Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Thursday, November 17, 2005

the old oaken bucket

A week and a half ago I posted what may have been the most popular American poem of the 19th century, The Old Oaken Bucket. After posting I noticed that the text I'd linked to and pasted differed from the text I had in two different anthologies of 19th century popular verse I own. Changes in punctuation, all for the worse, and one or two words different, also for the worse (but one may be closer to Woodworth's original text), and one whole line change -- also for the worse.

Lines 3 and 4 of the 3rd stanza in the linked version read:
Not a full blushing goblet could tempt me to leave it,
Though fill'd with the nectar that Jupiter sips.

The anthologies give a different line 4:
Not a full blushing goblet could tempt me to leave it,
The brightest that beauty or revelry sips.

Again, I like the anthology text better: beauty and revelry are exalted things of the speaker's actual experience; Jupiter's nectar is a bookish abstraction.

The two anthologies are in agreement with each other but not with the linked text. A third book version I own, however, agrees with the linked version, and that's the book-length single-poem edition I found among the book collection of my great-grandparents. Changing texts was common in 19th century popular poetry. St. Nick's 7th and 8th reindeer in their original newspaper appearance of 1823 were named Dunder and Blixem, not Donder and Blitzen. The originals are a Nederlandish exclamation meaning, literally, "thunder and lightning!" The more familiar, latterly chosen names are German in origin. Likewise "Casey at the Bat" has many variant readings.

The legacy of the Old Oaken Bucket survives as a trophy for the winner of the annual college football game between Indiana and Purdue. The trophy dates back to 1925, and the bucket itself is more than 100 years old. The poem was more than 100 years old in 1925, when delegates from the two schools chose the bucket as the trophy. Neither the Indiana nor the Purdue web site mentions Woodworth's poem as the inspiration, though I'd be surprised if it weren't. College grads of that vintage were far more likely to have known the poem than to have come up with the phrase spontaneously. My grandpa had to memorize Abou Ben Adhem by Shelley’s friend James Leigh Hunt in order to get into a fraternity in the 1920s. It wasn't too long ago that poetry was far more widely read than it is today. As a gangster in a comic '50s movie I rented a month or so ago said, about homeland sentimentality, "You know, 'Breathes there a man with soul so dead,' and all that." I knew I'd read the poem but had to look up the reference -- Sir Walter Scott. Movie gangsters don't quote Romantic poetry any more; football fans don't know the roots of their customs.

Still, human imagination and custom have transformed the old oaken bucket itself into a thing of beauty and revelry. I imagine the bucket's author, Samuel Woodworth, who was born in 1784, would be pleased.
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