“If poetry that’s sensible
Is what you’re searching for
If you want words of wisdom
Then you need search no more
For this is not the book for you
So do not waste your money
This book is full of silly stuff
And poems that are funny!”
in the preface to Paul Cookson’s Silly Poems.)
An Overview of Nonsense Verse, as a Form and Genre in Literature
Encyclopædia Britannica defines nonsense verse as “humorous poetry that differs from other comic verse in its resistance to any rational or allegorical interpretation.”
Nonsense verse is a whimsical and often humorous form of literature that employs elements such as rhythm and rhyme, playing on the stress of syllables. It subverts language conventions and logical reasoning with a playful tone so that the end result is characterised by some elements that make sense and others that do not. This usually serves to amuse, confuse or delight the reader. Although it tends to make use of meaningless, invented words, it differs from children’s hollow, made-up rhymes, with their “ritualistic gibberish,” as it makes even its ridiculous words sound purposeful.
Edward Lear’s work with limericks (which he popularised as a form) as well as Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’ from Through the Looking-Glass (1872) remain the most appropriate and best-known example of nonsense verse. Carroll’s phrases such as “frabjous day” have now become part of the everyday language of today. Nonsense literature in fact rose to prominence in Victorian England with this book as well as its predecessor Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), which came out when children’s books that deal with growing up were beginning to gain acclaim. Further, Lear’s contribution to literary nonsense in poetry was so significant that he is known now mostly for this, along with his mockingly irreverent view of the world. His poem ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ popularised the made-up word “runcible” which is found today in many English dictionaries.
T.S. Eliot describes Lear’s ‘nonsense’ as
“not a vacuity of sense; it is a parody of sense, and that is the sense of it”
(‘The Music of Poetry’).
He further describes nonsense as writing that draws attention to and takes advantage of the arbitrary nature of language. It thus is seen by him to complicate or obstruct the relationship between two words, a thought reflected in his own poetry. However, Carroll reverses the laws of not only language but also plays with physics and mathematics in his works, such as with speed (when the Red Queen tells Alice they must run twice as fast for them to get anywhere, while they are already running at full speed) as well as time (when the Mad Hatter tells Alice his watch is exactly two days slow). As a mathematician, many of Carroll’s seemingly childish ideas draw on complex ideas of the nature of language, truth and logic. There are also political undertones to it, such as where the Walrus as a powerful figure uses nonsense as a tool to bewilder and exploit the weak, helpless Carpenter.
It is significant that both these pioneers of the ridiculous come from Victorian England, a period known for its distortion of ‘values’ (or what they considered to be values). Their use of nonsense can be seen as a response to the forced and pervasive orderliness of the society. Their humour has, despite this, proved timeless. G. K. Chesterton described it, in 1900, as
“the literature of the future.”
The appeal of nonsense remains consistent through the ages, as it allows its reader to shake off the rules and restrictions of a monotonous life and instead escape to the limitless, perpetually baffling visions of childhood. Further, such elements of fantasy and wonder, and of defying established norms, are significant to the positive nurturing and growth of children, in whom imagination and creativity develops from an early age through the exploration of ‘nonsense.’ It lends aesthetic pleasures and perils like no other genre.
A Study of Two Poems in Nonsense Verse
I climbed up the door and
I opened the stairs.
I said my pyjamas
and buttoned my prayers.
I turned off the covers
and pulled up the light.
I’m all scrambled up since
you kissed me last night.
Bruce Lansky // Sandy Roistan
This poem (with disputed authorship) is a fun play on words. With its playful representation of an infatuated child, the poem accurately represents schooldays’ crushes. Endearing and evocative, ‘Scrambled’ is relatable to people of all ages- as everyone has had innocent crushes that make them feel “all scrambled up.” It is nonsensical in its presentation of ideas such as climbing doors, which is presented in opposition to opening stairs, so as to represent the narrator’s world going topsy-turvy. This reversal of a typical nightly routine works to reveal the state of mind of the enamoured narrator, in an accurate reflection of human behaviour and thinking.
The poem thus also serves as an example of how nonsense verse is not arbitrary and clearly serves a purpose beyond its comic benefits. Further, it shows that children’s poetry — a genre people often underestimate — has significance and depth, too.
This disassociation of the actions and how they seem disconnected from what they should be (but are not) attached to. Thus, here, the signifiers are not connected to the signified. This makes the poem of a similar nature to the anonymous folk poem ‘One Fine Day,’ as printed below.
“One fine day in the middle of the night,
Two dead men got up to fight,
Back to back they faced each other,
Drew their swords and shot each other.”
This poem too makes use of inconsistencies and defies logic. Both poems, full of contradictions, make for humorous children’s writing. However, while ‘Scrambled’ seems to have a deeper significance and actual meaning to it, as suggested by its final line, ‘One Fine Day’ is a poem that serves the purpose of amusement alone. Further, it seems nonsense verse holds a great deal of scope for romantic writing. For instance, ‘Tonight at Noon’ by Adrian Henri employs a similar structure of opposites and contradictions, as evident from the title, and Roger McGough’s poem on unrequited love, ‘Being in Love,’ with its teenager-like angst, uses invented nonsense-words such as “sadnessful” eyes and “kissinspiring” lips.
There was a Young Poet from Limerick
There was a young poet from Limerick
Who was always very confused
‘Cos nothing much rhymed
With the town of his birth
So why name a rhyming verse after it?
Limericks, a form of poem popularised by Edward Lear in the 19th century, has been much under appreciated throughout the ages. It has been touted by ‘serious’ writers as a vulgar and obscene, serving no real purpose. George Bernard Shaw described it as a
“periodic fad and object of magazine contests, rarely rising above mediocrity.”
However, it is a quintessential form of nonsense verse and is popular among children and adults alike due to its hilarity as well as its familiar and predictable rhythm. As a folk form, the limerick is considered transgressive as it tends to violate societal taboos, and thus serves a purpose beyond that estimated by the ‘sombre’ writers.
This poem has been written in the folk form of a limerick, but without the actual rhymes. Despite this, the first, second, and final lines seem to go together in response to one another, due to the rhythm and meter of the poem, while the third and fourth lines, as the two shorter lines in the poem, do so as well. The anapaest meter (which makes use of two short syllables followed by one long), typical of limericks, has also been applied here.
The omission of rhymes from this poem is more than simple negligence, however. As the poem talks about there not being many words that rhyme with ‘Limerick’ (which is both a form of poem as well as a city in Ireland), the lack of rhyme stresses this point. With this poetic form being one that strongly implies its rhymes, the reader tends to anticipate the expected rhyme scheme and is filled with a sense of incompleteness when this is not fulfilled. Thus this poem relies heavily on suggestion.
With the ‘familiar and predictable’ rhythm of the limerick incorporated, the poem nevertheless is made unpredictable because of the absence of rhyme. It is therefore different from traditional limericks, but still staying true to the basic principles. It is an archetypal limerick as it calls back to the very name of the form, and mocks it.