Nonsense verse, or nonsense poetry, is lighthearted whimsical verse that is nonsensical by nature with prosodic elements of rhyme and repetition of phrases and made-up words.

History of Nonsense Verse

Nonsense verse rose to prominence with the nursery rhymes of Mother Goose dating back to the 17th century, and some historians of poetics may claim nonsense verse has been around as early as the 8th century CE. Written to entertain and amuse mainly children, nonsense poetry defies semantic sense while still following grammar and structural rules to create work identifiable with poetry. The most well-known form of nonsense poetry is the limerick, which contains a strict rhyme scheme.

Nonsense verse tends to be funny, interweaving literary devices such as personification, rhyme schemes, and metrical patterns to tell a story that appeals to readers of all ages. The form’s signature is characterized by made-up words and simple rhymes with a general lack of meaning; however, nonsense verse is not merely a randomly strung-together collection of words, but a tightly crafted composition that embraces sound, rhythm, and play. An example of this, as well as the limerick form, is Edward Lear’s Book of Nonsense, originally published in 1846.  

A 19th-century nonsense poet, Lewis Carroll also used nonsense verse to resist interpretation and embrace the joy of prosody. In “Jabberwocky,” the poem is famously known for its appealing rhyme scheme and reliance on made-up language––

           “Beware the Jabberwock, my son
               The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
           Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
               The frumious Bandersnatch!”

In the 20th century, nonsense poetry reached new generations through the works by Shel Silverstein. In his poem, “Mr. Grumpledump’s Song,” Silverstein cleverly rhymes with a list of reasons that give inform the character’s name. In his poem, “Sick,” the nonsense prevails:

           "I cannot go to school today,"
           Said little Peggy Ann McKay.
           "I have the measles and the mumps,
           A gash, a rash and purple bumps.
           My mouth is wet, my throat is dry,
           I'm going blind in my right eye.
           My tonsils are as big as rocks,
           I've counted sixteen chicken pox
           And there's one more—that's seventeen,
           And don't you think my face looks green?
           My leg is cut—my eyes are blue—
           It might be instamatic flu…

More examples of nonsense poetry include Edward Lear’s “Nonsense Alphabet,” “The Good Moolly Cow [excerpt]” by Eliza Lee Follen, and “Be Glad Your Nose Is on Your Face” by Jack Prelutsky.