By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
What are the funniest comic poems in the English language? What makes for a successfully humorous poem? The following post offers a selection of ten of the best and funniest comic poems in English literature, from the Middle Ages to the present day (or almost).
As we’ve confined ourselves to ten poems, we’ve tended to focus on English (or British) poetry, and so have left out a few notable writers of light verse, such as Ogden Nash. Perhaps a follow-up post will have to atone for this, but in the meantime, we hope you enjoy these celebrated comic poems.
1. Anon, ‘I Have a Gentle Cock’.
I haue a gentil cook,
Crowyt me day.
He doth me rysyn erly,
My matyins for to say.
I haue a gentil cook,
Comyn he is of gret.
His comb is of reed corel,
His tayil is of get …
What, medieval sexual double entendre to kick us off? Well, it’s worth remembering that English literature begins with not just Beowulf but a series of Anglo-Saxon riddles with sexual innuendo at their heart. This poem, from a few centuries later, is supposedly about a chicken, but its final stanza gives us pause…
2. Lewis Carroll, ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’.
‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
‘To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
And whether pigs have wings …’
‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ is a poem recited by the fat twins, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, to Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1871). The precise meaning of the poem remains elusive, but it remains a popular poem and a classic example of Victorian nonsense verse and a gloriously entertaining poem.
3. Anon, ‘On a Tired Housewife’.
Here lies a poor woman who was always tired,
She lived in a house where help wasn’t hired:
Her last words on earth were: ‘Dear friends, I am going
To where there’s no cooking, or washing, or sewing,
For everything there is exact to my wishes,
For where they don’t eat there’s no washing of dishes …’
This has become a popular comic poem, but its origins appear to have been in tragedy: the unknown charwoman who wrote it in 1905 effectively penned it as her suicide note, citing extreme fatigue as her reason for ending it all.
Writing in a letter to Lady Robert Cecil about the poem, Virginia Woolf said that the jury at the coroner’s inquest found the charwoman to have been mad, ‘which proves once more what it is to be a poet in these days’.
4. Hilaire Belloc, ‘Matilda, Who Told Lies, and Was Burned to Death’.
One of Belloc’s celebrated cautionary rhymes, this poem – as its title highlights – is about a girl who embodies the fable of ‘the boy who cried wolf’.
5. E. C. Bentley, ‘Clerihews’.
Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875-1956) is chiefly known for two innovations. The first is his contribution to the genre of detective fiction, specifically his novel Trent’s Last Case (1913), which has been called the first modern mystery novel on account of its all-too-human (read: flawed) detective protagonist.
The second is the clerihew, named after Bentley’s own middle name: a four-line poetic form which offers a short, humorous biography of a famous figure. Follow the link above to read some of Bentley’s best.
6. T. S. Eliot, ‘Macavity: The Mystery Cat’.
Perhaps the most famous poem from Eliot’s book of verse for children, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939), ‘Macavity: The Mystery Cat’ is the Napoleon of catty crime, with a name inspired by Professor Moriarty, the evil genius from Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories (of which Eliot was a devoted fan). Whenever the law turns up to collar the kitty for his crimes – Macavity’s not there!
7. Sir John Betjeman, ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song’.
No list of the greatest comic poems would be complete without something from Sir John Betjeman, UK Poet Laureate from 1972 until his death in 1984, ‘nation’s teddy bear’, and master of light verse (and some not so light) which perfectly captured the sunlit English character of the mid-twentieth century.
This poem, about the speaker’s hopeless affair with ‘Miss J. Hunter Dunn’, who was based on a real woman the poet during wartime in 1940.
8. Jenny Joseph, ‘Warning’.
Voted the nation’s favourite poem on at least two occasions, ‘Warning’ reinforces the idea that, for many people, the most valuable sort of poem is the comic poem. From its famous opening line about being purple onwards (possibly inspired by Prufrock’s musings about how to wear his trousers in old age?), ‘Warning’ thoroughly deserves its reputation as a great comic poem.
9. Wendy Cope, ‘Bloody Men’.
We could have chosen any number of poems by the master of light verse, the wonderful poet Wendy Cope, as this list of some of her finest poems attests.
But as ‘Bloody Men’ appears to have been a ‘gateway drug’ into her work, we’ve opted for this one, with its memorable opening line (and deliberately overdone world-weariness: ‘Bloody men and like bloody buses’).
10. Pam Ayres, ‘Oh, I Wish I’d Looked After Me Teeth’.
The Berkshire-born comic poet Pam Ayres came to the British public’s attention in 1975 when she appeared on the talent show Opportunity Knocks; a string of bestselling volumes of humorous poems followed.
This poem, in which the speaker regrets having indulged in sweet treats and failed to look after her teeth, remains one of her best-known and best-loved.
If you enjoyed this selection of the best comic poems, all of them can be found in Nation’s Favourite: Comic Poems: A Selection of Humorous Verse, which we heartily recommend for a good laugh. Continue to explore the world of comic poetry with these classic limericks; and you might also enjoy our pick of the wittiest quotations about books.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.