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In George Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying, he writes:

Mice, by Gordon Comstock; a sneaky little foolscap octavo, price three and sixpence but now reduced to a bob. Of the thirteen B.F.s who had reviewed it (and The Times Lit. Supp. had declared that it showed 'exceptional promise') not one had seen the none too subtle joke of that title.

What is the joke? (This same question was asked by someone else on the Guardian's Q&A side several years ago, but it remains without an answer.)

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This appears to be a frequently asked question for Keep the Aspidistra Flying, and while there's no fully confirmed answer, there is at least a prominent theory. I found a few old Usenet (Google Groups) discussions about it, putting forward and supporting some theories. The most popular theory is:

In Horace's Ars Poetica comes the line Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus which means "The mountains will go into labour and will give birth to -- a ridiculous mouse."

This is in a section where Horace is talking of the difficulties for a poet of being original. Translation: "...A theme that is familiar can be made your own as long as you do not waste your time on a hackneyed treatment....do not in imitating another writer plunge yourself into difficulties from which shame, or the rules you have laid down for yourself, prevent you from extricating yourself...What will emerge that can live up to your extravagant promise? The mountains will go into labour...etc"

There are several friendly refs to Horace in Orwell's letters and writing (thanks for info, Martha) so this might be a relevant meaning, bearing in mind Gordon's poetic self-disgust. It [would] presumably also please him that the moneyed young beasts from Cambridge didn't recognise a fairly well-worn classical allusion. The book-title [would] refer to Gordon's sense that his poems are merely portentous miscarriages of his muse.

This is from one of two threads mentioned here/here which supposedly give the solution to the Mice question. The second one is a dead link, unfortunately.

The same Horace interpretation is given in the endnotes to the 2021 edition of Keep the Aspidistra Flying, in which the "Editorial material" is copyrighted to Benjamin Kohlmann, a professor in British Studies at the University of Hamburg:

the title of Gordon's remaindered poetry collection hints at its artistic insignificance. It is also possible that the title contains a more specific allusion to a passage from the Latin poet Horace's Ars Poetica, a treatise on the art of poetry: 'Quid dignum tanto feret hic promissor hiatu? | Parturiunt montes, nascetur ridiculus mus' ('What might he produce that could match his early promise? | The mountains go into labour and will give birth to a ludicrous mouse'). Horace's proverbial lines reflect on the possibility of artistic failure and the dangers of poetic pretentiousness. Orwell, who had received training in Classics at St Cyprian's and Eton, was certainly familiar with these lines.

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  • I think that "extract from the diaries of Evelyn Waugh" is a parody of Waugh, not a real extract from his diaries. Jul 21 at 17:41
  • @GarethRees Well that explains it! I thought it seemed very unlikely, and couldn't find it anywhere in Waugh's actual writings, but I don't know enough about Waugh to immediately discount it.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Jul 21 at 18:20
  • (For the record, it was clear that the "extract" must be a parody because Orwell married Sonia Brownell in 1949, but Empson's "Orwell at the BBC" was published in 1971.) Jul 23 at 7:38

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