The Oxford Book of Comic Verse edited by John Gross.
From “Off The Shelf” by Mike Foster, published in Gilbert Magazine in 2006
If Chesterton embodied one spiritual truth—that laughter is good for our hearts and souls—then this book is as Chestertonian as any on our shelves.
“Why do we laugh?” he wrote in 1908. “Because it is a gravely religious matter: it is the Fall of Man. Only man can be absurd: for only man can be dignified.”
After all, the mark of many great saints is their smart-St.-Aleck joy in their direst moments: Thomas More bantering with his executioner, St. Lawrence roasting his grillers: examples abound. Some of Jesus’ sharpest retorts came veiled with gentle irony, even, as Luke witnesses, to his mom and dad.
Expertly edited by journalist (Times Literary Supplement et al.) John Gross, this superb sequence of 557 poems begins with Chaucer and old favorite Anonymous, ending with James Fenton’s “God: A Poem”:
“A nasty surprise in a sandwich,
A drawing-pin caught in your sock,
The limpest of shakes from a hand which
You thought would be firm as a rock
A serious mistake in a nightie,
A grave disappointment all round
Is all that you’ll get from th’Almighty,
Is all that you get underground.”
Of course, pasting together a collection of poems or jokes can be slapdashedly haphazard, but Gross lives up to Oxford Press’ reputation. From his sagacious selections to his scrupulous notes, this edition is masterful. His short introduction notes exclusion of one phylum, “the bawdy lyric, the fully-fledged four-letter variety,” thus making this book suitable for family readarounds in car or parlor.
Choice specimens of all species—couplet, double dactyl, limerick, clerihew (including eight by E. Clerihew Bentley)—are displayed.
Bentley’s eight inclusions put him in a tie for second. The surprising not-all-that-funny winner is noted below. No peeking!
With five, Chesterton’s well back in the pack in good company: Shakespeare, Pope, Pound, Phyllis McGinley, and W.S. Gilbert (whose “Nightmare” is funniest when said, not just read) earn a fiver as well.
Dazzling rhythmic fireworks like Gilbert’s and Kipling’s are found elsewhere, in poems unfamiliar to us but not Mr. Gross, like the paradiddle drumbeat of Charles Lever’s wry souvenir of the Napoleonic wars:
“Bad luck to this marching
Pipeclaying and starching
How neat one must be to be killed by the French!
I’m sick of parading
Through wet and cold wading
Or standing all night to be shot in a trench.”
Parody (George Strong’s “The Modern Hiawatha” and Pound’s “Ancient Music”) gets a fair share here, as does dialect (Kipling’s “The Sergeant’s Wedding”), wordplay, pun, satire. This book begs to be skipped around in.
Even song lyrics, including the complete “Makin’ Whoopee” by Gus Kahn, enrich this 1995 encyclopedia of wit: karaoke for we singers afflicted with ham sufficient to offend Iran, Iraq, and Israel.
Indexes, including notes and sources, by first line, and by author, anchor this book with 32 useful pages. All one need do is remember “As the poets have mournfully sung” to be whisked away to Auden’s mordant limerick or skim names to embark on a voyage of laugh-aloud discovery: Joyce, Tennyson, Blake, Dickinson wrote funny poems? Indeed they did.
And (drum roll, please) the winner of the OBoCV Most Entries Sweepstakes is…
Hillaire Belloc, nine.
As funny goes, Belloc’s not half funny enough. As poetry goes, even Joyce outdoes him. One clinker for Gross, but he’s made hundreds of good calls here. Of the 29 books unshelved for this feature, here’s one every reader will thank me for recommending.
“One of the few gifts that can really increase with old age is a sense of humour” wrote Chesterton. Gross’ book’s great gift is magnifying that gift.