One of the types of poetry that has fallen into disuse is humorous verse. It had been popular in the first half of the twentieth century but seemed to falter and die out from the mid-sixties onwards, only turning up now and then in magazines like the New Yorker as a kind of homage to the greats of the genre. In some ways, it transmogrified into the humorous songs to be found in Broadway musicals and Hollywood movies, which is a pity because often this kind of verse sounds better in its native environment, the unaccompanied human voice, where the proper emphasis can be placed of the key words to humorous effect. Some of the rhyming verse produced by such eminent writers as G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc is now so obscure that nobody can understand it anymore, because it refers to people, places and events of the time in which it were written. But most of it – at least the bulk of what has been published in book form so far – is by turns hilarious, droll, amusing and clever.
Hilaire Belloc, in particular, wrote verse that purported to be for children, but which in fact contains a level of verbosity that would stump the average nipper and even some adults, but that’s actually part of the fun. Many of these poems were cautionary tales about little children who were naughty and came to tragic ends. For most adult readers, Belloc’s poems can be a source of great pleasure especially when read aloud, because he is a master not only of rhyme but also of rhythm. Here are a few snippets from his book “The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts:”
I shoot the hippopotamus with bullets made of platinum
Because if I use leaden ones his hide is sure to flatten ’em.
Be kind and tender to the frog
And do not call him names
As ‘Slimy skin’, or ‘Polly-wog’
Or likewise ‘Ugly James’
Or ‘Gap-a-grin’ or ‘Toad-gone-wrong’,
Or ‘Billy Bandy-knees’:
The frog is justly sensitive
To epithets like these.
No animal will more repay
A treatment kind and fair;
At least so lonely people say
Who keep a frog (and by the way,
They are extremely rare).
A python I should not advise, –
It needs a doctor for its eyes
And has the measles yearly.
However, if you feel inclined
To get one (to improve your mind,
And not from fashion merely),
Allow no music near its cage;
And when it flies into a rage
Chastise it, most severely.
I had an aunt in Yucatan
Who bought a python from a man
And kept it for a pet.
She died because she never knew
These simple little rules and few; –
The snake is living yet.
Then there’s the slightly darker humor of Harry Graham whose “Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes” contains some classic verse, to wit:
Weep not for little Leonie,
Abducted by a French Marquis!
Though loss of honor was a wrench,
Just think how it’s improved her French.
Billy, in one of his nice new sashes
Fell in the fire and was burnt to ashes
And now, although the room grows chilly,
I haven’t the heart to poke poor Billy.
Nurse, who peppered baby’s face
(She mistook it for a muffin),
Held her tongue and kept her place,
‘Laying low and sayin’ nuffin’;
Mother, seeing baby blinded,
Said, “Oh, nurse, how absent-minded!”
And G.K. Chesterton?
Of Uncle Humphrey who can sing?
His name can’t rhyme with anything,
How much superior is Aunt Harriet
Who rhymes correctly to Iscariot
But, at least stateside, the most famous exponent of the short, sharp, ditty is Ogden Nash, whose humorous verse infiltrated the popular magazines of the day. “I think in terms of rhyme, and have since I was six years old,” he stated in a 1958 news interview. Here are a few of his zingers:
Reflections on Ice-breaking
One would be in less danger
From the wiles of the stranger
If one’s own kin and kith
Were more fun to be with.
I would live all my life in nonchalance and insouciance
Were it not for making a living, which is rather a nouciance.
It is a pity that there are not more outlets for this sort of brilliance nowadays. And it is brilliance because, despite how easy it looks, it takes a great deal of skill to write convincing humorous poetry – just as much skill, I would argue, as it takes to produce serious poetry.
I leave you with a slightly longer poem by Harry Graham which is so clever you wonder how he could come up with it. It’s called “Poetical Economy”.
What hours I spent of precious time,
What pints of ink I used to waste,
Attempting to secure a rhyme
To suit the public taste,
Until I found a simple plan
Which makes the tamest lyric scan!
When I’ve a syllable de trop,
I cut it off, without apol.:
This verbal sacrifice, I know,
May irritate the schol.;
But all must praise my dev’lish cunn.
Who realize that Time is Mon.
My sense remains as clear as cryst.,
My style as pure as any Duch.
Who does not boast a bar sinist.
Upon her fam. escutch.;
And I can treat with scornful pit.
The sneers of ev’ry captious crit.
I gladly publish to the pop.
A scheme of which I make no myst.,
And beg my fellow scribes. to cop.
This labor-saving syst.
I offer it to the consid.
Of ev’ry thoughtful individ.
The author, working like a beav.,
His readers’ pleasure could redoub.
Did he but now and then abbrev.
The work he gives his pub.
(This view I most partic. suggest
To A. C. Bens. and G. K. Chest.)
If Mr. Caine rewrote The Scape.,
And Miss Corell, condensed Barabb.,
What could they save in foolscap pape.
Did they but cult. the hab.,
Which teaches people to suppress
All syllables that are unnec.!
If playwrights would but thus dimin.
The length of time each drama takes,
(The Second Mrs. Tanq. by Pin.
or even Ham., by Shakes.)
We could maintain a watchful att.
When at a Mat. on Wed. or Sat.
Have done, ye bards, with dull monot.!
Foll. my examp., O, Stephen Phill.,
O, Owen Seam., O, William Wat.,
O, Ella Wheeler Wil.,
And share with me the grave respons.
of writing this amazing nons.!