Last time, I talked a bit about Walt Whitman’s way of overcoming the repeated disappointments of life. But for some people, the only answer is humor.
That was Dorothy Parker’s approach. Dorothy Parker, you will recall, was a wit popular in the first half of the 20th century, one of the noted members of the Algonquin Round Table literary circle.
Parker offers no solution to life’s disappointments, but she makes it very clear in this clever poem that disappointments are to be expected.
To understand this verse, you need know only three things:
1. A medley is a mix of things, for example, a selected collection of different songs played one after another.
2. Extemporanea is a word you are likely to find nowhere but in this poem. It means things that one comes up with on the spur of the moment, spontaneously, without preparation. It is formed from the more common term extemporaneous.
3. Most important of all, you need to know that in the first half of the 20th century, particularly in the first forty years, there was likely no royal figure in all the world who had the celebrity status of Queen Marie of Roumania (now spelled “Romania”). Unlike the royalty of more wealthy countries, Marie knew how to present an image of a Queen to the public that rivaled that of fairy tales (in fact Marie herself wrote fairy tales). She was not only a writer but also an artist and craftsperson who made sure that her surroundings were as photogenic and “romantic” as possible. You get a good idea of her style from the photo on this page. But aside from all that, she was a remarkable person who insisted on personally and frequently visiting wounded Romanian soldiers in hospitals at the time of the First World War, in spite of the dangers of typhoid fever. If you have never read the account of her life, you should. The Romanian people loved her very much.
Marie also, to great acclaim and notoriety, visited the United States in 1926, and even wrote an unconventional column for American newspapers, giving advice on life — “Queen’s Counsel.”
So to understand this poem, just remember that Queen Marie of Roumania was a very well-known and celebrated international figure at the time it was written:
Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Roumania.
(Not So Deep as a Well, 1937)
The point of the poem, of course, is that life, in reality, is neither a glorious cycle of song nor a medley of extemporanea; that love frequently goes wrong; that the statements in the first three lines are just as true as the statement in the last that the writer of the poem is Queen Marie of Roumania; in short, not true at all.
The thing that always strikes me about this witty and light little verse is that I would be extremely unlikely to have come up with a rhyme such as “extemporanea” for “Roumania.” Of course Parker had to virtually coin the word to do it, but it makes sense and it is effective as used.
If you have a few moments for a glimpse into the aesthetic world of Queen Marie, watch this revealing video: