Ogden Nash Nash, Ogden (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Ogden Nash 1902–1971

(Full name Frediric Ogden Nash) American poet and playwright.

Nash enjoyed one of the largest audiences of this century, attracting readers from all walks of life with his insightful, satirical view of human nature and human foibles. His biting wit was tempered by humor and sensitivity, enabling him to tread lightly over touchy subjects, including the behavior of other people's children, social affectations, and illness. Nash's unique style is characterized by his willful disregard for grammatical and spelling rules, and his deliberate mis-spelling of words to force a rhyme, such as spelling diapers "diopes" to rhyme with "calliopes." Many of Nash's poems have been so widely quoted, they have reached near-proverbial status. "Candy / Is dandy, / But liquor / Is quicker," and "If called by a panther, / Don't anther" are two Nash poems that are so familiar to the public that they are often attributed to "Anonymous." While the unconventional nature of his verse has denied him the status of a "serious" poet, Nash remains one of the most read and quoted poets of this century.

Biographical Information

Born in Rye, New York, to a family of old Southern stock, Nash was raised along the Eastern Coast as his father's import-export business frequently moved the family from state to state. This nomadic childhood resulted in Nash's unique accent, which was part Southern drawl, and part New Englander. Nash attended St. George's School in Newport, Rhode Island, and Harvard University for one year, 1920-1921. Forced to drop out to earn his living, Nash tried his hand at several professions, including teaching at his alma mater, St. George's, and a brief, unsuccessful stint as a bond salesman. By 1925 Nash had settled into a career in advertising with the publishing house Doubleday, Page, later to become Doubleday, Doran. During this time, Nash attempted to write serious poetry, "sonnets about beauty and truth" in the tradition of Byron, Keats, and Shelley. It was while writing advertising copy at Doubleday, Doran, Nash found his poetic voice. His poem "Spring Comes To Murray Hill" was jotted down in a fit of procrastination and later sent to the New Yorker magazine, which published it in 1930. The poem exhibited all the traits that were to become Nash's characteristics: the whimsical tone, the outrageous mis-spellings and mis-pronunciations. Also present was Nash's characteristic theme—the trivial, often-overlooked details of life in the city, viewed through a cynical, almost curmudgeonly perspective.

Nash married Frances Leonard in 1931. His new roles of husband and father influenced his poetry as his initial crustiness softened into musings over his two small daughters, beginning with Happy Days. In 1936, Nash moved with his family to Hollywood where he wrote screenplays for MGM. During that time he produced The Shining Hair with Jane Murfin, The Feminine Touch with George Oppenheimer and Edmund L. Hartman, as well as The Firefly. None of these met with much success, and a somewhat discouraged Nash returned to the East Coast in 1942. One good thing came out of his time in Hollywood, however, and that was his friendship with S. J. Perelman, with whom he collaborated on the book and lyrics for One Touch of Venus, a smash hit during Broadway's 1943 season. In the 1950s and 1960s, Nash began writing children's poetry in addition to his whimsical verses for adults. Parents Keep Out: Elderly Poems for Youngerly Readers, The Christmas That Almost Wasn't, and Custard the Dragon are a few of his works addressed to children, partly influenced by his grandchildren, even as grandfatherly ruminations entered his verses for adults. Another topic that occurred with increasing frequency in Nash's later years was mild complaints about sickness and aging, always with a comic bent. Indicative of his position in American poetry, Nash was a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Nash died in 1971 in Baltimore, Maryland.

Major Works

Nash published his first poem, "Spring Comes to Murray Hill," in the New Yorker magazine in 1930. His first collections of poems, Hard Lines (1931) and Free Wheeling (1931), established Nash's reputation as an original, witty, and whimsical creator of humorous verse with wonderful insight into human nature. In 1933 Nash wrote Happy Days, which introduced new themes of matrimony, household crises, and fatherhood. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Nash continued to produce collections in the same characteristic style that distinguished his verse, including The Primrose Path (1935), The Bad Parents' Garden of Verse (1936), I'm a Stranger Here Myself (1938), Good Intentions (1942), and Many Long Years Ago (1945). Nash collaborated on the smash Broadway musical One Touch of Venus in 1944, co-authoring the book and lyrics with S. J. Perelman. During the remainder of his career, Nash continued to write whimsical verse for adults, and began to write children's poetry as well, such as The Christmas That Almost Wasn't (1957), Custard the Dragon (1959), The Adventures of Isabel (1963), and The Mysterious Ouphe (1965).

Critical Reception

Although Nash was largely ignored by most critics in his lifetime, he was well liked by the public. Nash's ability to delight his readers through comical and entertaining verses often obscured the technical virtuosity required to produce them. Nash admitted to having "intentionally maltreated and man-handled every known rule of grammar, prosody, and spelling"; after Nash's death, a New York Times obituary by Albin Krebs suggested that, despite this disregard for convention, Nash's verse reveals "a carefully thought-out metrical scheme and a kind of relentless logic." Critics in more recent years have begun to reevaluate Nash's reputation, noting that, throughout his career, Nash demonstrated great flexibility and versatility of the English language in volume after volume. Moreover, his social and political satirical skills have earned him comparisons to the great eighteenth-century satirists Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


Hard Lines 1931

Free Wheeling 1931

Happy Days 1933

The Primrose Path 1935

The Bad Parents' Garden of Verse 1936

I'm a Stranger Here Myself 1938

The Face is Familiar: The Selected Verse of Ogden Nash 1940; revised edition, 1954

Good Intentions 1942; revised edition, 1956

The Ogden Nash Pocket Book 1944

Many Long Years Ago 1945

The Selected Verses of Ogden Nash 1946

Versus 1949

Family Reunion 1950

The Private Dining Room, and Other New Verses 1953

The Pocket Book of Ogden Nash 1954

You Can't Get There From Here 1957

Verses From 1929 On 1959

Everyone but Thee and Me 1962

Marriage Lines: Notes of a Student Husband 1964

An Ogden Nash Bonanza. 5 Vols. 1964

The Animal Garden 1965

Funniest Verses of Ogden Nash: Light Lyrics by One of America's Favorite Humorists 1968

The Scroobious Pip [with Edward Lear] 1968

There's Always Another Windmill 1968

New Comic Limericks: Laughable Poems [with others] 1969

Bed Riddance: A Posy for the Indisposed 1970

The Old Dog Barks Backwards 1972

I Wouldn't Have Missed It: Selected Poems of Ogden Nash 1972

Custard and Company 1980

A Penny Saved Is Impossible 1981

Ogden Nash's Zoo 1986

Other Major Works

Cricket of Carador [with Joseph Alger] (juvenilia) 1925

Born In a Beer Garden; or, She Troupes to Conquer [with Christopher Morley, Cleon Throckmorton, and others] (satire) 1930

Nothing but Wodehouse [editor] (short stories) 1932

Four Prominent So and So's [music by Robert Armbruster] (libretto) 1934

The Firefly (screenplay) 1937

The Shining Hair [with Jane Murfin] (screenplay) 1938

The Feminine Touch [with George Oppenheimer and Edmund L. Hartman] (screenplay) 1941

One Touch of Venus [with S. J. Perelman] (libretto) 1943

Ogden Nash's Musical Zoo [music by Vernon Duke] (libretto) 1947

Parents Keep Out: Elderly Poems for Youngerly Readers (juvenilia) 1951; enlarged edition, 1962

The Moon Is Shining Bright as Say: An Anthology of Good-Humored Verse [editor] (poetry) 1953

The Boy Who Laughed at Santa Claus (juvenilia) 1957

The Christmas That Almost Wasn't (juvenilia) 1957

I Couldn't Help Laughing: Stories Selected and Introduced by Ogden Nash [editor] (short stories) 1957

Custard the Dragon (juvenilia) 1959

Beastly Poetry (juvenilia) 1960

A Boy Is a Boy; The Fun of Being a Boy (juvenilia) 1960

Scrooge Rides Again (juvenilia) 1960

Custard the Dragon and the Wicked Knight (juvenilia) 1961

Everybody Ought to Know: Verses Selected and Introduced by Ogden Nash [editor] (poetry) 1961

Girls Are Silly (juvenilia) 1962

The New Nutcracker Suite and Other Innocent Verses (juvenilia) 1962

The Adventures of Isabel (juvenilia) 1963

A Boy and His Room (juvenilia) 1963

The Untold Adventures of Santa Claus (juvenilia) 1964

The Mysterious Ouphe (juvenilia) 1965

The Cruise of the Aardvark (juvenilia) 1967

Santa Go Home: A Case History for Parents (juvenilia) 1967

Lisle Bell (review date 1931)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Verses That Click," in New York Herald Tribune Books, Vol. 7, No. 19, January 18, 1931, p. 5.

[In the following review of Hard Lines, Bell comments on Nash's creative vocabulary and structure in his poetry, as well as his position in relation to "traditional" poets.]

When a new poet comes along, the least a reviewer can do is to find method in his madness—and write a paragraph on the technique of it. This—now that our chortles of enjoyment have partially subsided—we shall undertake.

Briefly and specifically, what Ogden Nash does is to take words apart to see what makes them tick, and put them together so that they click. And not necessarily in the condition in which he found them. Any one who is under the impression that the English language is not sufficiently flexible should study Hard Lines. It demonstrates that our mother tongue can be made to behave in a manner hardly becoming a mother, but irreproachably amusing. Here the English language is not only flexible; it is doublejointed, ambidextrous, telescopic, kaleidoscopic, and slightly demented. If this isn't flexibility, then a coil spring made out of piano wire is a ramrod.

Mr. Nash proves the poetic possibilities of words which have been lying around untouched since the days of Chaucer and Spenser. Also the poetic possibilities of words which are so young that they are still wearing—as he spells it—"diopes." (Pronounced to rhyme with "calliopes.")

In his more casual moods, Mr. Nash is a philosophic first cousin of Sam Hoffenstein, but deeper down we find more than a trace of Walt Whitman. If you don't believe it, read the poem entitled "I Want New York." A very definite attitude toward life underlies the most skittish of the verses; they have a flavor apart from their pattern and from their infectious novelty. One begins to suspect that there is a vein of thoughtfulness behind the verbal pastiche, and one's suspicions are verified on the last page—a poem entitled "Old Men": …

People expect old men to die,
They do not really mourn old men.
Old men are different. People look
At them with eyes that wonder when.
People watch with unshocked eyes …
But the old men know when an old man dies.

Lisle Bell (review date 1935)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Goofy Gallopings in Verse," in The New York Herald Tribune Books, Vol. 11, No. 24, February 17, 1935, p. 2.

[In the following review of The Primrose Path, Bell praises Nash's trailblazing verse and examines several themes present in the collection.]

Opposite the title page of The Primrose Path there is a list of "other books by Ogden Nash" and one of them, we observe with mild surprise, is The Primrose Path. If there were some other author we'd call this a discrepancy, but with Mr. Nash one can't be certain. Quite possibly he devotes all his spare time to primrose pathfinding, and for the sake of a little privacy he may have a hidden primrose path from which the public is excluded—though that would be a crime.

A Daniel Boone on the fantastic frontiers of rhyme, Mr. Nash nonchalantly blazes trails of prosody which are rapidly hacked into highways by his imitators. But he has a goofy gallop in verse which leaves the copyists far behind. We'd rather watch Nash on his piebald Pegasus than Lady Godiva on a white horse. His performance is like that of the fellow who leaped into the saddle and dashed off in all directions. He goes neatly over social hedges and takes political ditches in his stride, and so—mind if we borrow your pencil, mister?—here's a straight tip: Put two berries and a half on Nash to win. It's in the book!

The Primrose Path is wider, longer and roomier than the previous Nash models. It has everything except a center of gravity—poems of appreciation, of indignation, of the animal kingdom and of the fireside. There are also "poems to be pinned to the calendar," from which category we quote a seasonal excerpt. It appears in Mr. Nash's "Song for the Saddest Ides."

Citizen? Resident? Married? Single?
Living together, or don't you mingle?
Blessed events? If so, please state
Change of status, its nature and date.
Royalties? Rents? Commissions? Fees?
If none, explain their absence, please.
And let there be no legal flaw
In Deductions Authorized by Law.

Salaries? Wages? Sale of Property?
Here comes the Notary, hippety-hoppety!

Raise your hand and take your oath
To tell the truth or bust. Or both.

Phyllis McGinley (review date 1936)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Evolution of a Benedick," in Saturday Review, October 10, 1936, p. 15.

[Below, McGinley reviews The Bad Parent's Garden of Verse in verse, imitating Nash's style.]

(The entire section is 24 words.)

Louis Untermeyer (review date 1938)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Inventory of Nash: 1938," in Saturday Review, June 4, 1938, pp. 6-7.

[In the following review, Untermeyer offers criticism of Nash's technique, contending that the rhyme scheme and long, asymmetrical lines obscure serious themes in his poetry.]

Ogden Nash has been both over-praised and underrated; his stock has gone up and down and up again; his highs are often confused with his lows. Nevertheless, in a rapidly changing world and a nervously fluctuating market, he has always had more orders than he could fill. Although highly salable, his work is interesting to brows of all altitudes; it is intelligent and always unpredictable. Nash is, therefore, something of...

(The entire section is 1217 words.)

Edward Larocque Tinker (review date 1942)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Lines By Ogden Nash," in New York Times Book Review, November 29, 1942, p. 16.

[In the following review of Good Intentions, Tinker comments upon Nash's insight into human nature and his ability to succinctly, accurately, and wittily incorporate those observations into his poems.]

To present an adequate picture of the blithe, careless quality of Ogden Nash's rib-tickling poems one would have to be another Ogden Nash—and he is sui generis. He takes his fellow man, and woman, apart in his new collection of vivacious verse [Good Intentions]—the first in four years—with engaging cheerfulness and an insight into their foibles that is...

(The entire section is 580 words.)

Russell Maloney (review date 1945)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ogden Nash Nosegay," in The New York Times Book Review, October 14, 1945, p. 4.

[In the following review of Many Long Years Ago, Maloney describes Nash as a poet of the cynical generation produced by the Depression, who possesses the ability to make readers laugh at the foibles and inconveniences of modern life.]

Many long years ago it was, indeed—fifteen, I be lieve—that Ogden Nash's first published writing appeared in The New Yorker. It was the immortal lyric entitled "Spring Comes to Murray Hill," which contained the couplet:

The Pilgrims setled Massachusetts in 1620 when they landed on a stone hummock,
Maybe if they...

(The entire section is 437 words.)

Times Literary Supplement (review date 1949)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Nash as Only Nash Can," in Times Literary Supplement, December 9, 1949, p. 811.

[In this review, the critic lauds Nash's abilities as an ironist and philosopher, in addition to his talent as a humorist.]

Although it is impossible to appreciate all the subtleties and refinements of Mr. Ogden Nash's humour without some knowledge of the domestic habits of the Americans, or at least of the New Yorker's attitude to them, the welcome given on this side of the Atlantic to his two previous collections of nonsense rhymes and cautionary tales in verse would certainly seem to justify a separate English edition of his latest one [Versus]. Mr. Nash's English...

(The entire section is 581 words.)

Lloyd Frankenberg (review date 1950)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "In Nick-of-Time Rhyme," in The New York Times Book Review, November 19, 1950, p. 4.

[Below, Frankenberg analyzes Nash's theme of family as addressed in Family Reunion, and comments upon his irregular use of meter.]

At first glance there is no resemblance between Family Reunion, Ogden Nash's latest collection of verses, and T. S. Eliot's play of some years back, The Family Reunion. With second sight, however, and something of a shiver, I have apprehended the striking of at least one identical theme: "I regret that before people can be reformed they have to be sinners."

The theme is struck, yes; so hard it never shows its...

(The entire section is 628 words.)

David McCord (review date 1951)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Nashsense Under One Roof," in The Saturday Review, February 10, 1951, p. 18.

[In the excerpt below, McCord praises Family Reunion as a collection that appeals to all ages, and feels that it is representative of the body of Nash's work.]

It may be assumed that Ogden Nash is America's No. 1 family man. The title of Family Reunion therefore suggests a selection of the master's work as closely knit as the poet's knitting allows, with the notion in mind that any member of any family can read it with comfort and delight. The present selection which Mr. Nash has made fully lives up to this happy expectation. There are verses here for father, for...

(The entire section is 761 words.)

Lewis Nichols (review date 1953)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "In Nashion Fashion," in The New York Times Book Review, April 12, 1953, p. 10.

[Here, Nichols contends that in The Private Dining Room Nash's style and subject matter matures, and, in an interview with the poet, discusses the factors that influenced his development]

Mr. Nash notes the symptoms of middle age: he defends trains, he welcomes the arrival in the house of a son-inlaw "to chew the fat with." Salad dressing comes under his eye—he likes it simple—and parents and children, and there is a summation of all the clichés about dogs and their owners which should end that subject forever. Obviously the only kind of poetry that counts, and at its...

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David McCord (review date 1957)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Cache of Ogden Nash," in The New York Times Book Review, June 9, 1957, p. 7.

[Below, American poet David McCord evaluates Nash's highly original voice and inventive genius, and compares Nash to other established American poets such as Robert Frost, E. B. White, e. e. cummings, and W. H. Auden.]

Perhaps you can't get there from here, but in Ogden Nash's company you will reach any number of pleasant destinations. You will also reach an inevitable conclusion, if you have not come to it years and lines ago: Nash is a genuine original voice, and such voices in any literature are rare. Consider the living American writers who combine in high degree wit with poetry...

(The entire section is 668 words.)

Ben Ray Redman (review date 1957)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "An Antidote to Miltown," Saturday Review, June 29, 1957, p. 24.

[In the following review of You Can't Get There From Here, Redman reiterates critics' inability to analyze or categorize Nash's verse, while emphasizing his skill in the traditional verse forms that are often overshadowed by his renowned unconventional style.]

Nash the Man and Nash the Poet are well on their way to becoming Nash the Institution. A generation of readers has grown up that would find it hard to imagine a world without Nash, a world without his jagged lines, his inversions (no less famous than many religious conversions), his wry rhymes, and his polymorphic prosody. This being...

(The entire section is 760 words.)

Louis Hasley (essay date 1971)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Golden Trashery of Ogden Nashery," in The Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 27, 1971, pp. 241-50.

[In the following excerpt, Hasley examines the literary merits of Nash's poetry, evaluating themes, seriousness of subject matter, consistency in composition and editing, and Nash's elaborately artificial voice of naïveté.]

A well of poor English undefiled. A fountain of fizz, fun, and frolic. A Christmas tree under a colored light wheel. Plus gentle admonitions about the p's and q's of this world….

In undertaking to write about the poems of Ogden Nash, I think one may be excused, if not exonerated, for thus trying to seize in...

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Reed Whittemore (essay date 1972)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "End of the Old Vaudeville," in The New Republic, Vol. 167, No. 15, October 21, 1972, p. 33.

[In the following excerpt, Whittemore singles out Nash for his distinct verse and voice, the qualities by which Whittemore measures 20th-century poets, and describes Nash's legacy to the genre of American light verse.]

If we are to measure poets by their distinctiveness—and for better or worse the achieving of distinctiveness is the raison d'être for most 20th-century American poetry—it simply won't do to think of Ogden Nash as a minor figure. He is as distinctive as Cummings, and will perhaps be around as long as Cummings. He was slightly younger but not...

(The entire section is 520 words.)

Archibald MacLeish (essay date 1972)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Introduction to I Wouldn't Have Missed It; Selected Poems of Ogden Nash, Little, Brown, and Company, 1972, pp. vii-ix.

[In the excerpt below, MacLeish argues that Nash did not write "light verse," but rather invented a unique, inimitable form that represented his times.]

Ogden Nash's admirable obituary in the New York Times appeared under the heading "Master of Light Verse Dies." There are three things wrong with those five words. Nash's most important and most characteristic work is not in "verse." It is not "light." And his mastery, which was real enough, had nothing to do with a combination of the two. It consisted in the invention of a form, uniquely...

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George W. Crandell (essay date 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Moral Incongruity and Humor: The 'Good Bad' Poetry of Ogden Nash," in Studies In American Humor, Vol. 7, 1989, pp. 94-103.

[In the excerpt below, Crandell examines the relationship between humor and art in Nash's poetry.]

For some readers, the term "humorous poetry" is an oxymoron. "Poetry" denotes something serious, while "humorous," by definition, means just the opposite. Equating "serious" with "good" and "humorous" with "bad," the same individuals use "humorous" in a pejorative sense to distinguish writing that has some of the formal characteristics of poetry, rhyme and meter for example, but which lacks the seriousness of lyric, narrative or dramatic...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Crandell, George W. Ogden Nash: A Descriptive Bibliography. Metuchen, N. J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1990, 466 p.

Complete bibliography of Nash's publications, excluding reprintings in periodicals and anthologies.


Bacon, Leonard. "A Self-Appointed Love-Child." Saturday Review X, No. 14 (October 21, 1933): 197, 202.

A verse review of Happy Days.

"Come Mr. N., Are You Men or Are You Milne?" The New York Times Book Review (October 4, 1936): 4.


(The entire section is 305 words.)