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Thais -- Newman Levy

Carrying on with the triple rhyme theme...
(Poem #1025) Thais
 One time in Alexandria, in wicked Alexandria
 Where nights were wild with revelry and life was but a game,
 There lived, so the report is, an adventuress and courtesan
 The pride of Alexandria, and Thais was her name.

 Nearby, in peace and piety, avoiding all society
 There dwelt a band of holy men who'd made their refuge there,
 And in the desert's solitude, they spurned all earthly folly to
 Devote their lives to holy works, to fasting and to prayer.

 Now one monk whom I solely mention of this band of holy men
 Was known as Athaneal, he was famous near and far.
 At fasting bouts and prayer, with him, none other could compare with him,
 At plain and fancy praying he could do the course in par.

 One day while sleeping heavily, from wresting with the Devil he
 Had gone to bed exhausted, though the sun was shining still
 He had a vision Freudian, and though he was annoyed, he an-
 Alyzed it in the well-known style of Doctors Jung and Brill.

 He dreamed of Alexandria, of wicked Alexandria.
 A crowd of men was cheering in a manner rather rude.
 And Athaneal glancing there at THAIS, who was dancing there
 Observed her do the shimmy, in what artists call The Nude!

 Said he,"This dream fantastical disturbs my thoughts monastical,
 Some unsuppressed desire, I fear, has found my monkish cell.
 I blushed up to the hat o' me to view that girl's anatomy
 I'll go to Alexandria and save her soul from Hell!"

 So, pausing not to wonder where he'd put his winter underwear
 He quickly packed his evening clothes, a toothbrush and a vest
 To guard against exposure he threw in some woolen hosiery
 And bidding all the boys Adieu, he started on his quest.

 The monk, though warned and fortified was deeply shocked and mortified,
 To find, on his  arrival, wild debauchery in sway.
 While some were in a stupor, sent by booze of more than two percent,
 The rest were all behaving in a most immoral way.

 Said he to Thais, "Pardon me. Although this job is hard on me,
 I've got to put you straight to what I came out here to tell:
 What's all this boozin' gettin' you? Cut out this pie-eyed retinue,
 Let's hit the road together, kid, and save your soul from Hell!"

 Although this bold admonishment caused Thais some astonishment,
 She quickly answered,"Say! You said a heaping mouthful, Bo!
 This burg's a frost, I'm telling you. The brand of hooch they're selling you
 Ain't like the stuff you used to get, so let's pack up and go!"

 So off from Alexandria, from wicked Alexandria
 Across the desert sands they go, beneath the burning sun.
 Till Thais, parched and sweltering, finds refuge in the sheltering
 Seclusion of a convent in the habit of a nun.

 And now the monk is terrified to find his fears are verified
 His holy vows of chastity have cracked beneath the strain!
 Like one who has a jag on, he cries out in grief and agony
 "I'd sell my soul to see her do the shimmy once again!"

 Alas! His pleadings amorous, though passionate and clamorous
 Have come too late. The courtesan has danced her final dance.
 Said he,"Now that's a joke on me, for that there dame to croak on me,
 I never should have passed her up the time I had a chance!"
-- Newman Levy
    (in Opera Guyed, 1923)

Note: Baed on the Massenet opera of the same name (see links)

Newman Levy is definitely near the top of my list of poets that deserve to
be famous but aren't - his verse is seldom short of brilliant, and often
hilarious. More to the point, it is extremely *accessible* - lack of
familiarity with the original is no drawback to appreciating his sparkling
parodies, nor have the eighty or so years since their writing dated them

'Thais' is probably Levy's most famous work, having apparently had the
dubious honour of being labelled "Traditional" in a few old songbooks. (It's
hard to see how that happened, actually - the lyrics certainly don't have a
trad flavour to them.) It definitely illustrates all the aforementioned
qualities - the verse is smooth and clever, the showiness of the rhymes
adding to the enjoyment of the poem. The story is told in a manner that
requires no knowledge of Massenet to follow it; indeed, unlike say "The
Three Cherry Sisters Karamazov"[1] it doesn't even make explicit reference
to the original, choosing to simply retell the story in a somewhat lighter
style. And the language certainly doesn't appear out of date or old
fashioned (or, rather, any datedness appears deliberately humorous, a happy
byproduct of the poem's blatant anachronism).
  [1] which contains a pun so awful that it alone would be worth the price
  of admission <g>

And a very pleasing style it is, too - the playful rhymes, the deliberate
dissonance between the poem's setting and its slangy dialogue, and the
smoothly pattering metre make 'Thais' an excellent example of how to tell a
humorous story in verse.

As far as patter verse and complicated triple rhymes go, comparisons with
Gilbert are inevitable. Despite a few superficial similarities, though, I
think Levy's verse has a very different flavour from Gilbert's. The pacing
is different, for one - in his more complicated pieces, Gilbert frequently
had distinct primary and secondary stresses that made the verse almost
paeonic (that is, with four syllables to a foot rather than two); this
speeds up their reading even when decoupled from the music. Levy's verse is
a lot more pronouncedly duple (though he follows the 'Major General' pattern
of triple rhymes superposed on a duple metre), so that it is flowing but not
tumbling. Also, Levy occasionally splits a word across lines for the rhyme[2],
a technique that I can't remember Gilbert using, and one which is definitely
noticeable when employed. I won't claim that Levy was uninfluenced by
Gilbert, but his poetry is definitely not Gilbertesque.

  [2] and vice versa, as exemplified respectively by

    He had a vision Freudian, and though he was annoyed, he an-
    Alyzed it in the well-known style of Doctors Jung and Brill.


    And in the desert's solitude, they spurned all earthly folly to
    Devote their lives to holy works, to fasting and to prayer.


  All about Massenet's "Thais":

  Several of Levy's poems, and a brief biography, are here:
  as are Stewart Hendrickson's musical settings to them.

  A hilarious series of instrumental breaks interspersed with the verses:
    [broken link]!!-song99.cfm?stuff=fall99+D+12012143

  And a few more Levy poems in the Digital Tradition archive:
    [broken link]!!-supersearch99.cfm?Command=Search&file=fall99&request=newman+levy&MaxHits=50&NumLines=1

  Another poet in much the same vein is Guy Wetmore Carryl; see, for
  example, the (triple rhymed, to boot)
    Poem #94, The Embarrassing Episode of Little Miss Muffet

  Randall Garrett was influenced by Levy to write a series of very Levyesque
  verse synopses of science fiction novels; these are currently being
  reprinted in the filk magazine Xenofilkia:
  (main page:

  And the theme to date:
    Poem #1023, The Soldiers of our Queen


130 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Wechsler Barton said...

My father learned this poem at the University of Chicago (1926-1930) and taught it to me in the 1950s. I'd forgotten a few odd phrases, but retained most of it. What fun to find it and to learn about its origins.

Barton Wechsler
Director and Professor of Public Affairs
Harry S Truman School of Public Affairs
University of Missouri-ColumbiaFax:

John J. Kelleher said...

I learned Thais as a folk song at Occidental College in 1962 and still sing it accompanied by my own guitar. I wonder if Thais is still attending college somewhere. I hope so, she's an immortal gal.

Jack Kelleher

Jerry Pournelle said...

You have several verses wrong.

Now of this band of holy men is one whom I shall solely mention

Is a wonderful line, but you didn't include it.

And it's

At ground and lofty praying he could do the course in par

Which of course makes far more sense than what you have.

There are others but those two stand out

Jerry Pournelle
Chaos Manor

Meredith Heinecke said...

I discovered "Thais" on the internet and it was like finding an old friend. This was a favorite fraternity song sung heartily at "wash parties" at the University of Redlands in the early 60s. Thanks for sharing. Walt Heinecke

Anonymous said...

I heard this outside the "Kettle of Fish" in Greenwich Village during the summer of 1957, sung by Logan English.

Anonymous said...

I was wondering where I could get an audio version of this song. My dad evidently sang it in college in the early 50's and I want it for his 80th birthday celebration.

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Anonymous said...

In reply to anonymous posted November 2011. Happy birthday to your Dad. If you haven't found the audio for Thais, you can treat him to your singing of it for his 85th birthday with this melody. Click the link at the end of the lyrics for a midi file.

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Jim Griffin said...

Great toxins more ofLevy's work. My sister and I have been able to recite Carmenfor well over fifty years. I still publicly recite Carmen on occasion. Interesting the comparison with Gilbert. I have done a lot of G&as and his Nightmare song is one of my favourites!

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Joseph Peter Myers said...

John Kelleher --- This very poem, with a great bit of music supporting it, was found East of Oxy, at Pomona, Home of the Sagehens, where I learned it in 1957. I, too, have sung it ever since, with labored guitar accompaniment. Another favorite, part of the Oscar Brand recordings, called "Cats on the Rooftops" with limitless verses, was apparently set to music from Victorian England - with entirely different, elite, and sophisticated semi-operatic lyrics.

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