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V.B. Nimble, V.B. Quick -- John Updike

Straying slightly off the theme, Vidur suggested this
delightful poem about scientists:
(Poem #798) V.B. Nimble, V.B. Quick
 V.B. Wigglesworth wakes at noon,
 Washes, shaves and very soon
 Is at the lab; he reads his mail,
 Swings a tadpole by the tail,
 Undoes his coat, removes his hat,

 Dips a spider in a vat
 Of alkaline, phones the press,
 Tells them he is F.R.S.,
 Subdivides six protocells,
 Kills a rat by ringing bells,

 Writes a treatise, edits two
 Symposia on "Will man do?,"
 Gives a lecture, audits three,
 Has the sperm club in for tea,
 Pensions off an ageing spore,

 Cracks a test tube, takes some pure
 Science and applies it, finds,
 His hat, adjusts it, pulls the blinds,
 Instructs the jellyfish to spawn,
 And, by one o'clock, is gone.
-- John Updike
  The title is, of course, a reference to the old nursery rhyme
     Jack be nimble,
     Jack be quick,
     Jack jump over the candlestick.

  FRS: Fellow of the Royal Society - see

I know we've just run an Updike poem, but this hilarious commentary on the
nature of Science and the Scientist was too good to pass up. Reminiscent of
Cummings' "busy monster manunkind", Updike's portrayal of the energetically
officious scientist is, underneath its humour, a critical look at the
coldbloodedness of science. Notice how most of the experiments described
are, shall we say, detrimental to the continued well-being of their subjects
- the spider, the rat, the aging spore, and even the testtube are casually
discarded in the name of Science.

However, that is a secondary message - the main purpose of the poem, and one
in which it succeeds admirably, is to be funny. The deft caricature of a
scientist's daily routine, the smattering of academic words (not quite
'jargon', but it fulfils much the same purpose), and the sly hints of
self-reference, like the symposia on "Will Man Do?" and the ancient spore
that was 'pensioned off' add up to a delightfully amusing and entertaining
poem. I particularly liked the line "takes some pure/ science and applies
it" - a perfect, nail-on-the-head sort of phrase that made me laugh out

Other points of note are the pattering metre, which carry the poem along at
a quick but measured pace, and the surprise ending, which was both perfectly
timed and altogether unanticipated.


  A chronological biography, complete with pictures, can be found at
  [broken link]


  The Updike website:
    [broken link]

  The science poems by scientists theme
    Poem #795 Harold P. Furth, 'The Perils of Modern Living'
    Poem #797 Lewis F. Richardson, 'Big Whorls Have Little Whorls'

  Cummings' "pity this busy monster, manunkind", poem #57

  And the previous Updike poems we've run
    Poem #538: 'Back from Vacation'
    Poem #788: 'I Missed His Book, But I Read His Name'


22 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

F G Hank Hilton said...

Hello - -

I'm wondering if this poem was written about V.B. Wigglesworth (1899-1994), the British Entymologist who taught at Cambridge. If so, how is it that he came to the attention of John Updike.

Thanks for your input

F.G. Hank Hilton, S.J., Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Economics
Loyola College
Baltimore, MD

Jay Fogelman said...

This poem does, indeed, refer to Wigglesworth of Cambridge. In fact, the point of the poems is lost here, since it omits the epigram that inspired it: a listing of a BBC program featuring "V.B. Wigglesworth, FRS, Quick Professor of Biology at Cambridge".

Jay Fogelman
Senior Lecturer
CEU Business School
Frankel Leó út 30-34
H-1023 Budapest

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Anonymous said...

Mr. Fogelman is correct. Without the mention of "Quick professor" the whole thing is rendered meaningless.

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