From Lewis Carroll to John Lennon: The Irrational Magic of Nonsense Verse

Christa Deitrick, Librarian, Literature & Fiction Department,
illustration by Basil T. Blackwood shows a seated audience looking attentive
Illustration by Basil T. Blackwood for "Rebecca, Who Slammed Doors for Fun and Perished Miserably" by Hilaire Belloc, 1907

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, nonsense verse is defined as “humorous or whimsical verse that differs from other comic verse in its resistance to any rational or allegorical interpretation. Though it often makes use of coined, meaningless words, it is unlike the ritualistic gibberish of children’s counting rhymes in that it makes these words sound purposeful.”

Resistance to rational interpretation?
Coined, meaningless words?
Nonsense for nonsense’s sake?
I don’t know about you, but #ITTT I say sign me up!

Therefore, in celebration of National Poetry Month, I’d like to share a few choice morsels from this delightful genre. Feel free to read them aloud to your kids, yourself, or whoever’s handy.

Nonsense verse dates back to 1846, with the publication of Edward Lear’s A Book of Nonsense. Lear originally created the book’s limericks and drawings to amuse the Earl of Derby’s children. They certainly amuse me! Let's take a peek at Limerick #10:


Illustration by Edward Lear, 1846

There was an Old Man in a tree,
Who was horribly bored by a Bee;
When they said, ‘Does it buzz?’
He replied, ‘Yes, it does!’
‘It’s a regular brute of a Bee!’

But it was Lear’s 1870 book Nonsense Songsthat contained his most enduring poem—"The Owl and the Pussycat.” It is one of the masterworks of this surprisingly tricky genre:


Illustration by Edward Lear, 1871

The Owl and the Pussycat

The Owl and the Pussycat went to sea
  In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
  Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
  And sang to a small guitar,
"O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
    You are,
    You are!
What a beautiful Pussy you are!"

Pussy said to the Owl, "You elegant fowl!
  How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married! too long we have tarried:
  But what shall we do for a ring?"
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
  To the land where the Bong-Tree grows
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood
  With a ring at the end of his nose,
      His nose,
      His nose,
  With a ring at the end of his nose.

"Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
  Your ring?" Said the Piggy, "I will."
So they took it away, and were married next day
  By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
  Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
  They danced by the light of the moon,
      The moon,
      The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

Ah, the runcible spoon. There are very few things I love more in this world than a runcible spoon! Runcible is the perfect example of a “coined, meaningless” word. We may not know what the heck it is, but its presence adds tremendously to the overall effect of the poem.

Speaking of runcible spoons, Lewis Carroll was the absolute master of coined, meaningless words. Up next is perhaps the most famous example of nonsense verse that exists—the classic “Jabberwocky” from Through the Looking Glass (1872):


Illustration by John Tenniel, 1871


’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.

As Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice later in the book, slithy means “lithe and slimy,” mimsy is “flimsy and miserable,” a borogove is “a thin shabby-looking bird,” and a rath is “a sort of a green pig.” So there you have it! The poem makes perfect sense now, right? Or should I say perfect nonsense?

If you aren’t familiar with the writings of British-French author Hilaire Belloc, you’re in for a really fun ride. His 1907 book Cautionary Tales for Children contains a plethora of deliciously draconian tales whose late Victorian aim was to terrify children into behaving. With titles like “Jim, who ran away from his nurse, and was eaten by a lion” and “Matilda, who told lies and was burned to death,” they are also extremely funny. Behold this crusty gem:


Illustration by Basil Temple Blackwood, 1907

Rebecca, Who Slammed Doors for Fun and Perished Miserably

A trick that everyone abhors
In little girls is slamming doors.
A wealthy banker’s little daughter
Who lived in Palace Green, Bayswater
(By name Rebecca Offendort),
Was given to this furious sport.

She would deliberately go
And slam the door like billy-o!
To make her Uncle Jacob start.
She was not really bad at heart,
But only rather rude and wild;
She was an aggravating child…

It happened that a marble bust
Of Abraham was standing just
Above the door this little lamb
Had carefully prepared to slam,
And down it came! It knocked her flat!
It laid her out! She looked like that.

Her funeral sermon (which was long
And followed by a sacred song)
Mentioned her virtues, it is true,
But dwelt upon her vices too,
And showed the dreadful end of one
Who goes and slams the door for fun.

The children who were brought to hear
The awful tale from far and near
Were much impressed, and inly swore
They never more would slam the door,
— As they had often done before.

Another underground delight is the work of Laura E. Richards. She may not be a household name, but she was a beast! Although she penned a number of biographies (about Florence Nightingale, Abigail Adams, and Joan of Arc, among others), her greatest gift to humankind was her book of poems for children. She won the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1959 for Tirra Lirra: Rhymes Old and New. Here is a selection from that work (there’s so much good stuff in there!):

Tirra Lirra book jacket

Published by Little, Brown and Company, 1955

The Shark

Oh! blithe and merrily sang the shark,
As he sat on the house-top high:
A-cleaning his boots, and smoking cheroots,
With a single glass in his eye.

With Martin and Day he polished away,
And a smile on his face did glow,
As merry and bold as the chorus he trolled
Of “Gobble-um-upsky ho!”

He sang so loud, he astonished the crowd
Which gathered from far and near.
For they said, “Such a sound, in the country round,
We never, no, never did hear.”

He sang of the ships that he’d eaten like chips
In the palmy days of his youth.
And he added, “If you don’t believe it is true,
Pray examine my wisdom tooth!”

He sang of the whales who’d have given their tails
For a glance of his raven eye.
And the swordfish, too, who their weapons all drew,
And swor’d for his sake they’d die.

And he sang about wrecks and hurricane decks
And the mariner’s perils and pains,
Till every man’s blood up on end it stood,
And their hair ran cold in their veins.

But blithe as a lark the merry old shark,
He sat on the sloping roof.
Though he said, “It is queer that no one draws near
To examine my wisdom toof!”

And he carolled away, by night and by day,
Until he made everyone ill.
And I’ll wager a crown that unless he’s come down,
He is probably carolling still.

In addition to being a genius songwriter, John Winston Lennon was a bit of a goofball with a strong penchant for the absurd. Long before he picked up a guitar, John was an inveterate doodler and jotter of whimsical verse. Three books of his jottings and doodles have been published over the years. Their titles reveal what a word nerd he was: In His Own Write (1964), A Spaniard in the Works (1965), and Skywriting by Word of Mouth (1986). Here is a short piece from In His Own Write.

book jacket

Published by Jonathan Cape, London, 1964

On This Churly Morn

To them perhaps be nicky
I smirk but querry jump
With all this alfy hickey
I do but strive a hump
Knock down ye smallish hooky
Am I the bairly oat?
With all your davey cocky
I’ll always keep afloat.

It’s really not terribly good, but it is fun and endearing. You get a heavy waft of “Jabberwocky” as you can scan the lines. John ain’t no Richards, Lear, or Carroll, but then of course there’s this:

album cover
Released by Capitol Records, 1967

I am the Walrus

I am he as you are he as you are me
And we are all together
See how they run like pigs from a gun
See how they fly
I’m crying

Sitting on a cornflake waiting for the van to come
Corporation tee-shirt, stupid bloody Tuesday
Man, you been a naughty boy
You let your face grow long

I am the eggman
They are the eggmen
I am the walrus

Mr. City, policeman sitting
Pretty little policemen in a row
See how they fly like Lucy in the sky
See how they run
I’m crying

Yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye
Crabalocker fishwife, pornographic priestess
Boy, you been a naughty girl
You let your knickers down

I am the eggman
They are the eggmen
I am the walrus

Sitting in an English garden waiting for the sun
If the sun don’t come you get a tan
From standing in the English rain

I am the eggman
They are the eggmen
I am the walrus

Expert texpert choking smokers
Don’t you think the joker laughs at you?
See how they smile like pigs in a sty
See how they’re snide
I’m crying

Semolina pilchard
Climbing up the Eiffel Tower
Elementary penguin singing Hare Krishna
Man, you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe

I am the eggman
They are the eggmen
I am the walrus
Goo goo j’goob!

There are other purveyors of nonsense verse and you should seek them out, but I’m going to close with a poem by Shel Silverstein. Shel was a multi-talented dude with a twisted sense of humor and a ton of heart. Here’s a poem that’s short but deep from Where the Sidewalk Ends (1974):

book jacket

Published by HarperCollins, 1974


Sandra's seen a leprechaun,
Eddie touched a troll,
Laurie danced with witches once,
Charlie found some goblins' gold.
Donald heard a mermaid sing,
Susy spied an elf,
But all the magic I have known
I've had to make myself.

Nonsense, when done artfully, is a form of magic. No matter who or where you are, I hope you’re able to use this time to make some magic happen!

The Irrational Magic of Nonsense Verse

Book cover for Cautionary Tales for Children
Cautionary Tales for Children
Belloc, Hilaire, 1870-1953.

Book cover for Skywriting by Word of Mouth
Skywriting by Word of Mouth
Lennon, John, 1940-1980.

Book cover for The Finest Nonsense of Edward Lear
The Finest Nonsense of Edward Lear
Lear, Edward, 1812-1888

Book cover for The Owl and the Pussy-Cat
The Owl and the Pussy-Cat
Lear, Edward, 1812-1888.

Book cover for Through the Looking-Glass
Through the Looking-Glass
Carroll, Lewis, 1832-1898

Book cover for Alice In Wonderland and Jabberwocky
Alice In Wonderland and Jabberwocky
Carroll, Lewis, 1832-1898

Book cover for In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works
In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works
Lennon, John, 1940-1980

Book cover for Where the Sidewalk Ends
Where the Sidewalk Ends
Silverstein, Shel