Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Makepeace. How Ironic.

So, where’s the fun in a novel that involves unrequited love, a pistol sabotaged with chicken blood, and a hero who sheds his passion and becomes a respectable citizen?

Well, if you’re talking about Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” the fun is in William Makepeace Thackeray’s satirical treatment of the novel in the sixteen-lined poem “Sorrows of Werther.”

Here’s the poem, in full:

Werther had a love for Charlotte
Such as words could never utter;
Would you know how first he met her?
She was cutting bread and butter.

Charlotte was a married lady,
And a moral man was Werther,
And for all the wealth of Indies
Would do nothing for to hurt her.

So he sigh’d and pin’d and ogled,
And his passion boil’d and bubbled,
Till he blew his silly brains out,
And no more was by it troubled.

Charlotte, having seen his body
Borne before her on a shutter,
Like a well-conducted person,
Went on cutting bread and butter.

Thackeray makes a wonderful mockery of the heavy Sturm und Drang vibe of Goethe’s novel, boiling down Werther’s gleeful angst into a handful of wonderful English contracted nouns that kind of poke a pin into the dreary world that is youthful agony.

That’s the gift of the poet, and probably one of the reasons Robert Newton Peck urges serious fiction writers to write a poem a day, just to get into the habit of really playing with language in a narrow, harrowing kind of way.

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