Edgar Guest, the People’s Poet

edgar guest

Today marks the 133rd birthday of the once extremely popular US poet Edgar Guest…

Born on this day in 1881 (in England’s Second City, Birmingham, though his family soon emigrated to the Land of the Free) was Edgar Guest, whose uplifting, nationally syndicated verse became so popular in the US that he was known as the People’s Poet. He wrote perhaps 11,000 poems, many of them collected in more than 20 published volumes. Guest had his own radio show and TV show, and was the first and (so far) last Poet Laureate of Michigan. (He also, as it happens, was the great-uncle of Judith Guest, who wrote Ordinary People.)

The kind of popularity (and income) enjoyed by the likes of Guest and Nick Kenny is pretty much a thing of the past, now that poetry has retreated from the mainstream of popular culture. There’s been the odd eruption, like the pop star-style fame of the Liverpool Poets or Rod McKuen, but they didn’t last long. The works of ‘Patience Strong’ long ago passed their sell-by date, and the nearest thing we have to an Edgar Guest now is perhaps the comic poet Pam Ayres, still going strong and able to fill a concert hall anywhere in the country. There will, most likely, never be another.

Guest it was who wrote the eminently mockable It Couldn’t Be Done – recited in all seriousness by Idris Elba at the 2012 BBC Sports Personality of the Year ceremony:

Somebody said that it couldn’t be done
But he with a chuckle replied
That “maybe it couldn’t,” but he would be one
Who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.
So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin
On his face. If he worried he hid it.
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it!

Somebody scoffed: “Oh, you’ll never do that;
At least no one ever has done it;”
But he took off his coat and he took off his hat
And the first thing we knew he’d begun it.
With a lift of his chin and a bit of a grin,
Without any doubting or quiddit,
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it.

There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,
There are thousands to prophesy failure,
There are thousands to point out to you one by one,
The dangers that wait to assail you.
But just buckle in with a bit of a grin,
Just take off your coat and go to it;
Just start in to sing as you tackle the thing
That “cannot be done,” and you’ll do it.

I think I prefer the version that ends ‘he tackled the thing that couldn’t be done – and he couldn’t do it.’

But the poem is notable for its cheeky use of an obsolete word to provide a rhyme for ‘did it’ – ‘quiddit’. This is defined in Johnson’s Dictionary as ‘A subtilty; an equivocation. A low word.’ But not too low for Shakespeare – ‘Why may not that be the skull of a lawyer?’ muses Hamlet at the graveside, ‘Where be his quiddits now? his quillets? his cases? and his tricks?’

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About Nige

Cravat-Wearer of the Year Nige, who, like Mr Kenneth Horne, prefers to remain anonymous, is a founder blogger of The Dabbler and has been a co-blogger on the Bryan Appleyard Thought Experiments blog. He is the sole blogger on Nigeness, and (for now) a wholly owned subsidiary of NigeCorp. His principal aim is to share various of life's pleasures.

3 thoughts on “Edgar Guest, the People’s Poet

  1. Just read that in the voice of Pam Ayres, adds colour.

    Mind you, not that much colour, more sepia really.

    Tried it with a scouse accent.

    Naw, not really, tried my default accent, adding boom, boom! at the end.

    Now that was funny, Charlie thought so and grinned.

    Mind you, he is a Bichon and knows bugger all about rhyming stuff.

  2. He is one of those poets whose lines many of us know without knowing either his name or a whole poem, though where I know the first line of “Home” from, I can’t say. And if forced to guess, I’d have said that “Home” was written by James Whitcomb Riley, because of the folksy diction. But on a bad day, asked to identify Edgar Guest, I’d say either “Oh, yes, he wrote The Spoon River Anthology“, which actually was Edgar Lee Masters, or else confused him with Eugene Field.