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The Elements -- Tom Lehrer

(Poem #490) The Elements
There's antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium,
And hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and rhenium,
And nickel, neodymium, neptunium, germanium,
And iron, americium, ruthenium, uranium,
Europium, zirconium, lutetium, vanadium,
And lanthanum and osmium and astatine and radium,
And gold, protactinium and indium and gallium,
And iodine and thorium and thulium and thallium.

There's yttrium, ytterbium, actinium, rubidium,
And boron, gadolinium, niobium, iridium,
And strontium and silicon and silver and samarium,
And bismuth, bromine, lithium, beryllium, and barium.

There's holmium and helium and hafnium and erbium,
And phosphorus and francium and fluorine and terbium,
And manganese and mercury, molybdenum, magnesium,
Dysprosium and scandium and cerium and cesium.
And lead, praseodymium, and platinum, plutonium,
Palladium, promethium, potassium, polonium,
And tantalum, technetium, titanium, tellurium,
And cadmium and calcium and chromium and curium.

There's sulfur, californium, and fermium, berkelium,
And also mendelevium, einsteinium, nobelium,
And argon, krypton, neon, radon, xenon, zinc, and rhodium,
And chlorine, carbon, cobalt, copper, tungsten, tin, and sodium.

These are the only ones of which the news has come to Ha'vard,
And there may be many others, but they haven't been discavard.
-- Tom Lehrer
An astonishing feat of ingenuity - a perfectly rhymed, perfectly metrical parody
of 'The Major-General's Song' from Gilbert & Sullivan's 'Pirates of Penzance'
[1]. It's rather mild by Lehrer's standards (no serial killers, dope peddlers or
mathematicians - indeed, no political incorrectness of any sort), but it's no
less briliant for that, and who am I to complain?


[1] For Gilbert's immortal original, see poem #88

[Web stuff]

I found this in a Rhino records article about Tom Lehrer:

"'The Elements' was an attempt to top the song 'Tschaikowsky', by Ira Gershwin
and Kurt Weill. [Danny] Kaye sang it in the show Lady In The Dark, rattling off
at lightning speed the names of 50 Russian composers."

        -- [broken link]

Other examples of poetic ingenuity abound on the Minstrels (no great surprise,
given our fondness for the genre). Check out:

'Juggler, Magician, Fool: A Pantoum', by Peter Schaeffer, at poem #195

'Sonnet with a Different Letter at the End of Every Line', by George Starbuck,
at poem #194

And then there's Mike Keith's home page, which I have to admit is the most
mindblowingly amazing site I've come across in all my years of surfing the web:

[More on Lehrer]

"Tom Lehrer was one of comedy's great paradoxes -- a respected Harvard
mathematics professor by day, he also ranked among the foremost song satirists
of the postwar era, recording vicious, twisted parodies of popular musical
trends which proved highly influential on the "sick comedy" revolution of the
1960s. Despite an aversion to the press and a relatively small recorded output,
Lehrer became a star, although he remained an enigma to even his most ardent
fans; he rarely toured, never allowed his photo to adorn album jackets, and
essentially retired from performing in 1965, leaving behind a cult following
which only continued to grow in his absence from the limelight."

        -- [broken link]

[Still More on Lehrer]

"Lehrer was born April 9, 1928; even as a child, he frequently parodied popular
songs of the day, and also learned to play piano. In 1944, he left New York City
to study math at Harvard, earning his master's degree within three years and
remaining as a graduate student through 1953. During his student years Lehrer
wrote The Physical Revue, a collection of academic song satires staged on campus
in January, 1951; an updated performance followed in May of the next year. He
also sang his parodies at coffeehouses and student gatherings throughout the
Cambridge, Massachusetts area; as demand for an album of his songs increased, he
spent $15 on studio time to cut Songs by Tom Lehrer, a ten-inch record privately
pressed in an edition of 400 copies.

The record sold out its entire run, and as the Harvard student body dispersed
across the country for Christmas vacation, the disc spread ("like herpes,"
Lehrer joked) far beyond its intended local audience. Soon Lehrer was inundated
with requests for copies from across the nation; after several re-pressings,
Songs by Tom Lehrer sold an astounding 350, 000 copies on the strength of tracks
like "I Hold Your Hand in Mine" (about a man who cut off his girlfriend's hand
in order to nibble on her fingertips), "Irish Ballad" (a buoyant romp about a
killing spree) and "My Home Town" (concerning a place where murderers teach
school and old perverts operate the candy store).

In 1955, Lehrer was inducted to serve in the Army, and was honorably discharged
two years later. Finally, in 1959 he recorded a follow-up, More of Tom Lehrer,
featuring "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" and "The Masochism Tango; " the same
collection of songs were also recorded during a live performance at Harvard, and
issued simultaneously as An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer. A tour of Europe
followed, resulting in another concert collection, Tom Lehrer Revisited, which
constituted live renditions of the tracks from the debut LP. However,
controversial reactions to his "sick" comedy during a series of Australian
performances prompted Lehrer to retire, and he returned full-time to his first
love, teaching."

        -- [broken link]

51 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Daniel Marsh said...

Very, very amusing to see that here, Tom Lehrer's been one of my favorites
since I was knee high. "The Elements" is marvelous in that he by some
great feat manages to get the cadence exactly right. His drol comments
during the live performance (things like "Isn't that interesting? I hope
you're all taking notes there will be a brief exam next period") add a bit
to the piece, help break it up a bit, and of course hearing the music is
essential. Still, it is indeed pretty damn brilliant even in this form.

I'm told that this wasn't the only Danny Kaye performance Lehrer paid
homage to (the unforgiving could say "plagarized." Lehrer himself would, I
bet.) There's a piece of his called "Lobachevsky" which is distinctly like
anotherof Kaye's musical parodies, though memory fails as to the name of
that. At any rate, Lerher is, to me, a very intersting individual, as he
enjoyed at least a small amount of fame (his mild fame persists even today,
his songs put in a regular appearance on "The Dr. Demento Show" and there
are numerous websites dedicated to his career) and when he stopped enjoying
himself, he simply quit. He knew what he wanted, and most importantly,
what he didn't want, and so he just didn't chase the dream of fame just
because that's what you're supposed to do. To quote a comic book (yeah, a
comic book of all things) I read recently: "You don't go through a door
just because its open, you go through because that's where you want to go."

Abraham Thomas said...

> I'm told that this wasn't the only Danny Kaye performance Lehrer paid
> homage to (the unforgiving could say "plagiarized." Lehrer himself would, I
> bet.) There's a piece of his called "Lobachevsky" which is distinctly like
> another of Kaye's musical parodies, though memory fails as to the name of
> that.

'Lobachevsky' was based on a routine by Kaye about the Russian
film-maker Stanislawsky. Lehrer mentions this explicitly ("I thought
it would be an interesting idea to st-- adapt") in the patter
accompanying the song, on 'Tom Lehrer Revisited' - which I was
listening to just this morning, hence the choice of poem.


"And who deserves the credit?
And who deserves the blame?
Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky is his name!"

Axbey Stephen said...

I wonder whether
- there have been any new elements discavard since then,
- if so, whether any one has produced a new version of the poem to
accomodate them

Daniel Marsh said...

To answer Stephen, in the liner notes for the Tom Lehrer album in which
this appeared ("An Evening ^Wasted with Tom Lehrer,") they mention that at
the time of the release of the album, there had been new elements
discovered, so it was already out of date. :)

This was in the sixties, so I'd expect that quite a few more have been
synthesized or discovered since then.

Sean D Coyle said...

Tom Lerher is the man. i have a lot of his material. Yesterday i picked
up a 10" vinyl of his from 1954. He has also done a lot of work for shows
like Sesame Street and The Electric Company. well that is all i have to

maria mollazadeh said...

this is a very clever poem the wa you can fit all the names in and still make them ryme, very well done!

william annesley said...

i love this poem, there is a flash animation to it at

Don Stockbauer said...

Douglas R. Hofstadter reprinted this poem and other Lehrer works in his book
on translation, "Le Ton Beau de Marot".

- Don Stockbauer

Ajit Narayanan said...

The following poem, which I saw on the net a few days back, reminded me of
Tom Lehrer's Elements. It isn't quite as well-executed as 'Elements', but is
nonetheless an interesting read -- especially the way in which the author
uses element names as verbs:

Mark Stewart

'Twas Boron, and the Silicon
Did Carbon in the Cadmium;
All Merc'ry were the Lanthanides
And the Molybdenum.

"Beware the Hydrogen, my son!
The teeth that bite! The chops that chum!
Beware the Bismuth bird, and shun
The dread Beryllium!"

He Gold his Cobalt blade in hand,
Long time the Fluorine foe he Zinc,
Till rested he by a Krypton tree
And Strontiumed to think.

And as in Argon thought he stood,
The Hydrogen, with Iodine,
Came Radon through the Tungsten wood
And Sulfured Astatine!

One two! one two! and through and through
The Cobalt blade went Scandium!
He left it dead, and with its Lead
He went Gallium back.

"And hast thou slain the Hydrogen?
Come to my arms, Antimony!
O Copper morn! Neon! Xenon!"
He Nickeled in his glee.

'Twas Boron, and the Silicon
Did Carbon in the Cadmium;
All Merc'ry were the Lanthanides
And the Molybdenum.

Sullivan Gary said...

I too love Lehrer's stuff, but I have to set the record straight: "Sing" is by Joe Raposo, not

Gary Sullivan
Worldwide Reservations

Aaron said...

There, infact, have been 7 elements discovered, or, should I say
created, since he wrote the song. The are: lawrencium, rutherfordium,
dubnium, seaborgium, bohrium, hassium, and meitnerium. I'm working on
an addition, but it may take a little while. I might have to use the
ones that their names refer to their atomic number.

Viagra Online said...

jajajaja, I can say that this is a elemental got me...elements and love and OK I gonna leave this, it's a good resource take into accout science in love, well anywa love is a science, the most hard to learn and teach.

Sildenafil said...

To muech technical concepts i can't really tell if you are giving a class or is just is just a poem haha thanks anyway, funny.

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