Burnt Toast – Brief Poems by Harry Graham

 

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Harry Graham [1874-1936] is best known for his wickedly humorous collections of light verse,  ‘Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes’ and ‘More Ruthless Rhymes’. Jocelyn Henry Clive Graham (to give him his full name) was born in England in 1874 to reasonably well-to-do parents. He was educated at Eton before going to the military academy at Sandhurst. He became an officer in the Coldstream Guards and rose to the rank of Captain. As an aide-de-camp to the Governor General of Canada, Lord Minto, between 1898 and 1901, he visited the Yukon in 1900. The journal he wrote of that trip was one of his first literary ventures. On his return to England he became a journalist and by 1910 he had become a full-time writer. He was engaged to the American actress Ethel Barrymore, great aunt of Drew Barrymore, but she added him to her list of spurned suitors, among them Winston Churchill. He continued to write popular fiction, poetry and music lyrics such as those in White Horse Inn.

 

Graham is now renowned for his series of cheerfully cruel Ruthless Rhymes, first published in 1898 under the pseudonym Col. D. Streamer. These were described by The Times, in an editorial that compared him to Edward LearLewis Carroll and W. S. Gilbert, as “that enchanted world where there are no values nor standards of conduct or feeling, and where the plainest sense is the plainest nonsense”. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography also compares his verse with that of W. S. Gilbert and suggests that his prose was an early influence on P. G. Wodehouse.

 

The Ruthless Rhymes are mainly short satirical poems, short enough to include in a tweet if you exclude the often unnecessary titles. One is about a boy named Billy. Billy became Willie and a new form was born known as a Little Willie, usually featuring Little Willie and the terrible things he did or the terrible ends that he came to. Little Willies are:

 

  • satirical
  • accentual, with 4 stresses per line.
  • a tetrastich. A complete poem in 4 lines.
  • composed with a surprise last line and a touch of sadistic humor.
  • rhymed. Rhyme scheme aabb or abab.
  • light verse.
  • often composed using Little Willie and his family as the brunt of the joke.

 

In a BBC Radio 4 programme, broadcast in April, 1987 and entitled “The Ruthless Rhymer”, Jeremy Nicholas said of Harry Graham, “He is in the great tradition of Lear and Carroll and Gilbert and Belloc. At his best he easily ranks with any of these.” And a writer on the acclaimed TV series, “The Vicar of Dibley”, Paul Mayhew-Archer, has joined this chorus of praise, “I love the wicked humour of Harry Graham’s writing.”  I hope you do.

 

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Brief poems by Harry Graham

Little Willie

 

Little Willie, full of glee,
Put radium in grandma’s tea.
Now he thinks it quite a lark
To see her shining in the dark.

 

***

 

Aunt Eliza

 

In the drinking-well
(Which the plumber built her)
Aunt Eliza fell, —
We must buy a filter.

 

***

 

Impetuous Samuel

 

Sam had spirits naught could check,
And to-day, at breakfast, he
Broke his baby sister’s neck,
So he shan’t have jam for tea!

 

***

 

The Fond Father

 

Of Baby, I was very fond,
She’d won her father’s heart;
So, when she fell into the pond,
It gave me quite a start.

 

***

 

Necessity

 

Late last night I slew my wife,
Stretched her on the parquet flooring;
I was loath to take her life,
But I had to stop her snoring.

 

***

 

Misfortunes Never Come Singly

 

Making toast at fireside,
Nurse fell in the grate and died;
And, what makes it ten times worse,
All the toast was burned with nurse.

 

***

 

Scorching John

 

John, who rode his Dunlop tire
O’er the head of sweet Maria,
When she writhed in frightful pain,
Had to blow it out again.

 

***

 

Aunt Jane

 

Aunt Jane observed, the second time
She tumbled off a bus,
‘The step is short from the Sublime
To the Ridiculous.

 

***

 

Tender Heartedness

 

Billy, in one of his nice new sashes,
Fell in the fire and was burnt to ashes;
Now, although the room grows chilly,
I haven’t the heart to poke poor Billy.

 

***

 

Uncle Joe

 

An Angel bore dear Uncle Joe
To rest beyond the stars.
I miss him, oh! I miss him so, —
He had such good cigars.

 

***

 

Jim

 

When the line he tried to cross,
The express ran into Jim;
Bitterly I mourn his loss–
I was to have lunched with him.

 

***

 

Appreciation

 

Auntie, did you feel no pain
Falling from that apple tree?
Will you do it, please, again?
‘Cos my friend here didn’t see.

 

***

 

Baby

 

Baby in the cauldron fell, —
See the grief on Mother’s brow;
Mother loved her darling well, —
Darling’s quite hard-boiled by now.

 

***

 

The Stern Parent

 

Father heard his Children scream,
So he threw them in the stream,
Saying, as he drowned the third,
“Children should be seen, not heard!”

***

Indifference

When Grandmamma fell off the boat,
And couldn’t swim, and wouldn’t float,
Maria just sat by and smiled –
I almost could have slapped the child!

***

Compensation

Weep not for little Leonie,
Abducted by a French Marquis!
Though loss of honour was a wrench,
Just think how it’s improved her French.

***

Calculating Clara

O’er the rugged mountain’s brow
Clara threw the twins she nursed,
And remarked, “I wonder now
Which will reach the bottom first?”

***

 

Tragedy

 

That morning, when my wife eloped
With James, our chauffeur, how I moped!
What tragedies in life there are!
I’m dashed if I can start the car.

 

***

 

Accident

 

“There’s been an accident!” they said,
“Your servant’s cut in half; he’s dead.”
“Indeed!” said Mr Jones, “and please
Give me the half that’s got my keys.”

 

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LINKS
Wikipedia entry on Harry Graham.

 

 

A large selection of poems by Harry Graham.

 

A history of Little Willies.

 

George Szirtes has created his own Utterly Ruthless rhymes in the style of Harry Graham.

 

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