This is the third in a series of examinations of urban legends related to poetry and poets and whether they are true or false. Today we learn if Thomas Bowdler actually “bowdlerised” a reference to a bull in Longfellow’s “Wreck of the Hesperus” to “gentleman cow,” we marvel at the brashness of Robert Lowell and discover exactly what really happened to Dorothy Parker’s ashes!
Today is a “Grab Bag” day here at Entertainment Urban Legends Revealed, where each time we feature a different area of the world of arts and entertainment (outside of TV, Film, Music and Comics). Each time you will see grab bag legends from one of these following 23 “Grab Bag” categories
POETRY URBAN LEGEND: Dorothy Parker’s ashes sat in a filing cabinet for nearly two decades.
Dorothy Parker was one of the leading humorists and wits of the 20th Century.
After selling her first poem to Vanity Fair in 1914, Parker eventually went to work for that magazine as well as Vogue as she became famous for her presence as a founding member of the gathering of New York wits known as the Algonquin Round Table.
In 1925, Harold Ross founded the New Yorker and Parker was one of his star writers. She wrote more than 300 poems for the magazine, specially in viciously dark poems, with suicide being a common topic. In 1926, Parker released the first volume of her poems titled ENOUGH ROPE : POEMS. It sold well.
Eventually, Parker moved to Hollywood where she became a successful and acclaimed screenwriter. Her left-wing politics though resulted in her eventually becoming blacklisted.
She returned to New York City where she worked for various magazines, perhaps most famously doing book reviews for Esquire. She had two separate “stints” being married to fellow writer Alan Campbell that ended with Campbell’s suicide in 1963 (from a drug overdose). However, her later years were mostly noted by her problems with alcoholism and after Campbell’s death, Parker did not have very many close friends.
This, therefore, led to the sad, strange fate of Parker’s ashes. She died in 1967 of a heart attack at the age of 76. She left her entire estate to Martin Luther King (King amusingly did not know who Parker was when he was informed he inherited her estate). When King, himself, was killed a year later, her estate passed to the NAACP (as per her will). The NAACP still holds the copyrights on Parker’s works.
Interestingly enough, though, Parker never specified what to do with her remains after her death. Thus, Parker’s lawyer, Paul O’Dwyer, kept Parker’s ashes in his office for nearly TWO DECADES! At first, it wasn’t a matter of people forgetting, per se, so much as no one could agree exactly on what to do with them, so they just stayed there while people figured it out. Eventually, though, the last FIFTEEN YEARS of her ashes’ time in O’Dwyer’s office were spent in a filing cabinet.
Eventually, the NAACP heard about the situation and built a memorial garden in 1988 at their national headquarters in Baltimore for Parker. A plaque read:
Here lie the ashes of Dorothy Parker (1893–1967) humorist, writer, critic. Defender of human and civil rights. For her epitaph she suggested, ‘Excuse my dust’. This memorial garden is dedicated to her noble spirit which celebrated the oneness of humankind and to the bonds of everlasting friendship between black and Jewish people. Dedicated by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. October 28, 1988.
It remains there to this day.
POETRY URBAN LEGEND: Thomas Bowdler “bowdlerized” Longfellow’s “Wreck of the Hesperus” by editing “bull” to “gentleman cow.”
Thomas Bowdler was a physican at the turn of the 19th Century who is much more famous for the work he did with his sister, Harriet, in editing the works of Shakespeare into a form that would make it appropriate for women and children to read. Bowdler recalled when he was a child and his father would entertain the family with the plays of Shakespeare, his father would surreptiously omit parts of the plays that he felt were inappropriate for the ears of his wife and children. Bowdler felt that many people would appreciate an actual text version on these omissions, so that they did not have to do the omitting on their own.
So Thomas and Harriet set out to edit Shakespeare (with Harriet taking the lead). Eventually roughly 10% of Shakespeare’s words had been expunged, with some of them replaced by other words and some words (and characters) omitted entirely. One of the most famous changes in the collection (titled The Family Shakespeare) was the edit made to Macbeth, where Lady Macbeth’s famous cry “Out, damned spot!” was altered to “Out, crimson spot!”
As you might imagine, even over 200 years ago their actiosn drew derision from the literary community, and soon the term “bowdlerize” was coined to describe inelegant edits designed to cut out “offensive” material.
As the story goes, one of the most egregious edits Bowdler ever made was when he edited a reference to a bull in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s classic poem, “The Wreck of the Hesperus”
She struck where the white and fleecy waves
Looked soft as carded wool;
But the cruel rocks, they gored her side
Like the horns of an angry bull.
from “bull” to “gentleman cow.”
And so “gentleman cow” has become a famous term for when someone is trying too hard to be inoffensive about a reference.
So, did this happen?
You see, Longfellow’s poem came out a fully 17 years after Bowdler died! In fact, the actual wreck of the Hesperus (which inspired Longfellow) did not occur until 1839, 14 years after Bowdler’s passing!
Could someone else have bowdlerized Longfellow and come up with the “gentleman cow” term? Certainly possible, but it is impossible that the person who did it was Thomas Bowdler.
POETRY URBAN LEGEND: Robert Lowell famously responded literally to a joking suggestion by famed poetry professor Allen Tate that Lowell could live in a tent on Tate’s yard.
Robert Lowell, the father of “confessional poetry” was one of the most celebrated poets in the history of American poetry. The Boston-born poet was the sixth U.S. poet laureate and a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize.
Lowell originally studied at Harvard University, but he changed his mind when he met famed English author Ford Madox Ford at a party in Boston after Lowell’s second year in school. The Good Soldier novelist remarked that he was headed to go stay with famed poet Allen Tate (the SECOND U.S. poet laureate) in Ohio, where Tate and John Crowe Ransom were teaching at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.
Lowell actually ended up in Ohio before Ford. This led to an amazing exchange between he and the Tate’s that Lowell later recounted to the Paris Review in 1961…
It’s a terrible piece of youthful callousness. They had one Negro woman who came in and helped, but Mrs. Tate was doing all the housekeeping. She had three guests and her own family, and was doing the cooking and writing a novel. And this young man arrived, quite ardent and eccentric. I think I suggested that maybe I’d stay with them. And they said, “We really haven’t any room, you’d have to pitch a tent on the lawn.” So I went to Sears, Roebuck and got a tent and rigged it on their lawn. The Tates were too polite to tell me that what they’d said had been just a figure of speech. I stayed two months in my tent and ate with the Tates.
Eventually Lowell moved to dormitory housing and was soon on his way to a storied career in poetry.
Pretty amazing, huh?
Okay, that’s it for this week!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is email@example.com
Tags: "The Wreck of the Hesperus", Alan Campbell, Algonquin Round Table, Allen Tate, Dorothy Parker, Esquire, Ford Madox Ford, Harold Ross, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Crowe Ransom, Martin Luther King, NAACP, Robert Lowell, The Family Shakespeare, Thomas Bowdler, U.S. Poet Laureate, Vanity Fair, Vogue, William Shakespeare