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Doggerel is a derogatory term for verse considered of little literary value. The word probably derives from dog, suggesting either ugliness, or unpalatability (as in food fit only for dogs).[1]

Doggerel might have any or all of the following failings:

  • trite, cliché, or overly sentimental content
  • forced or imprecise rhymes
  • faulty metre
  • misordering of words to force correct meter
  • trivial subject
  • inept handling of subject

As early as the late fourteenth century, Harry Bailly interrupts Chaucer's unendurable Tale of Sir Topas, calling it "rhyme doggerel."

Sir Thopas was a doughty swain,
White was his face as paindemain,
His lippes red as rose.
His rode is like scarlet in grain,
And I you tell in good certain
He had a seemly nose.
His hair, his beard, was like saffroun,
That to his girdle reach'd adown,
His shoes of cordewane:
Of Bruges were his hosen brown;
His robe was of ciclatoun,
That coste many a jane.[1]

Doggerel is usually the sincere product of poetic incompetence, and only unintentionally humorous, as with the work of Julia A. Moore, the "sweet singer of Michigan":

Andrew was a little infant,
And his life was two years old;
He was his parents' eldest boy,
And he was drowned, I was told.
His parents never more can see him
In this world of grief and pain,
And Oh! they will not forget him
While on earth they do remain.
On one bright and pleasant morning
His uncle thought it would be nice
To take his dear little nephew
Down to play upon a raft,
Where he was to work upon it,
An this little child would company be --
The raft the water rushed around it,
Yet he the danger did not see.
This little child knew no danger --
Its little soul was free from sin --
He was looking in the water,
When, alas, this child fell in.
Beneath the raft the water took him,
For the current was so strong,
And before they could rescue him
He was drowned and was gone.
Oh! how sad were his kind parents
When they saw their drowned child,
As they brought him from the water,
It almost made their hearts grow wild.
Oh! how mournful was the parting
From that little infant son.
Friends, I pray you, all take warning,
Be careful of your little ones.[2]

The term is one of critical judgment rather than technical description, and readers may differ as to whether it is properly applied to a given poem. For example, the poetry of William Topaz McGonagall is also remembered with affection by many despite its seeming technical flaws, as in his ode on the death of Alfred, Lord Tennyson:

Alas! England now mourns for her poet that's gone-
The late and the good Lord Tennyson.
I hope his soul has fled to heaven above,
Where there is everlasting joy and love.
He was a man that didn't care for company,
Because company interfered with his study,
And confused the bright ideas in his brain,
And for that reason from company he liked to abstain.
He has written some fine pieces of poetry in his time,
Especially the May Queen, which is really sublime;
Also the gallant charge of the Light Brigade-
A most heroic poem, and beautifully made.[3]

However, some poets, for example Ogden Nash, make a virtue of writing what appears to be doggerel but is actually clever and entertaining despite its apparent technical faults.

Doggerel has been deliberately used for comic or satiric effect, as exemplified by John Skelton (giving rise to a variety of verse known as "skeltonics" -- according to David Wallace in the Cambridge History of English Literature (2002, p. 798), "short rhyming lines of irregular length, which build up a spasmodic energy from a rumble-tumble of rhymes in a melange of different languages, in which dog Latin and dog English fight out the sense between them."

"Upon a Dead Man's Head"
Youre vgly tokyn.
My mynd hath brokyn.
From worldly lust.
For I haue dyscust.
We ar but dust.
And dy we must.
It is generall.
To be mortall.
I haue well espyde.
No man may hym hyde.
From deth holow-eyed.
With synnews wyderyd.
With bonys shyderyd.
With hys worme-etyn maw.
And hys gastly Iaw.
Gaspyng asyde.
Nakyd of hyde.
Neyther flesh nor fell.[2]

Samuel Butler's Hudibras lies behind the term "hudibrastic" style; he used doggerel for satiric purposes:

For his Religion, it was fit
To match his learning and his wit;
'Twas Presbyterian true blue;
For he was of that stubborn crew
Of errant saints, whom all men grant
To be the true Church Militant;
Such as do build their faith upon
The holy text of pike and gun;
Decide all controversies by
Infallible artillery;
And prove their doctrine orthodox
By apostolic blows and knocks;
Call fire and sword and desolation,
A godly thorough reformation,
Which always must be carried on,
And still be doing, never done;
As if religion were intended
For nothing else but to be mended.[3]

In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain lampooned popular literary tastes with Emily Grangerford's "Ode on the Death of Stephen Dowling Bots":

And did young Stephen sicken,
And did young Stephen die?
And did the sad hearts thicken,
And did the mourners cry?
No; such was not the fate of
Young Stephen Dowling Bots;
Though sad hearts round him thicken,
'Twas not from sickness' shots.
No whooping cough did rack his frame,
Nor measles drear, with spots;
Not these impaired the sacred name
Of Stephen Dowling Bots.
Despised love struck not with woe
That head of curly knots,
Nor stomach troubles laid him low,
Young Stephen Dowling Bots.
O no. Then list with tearful eye,
Whilst I his fate do tell.
His soul did from this cold world fly,
By falling down a well.
They got him out and emptied him;
Alas it was too late;
His spirit was gone for to sport aloft
In the realms of the good and great.[4]

Shakespeare uses doggerel in The Comedy of Errors to help establish the intellectual and socioeconomic status of the Dromio twins (III.i).[5]

The American comedian Steve Allen took a similar approach: dressed in a tuxedo, he would solemnly recite such inane popular song lyrics as:

Who put the bomp in the bomp-ba-bomp-ba-bomp?
Who put the ram in the ramma-lamma-ding-dong?

as if they were odes by Keats or soliloquies from Shakespeare.

There are popular forms which are in themselves essentially prescriptions for doggerel, including the limerick, double dactyl and clerihew.

See also

References

  1. ^ The Canterbury Tales; "The Tale of Sir Thopas," ll. 724-35
  2. ^ "Little Andrew"
  3. ^ Death and Burial of Lord Tennyson
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