“I Am the Strength of the Ages”

Posted by on August 15th, 2010 at 9:12 AM

Robert Benchley wrote this when he was starting out. It’s a magazine ad parody and one of the funniest things I’ve ever read. He titled it “I Am the Strength of the Ages” and it goes like this:

I have sprung from the depths of the hills.

Before the rivers were brought forth, or even before the green leaves in their softness made the landscape, I was your servant.

From the bowels of the earth, where men toil in darkness, I come, bringing a message of insuperable strength.

From sun to sun I meet and overcome the forces of nature, brothers of mine, yet opponents; kindred, yet foes.

I am silent, but my voice re-echoes beyond the ends of the earth.

I am master, yet I am slave.

I am Woonsocket Wrought Iron Pipe, “the Strongest in the Long Run” (trademark).

Send for illustrated booklet entitled
“The Romance of Iron Pipe”

The quiet simplicity of the opening, the understated grandeur of the close, and then the piece’s kicker, the stately arrival of trademark and slogan. I’ve never read magazine ads from the 1920s, yet I am convinced this piece could have worked as an ad back then. Why? The writing’s skill, I suppose: if you take as given that a company would want to run a prose poem about iron, then Benchley has come up with quite a good prose poem. I mean, an awful prose poem, but one whose awfulness required skill for its execution.

I love the sort of parody that could work as the real thing. The Woonsocket piece is a supreme example because it’s obviously a joke but there are no details that stand out and flag it as a joke. Even the trademark and slogan aren’t absurd, not on their own terms.

Today we have The Onion doing a note-perfect imitation of news prose, but each Onion piece pins its comedy to an absurd premise: Hey, a news story about a guy ordering a cheeseburger — crazy! Not so with Benchley’s piece. It has nothing to show that it’s a joke except for the sheer absurdity of writing a prose poem about iron pipes. And yet people at the time were doing that very thing. To take a common practice and show its absurdity just by doing it better — that must be some kind of supreme pole vault for a satirist.

Unless, of course, magazine ads of the ’20s didn’t feature prose poems about utilitarian goods like iron pipes, only about frilly items like perfume and tobacco. In which case I must knock the Benchley piece down a grade, to the high Onion level. But that’s not so bad either.

[ originally posted at Monkey, Dig Your Grave ]

Questions that can’t be answered. “. . . imagine that there was a drug that tightened the vagina. Would we ever see this advertised? Would we ever see female sports stars with loose vaginas become spokeswomen for the drug? Never in a million years! So why doesn’t anyone bat an eye when sports stars or washed-up politicians with impotence become spokesmen for Viagra?” (For context.)

The implicit question is the mind bender: If we had a drug that tightened vaginas, why wouldn’t woman golf stars endorse it?

The stated question isn’t so tough, at least in my case: I did bat an eye. But that’s something I do pretty easily.

Inside the Ministry of Silly Walks. John le Carré in 1974: “The way people walk characterizes the person for you, too. For instance, the angular bouncy walk Treasury civil servants do seem to have, which is very good in Monty Python, that strange way of springing on the toe and moving forward onto the other leg.”

I thought the walks ministry was pure silliness. But, no, it’s silliness based on observation, at least according to a Brit with a fine eye and ear and a lot of time spent among members of his nation’s ruling circles.

Something that surprised me in The Looking-Glass War: a tweedy spymaster who has a coffee mug with his initials dribbled across it in frosting-like glaze. I would have thought maybe a teacher at a progressive school might have such a thing, but not a full-fledged member of the Establishment.

From the workshop. I’m learning Photoshop so I can produce silly-looking collages. Warning: The message of this one is just a joke.

© Tom Crippen

“Like Fox News without the punctuation.” Jacob Weisberg on Sarah Palin’s lack of honesty, expertise or coherence. Another good one from the same piece: “To be alarmed by Palin today presumes a Republican Party suicidal enough to want her to do more than run its weekend paintball games.”

Glibly perfect. My pastiche of a Firesign Theater joke: “If that’s my shoe, this must be Budapest!”

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4 Responses to ““I Am the Strength of the Ages””

  1. WLLilly says:

    …I’ve read some histories of advertising over the years , and Benchley’s (which I may have read in the past anyway , since I’ve read plenty of Benchley , tho mebbe not so much recently) sounds not unlike some ” Famed Advertising Copy ” examples of the pre-WWII years , IIRC…for cars , look up Cadillac’s ” The Penalty Of Leadership ” or this one for another car headlined ” Somewhere West Of Laramie ” ( There’s a high-spirited , sweet-kickin’ cowgal who knows how to rope a steer , brand…” ) .
    Maybe I’ll start a new ” aging hipster ” revival in Mad Men’s granduncles here !!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Tom Crippen says:

    Thanks for the tips. “Leadership” and “Somewhere West” are both new to me, and they’re extraordinary in their different ways.

  3. WLLilly says:

    …I guess the Cadillac one was a 1915 Omaha Chamber of Commerce version of a slam at ” playa hatas “…eh , ‘Holmes ?????????

  4. Tom Crippen says:

    Think you’re Holmes on this one, I’m Watson.