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Nonsense verse is a form of light, often rhythmical verse, often for children, depicting peculiar characters in amusing and fantastical situations. It is whimsical and humorous in tone and tends to employ fanciful phrases and meaningless made-up words. Nonsense verse is closely related to Amphigouri (Greek amphi- (q.v.) + gyros "circle," thus "circle on both sides," or from Gk. -agoria "speech"), which is a meaningless or nonsensical piece of writing, especially one intended as a parody.
Limericks are probably the best known form of nonsense verse, although they tend nowadays to be used for bawdy or straightforwardly humorous, rather than nonsensical, effect.
Among writers in English noted for nonsense verse are Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, Ogden Nash, Mervyn Peake, Edward Gorey, Colin West, Roald Dahl, Dr. Seuss, Brian P. Cleary, and Spike Milligan. The Martian Poets and Ivor Cutler are considered by some to be in the nonsense tradition.
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 explanation of some of the unclear words within it:
Other nonsense verse uses muddled or ambiguous grammar as well as invented words, as in John Lennon's "The 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:
However, the significance of the color of their heads and hands is not apparent and the verse appears 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):
Likewise, a poem by Christopher Isherwood from his Poems Past and Present (J.M. Dent and Sons (Canada) Ltd. fourth printing, 1959) makes grammatical and semantic sense and yet lies so earnestly and absurdly that it qualifies as complete nonsense:
More contemporary examples of nonsense verse are Vogon poetry, found in Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy or the 1972 song 'Prisencolinensinainciusol' by Italian multi-talent Adriano Celentano .
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.
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. One example is:
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'.
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: