The Pomp of Words and Pedant Dissertations

“But you are learn’d; in Volumes, deep you sit;
In Wisdom shallow: pompous Ignorance!”

Edward Young, Night Thoughts (1742-1745)

We have our words pomp, pompous and pomposity from the Latin pompa, and in the days of ancient Rome a pompa was a loud and flamboyant procession that wound through the streets of the city to to publicize some person or event. The Ludi Circensus was one such event, and the pompa circensis with which it was announced was nothing other than a circus parade.

“In the Circus parade there is glory clean down
From the first spangled horse to the mule of the Clown,
With the gleam and the glint and the glamour and glare
Of the days of enchantment all glimmering there
. . . .

The Circus!—The Circus!—The throb of the drums,
And the blare of the horns, as the Band-wagon comes;
The clash and the clang of the cymbals that beat,
As the glittering pageant winds down the long street.*

That was a circus parade in America at the turn of the nineteenth century, but the essential bombast, tinsel and exuberant pomposity had not changed in two thousand years.

Pomposity is hype. At bottom, all pomposity is just some variation on the spangles and sequins and cymbals of a circus parade. And every circus operates on the principle so memorably encapsulated by the great circus-man Phineas Taylor Barnum,

“There’s a sucker born every minute.”

Indeed, America operates on this principle, because Americans know that “everyone loves a parade.” Parades, pomp, or what some (with exquisite pomposity) call publicity, that great scheme and science of bamboozlement and hoaxing to which P. T. Barnum was first master and mage. As that great showman’s biographer put it:

“He was clearly the father of publicity, which has developed into unquestioned and legitimate misrepresentation on a large scale.”**

As to those “suckers” whose ranks are swollen by the minute, they earned their name from the ease with which they were “sucked” or “taken in” by pomp, by the cheerful alacrity with which they flocked to a parade and fell in behind the bandwagon.

“I love a parade;
The tramping of feet,
I love ever beat”***

* * * * *

From the principle that there’s a sucker born every minute, the philosopher William Claude Duganfield deduced the sublime corollary,

“Never give a sucker an even break.”

He said that this wisdom came to him as a young man, when he was an employee of the Fortesque Pavilion, a beer garden on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey. It was then Duganfield’s job to swim out from the shore, flail in the water and cry for help, and be dramatically rescued and hauled ashore by two other employees of the Fortesque Pavilion. These two actors would,

“carry him back to the beer garden and revive him on the stage there. While the revival act was going on, the waiters would sell beers to the crowd that had followed the drowning man to the pavilion.”†

Later, when he had streamlined his stage name to W. C. Fields, Duganfield explained the moral grounds of the imperative to “never give a sucker an even break” in the title of his 1939 movie:

“You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man.”

This had long been the motto of card sharps, pimps and grifters, and it throws sunshine on the fact that the suction by which a sucker is sucked is that sucker’s own avarice, prurience or pride.

* * * * *

Everyone is a sucker for something, and the smug eggheads who see through the pomp of a circus parade are easily taken in by the pomp of philosophy. All those astonishing words!  All those nice distinctions!  All those grave and learned faces topped by all that antic hair! What could be better than to fall in behind this parade! It will not take you to the Fortesque Pavilion, where the waiters are waiting to sell you beers. But it will take you to a dusty dispensary where some kindred sucker is waiting to sell you books.

Books and books and books, until “in volumes deep you sit”—very likely no less fuddled than the suckers who stuck to their tables after the “revival act” at the Fortesque Pavilion. The point that Edward Young is making in the epigraph that heads this post is that book-learning is mere tinsel on the threshold of the tomb. Or, as another writer of the same century put it,

“’Tis not the Stoic’s lessons got by rote,
The pomp of words, and pedant dissertations,
That can sustain thee in that hour of terror;
Books have taught cowards to talk nobly of it
But when the trial comes, they stand aghast.”††

They stand aghast because they suddenly realize that they were suckers who were taken in by “the pomp of words and pedant dissertations.” And if their studies included the works of W. C. Fields (née Duganfield), they are even more aghast when they recall his dictum, pronounced in the character of Larsen E. Whipsnade,

“You can’t cheat an honest man.”

* * * * *

On the threshold of the tomb, an egghead will sometimes sees that he has been a sucker for what Byron called “the pompous page.”††† Footnotes were his bandwagon, and the airs and graces of scholarship were his jugglers and clowns. And the suction by which he was sucked was his own intellectual pride.

He was guilty of the charge Edward Young made against book-learn’d eggheads some lines below those of my epigraph, and he therefore chose to,

“ . . . dive in Science for distinguisht names
Dishonest Fomentation of your pride.”

Fomentation is just the egghead word for “whipping up,” as when eggs are whipped up to make a mayonnaise, and the “whipping up” of eggheads with a “pompous page” of “distinguisht names” is what every parade of learning aims to do.

But it doesn’t always work, for as Larsen E. Whipsnade taught us:

“You can’t cheat an honest man.”

And that old poet Edward Young agreed:

“Courts can give nothing to the wise and good.
But scorn of pomp, and love of solitude.

I envy none their pageantry and show;
I envy none the gildings of their woe.
Give me, indulgent Gods! with mind serene,
And guiltless heart, to range the sylvan scene.”††††


*) James Whitcomb Riley, “The Circus Parade” (1894)
**) M. R. Werner, P. T. Barnum (1923)
***) “I Love a Parade,” Music by Harold Arlen, Lyrics by Ted Koehler (1931)
†) Sidney Skolsky, Times Square Tintypes (1930)
††) Nicholas Rowe, The Fair Penitent (1702)
†††) Lord Byron, Lara (1814)
†††) Edward Young, Love of Fame (1728)

7 thoughts on “The Pomp of Words and Pedant Dissertations

  1. Pingback: The Pomp of Words and Pedant Dissertations | Reaction Times

  2. Dr. Smith, occasionally you write as splenetically as Bonald when he contemplates the Hebrews. Myself, I love parades (and circuses!) . . . they’re a celebration. Wretches can manipulate people with pomp, with sophistry, with religion . . . The problem has to do with wretches, not the lovely aspects of human nature related to enjoying spectacles, searching for truth, and meeting with the Lord of all. This is far too Tertullianesque for my taste (or Hieronymesque — sour misanthropes, the lot of them)!

    (And I say that as a rather bitter one myself . . . we shouldn’t indulge in our vices. Sanctimonious bastardy beckons so readily in these latter days. Don’t give in!)

    • Sorry it came across as so sour. It began as a lexical lark about pomp, was dragged into parades by the root word pompa, and before you know it I was writing about suckers because of circuses and P.T. Barnum. Like Topsie, it just growed. You are right about not indulging sanctimonious splenetics, particularly in one’s riper years. One day you’ll go into that dismal swamp and you won’t find your way out again.

      • Is this the post on suckers and conmen that you promised some time ago?

        I’ve got a nihilistic streak that makes me look more kindly on these things. When such moods take me, I think to myself that beer, circuses, and philosophy are pleasant enough diversions for the short period that bookends two expanses of nonexistence, and it’s hard to see how those who are willingly tricked and then enjoy themselves have been wronged. Those folks at the beer garden probably had a great time.

        I’m even charmed by Barnum’s open cynicism. The problem with that new musical about him, “The Greatest Showman”, is that it’s too damned sentimental. Leaves out the most likable part about the fellow. Plus, it feels like the circus freaks are now ruling the culture, which makes it harder for me to have sympathy for those types.

      • Bonald @ I think Epicureanism will always be the dominant philosophy in in the late stages of empire. Sophism has weakened faith where it has not destroyed it, there is still be plenty of wealth to pay for luxuries, and the size and rigidities of the empire breeds fatalism. This was exactly the mood of A. E. Houseman when he wrote

        “It is in truth iniquity on high
        To cheat our sentenced soles of aught they crave,
        And mar the merriment as you and I
        Fare on our long fool’s-errand to the grave.”

        That was in 1922, four years after it was clear that the Empire was going into liquidation sometime soon. Of course many people will mistake Epicureanism for a cause of the decline, but I think it is a symptom. Epicureanism take patrician and plebeian forms, with philosophy for the nobs and circuses for the yobs.

    • I don’t think it is necessarily effeminate. There have been enough manly scholars to show that. But it has a tendency to become effeminate, and this repels manly men. But I do think it is necessarily pompous because supply exceeds demand, and everything must therefore pretend to be more important than it is.


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