How to Write a Nonsense Poem
An examination of what nonsense poetry is and how to write it effectively.
Nonsense poetry should never be dismissed as a mere gimmick designed to appeal to kids. While it is true that many of the best are indeed written for children, nonsense poetry is as old as language itself, many of which have indeed been passed down the generations in the oral folk tradition, largely as idiomatic expressions but also as nursery rhymes.
Since the late Victorian period, however, there has been a further explosion in nonsense poetry, spearheaded by the likes of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. At their heart, nonsense rhymes are playful exercises in illogic which are intended to evoke humour and bewilderment in equal measure. With this consideration taken into account, writers should consider experimenting with the following techniques in order to write their own nonsense poems:
1. Make up words
Some of the best nonsense poems contain words which do not even belong in the dictionary at all, at least at the time of their original publication. Probably the most famous work of nonsense poetry is Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky,’ which is contained in a book Alice discovers whilst exploring the mirror world in Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. Holding a mirror to the poem in the hope of making some sense of it, Alice reads it aloud:
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe; All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe. ‘Jabberwocky’ by Lewis Carroll
Alice’s reaction to reading this poem is naturally one of bemusement. Carroll’s intention, quite clearly, is to underscore the confusion she is experiencing, but—even in isolation—it’s almost possible for a reader to find a slither of meaning in ‘Jabberwocky.’ The first stanza (above) tries to evoke a swampy realm of creatures in which the Jabberwock dwells, and despite the fact that almost half of the words used are completely made-up, it almost seems to make sense.
With this in mind, a writer hoping to create nonsense poetry should be open to inventing words of their own, particularly ones which express what you’re trying to say by playing with onomatopoeia, assonance and divergent meanings. The trick is to use gibberish artfully, conveying vivid imagery without relying solely on the English language, using words which sound like they could be real in a way which poeticises the nonsensical. It may not be easy, but my word, it is fun to write.
2. Embrace absurdity
Very often, the overt meanings in nonsense poetry venture into surrealist territory, embracing absurdism in its purest form. No matter which way you cut it, ‘The Owl and the Pussy-Cat’ by Edward Lear is about how a turkey presides over the marriage of an owl and a cat. That in itself is ridiculous, so if you want to veer more towards an obviously absurdist interpretation of your poem and rely less on gobbledygook, absurdism is always a good option.
Dr. Seuss’s nonsense poem ‘Too Many Daves’ finds its appeal from a similarly absurdist brand of humour, attempting to make the reader laugh more at the predicament the poem explores than the linguistic choices the writer actually makes:
Did I ever tell you that Mrs. McCave Had twenty-three sons and she named them all Dave? Well, she did. And that wasn’t a smart thing to do. You see, when she wants one and calls out, ‘Yoo-Hoo! Come into the house, Dave!’ she doesn’t get one. All twenty-three Daves of hers come on the run! ‘Too Many Daves’ by Dr. Seuss
Of course, any aspiring poet today recognises Dr. Seuss as a master of nonsense poetry, as not only was he remarkably inventive in creating oddball characters (The Grinch, The Lorax) and preposterous worlds (Whoville, Thneedville), but he also invented many fictional words and phrases which have now passed into the modern lexicon. Few people realise it, but did you know Dr. Seuss invented the word nerd ? If that doesn’t inspire you with the power of jibber-jabber and absurdist verse, then it’d be fascinating to know what does!
3. Use conventional rhymes
Given that you’ll be testing the limits of your reader’s imagination with random words and absurdist content, it’s advisable to stick to conventional rhyme schemes for a nonsense poem (e.g. ABAB, AABB, and so on). Edward Lear’s preference, in particular, was to write short limericks, telling outlandish tales in short stanzas which confound the reader with their sheer lunacy:
There was an old man, who when little Fell casually into a kettle; But, growing too stout, He could never get out, So he passed all his life in that kettle. ‘There was an Old Man, Who When Little’ by Edward Lear
What often makes nonsense poetry so successful is the fact that the only predictable thing about them is their form and style. If rhyme schemes follow traditional patterns readers already recognise, not only does it help anchor how you can use words and pace your flow of syllables, but it also makes the surrealist context more accessible and less jarring for your readers. For this reason, I’d recommend thinking conservatively when it comes choosing a poetic form for your first work of nonsense poetry.
Despite how nonsense poems have played a pioneering role in the evolution of the English language, especially by encouraging readers to broaden our vocabularies beyond inherited speech, the most important thing for writers to remember is to have fun. The tone in nonsense poems is more than always light, highly readable and amusing. Therefore, if you wish to write a nonsense poem, play fast and loose with your own creative impulses; make yourself laugh; and you’ll be sure to create a work of nonsense poetry which is not only enjoyable to write, but also fun to read. Give it a go. You’ll never know if you have a knack for it unless you try.
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© 2018 Luke Edley Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.
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10 of the Best Nonsense Poems in English Literature
By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
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. There are many colourful and curious synonyms for nonsense in the English language, and nonsense is an important part of our literature, too. 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.
1. Anonymous, ‘ Hey Diddle Diddle ’.
Hey, diddle, diddle, The cat and the fiddle, The cow jumped over the moon; The little dog laughed To see such sport, And the dish ran away with the spoon.
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.
‘Hey Diddle Diddle’ may have been the rhyme referred to in Thomas Preston’s 1569 play A lamentable tragedy mixed ful of pleasant mirth, conteyning the life of Cambises King of Percia : ‘They be at hand Sir with stick and fiddle; / They can play a new dance called hey-didle-didle.’ If so, this poem is much older than Victorian nonsense verse!
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.
2. Anonymous, ‘ I Saw a Peacock ’.
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, I saw a Pismire, swallow up a Whale, I saw a raging Sea, brim full of Ale …
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’.
What qualifies ‘I Saw a Peacock’ as an early example of nonsense verse, at least two centuries before Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear , is that not all of its ‘Janus clauses’ (as we might call them) neatly map onto both nouns: comets and peacocks both have tails, true, but the sea is not literally ‘brim full of Ale’, even though a Venice Glass might be.
We delve into the poem and its history in more detail in the link above.
3. Samuel Foote, ‘ The Great Panjandrum Himself ’.
So she went into the garden to cut a cabbage-leaf to make an apple-pie; and at the same time a great she-bear, coming down the street, pops its head into the shop. What! no soap? So he died …
So begins this piece of ‘nonsense verse’. 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.
Follow the link above to read both the prose and verse version, and learn more about the origins of this piece of nonsense.
4. Lewis Carroll, ‘ The Walrus and the Carpenter ’.
The Walrus and the Carpenter Were walking close at hand; They wept like anything to see Such quantities of sand: ‘If this were only cleared away,’ They said, ‘it would be grand!’ …
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 …
5. Lewis 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!’ …
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. We also include a handy glossary of the nonsense words Carroll used in – and invented for – the poem.
6. Edward Lear, ‘ The Owl and the Pussycat ’.
The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea In a beautiful pea-green boat, They took some honey, and plenty of money, Wrapped up in a five-pound note …
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.
But which is male and which female out of the owl and the pussycat? Are they both the same gender? We actually have a firm answer, supplied by Lear himself: in the little-known sequel he wrote to the poem , it is revealed that the owl is male and the pussycat female.
7. Edward Lear, ‘ The Dong with the Luminous Nose ’.
Long years ago The Dong was happy and gay, Till he fell in love with a Jumbly Girl Who came to those shores one day. For the Jumblies came in a sieve, they did, — Landing at eve near the Zemmery Fidd Where the Oblong Oysters grow, And the rocks are smooth and gray …
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.
The Jumblies arrived in the Dong’s land from foreign shores, having travelled across the sea in a sieve (warning: this is not an advisable mode of marine transportation, owing to holes). The Jumblies have green heads and blue hands, but we don’t know much else about their appearance. Lear peppers the verses of ‘The Dong with a Luminous Nose’ with plenty of fantastical details: the Bong-tree, the Zemmery Field, the Chankly Bore.
Towards the end of the poem, Lear tells us that the Dong constructed his famous luminous nose in response to the loss of his Jumbly Girl: he gathered bark from the Twangum tree and wove a nose for himself, painted red, and tied to the back of his head with cords.
8. A. E. Housman, ‘ The Crocodile ’.
Though some at my aversion smile, I cannot love the crocodile. Its conduct does not seem to me Consistent with sincerity …
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.
Although the poem lacks the fantastical or absurdist elements we associate with Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear (talking animals, nonsensical actions, imaginary landscapes), the final, exaggerated image of the crocodile’s tears flooding the plain certainly fits the ‘nonsense’ bill.
9. 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…
10. 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!
1 thought on “10 of the Best Nonsense Poems in English Literature”
I love the jabberwocky
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Edward Lear and nonsense poetry: a new writing challenge
We’re teaming up with little angel theatre to challenge you to get inspired by edward lear and little angel theatre’s production of ‘the dong with a luminous nose’ and write nonsense poetry., this challenge is now closed. congratulations to the winners, whose poems you can read in the sidebar. congratulations, too, to the longlisted poets whose work impressed the judges: lauren aspery, sophie bateman, rachael brown, emily burt, miriam culy, alessandra dixon, chloe elliott, hania habib, matthew lappas, nadia lines, ritika mehta, sarah nachimson, caio nosarti granger, madeleine oliver, zoe osterloh, masha pospolitak, hannah-grace roberts, lucas sheridan-warburton, samuel taylor, olivia todd and lateesha-marie tyler., the challenge: write a nonsense poem (or poems) and enter by 10 november, younger poets, teachers and parents can use this activity sheet to inspire entries., who is edward lear.
Born in 1812, Edward Lear is one of the most famous nonsense poets in the English language. He grew up in North London in a big family: his parents had twenty-one children, and Lear was the twentieth, though not all of his siblings survived infancy. Because of the family’s difficulties with money, after the age of four, Lear was raised by his eldest sister when they had to move out of their family home.
Throughout his life, Lear was a misfit. Although he had many close, lifelong friends, biographers say that Lear’s intense love for his friends and family was never returned in quite the same way. Unlike his famous Owl and Pussy-cat , Lear never married. Some of his biographers think he may have been in love with his friend Franklin Lushington; but Lushington didn’t feel the same way, and this tormented Lear for years.
Lear also lived with lots of chronic illnesses, including epilepsy, bronchitis, asthma and depression (which he called ‘the Morbids’). Because of the stigma of these illnesses, he felt ashamed all his life – especially because of his epilepsy, which wasn’t really understood by doctors at the time.
But none of this stopped Lear from living a full life, travelling round the world and becoming a much-loved classic of the poetry canon, as well as a brilliant artist and musician.
Above all, Lear saw himself as an artist. He saw and drew so many different, magnificent landscapes across his life (see his Masada on the Dead Sea ) which probably influenced the nonsense landscapes in his poems.
Travel and migration are themes in many of Lear’s most famous poems, like ‘The Jumblies’ , ‘The Owl and the Pussy-cat’ and ‘The Dong with a Luminous Nose’ . Aged 43, he decided he’d never live permanently in Britain again. He roamed the Mediterranean, eventually settling in San Remo in Italy, where he would die of heart disease in 1888, aged 75.
Nonsense verse and ‘The Dong with a Luminous Nose’
What is nonsense verse? Well, despite its name, nonsense poetry makes sense most of the time , just not always. You can understand what happens in one of Lear’s poems. But the conclusions or events are often so bizarre and unexpected that we think it’s ‘nonsense’. Here’s a classic Learian limerick:
There was an old man of Thermopylæ, Who never did anything properly; But they said, “If you choose To boil eggs in your shoes, You shall never remain in Thermopylæ.”
The first two lines make total sense. And then… what?!
The creatures and landscapes in nonsense poems are often totally made-up, such as in Lear’s ‘The Dong with a Luminous Nose’. Read the poem in full here . Here’s an excerpt:
Long years ago The Dong was happy and gay, Till he fell in love with a Jumbly Girl Who came to those shores one day. For the Jumblies came in a sieve, they did, — Landing at eve near the Zemmery Fidd Where the Oblong Oysters grow, And the rocks are smooth and gray. And all the woods and the valleys rang With the Chorus they daily and nightly sang, — “ Far and few, far and few, Are the lands where the Jumblies live; Their heads are green, and the hands are blue And they went to sea in a sieve. Happily, happily passed those days! While the cheerful Jumblies staid; They danced in circlets all night long, To the plaintive pipe of the lively Dong, In moonlight, shine, or shade. For day and night he was always there By the side of the Jumbly Girl so fair, With her sky-blue hands, and her sea-green hair. Till the morning came of that hateful day When the Jumblies sailed in their sieve away, And the Dong was left on the cruel shore Gazing — gazing for evermore, — Ever keeping his weary eyes on That pea-green sail on the far horizon, — Singing the Jumbly Chorus still As he sate all day on the grassy hill, — “ Far and few, far and few, Are the lands where the Jumblies live; Their heads are green, and the hands are blue And they went to sea in a sieve.”
In the poem, the ‘Dong’ falls in love with a ‘Jumbly Girl’. When the Jumbly leaves, the Dong is very sad and roams the forest forevermore, seeking his love. Every now and then people spot his luminous nose in the forest and remember his tale.
This all makes sense – as long as you’re able to imagine what Dongs and Jumblies are , and visualise the ‘great Gromboolian plain’ where the poem takes place. (Side-note: Lear fans might spot that the Jumblies referenced in this poem are from a different poem of his, called ‘The Jumblies’ .)
Because Lear’s poems are set in made-up places with made-up creatures, the characters can represent anyone. Lear doesn’t write ‘ I was happy’ or ‘John was happy’, but ‘the Dong was happy’, distancing the Dong from any real-life people or events.
This means that every reader can read their own meanings into the poem. For instance, the Jumblies could be compared to migrants or even refugees – and suddenly going to sea in a sieve is much more poignant.
Some readers suggest ‘The Dong with a Luminous Nose’ could be read as a queer love story: the Dong and Jumbly love one another, but they are destined never to be with another. The Dong is doomed to solitude – he doesn’t love anyone else, and he’s the only Dong in the poem.
One reader says that ‘only by creating such unreal beings and settings’ could Lear write ‘with unrepressed emotion about his own unhappiness and sense of isolation’. Nonsense poems could be a way for you to speak about something which affects you, without putting yourself in the poem.
A final note: nonsense verse can be as fun and random as you want it to be – but equally, it can be really philosophical. Nonsense poetry influenced 20 th century movements like surrealism and the Theatre of the Absurd, and in some ways reject ‘sense’, or what society thinks makes sense. It’s totally up to you how you’d like to write your nonsense poems.
Write a nonsense poem, about anything at all!
Here are some suggested steps (but if you have a different idea, you can go your own way!):
- Make up some nonsense creatures and landscapes. You could mix up several different real animals or landscapes to invent a new one. If you’re stuck, try using this activity sheet .
- Invent your story. It doesn’t have to be complicated at all – remember, nonsense verse delights in sound over sense. Will your characters travel somewhere? Will they fall in love? Perhaps they have an argument… or they’re running away from something… or towards something. You could take parts of your life and make them into nonsense verse too.
- Decide how you’ll structure your poem. Will you use four line verses, or longer? Will it be a series of limericks? What will the rhyme scheme be? Most nonsense poems rhyme and have an iambic rhythm (de-DUM-de-DUM-de-DUM…) so you might want to incorporate that into the verse.
If you’d like to find out more about the tradition of nonsense verse (which dates back to the 14 th century) check out this feature . And if you’re in London, get inspired by the Little Angel Theatre puppeteer production of ‘The Dong with a Luminous Nose’ , which is on from Saturday 14 September to Sunday 10 November 2019 .
- Play with sound: in nonsense verse, sound is just as important as the story, so make up some new words! What does ‘runcible’ mean? We don’t know but it adds to the nonsense!
- Rhyme : sometimes the first word that pops into your head is a rhyme that you’ve heard in other poems, such as ‘love’ and ‘dove’ and ‘above’. Keep thinking – surprise us!
- Rhyme : before you write the first line of each verse, make sure that the last line makes sense. For example, in a four-line verse, write Line Four so that it has a strong meaning and then go back to Line Two and make it rhyme with Line Four.
- Repetition can help with rhythm and rhyme, for instance: ‘They sailed away in a Sieve, they did, / In a Sieve they sailed so fast’.
- Lists can be helpful too! They can give more detail about a scene, and also add to the humour:
They sailed to the Western Sea, they did, To a land all covered with trees, And they bought an Owl, and a useful Cart, And a pound of Rice, and a Cranberry Tart, And a hive of silvery Bees. And they bought a Pig, and some green Jack-daws, And a lovely Monkey with lollipop paws, And forty bottles of Ring-Bo-Ree, And no end of Stilton Cheese.
- Make sense : ensure your reader can follow your storyline (even if it’s silly!). Lear’s writing does make sense – it’s just full of preposterous, surreal, silly or just plain odd words and ideas.
Selected poets will be published on Young Poets Network and sent an exclusive Young Poets Network notebook, poetry books and goodies from Little Angel Theatre. This challenge will be judged by Sarah Schofield, Head of Creative Learning at Little Angel Theatre and Young Poets Network.
How to enter
This challenge is for writers aged up to 25 based anywhere in the world. The deadline is midnight, Sunday 10 November 2019 . You can send a poem written down, or a recording as a video or as an audio file. If you are sending a written version of your poem, please type it into the body of your email. If you are sending a video or audio file, please attach it to the email (making sure it’s no bigger than 4MB or it won’t come through) or send us a link to where we can see/hear it.
Send your poem(s) to [email protected] with your name, date of birth/age, gender, and the county (or, if you’re not from the UK, the country) you live in and the subject line ‘Nonsense challenge’. If you are aged 12 or younger on Sunday 10 November 2019, you will need to ask a parent/guardian to complete this permission form ; otherwise, unfor tunately we cannot consider your entry due to data protection laws.
We welcome entries from schools and youth groups. Use this entry form to enter students from your class or group.
If you would like us to add you to the Young Poets Network mailing list, include ‘add me to the mailing list’ in the subject line of the email. If you would like us to confirm that we’ve received your entry, include ‘confirm receipt’ in the subject line. You may refuse to provide information about yourself.
If you require this information in an alternative format (such as Easy Read, Braille, Large Print or screenreader friendly formats), or need any assistance with your entry, please contact us at [email protected] .
13 thoughts on “ Edward Lear and nonsense poetry: a new writing challenge ”
add me to the mailing list’
Thanks for your comment – we’ve just added you to our Young Poets Network mailing list. Welcome!
Armm well am15 yrs student in one the schools in Africa specially Kenya and am really interested in joining in coze I write poems and I want to go far for my poems I want to be considered and I promise I will prove my worth
Thanks for your comment. It’s great to hear that you’d like to get involved! Do enter our Edward Lear poetry challenge, and look around other parts of the Young Poets Network website. I can add you to our mailing list too, if you like. That’ll send emails with updates about everything we do for young writers worldwide.
Helen at Young Poets Network
I have composed a poem which I am interested to send. I am a young author from India and my poetry has won me the first place in Pendle War Poetry Competition last year. Edward Lear is a legend and I have tried to salute him through my humble attempt. Please add me to your email list.
Fantastic! We can’t wait to read your entry. I’ve added you to our mailing list – welcome!
Best of luck,
I have already started waiting for the results…when can I expect them?
I sincerely hope that the Judges not only like but absolutely love my poem!!
Thanks for entering the challenge! The challenge closed for entries yesterday, so it will be a few weeks before the judges read all the submissions and decide on the winning poems. We will email all entrants with the news as soon as we can.
Please are we allowed to send any poem at all?
Thanks for your comment. If you are aged up to 25 (inclusive), then yes! Absolutely, please send as many poems as you like inspired by this nonsense-themed challenge.
If I were not so jumbly old I’d enter this and place it bold That love or words Which hold out thee Can also be lost so easily.
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- In The Mix Georgia McMillan 1st prize, nonsense challenge
- The Zumbiog Monica Yell 2nd prize, nonsense challenge
- Smug as a Bug Jack Cooper 3rd prize, nonsense challenge
- Moving Out Aliyah Begum Commended, nonsense challenge
- Ode to a Soup Dragon Beatrix Livesey-Stephens Commended, nonsense challenge
- When the Jambler Heard a Sound Amelie Coyle Commended, nonsense challenge
- Socks on my Ears Evie Tempest Commended, nonsense challenge
- We Couldn’t Help Melting The Snow Pieta Bayley Commended, nonsense challenge
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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. The bulk of it is in nursery rhymes and scraps of folk poetry, some of which may not have been strictly nonsensical at the start, but have become so because their original application has been forgotten. For example, the rhyme about Margery Daw:
See-saw, Margery Daw, Dobbin shall have a new master. He shall have but a penny a day Because he can’t go any faster.
Or the other version that I learned in Oxfordshire as a little boy:
See-saw, Margery Daw, Sold her bed and lay upon straw. Wasn’t she a silly slut To sell her bed and lie upon dirt?
It may be that there was once a real person called Margery Daw, and perhaps there was even a Dobbin who somehow came into the story. When Shakespeare makes Edgar in King Lear quote ‘Pillicock sat on Pillicock hill’, and similar fragments, he is uttering nonsense, but no doubt these fragments come from forgotten ballads in which they once had a meaning. The typical scrap of folk poetry which one quotes almost unconsciously is not exactly nonsense but a sort of musical comment on some recurring event, such as ‘One a penny, two a penny, Hot-Cross buns’ , or ‘Polly, put the kettle on, we’ll all have tea’ . Some of these seemingly frivolous rhymes actually express a deeply pessimistic view of life, the churchyard wisdom of the peasant. For instance:
Solomon Grundy , Born on Monday, Christened on Tuesday, Married on Wednesday, Took ill on Thursday, Worse on Friday, Died on Saturday, Buried on Sunday, And that was the end of Solomon Grundy.
which is a gloomy story, but remarkably similar to yours or mine.
Until Surrealism made a deliberate raid on the unconscious, poetry that aimed at being nonsense, apart from the meaningless refrains of songs, does not seem to have been common. This gives a special position to Edward Lear , whose nonsense rhymes have just been edited by Mr R. L. Megroz  , who was also responsible for the Penguin edition a year or two before the war. Lear was one of the first writers to deal in pure fantasy, with imaginary countries and made-up words, without any satirical purposes. His poems are not all of them equally nonsensical; some of them get their effect by a perversion of logic, but they are all alike in that their underlying feeling is sad and not bitter. They express a kind of amiable lunacy, a natural sympathy with whatever is weak and absurd. Lear could fairly be called the originator of the limerick, though verses in almost the same metrical form are to be found in earlier writers, and what is sometimes considered a weakness in his limericks — that is, the fact that the rhyme is the same in the first and last lines — is part of their charm. The very slight change increases the impression of ineffectuality, which might be spoiled if there were some striking surprise. For example:
There was a young lady of Portugal Whose ideas were excessively nautical; She climbed up a tree To examine the sea, But declared she would never leave Portugal.
It is significant that almost no limericks since Lear’s have been both printable and funny enough to seem worth quoting. But he is really seen at his best in certain longer poems, such as ‘The Owl and the Pussy-Cat’ or ‘The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò’ :
On the Coast of Coromandel, Where the early pumpkins blow, In the middle of the woods Lived the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò. Two old chairs, and half a candle One old jug without a handle These were all his worldly goods: In the middle of the woods, These were all the worldly goods Of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò, Of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò.
Later there appears a lady with some white Dorking hens, and an inconclusive love affair follows. Mr Megroz thinks, plausibly enough, that this may refer to some incident in Lear’s own life. He never married, and it is easy to guess that there was something seriously wrong in his sex life. A psychiatrist could no doubt find all kinds of significance in his drawings and in the recurrence of certain made-up words such as “runcible”. His health was bad, and as he was the youngest of twenty-one children in a poor family, he must have known anxiety and hardship in very early life. It is clear that he was unhappy and by nature solitary, in spite of having good friends.
Aldous Huxley , in praising Lear’s fantasies as a sort of assertion of freedom, has pointed out that the ‘They’ of the limericks represent common sense, legality and the duller virtues generally. ‘They’ are the realists, the practical men, the sober citizens in bowler hats who are always anxious to stop you doing anything worth doing. For instance:
There was an Old Man of Whitehaven, Who danced a quadrille with a raven; But they said, ‘It’s absurd To encourage this bird!’ So they smashed that Old Man of Whitehaven.
To smash somebody just for dancing a quadrille with a raven is exactly the kind of thing that ‘They’ would do. Herbert Read has also praised Lear, and is inclined to prefer his verse to that of Lewis Carroll , as being purer fantasy. For myself, I must say that I find Lear funniest when he is least arbitrary and when a touch of burlesque or perverted logic makes its appearance. When he gives his fancy free play, as in his imaginary names, or in things like ‘Three Receipts for Domestic Cookery’ , he can be silly and tiresome. ‘The Pobble Who Has No Toes’ is haunted by the ghost of logic, and I think it is the element of sense in it that makes it funny. The Pobble, it may be remembered, went fishing in the Bristol Channel:
And all the Sailors and Admirals cried, When they saw him nearing the further side — ‘He has gone to fish, for his Aunt Jobiska’s Runcible Cat with crimson whiskers!’
The thing that is funny here is the burlesque touch, the Admirals. What is arbitrary — the word ‘runcible’, and the cat’s crimson whiskers — is merely rather embarrassing. While the Pobble was in the water some unidentified creatures came and ate his toes off, and when he got home his aunt remarked:
‘It’s a fact the whole world knows, That Pobbles are happier without their toes,’
which once again is funny because it has a meaning, and one might even say a political significance. For the whole theory of authoritarian governments is summed up in the statement that Pobbles were happier without their toes. So also with the well-known limerick:
There was an Old Person of Basing, Whose presence of mind was amazing; He purchased a steed, Which he rode at full speed, And escaped from the people of Basing.
It is not quite arbitrary. The funniness is in the gentle implied criticism of the people of Basing, who once again are ‘They’, the respectable ones, the right-thinking, art-hating majority.
The writer closest to Lear among his contemporaries was Lewis Carroll, who, however, was less essentially fantastic — and, in my opinion, funnier. Since then, as Mr Megroz points out in his Introduction, Lear’s influence has been considerable, but it is hard to believe that it has been altogether good. The silly whimsiness of present-day children’s books could perhaps be partly traced back to him. At any rate, the idea of deliberately setting out to write nonsense, though it came off in Lear’s case, is a doubtful one. Probably the best nonsense poetry is produced gradually and accidentally, by communities rather than by individuals. As a comic draughtsman, on the other hand, Lear’s influence must have been beneficial. James Thurber , for instance, must surely owe something to Lear, directly or indirectly.
Tribune , 21 December 1945
The Lear Omnibus edited by R. L. Megroz
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poetic device: Nonsense Poems
Nonsense poems are poems that intentionally don’t make a lot of sense. Some use made-up words, while others contradict themselves or use language in random or unusual ways.
Some of the most famous children’s poems of all time, such as Lewis Carroll’s “ Jabberwocky ” and Edward Lear’s “ The Owl and the Pussycat ” were nonsense poems.
As a child, I loved nonsense poetry and I still do. That’s why I have written quite a few of them and I plan to write many more. In the meantime, here are the nonsense poems I have written so far for you to enjoy.
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Our Nonsense Poems
Once a month we have what we call “Literary Lunch”. It’s a spin-off of the Brave Writer’s Poetry Teatime . Her goal behind teatime is to expose the kids to poems. My goal is to share our own writing and thoughts about things we have read. You can read more about our experience here .
Sometimes I like to give specific assignments that I want everyone to share. And sometimes I just ask them to share anything they have written lately.
This month there was a specific assignment. I got the idea from the Poetry Teatime Blog.
Poetry Prompt: Nonsense Poem What is a Jabberwock and how does it whiffle through the tulgey wood? What’s a vorpal sword and why does it go snicker-snack? Today, we’re going to use our imaginations to create wonderful poetic nonsense that will rival even Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece, “Jabberwocky.” Let’s begin by getting in the right frame of mind for some nonsense. Read “ Jabberwocky ” out loud, and be sure to act it out and use dramatic voices as much as you can. If you’ve already read “Jabberwocky” lots of times, why not check out another Carroll poem, the rather long tale of “ The Hunting of the Snark ”! Now that we’ve set the scene, it’s time to talk about literary nonsense. What is a nonsense poem? It’s a poem where the important words are made up by the author. The new words can have definitions in the author’s mind, or they can be silly without any explanation. By replacing the main words with brand new words but keeping the smaller connecting words, the poem still sounds like a normal sentence in English but is full of fun, silly nonsense! How do you do you write your own nonsense poem? There are all sorts of ways. For the first method, write a poem like you normally would. Then, erase the important words in each line. How can you tell if a word is important? It’s either a noun, a verb, an adjective, or an adverb. Replace those words with something completely made up. Then, read your poem aloud and see how different it sounds.
Not everyone followed the rules exactly, but they all wrote a nonsense poem. Here they are below. I hope you enjoy them.
This poem is by Faythe. She decided to just write a random poem.
This one is by Ephram. He wrote a haiku using silly words.
This poem is by Dyllan. The first is the poem with the made up words and the second is the real poem.
This one is Corbin’s poem. The first is the nonsense poem and the second is the real one.
This one was written by Braedi. She finished the original poem (the second one), but didn’t get a chance to change out all the words for the nonsense poem.
This poem is mine. The first is the nonsense poem and the second is the original poem before the words were changed.
Could you write your own nonsense poem? Feel free to share.
I'm Ashlee and I pride myself on being ME. I'm your non-stereotypical mormon homeschool mom who loves a good book, green grass, conversation with friends, mountains, trying new things, and peanut butter and chocolate. My goal is to help you become your best you by sharing what I have learned.
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Poetry Day Nonsense Poem Writing
Age range: 7-11
Resource type: Worksheet/Activity
24 November 2022
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Maybe you are honouring UNESCO’s World Poetry Day or maybe just dipping into some poetry writing. Whichever, this enables children to create a nonsense poem in the style of the Mad Hatter from ‘Alice in Wonderland’. Ideal for KS2 and KS3. Easy to follow PPT with methodical steps to help students create a nonsense poem. Low threshold, high ceiling differentiation so all achieve. Could be an extended starter or a whole lesson. Bring your own tea and cake and you could always dress up as the Mad Hatter, if you are that way inclined.
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Excellent resource, thank you. Cx.
Empty reply does not make any sense for the end user
Thank you for taking the time out of your day to review. Mrs. Sh.
ok for lower KS2; I don't think it would stretch KS3
Thank you for your review and feedback on this free resource designed to provide a little piece of joy for colleagues and students on World Poetry Day.
Trying to open this on 7th June 2020 and doesn't appear to be working. I have only given one star due to the fact I can't see the content, which may be good!
How strange - there isn’t a reason that I can think of why it shouldn’t open. What a shame since it is a lovely resource in terms of content, presentation and the work students can do as a result. I will have to ask a colleague to see if the same thing happens to them (authors re-downloading their own work isn’t a good control experiment since our computers already feel familial with the work and welcome it back into the fold, so to speak). <br /> <br /> Thank you for letting me know. If I find the root of the problem is a general one and not just peculiar to your hardware, I will bob back on here and suggest a solution. I am happy to try emailing the resource to you but that means publicising your email and then you risk being spammed, I suppose, so I’ll let you decide that.
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