The humorous verse of Harry Graham was an early hit with several 20th-century literary figures, including W. H. Auden, George Orwell and Agatha Christie. The hilarious rhymes they adored as children remained with them, popping up unexpectedly in their heads during their writing careers.
W. H. Auden
When asked by The Paris Review whether reading poetry had influenced his decision to write, Auden responded that as a child the only poetry he had been interested in was the ‘sick’ kind, including Harry Graham’s Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes. Here is his favourite:
Into the drinking well
The plumber built her
Aunt Maria fell;
We must buy a filter.
Orwell was struck by an anecdote in Salvador Dali’s autobiography which described how Dali had kicked his sister in the head as a child. This reminded him of something: ‘What was it?’ he asked himself. ‘Of course! Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes, by Harry Graham.’
Poor little Willy is crying so sore,
A sad little boy is he,
For he’s broken his little sister’s neck
And he’ll have no jam for tea.
A reader of murder mysteries asked Agatha Christie about the origin of four lines of poetry quoted by one of her characters. Had Christie written these herself? Christie admitted she had not, nor could she remember where she had heard them. The reader then started to investigate. She wrote to everyone she could think of to try to find out the source of the mystery rhyme but no one recognized it. Except, that is, for the crime writer Ruth Rendell. Yet she too struggled to recollect who had written the troublesome fragment.
The days passed slowly, one by one;
I fed the ducks, reproved my wife,
Played Handel’s Largo on the fife,
Or gave the dog a run.
Eventually, it was Miles Kington who saved the day. He discovered the lines in When Grandmama Fell Off The Boat and was able to solve the case of the missing rhyme.
When Grandmama Fell Off The Boat is the only comprehensive anthology of Graham’s humorous verse, compiled with the help of his daughter, Virginia. It contains not only the best of his Ruthless Rhymes but also a selection of longer poems, and it is in one of these, Creature Comforts, that Agatha Christie’s quotation can be found.
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