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The Best Nonsense Verse

Which poets wrote the best nonsense verse? This page will fill you in. The best nonsense verse is appropriate for children of all ages. And ironically, the best nonsense verse often makes perfect sense! The best "nonsense" writers include Ogden Nash, Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, Eugene Field, Lord Byron, William Shakespeare, Rudyard Kipling, Hilaire Belloc, Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker, Mother Goose, and the greatest of all humorists, Anonymous. The more popular forms of humorous poetry include puns, doggerel, limericks, clerihews, double dactyls, spoonerisms and McWhirtles. The wider genre is typically called light verse, light poetry and/or humorous verse.

Geoffrey Chaucer used the term "rym doggerel" in his 1387 "Tale of Sir Thopas." John Skelton continued the doggerel tradition in his "Magnyfycence" (1519) and "Speke Parrot" (1521). His brand became known as "skeltonics." Edmund Spenser kept the nonsensical ball rolling with "Mother Hubbard's Tale" in 1590. Shakespeare employed fools and "poor Tom" the Bedlamite in his plays. "To Market, To Market" was published in 1598, "If Wishes Were Horses" in 1628 and "Jack Sprat" in 1639. Some of the older Mother Goose nursery rhymes date to around 1650. Tom Thumb's Song Book, the first collection of British nursery rhymes, was published in 1744 and included poems like "Baa Baa Black Sheep," "Patty Cake" and "London Bridge." Edward Lear published absurdist limericks and art in The Book of Nonsense in 1846. Lewis Carroll followed with Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in 1865, Through the Looking Glass in 1872, and The Hunting of the Snark in 1876. Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss was published in 1960, and Where the Wild Things Are in 1963. The rest, as they say, is humorous history!

Examples of nonsense verse in modern times include poems by Shel Silverstein, Spike Milligan, T. S. Eliot (especially the poems that became the musical "Cats"), A. E. Housman, John Lennon, Mervyn Peake, Christopher Isherwood, Wendy Cope, Eric Idle, Jack Prelutsky, Christian Morgenstern, Carolyn Wells, Ivor Cutler and Laura E. Richards. Examples in popular music include "Yellow Submarine" and "I Am the Walrus" by the Beatles, "The Purple People Eater" by Sheb Wooley, "Monster Mash" by Bobby "Boris" Pickett, and the musical parodies of Weird Al Yankovic. Examples in stand-up comedy include the very naughty adult nursery rhymes of Andrew Dice Clay. Now here, without further ado, are some of the best nonsense poems of all time ...

compiled by Michael R. Burch

Please keep in mind that this page reflects one person's opinion, for whatever that's worth ...

The Cow
by Ogden Nash

The cow is of the bovine ilk;
One end is moo, the other, milk.

Can nonsense verse be used to explain Einstein's theory of relativity?

There was a young lady named Bright
who traveled much faster than light.
She set out one day
in a relative way,
and came back the previous night.

I recently learned that the limerick above was originally penned in a slightly different version by Arthur Henry Reginald Buller; his limerick appeared in Punch (Dec. 19, 1923).

I find it intriguing that one of the best revelations of the weirdness and zaniness of relativity can be found in a limerick. The limerick above inspired me to pen―not one―but two rejoinders:

Asstronomical I

Einstein, the frizzy-haired,
said E equals MC squared.
Thus all mass decreases
as activity ceases?
Not my mass, my ass declared!
Michael R. Burch

Asstronomical II

Relativity, the theorists’ creed,
says mass increases with speed.
My (m)ass grows when I sit it.
Mr. Einstein, get with it;
equate its deflation, I plead!
Michael R. Burch

Writers of nonsense verse can attempt things far more difficult than explaining the theory of relativity. For instance, they can tackle the Mt. Everest of poetry and try to rhyme with the words "orange" and "silver" ...

Eating an orange
While making love
Makes for bizarre enj-
Oyment thereof.
—Tom Lehrer

Lehrer has also proposed "far hinge," "fore hinge," "larynges" and "pharynges" as rhymes for "orange." He should at least get an E for Effort!

To find a rhyme for “silver,”
Or any “rhymeless” rhyme
Requires only will, ver-
Bosity and time.
—Stephen Sondheim

Mt. Everest is looking more and more attractive!

Now, getting back to more traditional nonsense verse ....

The Ostrich
by Ogden Nash

The ostrich roams the great Sahara.
Its mouth is wide, its neck is narra.
It has such long and lofty legs,
I'm glad it sits to lay its eggs.

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, "It is just as I feared!
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!"
Edward Lear

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.
—Mother Goose

The Termite
by Ogden Nash

Some primal termite knocked on wood
And tasted it, and found it good!
And that is why your Cousin May
Fell through the parlor floor today.

There was a young lady of Niger
who smiled as she rode on a tiger;
They returned from the ride
with the lady inside,
and the smile on the face of the tiger.
—attributed to Edward Lear and William Cosmo Monkhouse

The Turtle
by Ogden Nash

The turtle lives 'twixt plated decks
Which practically conceal its sex.
I think it clever of the turtle
In such a fix to be so fertile.

A wonderful bird is the pelican;
His beak can hold more than his belican.
He can hold in his beak
Enough food for a week,
Though I’m damned if I know how the helican!
—Dixon Lanier Merritt (often incorrectly ascribed to Ogden Nash)

The limerick above reminds me of something Dorothy Parker once said about Oscar Wilde: that when she read an especially good epigram, she always assumed Wilde was the author. Ogden Nash holds a similar place of distinction in the pantheon of limerick writers. One thing Nash did wonderfully well was ignore the "rules" that often result in stiffly corseted formal poems. Nash's poems tend to be funny, irreverent, whimsical and "loosey-goosy." (Nash is to limericks as e. e. cummings is to sonnets.)

The Wasp
by Ogden Nash

The wasp and all his numerous family
I look upon as a major calamity.
He throws open his nest with prodigality,
But I distrust his waspitality.

Hickory dickory dock,
the mouse ran up the clock;
the clock struck one
and down he run;
hickory dickory dock.
—Mother Goose

The Crocodile
by Lewis Carroll

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin!
How neatly spread his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!

Dot Spotted
by Michael R. Burch

There once was a leopardess, Dot,
who indignantly answered: "I’ll not!
The gents are impressed
with the way that I’m dressed.
I wouldn’t change even one spot."

If you like the "nonsensical" poem above, you're welcome to share it, but please credit Michael R. Burch as the author.

The origin of the name "limerick" for this poetic form is still being debated. The term was first officially documented in England in 1898, in the New English Dictionary, but the form itself is much older. The name is generally considered to be a reference to the city or county of Limerick, Ireland, and may derive from a parlor game that included a refrain such as "Will [or won't] you come (up) to Limerick?" The earliest known use of the name "limerick" for a short, humorous lyric is an 1880 reference in a New Brunswick newspaper to a tune apparently well-known at the time, "Won’t you come to Limerick?"

There Was a Little Girl
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

There was a little girl
Who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good
She was very good indeed,
But when she was bad she was horrid.

The earliest published American limerick appeared in 1902 in the Princeton Tiger:

There once was a man from Nantucket
Who kept all his cash in a bucket.
But his daughter, named Nan,
Ran away with a man
And as for the bucket, Nantucket.

The Hippopotamus
by Hilaire Belloc

I shoot the Hippopotamus
With bullets made of platinum,
Because if I use leaden ones
His hide is sure to flatten 'em.

The Vulture
by Hilaire Belloc

The Vulture eats between his meals
And that's the reason why
He very, very rarely feels
As well as you and I.
His eye is dull, his head is bald,
His neck is growing thinner.
Oh! what a lesson for us all
To only eat at dinner!

The Octopus
by Ogden Nash

Tell me, O Octopus, I begs
Is those things arms, or is they legs?
I marvel at thee, Octopus;
If I were thou, I'd call me Us.

Further Reflections on Parsley
by Ogden Nash

Is gharsley.

The People Upstairs
by Ogden Nash

The people upstairs all practise ballet
Their living room is a bowling alley
Their bedroom is full of conducted tours.
Their radio is louder than yours,
They celebrate week-ends all the week.
When they take a shower, your ceilings leak.
They try to get their parties to mix
By supplying their guests with Pogo sticks,
And when their fun at last abates,
They go to the bathroom on roller skates.
I might love the people upstairs more
If only they lived on another floor.

The Guppy
by Ogden Nash

Whales have calves,
Cats have kittens,
Bears have cubs,
Bats have bittens,
Swans have cygnets,
Seals have puppies,
But guppies just have little guppies.

The Owl and the Pussy-cat
by Edward Lear

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.
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.

Wynken, Blynken, and Nod
by Eugene Field

Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night
   Sailed off in a wooden shoe—
Sailed on a river of crystal light,
   Into a sea of dew.
"Where are you going, and what do you wish?"
   The old moon asked the three.
"We have come to fish for the herring fish
   That live in this beautiful sea;
   Nets of silver and gold have we!"
                     Said Wynken,
                     And Nod.
The old moon laughed and sang a song,
   As they rocked in the wooden shoe,
And the wind that sped them all night long
   Ruffled the waves of dew.
The little stars were the herring fish
   That lived in that beautiful sea—
"Now cast your nets wherever you wish—
   Never afeard are we";
   So cried the stars to the fishermen three:
                     And Nod.
All night long their nets they threw
   To the stars in the twinkling foam—
Then down from the skies came the wooden shoe,
   Bringing the fishermen home;
'T was all so pretty a sail it seemed
   As if it could not be,
And some folks thought 't was a dream they 'd dreamed
   Of sailing that beautiful sea—
   But I shall name you the fishermen three:
                     And Nod.
Wynken and Blynken are two little eyes,
   And Nod is a little head,
And the wooden shoe that sailed the skies
   Is a wee one's trundle-bed.
So shut your eyes while mother sings
   Of wonderful sights that be,
And you shall see the beautiful things
   As you rock in the misty sea,
   Where the old shoe rocked the fishermen three:
                     And Nod.

by Lewis Carroll

(from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There)

`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, has 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.

The Walrus and The Carpenter
by Lewis Carroll

(from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There)

The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright—
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.

The moon was shining sulkily,
Because she thought the sun
Had got no business to be there
After the day was done—
"It's very rude of him," she said,
"To come and spoil the fun!"

The sea was wet as wet could be,
The sands were dry as dry.
You could not see a cloud, because
No cloud was in the sky:
No birds were flying overhead—
There were no birds to fly.

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!"

"If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half a year.
Do you suppose," the Walrus said,
"That they could get it clear?"
"I doubt it," said the Carpenter,
And shed a bitter tear.

"O Oysters, come and walk with us!"
The Walrus did beseech.
"A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,
Along the briny beach:
We cannot do with more than four,
To give a hand to each."

The eldest Oyster looked at him,
But never a word he said:
The eldest Oyster winked his eye,
And shook his heavy head—
Meaning to say he did not choose
To leave the oyster-bed.

But four young Oysters hurried up,
All eager for the treat:
Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,
Their shoes were clean and neat—
And this was odd, because, you know,
They hadn't any feet.

Four other Oysters followed them,
And yet another four;
And thick and fast they came at last,
And more, and more, and more—
All hopping through the frothy waves,
And scrambling to the shore.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
Walked on a mile or so,
And then they rested on a rock
Conveniently low:
And all the little Oysters stood
And waited in a row.

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—
Of cabbages—and kings—
And why the sea is boiling hot—
And whether pigs have wings."

"But wait a bit," the Oysters cried,
"Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
And all of us are fat!"
"No hurry!" said the Carpenter.
They thanked him much for that.

"A loaf of bread," the Walrus said,
"Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed—
Now if you're ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed."

"But not on us!" the Oysters cried,
Turning a little blue.
"After such kindness, that would be
A dismal thing to do!"
"The night is fine," the Walrus said.
"Do you admire the view?

"It was so kind of you to come!
And you are very nice!"
The Carpenter said nothing but
"Cut us another slice:
I wish you were not quite so deaf—
I've had to ask you twice!"

"It seems a shame," the Walrus said,
"To play them such a trick,
After we've brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!"
The Carpenter said nothing but
"The butter's spread too thick!"

"I weep for you," the Walrus said:
"I deeply sympathize."
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.

"O Oysters," said the Carpenter,
"You've had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?'
But answer came there none—
And this was scarcely odd, because
They'd eaten every one.

You Are Old, Father William
by Lewis Carroll

"You are old, Father William," the young man said,
"And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head—
Do you think, at your age age, it is right?"

"In my youth," Father William replied to his son,
"I feared it might injure the brain;
But, now that I'm perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again."

"You are old," said the youth, " as I mentioned before,
And have grown most uncommonly fat;
Yet you turned a back somersault in at the door—
Pray, what is the reason of that?"

"In my youth," said the sage, as he shook his grey locks,
"I kept all my limbs very supple
By the use of this ointment—one shilling the box—
Allow me to sell you a couple?"

"You are old," said the youth, " and your jaws are too weak
For anything tougher than suet;
Yet you finished the goose, with the bones and the back—
Pray, how did you manage to do it?"

"In my youth," said his father, "I took to the law,
And argued each case with my wife;
And the muscular strength, which it gave to my jaw,
Has lasted the rest of my life."

"You are old," said the youth, "one would hardly suppose
That your eye was steady as ever;
Yet, you balanced an eel on the end of your nose—
What made you so awfully clever?"

"I have answered three questions, and that is enough,"
Said his father. "Don't give yourself airs!
Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff?
Be off, or I'll kick you downstairs!

by Mervyn Peake

The trouble with geraniums
is that they’re much too red!
The trouble with my toast is that
it’s far too full of bread.

The trouble with a diamond
is that it’s much too bright.
The same applies to fish and stars
and the electric light.

The troubles with the stars I see
lies in the way they fly.
The trouble with myself is all
self-centred in the eye.

The trouble with my looking-glass
is that it shows me, me;
there’s trouble in all sorts of things
where it should never be.

The Crocodile or, Public Decency
by A. E. Housman

Though some at my aversion smile,
I cannot love the crocodile.
Its conduct does not seem to me
Consistent with sincerity.

Where Nile, with beneficial flood,
Improves the desert sand to mud,
The infant child, its banks upon,
Will run about with nothing on.
The London County Council not
Being adjacent to the spot,
This is the consequence. Meanwhile,
What is that object in the Nile,
Which swallows water, chokes and spits?
It is the crocodile in fits.

'Oh infant! oh my country's shame!
Suppose a European came!
Picture his feelings, on his pure
Personally conducted tour!
The British Peer's averted look,
The mantling blush of Messrs. Cook!
Come, awful infant, come and be
Dressed, if nothing else, in me.'

Then disappears into the Nile
The infant, clad in crocodile,
And meekly yields his youthful breath
To darkness, decency, and death.
His mother, in the local dells,
Deplores him with Egyptian yells:
Her hieroglyphic howls are vain,
Nor will the lost return again.
The crocodile itself no less
Displays, but does not feel, distress,
And with its tears augments the Nile;
The false, amphibious crocodile.

'Is it that winds Etesian blow,
Or melts on Ethiop hills the snow?'
So, midst the inundated scene,
Inquire the floating fellaheen.
From Cairo's ramparts gazing far
The mild Khedive and stern Sirdar
Say, as they scan the watery plain,
'There goes that crocodile again.'
The copious tribute of its lids
Submerges half the pyramids,
And over all the Sphinx it flows,
Except her non-existent nose.

The Rolling English Road
by G. K. Chesterton

Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode, 
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road. 
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire, 
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire; 
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread 
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head. 

I knew no harm of Bonaparte and plenty of the Squire, 
And for to fight the Frenchman I did not much desire; 
But I did bash their baggonets because they came arrayed 
To straighten out the crooked road an English drunkard made, 
Where you and I went down the lane with ale-mugs in our hands, 
The night we went to Glastonbury by way of Goodwin Sands. 

His sins they were forgiven him; or why do flowers run 
Behind him; and the hedges all strengthening in the sun? 
The wild thing went from left to right and knew not which was which, 
But the wild rose was above him when they found him in the ditch. 
God pardon us, nor harden us; we did not see so clear 
The night we went to Bannockburn by way of Brighton Pier. 

My friends, we will not go again or ape an ancient rage, 
Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age, 
But walk with clearer eyes and ears this path that wandereth, 
And see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of death; 
For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen, 
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.

Adventures Of Isabel
by Ogden Nash

Isabel met an enormous bear,
Isabel, Isabel, didn't care;
The bear was hungry, the bear was ravenous,
The bear's big mouth was cruel and cavernous.
The bear said, Isabel, glad to meet you,
How do, Isabel, now I'll eat you!
Isabel, Isabel, didn't worry.
Isabel didn't scream or scurry.
She washed her hands and she straightened her hair up,
Then Isabel quietly ate the bear up.
Once in a night as black as pitch
Isabel met a wicked old witch.
the witch's face was cross and wrinkled,
The witch's gums with teeth were sprinkled.
Ho, ho, Isabel! the old witch crowed,
I'll turn you into an ugly toad!
Isabel, Isabel, didn't worry,
Isabel didn't scream or scurry,
She showed no rage and she showed no rancor,
But she turned the witch into milk and drank her.
Isabel met a hideous giant,
Isabel continued self reliant.
The giant was hairy, the giant was horrid,
He had one eye in the middle of his forhead.
Good morning, Isabel, the giant said,
I'll grind your bones to make my bread.
Isabel, Isabel, didn't worry,
Isabel didn't scream or scurry.
She nibled the zwieback that she always fed off,
And when it was gone, she cut the giant's head off.
Isabel met a troublesome doctor,
He punched and he poked till he really shocked her.
The doctor's talk was of coughs and chills
And the doctor's satchel bulged with pills.
The doctor said unto Isabel,
Swallow this, it will make you well.
Isabel, Isabel, didn't worry,
Isabel didn't scream or scurry.
She took those pills from the pill concocter,
And Isabel calmly cured the doctor.

Other nonsense verse of note:

"Full Fathom Five" by William Shakespeare
"The Mad Gardener's Song" by Lewis Carroll
"The Lobster Quadrille" by Lewis Carroll
"The Crocodile" by Lewis Carroll
The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear
"The Dong with the Luminous Nose" by Edward Lear
"The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo" by Edward Lear
"The Jumblies" by Edward Lear
"How Pleasant to Know Mr. Lear!" by Edward Lear
"Ballad of the Breadman" by Charles Causley
Silly Verse for Kids by Spike Milligan, including "On the Ning Nang Nong"
A Book of Nonsense by Mervyn Peake
The Pocket Full of Boners by Dr. Seuss (1931)
Hejji by Dr. Seuss (1935)
Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss (1940)
And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street by Dr. Seuss (1937)
If I Ran the Zoo by Dr. Seuss (1950)
Horton Hears a Who! by Dr. Seuss (1954)
If I Ran the Circus by Dr. Seuss (1956)
The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss (1957)
How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss (1957)
Yertle the Turtle by Dr. Seuss (1958)
The Cat in the Hat Comes Back by Dr. Seuss (1958)
Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss (1960)
The Lorax by Dr. Seuss (1971)
Oh, the Places You'll Go by Dr. Seuss (1990)
"The Great Panjandrum Himself" by Samuel Foote
"The Crocodile, or Public Decency" by A. E. Housman
"I Saw a Peacock" by Anonymous, as published in Quentin Blake's anthology
Magnyfycence by John Skelton
"Tom O'Bedlam's Song" by Anonymous
"Robyn Hudde in Bernsdale stode" by Anonymous, circa 1450
"The mone in the mornyng" by Anonymous, circa 1450
"The Madman's Song" by Anonymous, circa 1450
"Herkyn" by Anonymous, circa 1450
"Herkons" by Anonymous, circa 1450
"Song on Woman" by Anonymous, circa 1450
"The cricket and the greshope" by Anonymous, circa 1475
"My Lady went to Canterbury" by Anonymous, circa 1550
"I Sawe a Dog" by Anonymous, circa 1550
"Newes Newes Newes" by Anonymous, circa 1550

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