Coleridge defined poetry as the best words in the best order and at no stage did he ever suggest that being light-hearted in verse is any less worthy than the solemnest offerings of Milton or of his old pal Wordsworth. Nevertheless, there is a feeling among many who take their art seriously that anything in verse form liable to raise a good natured smile is somehow not the real thing, no matter how well it is executed and however perfectly it conforms with rhyme and metre.
And yet since the earliest days of the quill pen, some our greatest poets have deliberately used humour to enlighten, inform and indeed entertain their readers. OK, so there aren’t many laughs in Beowulf, and I don’t remember giving silent thanks to the anonymous author of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight for raising anything much more than yet another sigh as I head for the umpteenth time to the glossary at the back of my well-foxed Oxford edition.
Shakespeare can also prove quite hard-going for theatregoers and students alike, yet who could fail to be amused by some of his songs, such as the tale of the lover and his lass from ‘As You Like It’ and his descriptions of Marian’s red, raw nose, and greasy Joan keeling the pot in the winter song at the end of ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’?
Anyone who harbours doubts about the art and practice of wit and humour in poetry need look no further than The New Oxford Book of Light Verse, chosen and edited by Kingsley Amis in 1978. His contents pages run to a good dozen and contain not only names one might expect to find there – Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, W.S.Gilbert,