Are these the best examples of nonsense verse in English? Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Nonsense literature is one of the great subsets of English literature, and for many of us a piece of nonsense verse is our first entry into the world of poetry. In this post, we’ve selected ten of the greatest works of nonsense poetry.
We’ve omitted several names from this list, including Dr Seuss (because his best nonsense verse, whilst brilliant, is longer than the short-poem form, often comprising book-length narratives), Hilaire Belloc (whose best work is best-understood as part of the ‘cautionary verse’ tradition, which isn’t as nonsensical as bona fide nonsense verse), and Ogden Nash, whose work seems to be less in the nonsense verse tradition than more straightforward comic verse.
Some of these suggestions come courtesy of Quentin Blake’s The Puffin Book of Nonsense Verse (Puffin Poetry), which we’d recommend to any fans of nonsense verse looking for an anthology of beautiful nonsense.
1. Anonymous, ‘Hey Diddle Diddle’.
Hey, diddle, diddle,
The cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon;
The little dog laughed
To see such sport,
And the dish ran away with the spoon.
We tend to associate nonsense verse with those great nineteenth-century practitioners, Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, forgetting that many of the best nursery rhymes are also classic examples of nonsense literature. ‘Hey Diddle Diddle’, with its bovine athletics and eloping cutlery and crockery, certainly qualifies as nonsense.
‘Hey Diddle Diddle’ may have been the rhyme referred to in Thomas Preston’s 1569 play A lamentable tragedy mixed ful of pleasant mirth, conteyning the life of Cambises King of Percia: ‘They be at hand Sir with stick and fiddle; / They can play a new dance called hey-didle-didle.’ If so, this poem is much older than Victorian nonsense verse!
What does this intriguing nursery rhyme mean, if anything? What are its origins? We explore the history of this classic piece of nonsense verse for children in the link to the nursery rhyme provided above.
2. Anonymous, ‘I Saw a Peacock’.
I Saw a Peacock, with a fiery tail,
I saw a Blazing Comet, drop down hail,
I saw a Cloud, with Ivy circled round,
I saw a sturdy Oak, creep on the ground,
I saw a Pismire, swallow up a Whale,
I saw a raging Sea, brim full of Ale …
Included in Quentin Blake’s anthology, this poem dates from the seventeenth century: ‘I Saw a Peacock, with a fiery tail, / I saw a Blazing Comet, drop down hail, / I saw a Cloud, with Ivy circled round, / I saw a sturdy Oak, creep on the ground …’
This is sometimes known as a ‘trick’ poem: look at how the second clause of each line describes the following object as well as the previous one, so that, for instance, ‘with a fiery tail’ could refer back to the peacock but also forwards to the ‘Blazing Comet’. What qualifies ‘I Saw a Peacock’ as an early example of nonsense verse, at least two centuries before Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, is that not all of its ‘Janus clauses’ (as we might call them) neatly map onto both nouns: comets and peacocks both have tails, true, but the sea is not literally ‘brim full of Ale’, even though a Venice Glass might be.
We delve into the poem and its history in more detail in the link above.
3. Samuel Foote, ‘The Great Panjandrum Himself’.
So she went into the garden
to cut a cabbage-leaf
to make an apple-pie;
and at the same time
a great she-bear, coming down the street,
pops its head into the shop.
What! no soap?
So he died …
So begins this piece of ‘nonsense verse’. Although Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear are the names that immediately spring to mind, several eighteenth-century writers should get a mention in the history of nonsense writing. One is Henry Carey, who among other things coined the phrase ‘namby-pamby’ in his lambasting of the infantile verses of his contemporary, Ambrose Philips; another is the playwright Samuel Foote, known as the ‘English Aristophanes’, who lost one of his legs in an accident but took it good-humouredly, and often made jokes about it.
It was Samuel Foote who gave us ‘The Great Panjandrum’, a piece of writing whose influence arguably stretches to Carroll and Lear in the nineteenth century, and Spike Milligan in the twentieth. In the eighteenth century, Foote penned this piece of nonsense – later turned into verse simply by introducing line-breaks – as a challenge to the actor Charles Macklin, who boasted that he could memorise and recite any speech, after hearing it just once.
Click on the link above to read both the prose and verse version, and learn more about the origins of this piece of nonsense.
4. Lewis Carroll, ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’.
The Walrus and the Carpenter
Were walking close at hand;
They wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand:
‘If this were only cleared away,’
They said, ‘it would be grand!’
‘If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half a year,
Do you suppose,’ the Walrus said,
‘That they could get it clear?’
‘I doubt it,’ said the Carpenter,
And shed a bitter tear …
Perhaps, of all Lewis Carroll’s poems, ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ has attracted the most commentary and speculation concerning its ultimate ‘meaning’. Some commentators have interpreted the predatory walrus and carpenter as representing, respectively, Buddha (because the walrus is large) and Jesus (the carpenter being the trade Jesus was raised in). It’s unlikely that this was Carroll’s intention, not least because the carpenter could easily have been a butterfly or a baronet instead: he actually gave his illustrator, John Tenniel, the choice, so it was Tenniel who selected ‘carpenter’.
In the poem, the two title characters, while walking along a beach, find a bed of oysters and proceed to eat the lot. But we’re clearly in a nonsense-world here, a world of fantasy: the sun and the moon are both out on this night. The oysters can walk and even wear shoes, even though they don’t have any feet. No, they don’t have feet, but they do have ‘heads’, and are described as being in their beds – with ‘bed’ here going beyond the meaning of ‘sea bed’ and instead conjuring up the absurdly comical idea of the oysters tucked up in bed asleep.
5. Lewis Carroll, ‘Jabberwocky’.
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
‘Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!’ …
Another classic poem by Lewis Carroll, ‘Jabberwocky’ is perhaps the most famous piece of nonsense verse in the English language. And the English language here is made to do some remarkable things, thanks to Carroll’s memorable coinages: it was this poem that gave the world the useful words ‘chortle’ and ‘galumph’, both examples of ‘blending’ or ‘portmanteau words’.
As we explain in the summary of the poem provided in the above link, ‘Jabberwocky’ may be nonsense verse but it also tells one of the oldest and most established stories in literature: the ‘overcoming the monster’ narrative and the ‘voyage and return’ plot. We also include a handy glossary of the nonsense words Carroll used in – and invented for – the poem.
6. Edward Lear, ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’.
The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five-pound note …
This is probably Edward Lear’s most famous poem, and a fine example of Victorian nonsense verse. It was published in Lear’s 1871 collection Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany, and Alphabets, and tells of the love between the owl and the pussycat and their subsequent marriage, with the turkey presiding over the wedding.
Edward Lear wrote ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ for a friend’s daughter, Janet Symonds (daughter of the poet John Addington Symonds), who was born in 1865 and was three years old when Lear wrote the poem.
But which is male and which female out of the owl and the pussycat? Are they both the same gender? We actually have a firm answer, supplied by Lear himself: in the little-known sequel he wrote to the poem, it is revealed that the owl is male and the pussycat female.
7. Edward Lear, ‘The Dong with the Luminous Nose’.
Long years ago
The Dong was happy and gay,
Till he fell in love with a Jumbly Girl
Who came to those shores one day.
For the Jumblies came in a sieve, they did, —
Landing at eve near the Zemmery Fidd
Where the Oblong Oysters grow,
And the rocks are smooth and gray …
One of the things which differentiates some of Lear’s nonsense verse from Lewis Carroll’s is the poignant strain of melancholy found in some of his finest poems. This nonsense poem is also a story of lost love, involving the titular Dong, a creature with a long glow-in-the-dark nose (fashioned from tree-bark and a lamp), who falls in love with the Jumbly girl, only to be abandoned by her.
The Jumblies arrived in the Dong’s land from foreign shores, having travelled across the sea in a sieve (warning: this is not an advisable mode of marine transportation, owing to holes). The Jumblies have green heads and blue hands, but we don’t know much else about their appearance. Lear peppers the verses of ‘The Dong with a Luminous Nose’ with plenty of fantastical details: the Bong-tree, the Zemmery Field, the Chankly Bore.
Towards the end of the poem, Lear tells us that the Dong constructed his famous luminous nose in response to the loss of his Jumbly Girl: he gathered bark from the Twangum tree and wove a nose for himself, painted red, and tied to the back of his head with cords. He then hung a glow-in-the-dark lamp in the nose and bandaged it so that the wind wouldn’t blow the flame of the lamp out (this was before electric lighting, of course!). And the Dong, using his luminous nose as a sort of searchlight, wanders the land all night every night, in search of his Jumbly Girl.
8. A. E. Housman, ‘The Crocodile’.
Though some at my aversion smile,
I cannot love the crocodile.
Its conduct does not seem to me
Consistent with sincerity …
What, A. E. Housman, the poet best-known for A Shropshire Lad (1896), who wrote poems about death and hopeless love? That A. E. Housman wrote nonsense verse? In fact, Housman was an accomplished writer of light verse for children, and ‘The Crocodile’, subtitled ‘Public Decency’, is probably his finest piece of nonsense verse, with a cruel and macabre turn.
Although the poem lacks the fantastical or absurdist elements we associate with Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear (talking animals, nonsensical actions, imaginary landscapes), the final, exaggerated image of the crocodile’s tears flooding the plain certainly fits the ‘nonsense’ bill.
9. Meryn Peake, ‘The Trouble with Geraniums’.
Although he’s more famous for writing fiction – notably the Gothic fantasy trilogy Gormenghast – Mervyn Peake was also a writer of nonsense verse. The link above will take you to several of Peake’s nonsense poems, but here we’ve chosen ‘The Trouble with Geraniums’ – which isn’t entirely about geraniums, but rather ‘the trouble with’ all sorts of things, from toast to diamonds to the poet’s looking-glass…
10. Spike Milligan, ‘On the Ning Nang Nong’.
When he wasn’t entertaining millions as part of the comedy troupe the Goons, Spike Milligan was a talented author of nonsense verse, with this poem, first published in his 1959 collection Silly Verse for Kids, being perhaps his most celebrated example of the form. Indeed, in 2007 In December 2007 OFSTED reported that it was one of the ten most commonly taught poems in primary schools in the UK!
For a good anthology of nonsense poetry, we recommend The Everyman Book of Nonsense Verse.
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.