Community, Form, Nostalgia: Light Verse in English from 1818 to 1978
“Light verse” is a somewhat nebulous term whose meaning has morphed over time. Once a synonym for vers de société, it broadened in the twentieth century to additionally embrace satire, parody, nonsense, epigram, comic song, and more. With this expansion, light verse became a mode, rather than a genre. Critical discussion of this mode has been sparse, largely limited to the introductions of anthologies and to sporadic articles. This thesis aims to provide a more sustained account of light verse’s evolution from 1818 (the year of Byron’s Beppo) to 1978 (the year of Kingsley Amis’ New Oxford Book of Light Verse).
Chapter One considers Beppo, a poem identified by critics as the first work of light verse in the modern sense. Chapter Two examines a selection of Regency- and Victorian-era vers de société writers who were, in their own time, seen as the representative figures of this kind of writing: Winthrop Mackworth Praed, Frederick Locker-Lampson, C. S. Calverley, and Austin Dobson. Chapter Three looks at the nonsense poetry of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. Chapter Four surveys twentieth-century developments both in Britain and the United States.
The distinction between light verse and the “higher” forms of poetry is frequently blurry and given to overlap. However, what emerges in this study is that the history of light verse is in part a history of formal distancing from received tradition. As time has gone on, light versifiers have discovered and developed specific forms, rhythms, and tones that are characteristic of the mode and befitting to the pursuit of its aims. These aims are largely social. Light verse has always been acutely aware of, and responsive to, its audience. It was, in the nineteenth century, a way of signalling membership in a particular group (generally the educated elite), and a way of bonding that group together. In the twentieth century, light verse became more democratic but nonetheless remained a social enterprise. Historically, much light verse has been conservative, with nostalgia being a central preoccupation for many poets. This, too, has changed in recent times, with light verse increasingly being written by the middle class, reflecting middle-class concerns.
Since Amis’ New Oxford Book of Light Verse in 1978, light verse has generally been seen as essentially humorous, as well as formal. W. H. Auden, in an earlier Oxford Book of Light Verse (1938), had argued that light verse is any poetry that is written in a plain language to a wide audience whose concerns are similar to those of the poet. Auden’s view has often been deemed eccentric, but this thesis finds that he was largely correct, and that sociability is at light verse’s core.