Gossip Girl Memes And Elizabethan Court Poetry
Posted by <Aidan Walker> on 2022-10-15
Come Live With Me And Be My Love
Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove,
That Valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods, or steepy mountain yields.
And we will sit upon the Rocks,
Seeing the Shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow Rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing Madrigals.
These are the first two stanzas of Christopher Marlowe’s The Passionate Shepherd To His Love. The earliest version, as described in this really great site about the poem's evolution, was printed in 1599. Marlowe lived in London writing plays and poems during Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, competing with Shakespeare for audience share. Legend has it he died young from a dagger wound to the face during a drunken bar fight, although the circumstances of his death were questionable: some think he faked it, or that it was a hit ordered by a secret atheist cabal at court.
Come live with me, and be my love,
And we will some new pleasures prove
Of golden sands, and crystal brooks,
With silken lines, and silver hooks.
There will the river whispering run
Warm'd by thy eyes, more than the sun;
And there th’enamour'd fish will stay,
Begging themselves they may betray.
These are the first two stanzas of The Bait (first printed 1633) by John Donne. He was a fish in the same lake as Marlowe, although maybe another bank of it (as far as anyone knows he didn’t write plays, spent more time around the court, and eventually became a prominent clergyman after a lengthy period of marginalization following an illicit marriage with his employer’s daughter).
Donne’s poem begins with the same two lines as Marlowe’s, and also keeps the same rhyme scheme (AABB couplets), the same prosody (eight syllables in each line, usually iambics) and the same subject (love). But Donne replaces the happy shepherd with a fisherman, and keeps pairing his love next to water and fish imagery. “The Bait” turns the Marlowe poem creepy instead of seductive. The shepherd will not sit beside you in a pretty pasture, he will hook you with a worm and eat you, love becomes predation.
“The Bait” participates in what at the time was a wider trend: many others, including Sir Walter Raleigh, wrote poems using the same first lines and formal structure as Marlowe’s, spreading both the original and the others around. There are many riffs on “Passionate Shepherd” that we know of, and likely countless others that have been lost over time.
Go Piss Girl
Above is the first recorded Gossip Girl Title Remixes meme. It was posted April 10th, 2020 by a user named Tyler Wood on a Facebook group for “Useless, Unsuccessful, and/or Unpopular Memes.” However, the meme proved very useful, successful, and popular: this is the “Passionate Shepherd” of an entire meme trend which took place across the early weeks of that first coronavirus lockdown spring.
Above is “The Bait” of the meme trend. It was posted April 13th, 2020 on Twitter. Like Donne’s poem, it keeps the same formal structure as the original (in the case of the meme, which has no rhyme scheme or meter, what that means is it has the same arrangement of images, the same question-and-answer phrasing, and the same game (in Blair’s reply) of rearranging words). But this meme also departs from the original in a way not unlike how “The Bait” departs from “Passionate Shepherd”: “oil girl” twists “go piss girl” into another emotional register. Anarchic silliness becomes serious critique of American foreign policy; just as serene pastoral love song becomes extended fishing/predation metaphor. In both the memes and the poems, though, certain traits remain constant: everybody is playing by a particular rule book, and the changes made by participating creators are not random but patterned.
Looking back through Gossip Girl Title Remix posts, you can observe how different memers riff on the same original base and set of formal rules, just as you can observe how different poets (Donne, Raleigh, et al.) riff on “Passionate Shepherd.”
The Commonplace Book
Both “The Bait” and “Passionate Shepherd” were likely composed much earlier than they were printed, because back then a major way people moved writing around (particularly in the royal court context of much poetry) was by copying out manuscripts for one another. Often, people kept “commonplace books” (this site describes the practice) where they would copy out their favorite quotes, jokes, poems, prayers, recipes and stories. The “Come live with me and be my love” trend may have taken place across and between these books.
Historians find a lot of famous poems in commonplace books that survive. People back then were consuming content from Marlowe, Donne, Raleigh, and Shakespeare informally in the commonplace books of their friends and relatives as well as through buying printed material or going to plays. Often, these poems weren’t marked as Marlowe’s or whoever else’s: they just pop up anonymously in several books, and then are eventually printed into somebody’s collection.
As sources, commonplace books offer a lot of insight into the way life was back then. For telling the stories of many groups in early modern England underrepresented in the official printed record — such as women (as described in this interesting summary of somebody's dissertation) — the commonplace books are one of the best things we have.
While Marlowe and (to a lesser extent) Donne were indeed commercial writers selling books and filling theater seats, a major mode of transmission for early modern poetry happened through commonplace books or the passing around of manuscripts. Particularly at Court and at the universities, poetry circulated in this way and played an important role. “Publication” did not mean what it means today.
Looking at my “saved” tab in Instagram, I figure it functions a lot like a commonplace book. Many meme creators, I bet, are making memes thinking “I want this to be good enough for someone to save it to their saved tab and send it to their friends.”
I would wager many Elizabethan poets were writing poetry thinking “I wouldst fain this poesy be pleasing enough to the publick ear that thou wouldst copy it into thine commonplace book, and showeth it to thine friends and acquaintances so as they may do the same.”
Moo And Squeak
Memes differ from poetry the way a mouse differs from a cow. One (the cow, the poem) is much heftier than the other (the mouse, the meme). It takes minutes to read a Donne poem but seconds to consume a meme; a cow can weigh a ton but a mouse weighs a few ounces. We have also built specialized pastures and institutions to house cows and poems; while memes and mice must grub along in dirty corners and back alleys.
The practice of circulating poetry in manuscript in 1600 is also much beefier than the practice of memes in 2020. Back then, people weren’t just pressing two buttons on their keyboards or tapping a few times on their screens like we do now, but sitting down for several minutes and writing something out — taking irl time with their friends to share content and copy stuff down.
But both cows and mice are vertebrates with two eyes. They both give milk to their young, and they both have evolved symbiotically with humans. The animals are highly different, but they play by the same rules just like memes and Elizabethan court poetry.
Memes and Elizabethan court poetry are both types of art where form is arguably more important than content. In all art, both matter a lot — but a meme doesn’t have to make sense to be good, it just has to be interesting as a meme. The same is true of a poem: a lot of them don’t make sense, and are good anyways.
Group Chats And “Talking” Phases
It must have been lit to crack open a cold one and a commonplace book with the boys. In my mind’s eye, I see people sitting in a circle passing their commonplace books around in a tavern, backstage at some rehearsal, or on the sidelines of a boring garden party at the Duchess of Whogivesafuckshire’s country house.
In my romantic vision, I like to imagine common place books have a democratizing influence: when the commonplace books get brought out at the function, ladies who might not otherwise have a chance to participate in literary production can do so, and lowly squires can make the knights chuckle.
Or maybe, commonplace books were more of a one-on-one solo hangout kind of thing. It would feel intimate turning through the pages of your friend’s favorite content, probably by candlelight because there’s nothing else you could use back then.
I like to think both happened. The first situation is like a really lit group chat, the second is like a DM conversation during the talking phase of a relationship. Like commonplace books, memes come into my life (and maybe yours too) at both registers: the extremely intimate and the very rowdy.
The Function Of The Author
In both memes and Elizabethan poetry, formal rules are important in large part because of these very informal (and non-monetary) modes of transmission. Unlike the idea of authorship and publication we have now, early modern authorship was fluid and malleable. Shakespeare, for example, lifted the ideas for both Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet from books that he read, and collaboration (or plagiarism) was the norm rather than the exception. The Globe Theatre wasn’t Shakespeare’s personal creative outlet, but more like a meme account of which he was just the most active admin.
Rather than being Raleigh’s idea or Shakespeare’s poem, content seems to have just circulated and swum around. It’s like memes: people might watermark them and claim OC, but fundamentally our memetic space is chaotic, public, and radically collaborative. The contributions of individuals still matter (and the Elizabethans did love to take credit for things) but the idea of singular authorship doesn’t apply to the fundamentally social form of artistic production we see with memes.
But the author serves a function. It’s a fake rhetorical device we use to organize the field of texts — if we can no longer classify things as hers, Shakespeare’s, or mine, what can replace that?
The answer is formal rules. With memes, we talk about accounts and their production, but we organize the memetic field by formats and tradition. Like with “The Passionate Shepherd,” an adherence to form keeps the integrity of “Gossip Girl Title Remixes” intact. Each iteration uses the same two images, the same typefaces for each speech, and the same structure: question from blonde, funny answer from brunette made of the letters in the word “gossip girl.” It is because of these common features that you recognize and remember it as a “Gossip Girl Remix” meme.
Authorship also serves to carry an intrigue. In our modern way of understanding poems and books, we reflexively reach for some “real life” behind the presented thing, wanting to point at a passage and say “oh, that’s from when he was divorced” or “you can see how much she was touched by the First World War.” We are also concerned with style: the sense of a “voice” that someone carries into their creation, a certain specificity that can’t be imitated. Art is a question of snowflakes, each unique, which we might catch on the tips of our tongues before they melt into normal old water.
Form carries its own intrigue. In the 21st century, I read a poem and am intrigued first ny how the author is playing the role of “speaker,” the early moderns (I believe) read a poem and were intrigued by how the text might play with the structure of an iambic pentameter line, riff off previous poems, and deploy allusions to other texts. The formal aspects do come into contemporary reading, just as the personal ones come into early modern reading — but the dominant intrigue is the intrigue of form.
In memes and Elizabethan court poetry, the intrigue is in the game being played and the rules getting bent, not in the individual poster.
The Function Of Form
In the first week or so of “Gossip Girl Title Remixes” spread, there are two places where you can a change:
- in the remixed letters of the reply, and
- in the dialogue of the question.
There are many more rules than there are places to experiment:
- you have to use the same photos in the same arrangement,
- you can only remix with letters from “gossip girl,”
- you have to use the same typeface,
- you must stick to the same tone and “voice” for each character
- you must have a question and an answer, etc.
The funniest “Gossip Girl Remixes” are the ones which push these constraints to achieve unexpected effects without breaking them. The best ones set up the weirdest jokes that still, technically, work under the rules.
The artificiality of what results is beautiful. The mental operations involved in finding a rhyme to “love” and rearranging the letters of “gossip girl” are similar: they feel frustrating, but kind of fun. Both are form for form’s sake, and their effect on a reader is similar: it’s cool to see what a creative person can do under a constraint like that, and when you get what they’re up to, you have this feeling that you’re in on the game the writer is playing.
This sticking-to-the-form creates not just aesthetic beauty for an audience, but a certain consistency. It allows trends to survive. In the case of a ballad like “Passionate Shepherd,” the stresses, line lengths, and rhymes help people remember it. In the case of the meme, the repeating features make it stick out on a crowded feed — if people had immediately started replacing Blake Lively with, say, Scooby Doo when the meme was just beginning, nobody would have been able to recognize it. And, the fun would’ve been ruined: there would be no wit, just an “lol so random” kind of vibe.
Inside every meme (just like in every poem) there are two wolves. The first wolf is a rage for formal order and a desire to follow a given format’s rules. That wolf exists because the meme needs to be comprehensible, classifiable, and memorable in order to spread and survive. The second wolf is a chaotic instinct that seeks incomprehensibility (at least upon a first look) and makes the meme weird. That second wolf is there so the meme can be interesting and so it can confront things in the world that need to be talked about.
Memes And Monarchy
What people like to read tells a lot about who they were. If you know their poetry, you know what made people in the past laugh, what made their hearts heavy, and what they brought up to impress and connect with others they just met. That tells you a lot about the structure of life back then, what the incentives and fears were. Art can be transcendental, but it is also transactional — in it, you see a record of how people negotiated relationships and institutions while seeking after deeper spiritual needs.
The centrality of formal rules and informal (particularly non-monetary) transmission of content in both memes and Court poetry indicates that the people who created and consumed them share some of the same situational as well as spiritual needs.
Back in the day, you could probably fit the entire literate public on a medium-sized subreddit or large Discord server. Queen Elizabeth I, sole admin of that subreddit/Discord, had unlimited power to shadowban people (execution or exile) should their posts dissatisfy her.
But yet, her power is not absolute — that form of monarchy was a later innovation, and in England it was a failed innovation: unlike Louis XIV, Elizabeth’s Stuart heirs were unable to consolidate and centralize power. Like an online admin, Elizabeth I had to please, appease, and pacify hundreds of clout chasers and weird, restive constituencies. By all appearances, she exercised absolute executive authority backed up by the arbitrary justification of divine right — but in reality the continuation of her power relied on her preventing any of the aristocrats from getting too powerful themselves. To do this, she used the tools available to a monarch: theatrical presentations of force, secrecy, religion, elaborate mindfucks, and personal favors.
Poetry was part of the mindfucking which kept Elizabeth in power. She wrote her own poems, directed people to censor the poems of others, and received countless poems addressed to her. Elizabeth is also one of the primary subjects of court poetry during her reign.
In that society, the arrangement of power trickles down: the divine right of kings worked by analogy. The power Elizabeth held was the same power God held over the world, the same power fathers held over families, and the same power farmers held over the earth. To question one link in the chain was to question all of them.
I’d argue this pattern of organization is also true of social media platforms: the same power that Zuck holds over Meta is the same power the US government holds over Zuck, the same power celebrities hold over fans, that admins hold over community members, and you hold over the device in your pocket. This power is inherently fragile and historically has been based on Zuck’s capacity to ban, conceal the actual structure of the platform and its algorithm, invoke ideology, mindfuck, and distribute clout.
A platform is not a feudal monarchy (you are allowed to criticize Zuckerberg — for now at least) but it is patterned the same way. It is like the difference between cows and mice; or memes and Elizabethan poetry. This is the deep logic behind why memes are like Elizabethan poetry: the incentives for writers and readers at a royal court mirror the incentives for writers and readers on a social media platform. Both are about clout.
What Is Clout?
A few days after April 13th, 2020, which was when the Gossip Girl Title Remixes first went viral on Twitter, Blake Lively shared one. This post is from April 16th, 2020 on Instagram.
Instagram, like England in 1600, is a monarchy. The virgin monarch’s name is Mark Zuckerberg. There are other monarchs around: Peter Thiel, Jack Dorsey (who renounced his throne). The platforms may look like markets, but the kind of competition that goes on there is not really a capitalist one. There is another currency, and another kind of power being traded: at the top of the royal pyramid, it’s called data. At the bottom of the pyramid, it’s called clout.
Data is intuition about people, their vibes, and the means to influence what they will do and believe. It has a monetary value to it, but it has a moral and social value that is arguably even higher.
I think we’re used to an art scene that works within a market system and so is structured like one. But the social platforms of corporations like Meta and Twitter work more like monarchies. Nobody is making money from “Gossip Girl Title Remixes” in the same way that John Donne wasn’t writing for money: he was doing it for the clout. Eventually, clout could lead to money, but it operates under different rules. Getting clout requires you to be liked in a way that money doesn’t, it’s about your proximity to influence, trendsetters, and famous personalities. And I would argue that both meme culture and Elizabethan poetry culture place more value on clout (or whatever else you might call it — fame, honor, prestige, influence) than on money.
How Memes Die
Lively’s post is also important because it brings an innovation to the format: she introduces letters that aren’t in the phrase “gossip girl” to the meme. She may not have been the first, but others followed.
This sort of experimentation is fascinating at first, but it is the beginning of the end for memes like “Gossip Girl Remix.” People begin replacing the letters, and the question-answer norm also flies out the window. The form decays. Blake Lively starts just saying things:
Soon, people begin replacing the characters as well:
While personally, this cat meme is my favorite of the entire meme trend, I must admit it has strayed far from the original. And, it came along later in the meme’s lifespan: as people broke more and more rules of the form, the meme trend began to collapse. It started combining with other memes (the one that supposes cats make a pspspspspsps sound for example) and sort of fell off.
Formal adherence is important for a meme’s survival, and once that’s done it dies.
The Queen Is Dead
Gossip Girl Title Remixes may have fell off, but they remain in circulation, and in cultural memory. The one below was created on September 6th, 2022:
The format continues to serve its function. @whysangel on Twitter got clout for this, gaining at least one follower (me). In a larger sense, thinking about what the actual “object” of study is when it comes to memes, it seems to me they might be best understood as malleable sets of rules for posting, similar to how poetic forms are malleable sets of rules for writing. A meme is performed as much as it is created, and the ways in which it is performed can offer clues not just about who the people performing it are or want, but about the sort of stage they stand on and the sort of audience they confront.