Nonsense verse

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Nonsense verse is a form of nonsense literature usually employing strong prosodic elements like rhythm and rhyme. It is often whimsical and humorous in tone and employs some of the techniques of nonsense literature.


Limericks are probably the best known form of nonsense verse, although they tend nowadays to be used for straightforward humour, rather than having a nonsensical effect.

Among writers in English noted for nonsense verse are Edward Lear, [1] Lewis Carroll, Mervyn Peake, Edward Gorey, Colin West, Dr. Seuss, and Spike Milligan. The Martian Poets and Ivor Cutler are considered by some to be in the nonsense tradition.


In some cases, the humor of nonsense verse relies on the incompatibility of phrases which make grammatical sense but semantic nonsense - at least in certain interpretations - as in the traditional:

'I see' said the blind man to his deaf and dumb daughter
as he picked up his hammer and saw.

Compare amphigory.

Other nonsense verse makes use of nonsense words—words without a clear meaning or any meaning at all. Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear both made good use of this type of nonsense in some of their verse. These poems are well formed in terms of grammar and syntax, and each nonsense word is of a clear part of speech. The first verse of Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" illustrates this nonsense technique, despite Humpty Dumpty's later clear explanation of some of the unclear words within it:

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Other nonsense verse uses muddled or ambiguous grammar as well as invented words, as in John Lennon's "The Faulty Bagnose":

The Mungle pilgriffs far awoy
Religeorge too thee worled.
Sam fells on the waysock-side
And somforbe on a gurled,
With all her faulty bagnose!

Here, awoy fills the place of "away" in the expression "far away", but also suggests the exclamation "ahoy", suitable to a voyage. Likewise, worled and gurled suggest "world" and "girl" but have the -ed form of a past-tense verb. "Somforbe" could possibly be a noun, possibly a slurred verb phrase. In the sense that it is a slurred verb, it could be the word "stumbled", as in Sam fell onto the drunk side and stumbled on a girl.

However, not all nonsense verse relies on word play. Some simply illustrate nonsensical situations. For instance, Edward Lear's poem, "The Jumblies" has a comprehensible chorus:

Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue
And they went to sea in a sieve.

However, the significance of the color of the heads and hands is not apparent and the verse appears[ according to whom? ] to be nonsense.

Some nonsense verse simply presents contradictory or impossible scenarios in a matter-of-fact tone, like this example from Brian P. Cleary's Rainbow Soup: Adventures in Poetry (Millbrook Press, 2004):

One tall midget reached up high,
Touched the ground above the sky,
Tied his loafers, licked his tongue,
And told about the bee he stung.
He painted, then, an oval square
The color of the bald man's hair,
And in the painting you could hear
What's undetected by the ear.

Likewise, a poem sometimes attributed to Christopher Isherwood and first found in the anthology Poems Past and Present (Harold Dew, 1946 edition, J M Dent & Sons, Canada – attributed to "Anon") makes grammatical and semantic sense and yet lies so earnestly and absurdly that it qualifies as complete nonsense:

The common cormorant or shag
Lays eggs inside a paper bag
The reason you will see no doubt
It is to keep the lightning out
But what these unobservant birds
Have failed to notice is that herds
Of wandering bears may come with buns
And steal the bags to hold the crumbs.

More contemporary examples of nonsense verse include the Vogon poetry from Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy , and the 1972 song "Prisencolinensinainciusol" by Italian multi-talent Adriano Celentano.


There is a long tradition of nonsense verse in English. The Anglo-Saxon riddles are an early form. For instance:

A moth ate some words – it seemed to me
strangely weird – when I heard this wonder:
that it had devoured – the song of a man.
A thief in the thickness of night – gloriously mouthed
the source of knowledge – but the thief was not
the least bit wiser – for the words in his mouth.

The following poem makes even more extreme use of word incompatibility by pairing a number of polar opposites such as morning/night, paralyzed/walking, dry/drowned, lie/true, in conjunction with lesser incompatibilities such as swords/shot and rubber/wall.

One fine day in the middle of the night,
Two dead men got up to fight.
Back-to-back they faced one another,
Drew their swords and shot each other.
One was blind and the other couldn't see,
So they chose a dummy for a referee.
A blind man went to see fair play,
A dumb man went to shout "hooray!"
A paralyzed donkey passing by,
Kicked the blind men in the eye,
Knocked him through a nine-inch wall,
Into a dry ditch and drowned them all.
A deaf policeman heard the noise,
And went to arrest the two dead boys.
If you don't believe this lie is true,
Ask the blind man – he saw it too!
[ This quote needs a citation ]

Many nursery rhymes are nonsense if the context and background are not known. Some claim that Mother Goose rhymes were originally written to parody the aristocracy while appearing to be nothing more than nonsense nursery rhymes.[ citation needed ] One example is:

Hey diddle, diddle,
The cat and the fiddle.
The cow jumped over the moon.
The little dog laughed to see such fun,
And the dish ran away with the spoon.

Other languages

Russian nonsense poets include Daniil Kharms and Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy, particularly his work under the pseudonym Kozma Prutkov, and some French exponents are Charles Cros and Robert Desnos. The best-known Dutch Nonsense poet is Cees Buddingh'. On Indian language Bengali Sukumar Roy is the pioneer of nonsense poems and is very famous for writing children's literature. Abol Tabol is the best collection of nonsense verse in Bengali language.

Among German nonsense writers, Christian Morgenstern and Ringelnatz are the most widely known, and are both still popular, while Robert Gernhardt is a contemporary example. Morgenstern's "Das Nasobēm" is an imaginary being like the Jabberwock, although less frightful:

Auf seinen Nasen schreitet
einher das Nasobēm,
von seinem Kind begleitet.
Es steht noch nicht im Brehm.
Es steht noch nicht im Meyer.
Und auch im Brockhaus nicht.
Es trat aus meiner Leyer
zum ersten Mal ans Licht.
Auf seinen Nasen schreitet
(wie schon gesagt) seitdem,
von seinem Kind begleitet,
einher das Nasobēm.

Upon its noses strideth
Onward the Noseybum,
With it its young abideth.
It's not yet found in Brehm.
It's not yet found in Meyer.
And neither in Brockhaus.
It trotted from my lyre,
Its first time in the light.
Upon its noses strideth
(As said before) thencefrom,
With it its young abideth,
Onward the Noseybum.

The following observation by F.W. Bernstein has practically become a German proverb.

Die schärfsten Kritiker der Elche
waren früher selber welche

The sharpest critics of the elks
used to be ones themselves

Julio Cortázar, the Argentinian writer, was famous for playing with language in several works.

See also

Related Research Articles

Edward Lear British artist, illustrator, author and poet

Edward Lear was an English artist, illustrator, musician, author and poet, now known mostly for his literary nonsense in poetry and prose and especially his limericks, a form he popularised. His principal areas of work as an artist were threefold: as a draughtsman employed to make illustrations of birds and animals; making coloured drawings during his journeys, which he reworked later, sometimes as plates for his travel books; and as a (minor) illustrator of Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poems. As an author, he is known principally for his popular nonsense collections of poems, songs, short stories, botanical drawings, recipes and alphabets. He also composed and published twelve musical settings of Tennyson's poetry.

Jabberwocky Nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll

"Jabberwocky" is a nonsense poem written by Lewis Carroll about the killing of a creature named "the Jabberwock". It was included in his 1871 novel Through the Looking-Glass, the sequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865). The book tells of Alice's adventures within the back-to-front world of Looking-Glass Land.

A rhyme is a repetition of similar sounds in the final stressed syllables and any following syllables of two or more words. Most often, this kind of perfect rhyming is consciously used for a musical or aesthetic effect in the final position of lines within poems or songs. More broadly, a rhyme may also variously refer to other types of similar sounds near the ends of two or more words. Furthermore, the word rhyme has come to be sometimes used as a shorthand term for any brief poem, such as a nursery rhyme or Balliol rhyme.

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Light poetry or light verse is poetry that attempts to be humorous. Light poems are usually brief, can be on a frivolous or serious subject, and often feature word play including puns, adventurous rhyme, and heavy alliteration. Typically, light verse in English is formal verse, although a few free verse poets have excelled at light verse outside the formal verse tradition.

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Alliterative verse

In prosody, alliterative verse is a form of verse that uses alliteration as the principal ornamental device to help indicate the underlying metrical structure, as opposed to other devices such as rhyme. The most commonly studied traditions of alliterative verse are those found in the oldest literature of the Germanic languages, where scholars use the term 'alliterative poetry' rather broadly to indicate a tradition which not only shares alliteration as its primary ornament but also certain metrical characteristics. The Old English epic Beowulf, as well as most other Old English poetry, the Old High German Muspilli, the Old Saxon Heliand, the Old Norse Poetic Edda, and many Middle English poems such as Piers Plowman, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the Alliterative Morte Arthur all use alliterative verse.

Hey Diddle Diddle English nursery rhyme

"Hey Diddle Diddle" is an English nursery rhyme. It has a Roud Folk Song Index number of 19478.

Tmesis ; Ancient Greek: τμῆσις tmēsis, "a cutting" < τέμνω temnō, "I cut") is a linguistic phenomenon in which a word or phrase is separated into two parts, with other words between them.

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A word salad, or schizophasia, is a "confused or unintelligible mixture of seemingly random words and phrases", most often used to describe a symptom of a neurological or mental disorder. The term schizophasia is used in particular to describe the confused language that may be evident in schizophrenia. The words may or may not be grammatically correct, but are semantically confused to the point that the listener cannot extract any meaning from them. The term is often used in psychiatry as well as in theoretical linguistics to describe a type of grammatical acceptability judgement by native speakers, and in computer programming to describe textual randomization.

The Man in the Moon Stayed Up Too Late Poem in The Lord of the Rings

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Childrens poetry

Children's poetry is poetry written for, or appropriate for children. This may include folk poetry ; poetry written intentionally for young people ; poetry written originally for adults, but appropriate for young people ; and poems taken from prose works.

This glossary of literary terms is a list of definitions of terms and concepts used in the discussion, classification, analysis, and criticism of all types of literature, such as poetry, novels, and picture books, as well as of grammar, syntax, and language techniques. For a more complete glossary of terms relating to poetry in particular, see Glossary of poetry terms.

This is a glossary of poetry.

Literary nonsense

Literary nonsense is a broad categorization of literature that balances elements that make sense with some that do not, with the effect of subverting language conventions or logical reasoning. Even though the most well-known form of literary nonsense is nonsense verse, the genre is present in many forms of literature.

"On the Ning Nang Nong" is a poem by the comedian Spike Milligan featured in his 1959 book Silly Verse For Kids. In 1998 it was voted the UK's favourite comic poem in a nationwide poll, ahead of other nonsense poems by poets such as Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear.

"The Mouse's Tale" is a shaped poem by Lewis Carroll which appears in his 1865 novel Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Though no formal title for the poem is given in the text, the chapter title refers to "A Long Tale" and the Mouse introduces it by saying, "Mine is a long and sad tale!" As well as the contribution of typography to illustrate the intended pun in this title, artists later made the intention clear as well. Translators of the story also encountered difficulty in conveying the meaning there, part of which was not recognised until well over a century later.

<i>Chinese Whispers</i> (poetry collection) 2002 volume of poetry

Chinese Whispers is a 2002 poetry collection by the American writer John Ashbery. It was Ashbery's 20th collection and consists of 65 individual poems.

Poetic devices are a form of literary device used in poetry. Poems are created out of poetic devices composite of: structural, grammatical, rhythmic, metrical, verbal, and visual elements. They are essential tools that a poet uses to create rhythm, enhance a poem's meaning, or intensify a mood or feeling.


  1. "Is It Irrational To Be Rational?". IAI TV - Changing how the world thinks. 2019-06-11. Retrieved 2019-06-20.

Further reading