What do Ogden Nash, Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, Edward Lear and Harry Graham have in common? Apart from being male writers who are dead? The answer is that they all wrote light verse. You might think that light verse is the preserve of those who can’t write anything else, but writing light verse takes a good deal of technical skill and subtlety. That’s if it’s any good.
The tradition of light verse is a long one. A particular brand that was practiced during the late 19th, early 20th centuries was black in humor and could be called, to give it its proper name, grotesquerie.
A good example is this by Harry Graham:
“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.”
A less vicious version is found in Ogden Nash:
“Sure, deck your lower limbs in pants;
Yours are the limbs, my sweeting.
You look divine as you advance –
Have you seen yourself retreating?”
Belloc practiced a type of light verse that has probably gone out of fashion. These were cautionary tales of various sorts – all humorous and all ostensibly aimed at warning children away from bad behavior (though much of it was a tongue-in-cheek aside to the adults). These had titles like:
Godolphin Horne – who was cursed with the sin of pride and became a boot-black.
Rebecca – who slammed doors for fun and perished miserably.
Charles Augustus Fortesque – who always did what is right, and so accumulated an immense fortune.
Chesterton was one of the most sophisticated practitioners and plied obscure poetical forms like the “ballade” and the “clerihew” and wrote satirical rhyme as well as grotesque verses.
“Of Uncle Humphrey who can sing?
His name can’t rhyme with anything,
How much superior is Aunt Harriet
Who rhymes correctly to Iscariot.”
And lastly Edward Lear, that Victorian artifact who is renown for singlehandedly resurrecting and making popular the limerick which is so unfunny today:
“There was an Old Man of Aôsta,
Who possessed a large Cow, but he lost her;
But they said, ‘Don’t you see,
she has rushed up a tree?
You invidious Old Man of Aôsta!’”
See what I mean?
So why am I waffling on about these old fogeys? I wouldn’t say I was addicted to light verse. Well, okay, maybe I am. Over the years I’ve written enough light verse to line several trashcans. So I decided recently, since my novel stalled halfway through due to family commitments, that I would gather together some of the better ones and publish them. So at the moment I am illustrating them, which takes less time than writing a novel, and to some extent is more enjoyable. Here’s an example of a limerick (well why the heck shouldn’t I?):
“There was a young man whose hyperbole
Was often administered verbole.
He talked himself sick;
Now his metaphors stick
In his throat and distress him most terbole.”
I reckon that’s at least as bad as Edward Lear don’t you? And anyway, he’s dead and can’t argue.