Humorous or whimsical verse that features absurd characters and actions and often contains evocative but meaningless words coined for the verse. It is unlike the ritualistic gibberish of children's counting-out rhymes in that it makes such words sound purposeful. It differs from other comic verse in its resistance to any rational or allegorical interpretation. Most nonsense verse has been written for children and is modern, dating from the beginning of the 19th century. Examples include Edward Lear's Book of Nonsense (1846), Lewis Carroll's “Jabberwocky” (1871), and Hilaire Belloc's Bad Child's Book of Beasts (1896). Seealso limerick.
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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. In these poems, the grammar and syntax are perfectly well-formed, and each nonsense word has a clear part of speech. The first verse of Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky ...
... illustrates this nonsense technique perfectly, despite Humpty Dumpty's later explanation of some of the unclear words within it.
Still 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 (or pilgriffage?). Likewise, worled and gurled suggest "world" and "girl" but have the -ed form of a past-tense verb. Somforbe resists interpretation -- possibly a noun; possibly a slurred verb phrase.
However not all nonsense verse relies on word play. Some conjures up nonsensical situations, for instance Edward Lear's poem, The Jumblies has a perfectly comprehensible chorus.
The significance of the colour of their heads and hands is not apparent and the verse appears to be nonsense.
Likewise Christopher Isherwood's poem ...
from '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.
(Answer: probably a bookworm) The poem is nonsense until one figures out the answer.
The poem ...
... makes even more extreme use of word incompatibility by pairing a number of polar opposites such as day/night, paralyzed/walking, dry/drowned, lie/true, in conjunction with lesser incompatibilities such as swords/shot and rubber/wall.
Many nursery rhymes are nonsense, unless one knows the context or background; some say that Mother Goose rhymes were originally written to parody the aristocracy while appearing to be nothing more than nonsense nursery rhymes. For instance ...
Limericks are probably the best known of nonsense verse, although the form tends to be used for bawdy or straightforward humorous effect nowadays rather than for nonsensical effect.
Among writers in English noted for nonsense verse are Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, Ogden Nash, Mervyn Peake, Colin West, Roald Dahl, Dr. Seuss and Spike Milligan. The Martian Poets and Ivor Cutler are considered by some to be in the nonsense tradition.
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 writers, Christian Morgenstern and Ringelnatz are the best-known ones, and both still popular. Robert Gernhardt is a contemporary one. Morgenstern's Nasobēm is an imaginary being, though less frightful than the Jabberwock:
Auf seinen Nasen schreitet
einher das Nasobēm,
von seinem Kind begleitet.
Es steht noch nicht im Brehm.
Es steht noch nicht im Meyer.
Und auch im Brockhaus nicht.
Es trat aus meiner Leyer
zum ersten Mal ans Licht.
Auf seinen Nasen schreitet
(wie schon gesagt) seitdem,
von seinem Kind begleitet,
einher das Nasobēm.
Upon its noses strideth|
Along the Noseybum,
With it its child abideth.
It's not yet found in Brehm (a zoological reference work).
It's not yet found in Meyer (a dictionary equivalent to Webster's).
Nor in the Brockhaus (another dictionary, equivalent to the OED).
It trotted from my lyre,
As first it came to be.
Upon its noses strideth
(As said before) since then,
With it its child abideth,
Along the Noseybum.
F.W. Bernstein's observation that
|Die schärfsten Kritiker der Elche||The sharpest critics of the elks|
|waren früher selber welche||used to be ones themselves|