Hot Doggerel: The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God

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Like most (unintentionally) "bad art" (define those words how you will) – bad verse pulls its audience in at least two directions. With one tug it produces giddy thrills – leading readers down a colourful, rubbish-strewn path to hilarity. With another yank it breaks your bloody heart – as the poet's wobbly (and painfully sincere) edifice of fragile beauty collapses under the strain of bathos, sentimentality, naïveté and sheer (tragic) incompetence.

As the dust clears, there (in his/her creation's ruins) the poet lies. Naked and sobbing (and covered in piss…for some reason). An artless soul torn open & laid bare for a jeering world to see.

Yet, for all that, "bad verse" offers pleasures beyond the mere mocking guffaw. It can be vital and rousing. Refreshing and (over-used term this) life-affirming. Deliciously weird and delightfully demented. It can (like a gormless but flukeily effective lover) touch parts that "good" and worthy poetry often struggles to reach.

And so, when time permits – and the mood and muse take me (passionately) – "Hot Doggerel" will have a poke through the detritus of bad verse, schmaltzy pop-poesy, melodramatic and sensational balladry etc., etc. I don't know what we'll find exactly, but, y'know, it's…um…all about the journey. Or something.

First up – a classic from the Boys Own/Ripping & Romantic Yarn/East as exotic "Other" school. J Milton Hayes' (hugely popular and much parodied) The Green Eye Of The Little Yellow God (of which, we've spoken before).

There's a one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Khatmandu,
There's a little marble cross below the town;
There's a broken-hearted woman tends the grave of Mad Carew,
And the Yellow God forever gazes down.

He was known as "Mad Carew" by the subs at Khatmandu,
He was hotter than they felt inclined to tell;
But for all his foolish pranks, he was worshipped in the ranks,
And the Colonel's daughter smiled on him as well.

He had loved her all along, with a passion of the strong,
The fact that she loved him was plain to all.
She was nearly twenty-one and arrangements had begun
To celebrate her birthday with a ball.

He wrote to ask what present she would like from Mad Carew;
They met next day as he dismissed a squad;
And jestingly she told him then that nothing else would do
But the green eye of the little Yellow God.

On the night before the dance, Mad Carew seemed in a trance,
And they chaffed him as they puffed at their cigars:
But for once he failed to smile, and he sat alone awhile,
Then went out into the night beneath the stars.

He returned before the dawn, with his shirt and tunic torn,
And a gash across his temple dripping red;
He was patched up right away, and he slept through all the day,
And the Colonel's daughter watched beside his bed.

He woke at last and asked if they could send his tunic through;
She brought it, and he thanked her with a nod;
He bade her search the pocket saying "That's from Mad Carew,"
And she found the little green eye of the god.

She upbraided poor Carew in the way that women do,
Though both her eyes were strangely hot and wet;
But she wouldn't take the stone and Mad Carew was left alone
With the jewel that he'd chanced his life to get.

When the ball was at its height, on that still and tropic night,
She thought of him and hurried to his room;
As she crossed the barrack square she could hear the dreamy air
Of a waltz tune softly stealing thro' the gloom.

His door was open wide, with silver moonlight shining through;
The place was wet and slipp'ry where she trod;
An ugly knife lay buried in the heart of Mad Carew,
'Twas the "Vengeance of the Little Yellow God."

There's a one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Khatmandu,
There's a little marble cross below the town;
There's a broken-hearted woman tends the grave of Mad Carew,
And the Yellow God forever gazes down.

Right. So on the face of it, this appears little more than a vivid and effective bit of catchy, derring-do melodrama. Carew (the passionate and impulsive anti-hero) shows his wild and raging love for the Colonel's daughter by risking all to bring her a rare (mystical) treasure. The resulting doom (and its attendant casual racism: bloody revenge by murderous and uncilivised natives) only adds spice to the lusty romance. Fan me down, Aunt Margaret. My cheeks grow flushed. The end.

All perfectly jolly and disposable, as (the admirably unpretentious) J Milton Hayes himself seems to admit:

I wrote The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God in five hours, but I had it all planned out. It isn't poetry and it does not pretend to be, but it does what it sets out to do. It appeals to the imagination from the start: those colours, green and yellow, create an atmosphere. Then India, everyone has his own idea of India. Don't tell the public too much. Strike chords. It is no use describing a house; the reader will fix the scene in some spot he knows himself. All you've got to say is 'India' and a man sees something. Then play on his susceptibilities.

But, in almost the same breath, JMH hints at more….

His name was Mad Carew. You've got the whole man there. The public will fill in the picture for you. And then the mystery. Leave enough unsaid to make paterfamilias pat himself on the back. 'I've spotted it, he can't fool me. I'm up to that dodge. I know where he went.' No need to explain. Then that final ending where you began. It carries people back. You've got a compact whole. 'A broken-hearted woman tends the grave of Mad Carew' They'll weave a whole story round that woman's life. Every man's a novelist at heart. We all tell ourselves stories. That's what you've got to play on.

Key sentence? "They'll weave a whole story round that woman's life". Indeed they (or I) will. For really, when you sit in the corner for hours and hours and scratch your face and head and think about it all, the poem is (despite superficial appearances) really all about the Colonel's daughter (oh…and a colonial stereotype of India, I suppose). Carew is simply a pot-boiled agent of thick-headed adventure (motivated by a bad case of the horn). Off he goes, like an eejit tornado. Wrecking himself. Sorely pissing off others.

The Colonel's daughter is left to pick up the pieces, live with the guilt, and lovingly tend yer man's grave. While he's in a British Raj Valhalla doing, one supposes, similarly insane shit – for all eternity.

This quote says it all and says it well:

And jestingly she told him then that nothing else would do
But the green eye of the little Yellow God.

Jestingly, she told him. Jestingly. She was joking you stupid idol-raping fool! Playing (with a nod & a wink: both ignored) the part of a spoiled and pouty debutante. Flirting with him. Taking the piss out of grand gestures. Mad Thick Carew – square-jawed literalist that he was – took the whole thing at face value. With predictably disastrous results.

Less, then, an unapologetically jingoistic and swoon-inducing romance. More a subtle and pointed satire/critique of traditional (block-headed) male "heroism".

J Milton Hayes? Lost feminist icon? Maybe. Just maybe.

January 6, 2010

14 responses to Hot Doggerel: The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God

  1. Urchinette said:

    I seriously think you might be right about L Milton Hayes’s secret feminism (or at least secret disdain for that mentalist Carew).

    This is slightly OT, but speaking of revisiting mad colonialist shit, have you read Kim? I read it last year and was genuinely surprised by it. It’s imperialist, yes, but it’s much more respectful of different cultures and religions that I expected it to be. You can see Kipling really loves India, in his own way. And one of the things that surprised me most was the fact that the army’s Irish Catholic priest is shown as being much more open-minded about India and Indian culture than the Anglican chaplain, which is certainly not what I’d expect from a British writer of the period, let alone one known as an icon of imperialism. It’s a fascinating book.

  2. fústar said:

    Haven’t read Kim – but the bits & pieces of Kipling I have read always struck me as very off-key and ambivalent (in a good way). There’s a weird atmosphere there. Quite crazed & dream-like – or nightmarish – like the kind of vibe you get from Peckinpah films.

    The above poem was a party piece of my grandmother’s (and she performed it often). As the years went by and recall grew a bit tricky, she’d often add her own words & phrases into the half-remembered mix. So I was probably primed to think of it (and its meanings) as pretty shifting, fluid and dynamic!

    But it’s hard – whatever way you look at it – to see Carew as anything other than a pumped-up buffoon (God knows what he was reading).

    Always with the drama! Nothing wrong with a nice walk and a picnic y’know.

  3. fústar said:

    Very enjoyable Slate piece on “Bad Poetry” here:

    http://www.slate.com/id/2089576/

    Quotes Billy Collins, as claiming that “all Good bad poetry is formal poetry.” Think I’d (broadly) agree. Bad poetry with classical/formal literary aspirations certainly the funnest. Hubris and earnest intent always hilarious!

  4. Are you familiar with William Topaz McGonagall, the worst poet who ever lived?

  5. Charles Ross Baron of Biggar said:

    The funniest performance of this I have ever witnessed was by two undergraduates at the University of Kent in the 1960′s; one recited the tale while the other stood (hidden) behind the reciter, whose hands were behind his back. The chap standing behind did the hand movements that accompanied the recital! Almost every word had an accompanying gesture (the tending of the grave was superb etc.,etc!)
    On a more serious note, this tale’s central theme is really about the eternal man misunderstanding women. The virgin daughter of yon colonel has already signalled to Mad Carew that she wants to be taken behind the bicycle sheds and given a stiff talking to, so to speak. The silly twit (instead of employing principle No.1 of the ‘alpha male’ which is “treat ‘em mean and make ‘em keen”) allows himself to fall into the trap of acceding to *her* request (ho, ho, jest, jest, let me wind him up a bit, but what I really want him to do is tell me – in the words of the Princess Royal – to “naff off” !). I know, I know, he’s in love and that *does* distort one’s brain. Carew has made the fatal(and it was, literally!) mistake of allowing the boot to be on her foot instead of on his own. What good does it do him that she feels a bit guilty and tends his grave? She’s young… but very few women (there are a few dominas of course!) want a man who wimpishly does as they say. Carew was brave but totally on the wrong track. I do have relatives called Carew – I hope he wasn’t one of them !!!

  6. Steve said:

    You chaps really should get out more

  7. fústar said:

    I get out plenty, Steve. But thanks for the concern…

  8. Charles Ross of Biggar said:

    …and when I go out..it ain’t in the direction of little yellow gods ;^))

  9. Pingback: AVlap #1 – Monologuists - Overlap

  10. Streetcowboy said:

    Carew only took the emerald in humour and to live up to his reputation, not out of swooning devotion; she was the devoted one; it’s a warning against saying in jest that which you don’t mean. Had she asked for something clearly within his power, he would have declined. He’d not have missed the Sevens for her…

  11. This isn’t bad poetry, it’s really good. Ivocative, intresting and exciting.It’s a damn sight better that the non-ryming rubbish held up as ‘proper poetry’. Much like modern art, it’s trash.
    Long live the Little Yellow God.

  12. Somebody in Kathmandu said:

    Except, um, how did Mad Carew and all the others happen to be here? Nepal was never part of the British Raj, and Westerners weren’t actually allowed in until the 1950s. So when the poor writer said, “Then India, everyone has his own idea of India,” I guess that’s true, and his included a whole country that wasn’t even part of it!

  13. AW said:

    And there I was thinking that it was a dreadful warning against ignorantly messing with other people’s cultures. Ah well.
    Actually it’s much more effective with the music (I’ve performed it both with and without).

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