Art is not an English thing

I have just looked online – unsuccessfully – for this AP Herbert poem to share with a friend. In the absence of an available version, the only sensible thing seemed to type it up myself from Kingsley Amis’s New Oxford Book of English Verse. I’m not entirely sure how the author of Uncommon Law might have reacted to my doing so, but I think it’s fair enough to offer a copy here as the poem seems unavailable elsewhere and it definitely deserves your attention. I’m happy to remove it or offer a negotiable cow to any affronted copyright holder.

AP Herbert (1890 – 1971)

Lines for a Worthy Person who has drifted by accident into a Chelsea revel

It is a very curious fact
That those who write or paint or act,
Compose or etch,
Or sculp* or sketch,
Or practise things like pottery,
Have not got consciences like us,
Are frankly not monogamous;
Their moral tone is all their own,
Their love-affairs a lottery.
It’s hard to say why writing verse
Should terminate in drink or worse,
Why flutes and harps
And flats and sharps
Should lead to indiscretions;
But if you read the Poets’ Lives
You’ll find the number of their wives
In fact exceeds
The normal needs
Of almost all professions.

As my poor father used to say
In 1863,
Once people start on all this Art,
Goodbye, moralitee!
And what my father used to say
Is good enough for me.

Oh, may no little child of mine
Compose or model, draw, design,
And sit at ease
On people’s knees,
With other odious habits!
See what eccentric things they wear,
Observe their odd un-English hair-
The women bald,
The men (so called)
As thickly furred as rabbits!
Not these the kind of people who
Were prominent at Waterloo,
Not this the stock
Which stood the shock
When Kaiser picked his quarrel.
Let Dagoes paint and write and sing,
But Art is not an English thing;
Better be pure
And die obscure
Than famous but immoral!

As my poor father used to say
In 1863,
Once people start on all this Art,
Farewell, monogamee!
And what my father used to say,
And what my father used to say,
Is good enough for me.

And shall we let this canker stick
Inside the body politic?
Oh, let us take
Some steps to make
Our messy nation cleaner!
The whole is greater than the part,
We should at once prohibit Art,
Let Music be a felony
And Verse a misdemeanour;
Let long-haired gentlemen who draw
Be segregated by the law,
And every bard
Do six months’ hard
Who lyrically twaddles,
But licences be issued to
A few selected clerics, who
Shall fashion odes
In serious modes
On statutory models.

As my poor father used to say
In 1863,
Once people start on all this Art,
Farewell, moralitee!
And what my father used to say,
And what my father used to say,
And what my father used to say,
Is good enough for me.

[*Yes, it says “sculp” rather than “sculpt” in the NOBoELV.]

One thought on “Art is not an English thing

  1. thanks so much for posting! my english friend, 80 yrs old, quoted this poem. we searched for it, but couldn’t find it. and now, after more searching it’s posted here! bless you!
    signed, aa

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