Playing with Fire:

The Deceptive Seriousness of Light Verse

by: Margherita Volpato

Cover art by: Diego Plaza Homiston (CC ’23)


For those unfamiliar with the term, ‘light verse’ (often obfuscated by slippery definitions) is traditionally characterised as a harkening back to children’s verse, in the form of nursery rhymes, sing-song rhythms and nonsense poetry. In the wake of modernism, poets such as W.H. Auden began arguing that “light verse is any verse […] in which the author demonstrates a relaxed intimacy with his audience, its language, and its concerns” (Behlman 485). This sense of familiarity with the reader is visible in Auden’s own delivery, which is often conventional or extremely rhythmic. Auden mixes humour with repetitive forms, allowing light verse to be aware of its own simplicity and liberated from any anxieties about appearing high-brow. This sense of connection defines the form for Auden, and others (such as E.E. Cummings, Louis MacNeice, and Kenneth Fearing), as “a quintessentially liberal form that can only emerge in functioning democracies” (Behlman 486). Therefore, light verse recognises itself as a product of a liberal society and is implicitly (or explicitly) involved in political and societal conversations. Auden, I argue, was the first to recognize the true power of light verse, as we understand it now; with it he addresses those concerns which he feels speak to his contemporary reader during the 1930s: war, fascism, totalitarianism, and other violences. 

Critics have largely forgotten the personal yet political power of light verse, and many no longer consider it in terms of Auden’s vision. Patrick Kurp, writing in 2019 for the Los Angeles Review of Books, states that “only in the last half-century or so has light verse become less than respectable among readers, poets, and critics, and less ubiquitous in popular culture” (Kurp). Considering everything that has happened since then, light verse deserves to be reconsidered in terms of its relevance to today’s context. One of the foremost figures of twenty-first century light verse is Wendy Cope, whose work takes its formal inspiration from Auden. Her own poetry has achieved longevity because it too deals with personal concerns, specifically from a woman’s perspective, that pervade and define daily life. Like Auden and other interwar poets, her poetry feels a responsibility “to attend to the ordinary and the habitual as well as the miraculous” (Baldrick 106). This familiar sense of repetition should appeal to our contemporary sensibilities as well, and in particular our need for quick and small snippets of information to go viral in seconds; indeed, “in an age of entitlement and political strife, when memes and snark ad hominem assaults go viral, perhaps light verse is recapturing some of its broader appeal” (Kurp). In turning to Cope, therefore, I will look to the politically precarious context of today and argue for the continuing relevance of light verse to our understanding and communication of the world around us. 

Light verse makes its impact primarily through its compact form. This is why repetition is so important, and why Auden’s commentary is enacted primarily through the disruption of grammar. In his early poem, “What in Your Mind, My Dove, My Coney” (1930) Auden explores what it would mean for animals to hold the same individualistic motivations which govern human mentality. The subject matter is decidedly light, as Auden is intent on anthropomorphising animals (such as birds and bunnies) and questioning their motivations, which readers know are not truly conscious, but rather instinctual. There is a tension,  therefore, between the schematic imposition of form and rhyme and the content; the poem becomes humorous for its ridiculousness. The third and fourth line of the poem exemplify this tension: 

Is it making of love or counting of money, 

Or raid on the jewels, the plans of a thief? (Auden 4)

There is no set meter which governs this short poem, and this makes readers question the omission of the definite article in both of the lines above.  This omission of articles eludes specificity, as certain actions—such as ‘making’ or the ‘raid’—are suspended as hypothetical gestures which never definitively take place. This reflects the way the poem deals with the subject-matter in general. Auden allows for readers to question the unfamiliar but not philosophize too much; indeed he tells us so in the second line: “thoughts grow like feathers, the dead end of life” (Auden 4). Thoughts on the page, and in poetry, he suggests, can be stated prettily enough but are quite useless in the course of daily life. Auden prefers the poem to proceed in an instinctual, primal form, letting the speaker succumb to their ‘fight-or-flight’ mode of response, which he exemplifies in the last stanza: 

Rise with the wind, my great serpent;

Silence the birds and darken the air;

Change me with terror, alive in a moment;

Strike for the heart and have me there. (Auden 4)

Sound, through the rhyme scheme, becomes the creator of meaning, as rationalism is denounced for the immediacy that sound is able to communicate. The poem’s aversion to a fully-rhymed ABAB scheme (opting instead for pararhymes or half-rhymes) speaks to the “emancipation of modern verse techniques from earlier constraints” (Baldrick 77). This poem, with its base subject matter and simpler, but more flexible, rhyme scheme, makes the reader “[g]o through the motions of exploring the familiar”, because it recreates a childlike experience of communication (Auden 4). The form asphyxiates the content but is enjoyable exactly because of this, in the way it reflects how societal mores and codes can be equally confining in life. Its playfulness lies in its lack of meaning, which becomes distinguishable only via the sounds created. Auden is all too aware of the difficult task of reading poetry and so, with “My Dove, My Coney”, wishes to revert to a simple, basic, sonorous understanding, irrespective of whether it borders on the nonsensical or not. This poem is about enjoying the sounds of form only and exploring the possibility that meaning may simply be instinctual.

Sound is equally important to Auden in his other forms of light verse; for example, in poems like “The Three Companions” (1931) where he adapts Anglo-Saxon alliterative patterns for his own modern intentions. This satirical heroic poem is thematically centred around the contradictory relationship between change and fixedness; in terms of content, the hero argues against nay-sayers who dissuade him from his journey, while the form reflects on the content by ironically using a medieval alliterative verse form to communicate this contrast. This aligns with Auden’s interest in employing light verse as a commentary on modern society. The repetition of form expands our understanding of content—playing, again, with expectations to deal with serious and perpetual concerns light-heartedly. 

Auden composes his best light verse, however, when he combines the habitual with the occasional, especially his poem “Danse Macabre” (1938) which deals with (what he saw as) the impending war in Europe through the form of a medieval death allegory. Even more so than “The Three Companions”, “Danse Macabre” expands the medieval form by integrating modern registers and vocabulary into the poem without delimiting and separating them via caesura and reported speech. The conversational tone speaks directly to the reader, and yet “[a]lthough the voice speaking in first person singular appears to reveal a human being rather than death personified”Auden “shares the typical properties owned by the medieval representations of death”, thus doubling the voice to encompass multiple perspectives, through multiple forms (Bús 90). The content of this poem, however, is darker than “The Three Companions”, and demonstrates light verse’s ability to deal with genuine, and horrifying, subject-matter. War is discussed in “Danse Macabre”, but it is never downplayed. To borrow from Kurp: “[a]s to the charge of frivolity, the poet Bruce Bennett notes that the best writers of light verse “not only verge on seriousness; at times they embrace it” (Kurp). Although Auden embraces seriousness here, there is still an enjoyment in collaging the modern with the medieval. Auden comments on the futility of war, and the childishness and despicability of those that incite violence for their own hatred. Throughout, Auden does not only personify Death, but further humanizes him and ridicules him through a collage of contemporary dictators of the 1930s: 

For the Devil has broken parole and arisen,

He has dynamited his way out of prison,

Out of the well where his Papa throws

The rebel angel, the outcast rose. (Auden 39)

The fixed ABAB quatrain rhyme turns the nursery rhyme style on its head and allows it to self-reflexively point the finger at the Devil, who is demeaned. The repetition of ‘arisen’ and ‘rose’, which show the Devil fighting to stay on top, seems futile in comparison to the overwhelmingly fixed rhyme scheme and register, where ‘Papa’—God, or the fair and just authoritative figures of the world—will always win. Thus, the rhyme simultaneously laughs at the subject-matter and comforts the reader in the face of it. Just like a nursery rhyme the poem wants to assure its reader that though war may happen,  justice will prevail. But it never does this in a condescending fashion. He allows moments to shift in tone, so as to encapsulate all of the nuanced feelings that war dredges up within the civilians that must face the consequences of such figures as the Devil. In the end, through seriousness Auden manages to make these figures unserious, as he rhymes a list of Biblical names, ending in “Paul, [a]nd poor little Horace, with only one ball” (Auden 40). The expert pun here is an explicit reference to a certain dictator. Tone is actively in tension in this poem, but necessarily so, because it is this playful back-and-forth that allows Auden to nuance war into a playground scuffle, while never allowing the true horrors of it to escape the reader’s mind. Escapism is allowed, but only temporarily—and as readers, we revel in it.  

It is this expert handling of tone, the ability to juggle pure, humorous poetic escapism, which is paradoxically situated firmly in the habitual, that Wendy Cope inherits from Auden. Her collection Serious Concerns (1992) never strays to discuss the same horrific subject-matter that Auden tackles in his light verse; regardless, she tackles another war: that which exists between the sexes. Her ability to nuance individual moods relies much on the conversational nature of light verse. Cope opts for a ballad for the collection’s opening poem, “Bloody Men”, which harkens back to the traditionally oral nature of the form. 

“Bloody Men” is equally invested in its oral and colloquial inheritance, as it plays on the popular idiom of busses coming in threes, and the expectant passenger never being able to catch one. The familiar alternating rhyme of ABCB in this opening poem immortalises the female frustration with men and figures it as never-ending. This is important, because “[l]ight verse has to deal with timeless issues […] to have any longevity at all” (Kurp). Just as Auden, in his anthology The Oxford Book of Light Verse (1937), wanted to satirize the canonization of literature (which the likes of T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats had undertaken) to include all verse styles and modes, so too is Cope interested in inserting the female perspective into the history of light verse. Furthermore, the poem takes inspiration from Auden’s own light verse, as the interior structure resembles “The Three Companions” take on alliterative verse, significantly reaching back into the past and adapting it, just as Auden intended: 

Bloody men are like bloody buses—

You wait for about a year

And as soon as one approaches your stop

Two or three others appear. (Cope 3)

Cope’s opening poem is rife with internal rhymes and sounds. Not only does she repeat ‘bloody’ frequently, showing the reader exactly where to place the emphasis in the line because of the word’s expletive nature, but she alliterates ‘bloody’ with ‘buses,’ making the poem fun to say for how emphatically it can be read aloud. This opening line sets out the flexible alliterative pattern that marks the rest of the poem. The second line is bookended by the ‘y-’ sound of ‘you’ and ‘year’, which aids the flow of air while reading; this is in contrast to the ‘t sound at the end of ‘about’ and ‘wait’,halting the reader because of how difficult this alveolar plosive is to say quickly in succession. This pattern emphasizes the juxtaposition of time in this line, as the speaker is in a constant state of waiting but simultaneously anticipates that her bus (or man) is about to come. The ‘stop’ at the end of line three, therefore, holds a double meaning as it both the stops the narrative of the poem—because of the bus (/man) has arrived—and suspends the experience so as to render it universal; thus, in “Bloody Men” she captures the repetitive nature of female frustration with their opposite sex realistically but also humorously. 

Despite clearly preferring topics that are personal, and perhaps even mundane, Cope (like Auden) is not afraid to venture into more serious concerns (hence the title of her collection) and to comment on the problems that she perceives in society. In “Noises in the Night” (reproduced in its entirety below), Cope tackles elements of systematic unfairness that women face by reflecting on it through the familiar lens of differing domestic experiences. By clearly setting the poem at home, in the comfort of a bed, Cope highlights how these spaces are still of heightened significance for women and can be charged for them, despite being spaces of relaxation for men. While her partner sleeps, the speaker questions and wonders how he can sleep so peaceful, and if it is only because he drank: 

Why are men so good at sleeping?

Is it just the drink?

While we’re tossing, turning, weeping,

Why are they so good at sleeping?

Snoring, whistling, grunting, beeping—

No one else can get a wink.

Why are men so good at sleeping?

Is it just the drink? (Cope 73)

The constant reiteration of action in the present participle, which the speaker uses to describe the noises her partner is making whilst sleeping, is so ridiculous that it incurs laughter. The change from ‘snoring’, an obviously normal though annoying sound one might make whilst asleep, to ‘whistling, grunting’ and then ‘beeping’ is hilarious because there is truth in it. However, this is contrasted with her ‘tossing, turning, weeping’. These distinct experiences, which are figured in the same way but incur very different responses, are the daily struggle which the poem is trying to communicate. There is also an extreme tonal shift which occurs throughout this small poem; in the opening, the two questions hold an exacerbated and yet affectionate tone, but they change with every incarnation, and are infused with more and more desperation. Cope is conveying the unfair, illogical, pressure she feels women are placed under in contemporary society, but she doesn’t need to fill in what these injustices are: what the poem doesn’t spell out, it allows the reader to fill for herself. Ultimately, the pithiness of this poem’s form, most of which is a form of repetition, and its reliance on readerly participation mark it as decidedly light. However, this does not take away from the daily struggles that it looks at, nor does it diminish the serious concern which is its subject-matter. 

Cope is a clear inheritor of Auden’s light verse style for the way she validates the everyday struggle, not just the miraculous or mysterious. Just as Auden’s own light verse surely helped readers deal with their situation in the early days of the Second World War, I read Cope’s Serious Concerns during the national lockdown of 2020. Despite having been written almost thirty years previously, her collection—and one poem in particular—stuck with me for how well it described and captured what I was feeling. Her poem ‘Some More Light Verse’ is repetitious, jaunty, and yet “cynically out of sync”—reminiscent of many peoples’ experiences during the Covid-19 quarantine(Waterman 30). The speaker of the poem writes about not being able to achieve much of anything, let alone the goals she sets for herself. Her actions are therefore marked by desperate and routine repetition, which is communicated by the constant epistrophe, as the line-endings see below are repeated throughout:  

And nothing works. The outlook’s grim.

You don’t know what to do. You cry.

You’re running out of things to try. (Cope 8)

These endings are also the only instances of full rhyme throughout this poem. They also contrast her use of caesura; each action is separate, and yet they feed into each other with the overuse of certain sounds and the monotony of every clause. Cope’s overuse of ‘cry’, ‘try’ and ‘sigh’ communicate an entirely different tone to the previous two poems; rather, the content of “Some More Light Verse” contrasts its title entirely. And yet, the constant parataxis communicates a subtle optimism, as the speaker never gives up, despite everything. The last two lines of the poem communicate this brilliantly: 

You cannot see the point. You sigh.

You do not smoke. You have to try. (Cope 8)

The ending clause, paratactically isolated, leaves no room for argument. It is an instruction to the reader, as well as a comfort:this familiar struggle continues through daily life, even without the pressing issue of a pandemic. Justifiably, Cope’s light verse was a beacon of hope in that period

To end, I want to look at the present state of light verse. In his article for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Patrick Kurp does something similar and points out a vital source which has kept this mode of poetry alive, despite its current unpopularity: he champions Light, a journal of light verse which has existed since 1992 (which has featured the likes of Wendy Cope, and other similar poets). Since discovering it, I’ve had a chance to read light verse that is submitted weekly, which reflects on the current state of world affairs. These poets are also inheritors of Auden, and the tradition that he revitalised in the early twentieth century; they reflect on daily life and invite conversation. Alex Steelsmith’s ‘Bios Fear’ is an example of the vivacity which light verse still holds. He captures our current fears, frustrations and the irrationality of it all, in a way only light verse could:

“The fate of humanity suddenly seems to be in the unsteady hands of an isolated, frustrated,

and potentially unhinged Vladimir Putin… ‘The fact that there’s a very short path from, say, Putin feeling humiliated to the end of life as we know it,’ the sociologist Kieran Healy wrote, ‘is literally insane.’” —The Atlantic

Fearfully, tearfully,

life in the biosphere

hangs in the balance of

Vladimir’s wrath.

Sociologically,

life may depend on a

very short path—and ashort psychopath. (Steelsmith)    


Works Cited:

Auden, W.H. As I Walked Out One Evening: Songs, ballads, lullabies, limericks and other light verse. Ed. Edward Mendelson. London: Faber & Faber, 1995. 

 The Oxford Book of Light Verse. London: Oxford University Press, 1937.

Cope, Wendy. Serious Concerns. London: Faber & Faber, 1992.

Behlman, Lee. “‘The Case of Light Verse, or Verse de Société’.”, Victorian Poetry, vol. 56, n. 4, 2018, pp. 477-491.

Bús, Éva. ““Death’s Echo” and “Danse Macabre”: Auden and the Medieval Tradition of Death Lyrics.”, Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies, 2008, pp. 83-93.

Baldick, Chris. The Oxford English Literary History: Volume 10: 1910-1940: The Modern Movement. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Kurp, Patrick. ““Cheering as the Summer Weather”: On the Primal Appeal of Light Verse.”, Los Angeles Review of Books 25 March 2019: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/cheering-summer-weather-primal-appeal-light-verse/.

Smith, Stan. “Auden’s light and serio-comic verse.”, Smith, Stan. The Cambridge Companion to W.H. Auden. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, pp. 96-109.

Steelsmith, Alex. ‘Bios Fear’, Light 28 March 2022: https://lightpoetrymagazine.com/#potw.

Waterman, Rory. Wendy Cope, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2021.