Thursday, September 19, 2013

First Lines Second Thoughts — The Sot-Weed Factor

Rodin's Thinker at Columbia University.

First Lines Second Thoughts is a look at the first lines of well known literary works.
On second thought, do these opening words stand alone as poetry? With a new school year well underway we look at John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor. Published in 1960.

In the last years of the Seventeenth Century
there was to be found
among the fops and fools
of the London coffee-houses
one rangy, gangling flitch
called Ebenezer Cooke,
more ambitious than talented,
and yet more talented than prudent,
who, like his friends-in-folly,
all of whom were supposed to be
educating at Oxford or Cambridge,
had found the sound of Mother English
more fun to game with
than her sense to labor over,
and so rather than applying himself
to the pains of scholarship,
had learned the knack of versifying,
and ground out quires of couplets
after the fashion of the day,
afroth with Joves and Jupiters,
aclang with jarring rhymes,
and string-taut with similes
stretched to the snapping-point.   

— John Barth   

Originally intended as the last of a trilogy, The Sot-Weed Factor developed into something else entirely as John Barth (1930-) himself developed as a writer. First gaining acclaim as a National Book Award finalist for his first novel, The Floating Opera, Barth's style of writing was always hard to pin down to a specific genre, though post-modernism comes to mind. The Sot-Weed Factor (The Tobacco Seller) is a fictional tale based on an actual poem and poet — Ebenezer Cooke.