The HyperTexts

The Best Doggerel of All Time
A Brief History of Doggerel and Nonsense Verse
Doggerel and Nonsense Verse Timeline
The Best Subversive Verse of All Time

Which poets wrote the best doggerel of all time? Who wrote the best doggerel in the English language? Ironically, the greatest writer of English poetry was also a lover and master of doggerel: William Shakespeare! Other masters of English doggerel include Anonymous, Hilaire Belloc, Robert Burns, Lewis Carroll, Geoffrey Chaucer, Robert Frost, Mother Goose, Rudyard Kipling, Edwin Lear, Spike Milligan, Ogden Nash, Dr. Seuss, John Skelton and Mark Twain.

I believe there are two types of doggerel: (1) poetry so inept it makes us cringe, and (2) entertaining, tongue-in-cheek poetry that makes us wince, smile, chuckle and/or giggle. For obvious reasons I prefer to concentrate on the latter. Toward the bottom of this page you will also find a selection of protest poems or "subversive verse" such as "The Goose and the Common."

compiled by Michael R. Burch

One of the most common and popular forms of doggerel is the limerick. This is one of my favorite limericks:

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.
—Anonymous

I find it interesting 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 a rejoinder:

Ass-Tronomical
by Michael R. Burch

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

Like the limerick, other forms of doggerel can be bawdy, vulgar or irreverent. Here's one of my favorite heretical poems:

Is there any reward?
by Hilaire Belloc
 
Is there any reward?
I'm beginning to doubt it.
I am broken and bored,
Is there any reward
Reassure me, Good Lord,
And inform me about it.
Is there any reward?
I'm beginning to doubt it.

Here's another heretical bit of doggerel, written by a major poet:

Forgive, O Lord
by Robert Frost

Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee
And I'll forgive the great big one on me.

Here are three heretical poems of mine:

What Would Santa Claus Say
by Michael R. Burch

What would Santa Claus say,
I wonder,
about Jesus returning
to Kill and Plunder?

For he’ll likely return
on Christmas Day
to blow the bad
little boys away!

When He flashes like lightning
across the skies
and many a homosexual
dies,

when the harlots and heretics
are ripped asunder,
what will the Easter Bunny think,
I wonder?

A Child’s Christmas Prayer of Despair for a Hindu Saint
by Michael R. Burch

Santa Claus, for Christmas, please,
don’t bring me toys, or games, or candy . . .
just . . . Santa, please,
I’m on my knees! . . .
please don’t let Jesus torture Gandhi!

Willy Nilly
by Michael R. Burch

for the Demiurge, aka Yahweh/Jehovah

Isn’t it silly, Willy Nilly?
You made the stallion,
you made the filly,
and now they sleep
in the dark earth, stilly.
Isn’t it silly, Willy Nilly?

Isn’t it silly, Willy Nilly?
You forced them to run
all their days uphilly.
They ran till they dropped—
life’s a pickle, dilly.
Isn’t it silly, Willy Nilly?

Isn’t it silly, Willy Nilly?
They say I should worship you!
Oh, really!
They say I should pray
so you’ll not act illy.
Isn’t it silly, Willy Nilly?

A Brief History of Doggerel and Nonsense Verse (the dates are the poets' birthdates, or approximates)

1343 - Geoffrey Chaucer coined the term "rym doggerel" for his Tale of Sir Topas, a burlesque of long-winded medieval romances.
1460 - John Skelton described his rhymes as "ragged, tattered and jagged" in Colin Clout.
1552 - Edmund Spenser wrote Mother Hubberd's Tale, the first known example of the Mother Goose tales.
1564 - William Shakespeare employed limericks and/or limerick meter in Othello, King Lear and The Tempest.
1613 - Samuel Butler employed doggerel in his long narrative satire Hudibras.
1626 - The first texts containing the French terms mere l’oye or mere oye (Mother Goose). 
1812 - Edward Lear popularized the limerick form with his Book of Nonsense.
1825 - William McGonagall became famous (or infamous) for his doggerel.
1832 - Lewis Carroll employed doggerel in Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.
1902 - Ogden Nash would become one of the best-known modern penners of doggerel.
1904 - Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, has probably made more money from doggerel than anyone. 

Edward Lear, a writer of nonsense verse, has been called “the poet laureate of the limerick” because he helped popularize the form. To be frank, I believe other poets, particularly Ogden Nash, have penned better limericks, but I do admire this one, which has been attributed to Lear:

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

Here's another of my all-time favorites, which illustrates how punning wordplay can enrich and enliven limericks:

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!
—C. M. Marshton? Dixon Lanier Merritt? Jeff McLemore? George Lizotte? Willis B. Powell? Bennett Cerf? Ogden Nash?

There are a number of versions of the oddball bit of humor above. One version begins with "A wondrous bird is the pelican," another with the questionable line "A gorgeous bird is the pelican." Are pelicans gorgeous, really? Saner souls soon settled on more believable adjectives. The second line sometimes ends with "belican," sometimes with "bellican." The last line variously ends with "hell he can," "hellecan," "hellican" or "helican" but all are obviously meant to be interpreted and pronounced "hell he can." The original intent may have been to obscure the then-censored word "hell" since the word "damned" was often obscured as "darned" or "d----d" or something similar in the early 1900s. The earliest known printed version of the poem appeared in the Tampa Morning Tribune on April 2, 1913 and was ascribed to C. M. Marshton, an editor of the Chicago Record-Herald. But Marshton claimed the poem had been written and sent by him to relatives wintering in St. Petersburg. So no one really knows the original author. When the Dixon Lanier Merritt version appeared in the Nashville Banner on April 22, 1913, he claimed it was a "postcard poem" sent in by a gentleman's "best girl" in Clarksville. In his version the pelican was a "wondrous bird" and he was "darned." As with Shakespearean plays, the actors kept tinkering with the lines, offstage. Col. Jeff McLemore was temporarily given credit for writing the poem, but he too blamed it on some unknown person. When LIFE magazine published yet another version of the poem, which was quickly taking on multiple lives of its own, Merritt suggested that LIFE should be blamed in retrospect. The jokes about disowning authorship are almost as entertaining as the orphaned limerick.

I had to get in on the act, however belatedly:

Enough with this pitiful pelican!
He’s awkward and stinks! Sense his smellican!
His beak's far too big,
so he eats like a pig,
and his breath reeks of fish, I can tellican!

Michael R. Burch

Although he didn't write the pelican poem, Ogden Nash is the Shakespeare of doggerel. Here are a few of Nash's best limericks and limerick-like poems:

There was a young belle of old Natchez
Whose garments were always in patchez.
When comments arose
On the state of her clothes,
She replied, "When Ah itchez, Ah scratchez."
—Ogden Nash

A flea and a fly in a flue
Were imprisoned, so what could they do?
Said the fly, "let us flee!"
"Let us fly!" said the flea.
So they flew through a flaw in the flue.
—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.
—Ogden Nash

The ant has made himself illustrious
Through constant industry industrious.
So what? Would you be calm and placid
If you were full of formic acid?
—Ogden Nash

There are more poems by Nash later on this page. If we give credit to Lear for popularizing the form, shouldn't we give even more credit to Nash for perfecting it? In any case, moving on, some of the best limericks are "naughty" poems written by that great poet, Anonymous:

There was a young man from Savannah
Who died in a curious manner
He whittled a hole
In a telephone pole
And electrified his banana.
—Anonymous

There was a young gal name of Sally
Who loved an occasional dally.
She sat on the lap
Of a well-endowed chap
Crying, "Gee, Dick, you're right up my alley!"
—Anonymous (I touched this one up slightly)

Here's a similar limerick of my own making:

There once was a manic bartender,
a transvestite who went on a bender.
"I cut myself off,"
she exclaimed with a sob,
"there’s the evidence, there in the blender!"
Michael R. Burch

As one critic put it, the limerick "is the vehicle of cultivated, unrepressed sexual humor in the English language." But while some experts claim that the only "real" limerick is a bawdy one, the form really took off initially, in terms of popularity, as a vehicle for nonsense verse and children's poems, such as the Mother Goose nursery rhymes:

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

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

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."
Michael R. Burch

There once was a dromedary
who befriended a crafty canary.
Budgie said, "You can’t sing,
but now, here’s the thing—
just think of the tunes you can carry!"
Michael R. Burch

To show the flexibility of the limerick, it has often been used for political purposes. Here are are three muckraking limericks of mine:

Baked Alaskan

There is a strange yokel so flirty
she makes whores seem icons of purity.
With all her winkin’ and blinkin’
Palin seems to be "thinkin’"—
"Ah culd save th’ free world ’cause ah’m purty!"


Copyright 2012 by Michael R. Burch
from Signs of the Apocalypse
all Rights and Violent Shudderings Reserved


Going Rogue in Rouge

It'll be hard to polish that apple
enough to make her seem palatable.
Though she's sweeter than Snapple
how can my mind grapple
with stupidity so nearly infallible?


Copyright 2012 by Michael R. Burch
from Signs of the Apocalypse
all Rights and Violent Shudderings Reserved


Pls refudiate

“Refudiate” this,
miffed, misunderstood Ms!—
Shakespeare, you’re not
(more like Yoda, but hot).
Your grammar’s atrocious;
Great Poets would know this.

You lack any plan
save to flatten Iran
like some cute Mini-Me
cloned from G. W. B.

Admit it, Ms. Palin!
Stop your winkin’ and wailin’—
only “heroes” like Nero
fiddle sparks at Ground Zero.


Copyright 2012 by Michael R. Burch
from Signs of the Apocalypse
all Rights and Violent Shudderings Reserved


I wrote the last poem above after Sarah Palin compared herself to Shakespeare, who coined new words, rather than admit her mistake when she used "refudiate" in a Tweet rather than "repudiate." The copyright notices above are ironic, as the poems above were written and published before 2012. If you like any of my poems, you're free to share them, as long as I'm credited as the poet.

The most common form of the limerick is a stanza of five lines, with the first, second and fifth lines rhyming with each another and having three feet of three syllables each, while the third and fourth lines rhyme with each other, but are shorter, having only two feet of three syllables. The metrical "foot" employed is usually the anapaest, (ta-ta-TUM), but limericks can also be amphibrachic (ta-TUM-ta). But as you can see from the last two poems by Nash and my three poems directly above, there are other variations of the form.

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?" That article included this verse:

There was a young rustic named Mallory,
who drew but a very small salary.
When he went to the show,
his purse made him go
to a seat in the uppermost gallery.

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.

Related "sequels" were soon published. Of these, two of the most famous appeared, respectively, in the Chicago Tribune and the New York Press:

But he followed the pair to Pawtucket,
The man and the girl with the bucket;
And he said to the man,
He was welcome to Nan,
But as for the bucket, Pawtucket.

Then the pair followed Pa to Manhasset,
Where he still held the cash as an asset;
But Nan and the man
Stole the money and ran,
And as for the bucket, Manhasset.

There continue to be modern sequels, including this bawdy one of mine:

There was a lewd whore from Nantucket
who intended to pee in a bucket;
but she was really a man
so she missed the damn can
and her john fled the joint, crying, "Fuck it!"
—Variation on a classic limerick by Michael R. Burch

Limericks are often associated historically with Edward Lear, whose first published limericks appeared in A Book of Nonsense in 1846, although his poems were not called limericks at the time. But Lear didn’t invent the form. It appears that during his stays at Knowsley Hall in the 1830s, he discovered a book, Anecdotes and Adventures of Fifteen Gentlemen, which contained limericks published by John Marshall in 1822. Two similar books had been published around the same time: Anecdotes and Adventures of Fifteen Young Ladies and The History of Sixteen Wonderful Old Women. It seems likely that these books employed a form that was already popular at the time, and that Lear liked the form and began using it himself.

We can trace the limerick back to the eighteenth century Filí na Máighe, or Gaelic poets of the Maigue, a pub in Croom, County Limerick. Seán Ó’Tuama (1709-1775) and Aindrias MacCraith (1710-1793) were members of this group, which sometimes verbally sparred in verses employing limerick meter. Some of their poems were translated into English by the poet James Clarence Mangan and appeared in both languages in John O’Daly’s The Poets and Poetry of Munster, published in 1850. Here is an example of their repartee:

Seán Ó’Tuama:

"I sell the best Brandy and Sherry
To make all my customers merry,
But at times their finances
Run short as it chances,
And then I feel very sad, very".

To which MacCraith replied:

"O’Tuama! You boast yourself handy
At selling good ale and bright Brandy,
But the fact is your liquor
Makes everyone sicker;
I tell you this, I, your friend, Andy".

But where did they discover the limerick? It may be possible that in the early 1700s soldiers returning from the War of the Spanish Succession brought the limerick to Ireland from the European mainland. In any case, by 1776 limericks had been published in Mother Goose’s Melodies. Shortly thereafter when Mother Goose nursery rhymes began to attain fame, the limerick became famous also.

And yet it seems the form may be far older. It has been suggested that the limerick originated in France during the Middle Ages. An 11th century manuscript demonstrates the limerick’s cadence:

The lion is wondrous strong
And full of the wiles of wo; (woe)
And whether he pleye (play)
Or take his preye (prey)
He cannot do but slo. (slay)

Five centuries later, William Shakespeare (1564-1616) employed limerick meter in Stephano’s drinking song:

The master, the swabber, the boatswain and I,
The gunner and his mate
Loved Mall, Meg and Marian and Margery,
But none of us cared for Kate;
For she had a tongue with a tang,
Would cry to a sailor, Go hang!
She loved not the savour of tar nor of pitch,
Yet a tailor might scratch her where'er she did itch:
Then to sea, boys, and let her go hang!
—from "The Tempest" by William Shakespeare

And Shakespeare even used an actual limerick in "Othello":

And let me the canakin clink, clink; (canakin = drinking can)
And let me the canakin clink
A soldier's a man;
A life's but a span;
Why, then, let a soldier drink.
—from "Othello" by William Shakespeare

It's interesting that some of the earliest published limericks were related to taverns and drinking. One might speculate that people had a few drinks, "loosened up," then began competitions in which they sang or chanted bawdy songs and poems, perhaps at times in competitions, with the winner getting a free drink, applause, or a kiss from a serving wench. It may have been hundreds of years before literary types started to take limericks seriously enough to start writing them down. But they eventually "got smart" and did just that. Today, famous penners of limericks include Shakespeare, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ogden Nash, Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, H. G. Wells, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, James Joyce, Lewis Carroll, Algernon Charles Swinburne and Isaac Asimov (who wrote the infamous "Lecherous Limericks"). Here are a few examples of limericks written by famous writers:

There was a small boy of Quebec
Who was buried in snow to his neck.
When they asked, "Are you friz?"
He replied, "Yes, I is —
But we don't call this cold in Quebec!"
—Rudyard Kipling

Our novels get longa and longa
Their language gets stronga and stronga
There’s much to be said
For a life that is led
In illiterate places like Bonga
—H. G. Wells

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.
—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.
—Ogden Nash

T. S. Eliot is quite at a loss
When clubwomen bustle across
At literary teas
Crying, "What, if you please,
Did you mean by The Mill On the Floss?"
—W. H. Auden

There was a young lady of station
"I love man" was her sole exclamation
But when men cried, "You flatter"
She replied, "Oh! no matter!
Isle of Man is the true explanation."
—Lewis Carroll

I have written a number of limericks myself, under the magical spell of the ancient-but-ever-energetic form:

There was an old man from Peru
who dreamed he was eating his shoe.
He awoke in the night
with a terrible fright
to discover his dream had come true.
—Variation on a classic limerick by Michael R. Burch
 
Dear Ed: I don’t understand why
you will publish this other guy—
when I’m brilliant, devoted,
one hell of a poet!
Yet you publish Anonymous. Fie!

Fie! A pox on your head if you favor
this poet who’s dubious, unsavor
y, inconsistent in texts,
no address (I checked!):
since he’s plagiarized Unknown, I’ll wager!
—"The Better Man" by Michael R. Burch

The English are very hospitable,
but tea-less, alas, they grow pitiable ...
or pitiless, rather,
and quite in a lather!
O bother, they're more than formidable.
—"Of Tetley’s and V-2's," or, "Why Not to Bomb the Brits" by Michael R. Burch

There once was a mockingbird, Clyde,
who bragged of his prowess, but lied.
To his new wife he sighed,
"When again, gentle bride?"
"Nevermore!" bright-eyed Raven replied.
Michael R. Burch

Relativity, the theorists’ creed,
proves all mass increases with speed.
My ass grows when I sit it.
Albert Einstein, get with it;
equate its deflation, I plead!
Michael R. Burch
 
Hawking, who makes my head spin,
says time may flow backward. I grin,
imagining the surprise
in my mothers’ eyes
when I head for the womb once again!
Michael R. Burch

Hawking’s "Brief History of Time"
is such a relief! How sublime
that time, in reverse,
may un-write this verse
and un-spend my last thin dime!
Michael R. Burch

A germane young German, a dame
with a quite unpronounceable name,
Frenched me a kiss;
I admonished her, "Miss,
you’ve left me twice tongue-tied, for shame!"
Michael R. Burch

A randy young dandy named Sadie
loves sex, but in forms deemed quite shady.
(I cannot, of course,
involve her poor horse,
but it’s safe to infer she's no lady!)
Michael R. Burch
 
A proper young auditor, white
as a sheet, like a ghost in the night,
saw his dreams, his career
in a "poof!" disappear,
and then, strangely Enronic, his wife.
Michael R. Burch
 
There once was a troglodyte, Mary,
whose poots were impressively airy.
To her children’s deep shame,
their foul condo became
the first cave to employ a canary.
Michael R. Burch

There once was a Baptist named Mel
who condemned all non-Christians to hell.
When he stood before God
he felt like a clod
to discover His Love couldn’t fail!
Michael R. Burch

Subversive Verse

The Goose and the Common
by authors unknown circa the 1700s

(These are variations of a seventeenth century protest poem against English enclosures. Some of the early English ballads were about Robin Hood, and one suspects that Robin and his Merry Men would have agreed with the unknown author(s) of "The Goose and the Common.")

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from off the goose

The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine

The poor and wretched don't escape
If they conspire the law to break
This must be so but they endure
Those who conspire to make the law

***

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
And geese will still a common lack
Till they go and steal it back

***

They hang the man and flog the woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
Yet let the greater villain loose
That steals the common from the goose

***

The law doth punish man or woman
That steals the goose from off the common
But lets the greater felon loose
That steals the common from the goose

***

The law locks up the hapless felon
who steals the goose from off the common
but lets the greater felon loose
who steals the common from the goose

***

The fault is great in man or woman
Who steals a goose from off a common
But what can plead that man's excuse
Who steals a common from a goose

[appeared in The Tickler Magazine, February 1, 1821]

Donald Trump Limericks aka Slimericks

Viral Donald
by Michael R. Burch aka "The Loyal Opposition"

Donald Trump is coronaviral:
his brain's in a downward spiral.
That pale nimbus of hair
proves there's nothing up there
but an empty skull, fluff and denial.

Toupée or Not Toupée, That is the Question
by Michael R. Burch aka "The Loyal Opposition"

There once was a brash billionaire
who couldn't afford decent hair.
Vexed voters agreed:
"We're a nation in need!"
But toupée the price, do we dare?

Toupée or Not Toupée, This is the Answer
by Michael R. Burch aka "The Loyal Opposition"

Oh crap, we elected Trump prez!
Now he's Simon: please do what he sez!
'Cause if anyone thinks
And says his "plan" stinks,
He'll wig out 'neath that weird orange fez!

Stumped and Stomped by Trump
by Michael R. Burch aka "The Loyal Opposition"

There once was a candidate, Trump,
whose message rang clear at the stump:
"Vote for me, wheeeeeeeeeeeeeee!,
because I am ME,
and everyone else is a chump!"

Humpty Trumpty
by Michael R. Burch

Humpty Trumpty called for a wall.
Trumpty Dumpty had a great fall.
Now all the Grand Wizards
and Faux PR men
Can never put Trumpty together again.

15 Seconds
by Michael R. Burch aka "The Loyal Opposition"

Our president’s sex life—atrocious!
His "briefings"—bizarre hocus-pocus!
Politics—a shell game!
My brief moment of fame
flashed by before Oprah could notice!

Trump’s Golden Rule
by Michael R. Burch aka "The Loyal Opposition"

Donald Trump is the victim of leaks!
Golden showers are NOT things he seeks!
Though he dearly loves soaking
the women he’s groping,
get real, 'cause he pees ON the meek!

Is Trump the ANTICHRIST? When the Hebrew prophets spoke of "the Trump of Doom" and a "little horn" were they speaking literally? (For a YUGE slew of 666 connections, see Is Donald Trump the Antichrist?)

Cancun Cruz
by Michael R. Burch aka "The Loyal Opposition"

There once was a senator, Cruz,
whose whole life was one pus-oozing schmooze.
When Trump called his wife ugly,
Cruz brown-nosed him smugly,
then went on a sweet Cancún cruise!

Anchors Aweigh!
by Michael R. Burch aka "The Loyal Opposition"

There once was an anchor babe, Cruz,
whose deployment was Castro’s bold ruse.
Now the revenge of Fidel
has worked out quite well
as Ted's ooze blasts us from his caboose.

Canadian Cruz
by Michael R. Burch aka "The Loyal Opposition"

There was a Canadian, Cruz,
an anchor babe with a bold ruse:
he’d take Texas first
and then do his worst
to infect the whole world with his views.

More Doggerel

Woeful Waffles
by Michael R. Burch

for and after Richard Thomas Moore

I think it’s woeful
and should be unlawful
to eat those awful
tofu waffles!

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