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In many languages, it is said, there is no nonsense poetry, and there is not a great deal of it even in English. (George Orwell, pictured above)

Hello poets everywhere. My name is Tony Maude and it is my pleasure to once more take up the towel, set up the glasses and welcome you to the pub. Today  I’d like you to try your hand at writing some nonsense of your own … smiles. But first some history …

The Origins of Nonsense Poetry

Although nonsense poetry is inextricably connected with the names of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, historians of the genre generally hold that the earliest example of nonsense verse is Cabalistical Verses by the 17th century wit John Hoskyns. Here it is:

Even as the waves of brainless butter’d fish,
With bugle horne writ in the Hebrew tongue,
Fuming up flounders like a chafing-dish,
That looks asquint upon a Three-mans song:
Or as your equinoctiall pasticrust
Projecting out a purple chariot wheele,
Doth squeeze the spheares, and intimate the dust,
The dust which force of argument doth feele:
Even so this Author, this Gymnosophist,
Whom no delight of travels toyle dismaies,
Shall sympathize (thinke reader what thou list)
Crownd with a quinsill tipt with marble praise.

Hoskyns example was taken up by his contemporary John Taylor – the self-styled Water-poet. Although his early work could be categorised as gibberish, Taylor quickly discovered the comedic value of animated food and his later works contain all manner of foodstuffs (especially seafood for some reason) leaving the plate and performing all manner of strange activities.

Taylor died in 1653 and, by and large, nonsense poetry then disappeared until it was re-invented by Lear and Carroll in the 19th Century.

Why Write Nonsense Verse?

The 17th century in Britain was a time of great political and religious tension. The century began with the death of England’s Queen Elizabeth in 1603. She left no direct heir and so James VI of Scotland inherited the throne, becoming James I of the newly united kingdoms of Scotland and England. He was succeeded in turn by his son Charles I. Tensions between the Crown and Parliament erupted during his reign, leading to the Civil War and ultimately to the execution of the King and the installation of Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland.

Against such a turbulent and violent background simply saying the wrong thing to the wrong person could result in imprisonment or worse, and publishing your views was a very risky business indeed. Step forward nonsense as a form of political writing in which you could say whatever you wanted while being able to claim that any meanings other people might choose to read into your words were not necessarily what you intended. Nonsense writing was a way to make a stand for what you believed in and against those whose political and religious views (and actions) you opposed. It seems probable to me that the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 and the increase in religious tolerance in Britain over the following century were at least as significant factors in the virtual disappearance of nonsense verse as the death of John Taylor.

Nonsense resurfaced in the 19th Century in the works of Lewis Carroll (Rev Charles Dodgson) and Edward Lear, both of whom were writing for children. Carroll wrote his Alice books for Alice Liddell while Lear composed his verse – and illustrated it – to entertain the children of Edward Stanley, 13th Earl of Derby.

Narrative

Setting aside limericks, most nonsense verse is narrative in style – it tells a story. Both Carroll and Lear wrote nonsense narratives describing fantastical adventures undertaken in fantasy worlds, sometimes by imaginary creatures, sometimes by animals and people behaving in the most unexpected ways. Edward Lear gave us The Jumblies, The Courtship of the Yonghy Bonghy Bo, and The Owl and the Pussycat, while Lewis Carroll’s most famous poems are Jabberwocky (see below) and The Hunting of the Snark. But, although there are obvious similarities between Carroll and Lear’s work, the two writers generally took differing approaches to the creation of their imaginary worlds – and it is to these we turn now.

Putting the Ordinary to Extraordinary Uses

Lear, Edward -Poetry ArchiveEdward Lear

Edward Lear’s nonsense poems are full of ordinary, everyday objects being put to extraordinary uses. The Jumblies serves to illustrate the point:

The Jumblies

 jumblies

They went to sea in a Sieve, they did,
In a Sieve they went to sea:
In spite of all their friends could say,
On a winter’s morn, on a stormy day,
In a Sieve they went to sea!
And when the Sieve turned round and round,
And every one cried, “You’ll all be drowned!”
They called aloud, “Our Sieve ain’t big,
But we don’t care a button! we don’t care a fig!
In a Sieve we’ll go to sea!”

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.

They sailed in a Sieve, they did,
In a Sieve they sailed so fast,
With only a beautiful pea-green veil
Tied with a riband by way of a sail,
To a small tobacco-pipe mast;
And every one said, who saw them go,
“O won’t they be soon upset, you know!
For the sky is dark, and the voyage is long,
And happen what may, it’s extremely wrong
In a Sieve to sail so fast!”

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.

The water it soon came in, it did,
The water it soon came in;
So to keep them dry, they wrapped their feet
In a pinky paper all folded neat,
And they fastened it down with a pin.
And they passed the night in a crockery-jar,
And each of them said, “How wise we are!
Though the sky be dark, and the voyage be long,
Yet we never can think we were rash or wrong,
While round in our Sieve we spin!”

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.

So one approach to writing nonsense is to take the ordinary and make it extraordinary; to put everyday objects to unusual – even insane – uses.

Another approach is to use invented words – neologisms – which Lewis Carroll was brilliant at.

Neologisms

Lewis CarrollLewis 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!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand;
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree
And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

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

What an absolute feast of invented words! But how do you invent a new word? One of Carroll’s techniques was to condense two existing words into one new one. For example, slithy is the result of combining slimy with lithe – and it manages to convey a sense of both as it describes the gyring and gimbling motions of the toves. Something else Carroll was good at was making it clear what type of word – noun, verb, or adjective – his neologisms are; of all the strange new words in Jabberwocky, only brillig is difficult to classify; is it a noun or an adjective?

A Call to Order

I’ll close with a couple of notes on style.

First, although the three poems I have included in this article are clearly nonsense, they are neither anti-sense nor gibberish. Hoskyns’ poem has the appearance of a eulogy for another writer; Lear and Carroll have both told stories which have a coherent internal logic.

Second (Brian, you’ve been waiting for this … smiles) all three poems use standard poetical devices like meter, rhyme, alliteration, repetition and refrains etc. I think this is something worth aiming for in your own nonsense verse because it gives your readers a small sense of security in the midst of all the strangeness.

And that’s it. Have at it poets; let’s write nonsense!

Here’s what to do now:

• Write your poem and post it to your blog.
• Add a link to your poem via the ‘Mr Linky’ below.
• This opens a new screen where you’ll enter your information. This is also where you choose links to read. Once you have pasted your poem’s blog URL and entered your name, click Submit. Don’t worry if you don’t see your name right away.
• Read and comment on other people’s work to let them know it’s being read.
• Share your work and that of your fellow poets via your favourite social media platforms.
• Above all – have fun!