A poet’s hope: to be,
like some valley cheese,
local, but prized elsewhere.
-W. H. Auden (1907 – 1973)
What a perfect simile. I just love the idea that the poet aspires to be like – what else – cheese. Why then, such a paucity of verse about the subject? Gilbert K. Chesterton (1874-1936), a kindred spirit (in that he was obviously an unabashed turophile), once said:
Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.
Sonnet to a Stilton Cheese
Stilton, thou shouldst be living at this hour
And so thou art. Nor losest grace thereby;
England has need of thee, and so have I–
She is a Fen. Far as the eye can scour,
League after grassy league from Lincoln tower
To Stilton in the fields, she is a Fen.
Yet this high cheese, by choice of fenland men,
Like a tall green volcano rose in power.
Plain living and long drinking are no more,
And pure religion reading ‘Household Words’,
And sturdy manhood sitting still all day
Shrink, like this cheese that crumbles to its core;
While my digestion, like the House of Lords,
The heaviest burdens on herself doth lay.
What can I say? If only more artists really considered the cheese; it should be someone’s poetical muse! Just as Dante had his Beatrice, Petrarch his Laura, Elizabeth Barrett Browning her Robert, George Sand her Chopin, Smithers his Mr. Burns, someone needs THEIR CHEESE!
But wait.. enter James McIntyre (1827-1906), The CHEESE Poet! Born in Scotland, he eventually settled in Ingersoll, Ontario, where “he was attentive to his business and was uniformly courteous and obliging. He was an entertaining conversationalist, and it has been said that he was the best Shakespearean scholar in Ingersoll…” (From his Obituary Notice in The Ingersoll Chronicle and Canadian Dairyman.)
Others, sadly, see him in a different light. “In Search of the World’s Worst Writers” asserts:
…but it was at Ingersoll, Ontario that he discovered the great theme of his work, the one subject which could make his verse soar to the deepest depths of imbecility: cheese. McIntyre’s Cheese Cycle (or, as some experts call it, ‘The Dairyad’) includes such poems as “Lines read at a Dairymaids’ Social, 1887,” “Fertile Lands and Mammoth Cheese,” “Lines Read at a Dairymen’s Supper,” “Father Ranney, the Cheese Pioneer” and “Hints to Cheese Makers.”
But the most egregious omission: “Ode on the Mammoth Cheese.” Any truly discerning turophile would have to consider this MacIntyre’s magnum opus. Oh, how I curse and disparage such a blatant exclusion!!!
James McIntyre actually published two well-received volumes of poetry during his life. Again, from his obituary: “Mr. McIntyre received many complimentary letters from noted writers and others regarding his poems. While they were probably not of the highest literary standard, there was an unmistakable sentiment that made them deservedly popular. There was a sincerity about his poems that was characteristic of the man.” He was also included in several anthologies that were published posthumously, such as Oh! Queen of Cheese: Selections from James McIntyre, the Cheese Poet.
Alas, his greatest notoriety, and certainly most dubious honour, came from being memorialized in Very Bad Poetry. This volume also includes such questionable specimens as Matthew Green’s “The Spleen” and Georgia Bailey Parrington’s “An Elegy to a Dissected Puppy.” What pathetic company for the luminous words of our dairy bard!
More recently, he was incorporated into The World’s Worst Poetry: A Compilation of Rhyme Without Reason along with Solyman Brown’s epic poem, “The Dentologia: A Poem on the Diseases of the Teeth,” and “Lines Written for a Friend on the Death of His Brother, Caused by a Railway Train Running over Him Whilst He Was in a State of Inebriation,” by James Henry Powell. Both books include the aforementioned masterpiece, “Ode on the Mammoth Cheese.”
Here it is in its glorious entirety (enlightening annotations are available elsewhere). Judge for yourself, my friends – judge for yourself.
Ode on the Mammoth Cheese
(weight over seven thousand pounds)
We have seen the Queen of cheese,
Laying quietly at your ease,
Gently fanned by evening breeze —
Thy fair form no flies dare seize.
All gaily dressed soon you’ll go
To the great Provincial Show,
To be admired by many a beau
In the city of Toronto.
Cows numerous as a swarm of bees —
Or as the leaves upon the trees —
It did require to make thee please,
And stand unrivalled Queen of Cheese.
May you not receive a scar as
We have heard that Mr. Harris
Intends to send you off as far as
The great World’s show at Paris.
Of the youth — beware of these —
For some of them might rudely squeeze
And bite your cheek; then songs or glees
We could not sing o’ Queen of Cheese.
We’rt thou suspended from baloon,
You’d caste a shade, even at noon;
Folks would think it was the moon
About to fall and crush them soon.