Competition no. 223: results

Suddenly Vita Sackville-West sets a competition that is very much still in the prompt-box for modern setters: it’s a cento, or patchwork poem (although she doesn’t use this terminology). I’ve done several of these in my time, and very difficult they are, too – especially if you decide to involve an exacting rhyme scheme. They are poems made up – each line being different – of lines from existing poems (it’s generally poems) by different writers. Sackville-West supplies a nicely nonsensical example (rhyming on alternate lines) that she has made up herself:


She doesn’t give the sources, but she asks for an example using living authors (a handy trap for the unwary). Still how many can you recognise? I will return to this in a bit. There are a number of also-rans who have worked hard, but they a) include lines VSW has never heard of, b) include dead authors, or c) are incoherent. Being incoherent is the main difficulty faced.

I’m in a generous mood, so here’s how to do a cento and ensure at least the semblance of coherence. Go with a theme. Look for as many lines as possible that – for instance – mention food, or sunlight, or whatever is appropriate for the competition (being given a theme makes it easier, but it also means you are competing with a whole lot of others who also find it easier). So if it’s a free choice cento, put a brake on your ambitions by setting a theme of your own. Works for me! As VSW notes with surprise, only five took advantage of a title to add the sense of coherence.

She notes with amusement the recurring favourites. Top of the list is the Traveller (‘Is there anybody there’, 9 times), but he only just beats the need to stand and stare (8), with a fat white woman walking in the fields in gloves (4), going down to the sea again (5), not to mention the isle of Innisfree (5), one competitor (‘I.M.H.R.’, anyone recognise him or her?) going to the Isle of Innisfree with a load of Tyne coal.


Author of the triolet about the fat white woman in the field with gloves – Frances Cornford (1886-1960) seen here in 1914, without gloves. Or fat. Or fields. In the 1940s, Cornford won New Statesman competitions as ‘F.C.C.’


Allan M. Laing just misses out. There are three winners: Raphanus (pseudonym means ‘radish’, not much of a clue), and (tying) E.J. and J.R.B. – with the first getting £1 11s and 6d, and the other two getting 10s 6d. Raphanus and J.R.B. are footnoted with all their sources; but E.J. isn’t – another to have a go at.


Most of these are familiar to me (although not M. Armstrong’s ‘Miss Thompson Goes Shopping’ – cited in two of the winning centos, and to be found here – it’s Martin Armstrong, of course, and a poem of his from 1921). W.J. Turner wasn’t familiar to me; I had to think before I retrieved R(alph) Hodgson. The NS & N readers are probably a more open-minded lot than WR stalwarts – hence the inclusion of Farjeon.

We are evidently supposed to know E.J.’s sources, so how have you done? Here are the answers:

W.H. Davies: Leisure

John Masefield: C.L.M.

Rudyard Kipling: Buddha at Kamakura

W.B. Yeats: The Two Trees

Rudyard Kipling: Buddha at Kamakura (again – cheating, really)

Alfred Noyes – The Barrel-Organ

John Masefield: Reynard The Fox

John Masefield: The Everlasting Mercy (too much Masefield!)

Rudyard Kipling: Recessional

A.E.Housman: Terence, this is stupid stuff (two lines)

W.B. Yeats: The Two Trees (hmmm!)

Walter de la Mare: I Met At Eve

Walter de la Mare: The Mother Bird

Rudyard Kipling: The Ballad of East and West

Robert Frost: Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening

W.H. Davies: Leisure

A.E.Housman:  Along the field as we came by (two lines)

W.B. Yeats: The Song Of Wandering Aengus

Rudyard Kipling: The Last Suttee

Rudyard Kipling: Recessional

John Masefield: The Everlasting Mercy

Sir Henry Newbolt: Vitai Lampada

Not quite so impressive when you see that E.J. has only used nine poets! (Perhaps this is why VSW has left out the clues – it does read well, but it surely should.) And E.J. would surely have been well-advised to drop the last verse …

John Masefield

As for VSW’s own work (note that she doesn’t have to stick to her own rule about living poets), the cast list is

Florence Dorothea Hemans: Casabianca (two lines)

Thomas Hood: Faithless Nelly Gray – a misquotation – should be ‘And as his legs were off, of course’

Florence Dorothea Hemans: Casabianca (three lines)

Lord Byron: The Battle of Blenheim (two lines)

As it goes on, it becomes a mash-up of Robert Southey’s The Inchcape Rock, Macaulay’s Horatius, the ballad Sir Patrick Spens, and Tennyson’s The May Queen: maybe not such a great model! The poems here are a catalogue of poems I was forced to learn as punishments at the age of 11 or so.


The Inchcape Rock






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