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.
Anonymous, ‘Hey Diddle Diddle’. 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. 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.
Anonymous, ‘I Saw a Peacock’. 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’.
Samuel Foote, ‘The Great Panjandrum Himself’. 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.
Lewis Carroll, ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’. 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.
Lewis Carroll, ‘Jabberwocky’. 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.
Edward Lear, ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’. 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.
Edward Lear, ‘The Dong with the Luminous Nose’. 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.
A. E. Housman, ‘The Crocodile’. 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.
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…
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.