. There is something here for everyone: “laughter,” says the editor in his introduction, “is a basiccommodity, an old affair in the world, an abstraction and reaction about which few will quarrel. So this book is based on nothing less — on the laughter of humor, something audible and contagious; on the laughter of wit, with something swift and sudden in the queer little reflex tightening about the eyes.” Here is an honest salesman with his own standard of excellence; and in explaining his standard and the reasons for it, he has given us an essay on the course and roots and byways of humorous verse that disguises its learning in its own wit.
In hunting down the embryo of humor, the editor has gathered into his fellowship some writers we have been likely to forget, and it is a curious thing that the older poets seem so modern to us. (I wonder how we appear to them.) Time in the eye of laughter seems to be one of man’s feebler contrivances.
For instance, if you came across these verses,
The Artist and his Luckless Wife
They lead a horrid haunted life.
Surrounded by the things he’s made
That are not wanted by the trade.
The world is very fair to see;
The Artist will not let it be;
He fiddles with the works of God,
And makes them look uncommon odd.
The Artist is an awful man,
He does not do the things he can;
He does the things he cannot do,
And we attend the private view.
would you have perhaps taken them for Ogden Nash’s, as I should? But they were written by the late Sir Walter Raleigh, Professor of English Literature at Oxford. There are five other examples of his verse here, all 24-carat.
But Mr. McCord has gone angling not only for the memories of old fish; he has looked about him also in his own place with a quick eye. It seems, for instance, that Harvard’s rootin’ tootin’ anthropollutin’ Mr. Hooton in the far end of his learned works likes to clarify a point with verse occasionally. Three specimens have been lifted, including “The Fat-Buttocked Bushman,” who
. . . squints with epicanthous eye
Across a nose prodigious;
He likes his ostrich-eggs quite high,
His women steatopygous.
The acknowledged masters are here abundantly — A. P. Herbert, and Quiller-Couch with “The Famous Ballad of the Jubilee Cup” which no one ought to miss, and four light Frosts, and a fistful of Margaret Fishback and Newman Levy and Ogden Nash. Like all good gatherings, each seems to gain from the company of the others. It is a large and full collection, and there is something in it for every man.
At the tail end. where it should be, is the salt mentioned on the title page, a section with the heading “After All” which no one should overlook. For here are notes by the authors themselves, or the tracking down of a stray laugh by the editor, and emendations and parallels that occasionally hold the kernel of a seed for the wise man to plant in his own garden — like Theodore Morrison’s
For the sword outwears its sheath
And the soul outwears the breast
And the coat outwears the pants
And there’s nothing left but the vest.
However, those are leaves in the wind. The heart of the book remains the work of many men and, above all, of the eye and hand that sorted them for us. Mr. McCord has let chronology go in putting together his categories; he has kept his eye on humankind; and the result is a sense of timelessness and a book that is curiously alive. An old man I knew up in York State would have called it by his favorite adjective — an active book.
It is a hard thing to say of any book that it should be in every school; but I think this one can survive even such a hoodoo and get into the schools too, as I hope it will. For it has a definite quality of its own that is likely to give it a permanent place in our literature.