Tuesday 8 March 2011

Doggerel and Dog Mess

I was once stomping about, feeling proud and tragic and misunderstood, when my stern and heroic shoe was cushioned by something soft and forgiving, donated to the pavement by the generosity of a dog's bottom. It is the nature of tragedy that Hamlet never treads on a turd, and in the nature of life that he would. As Auden put it:

They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life

In the end, our heroic autobiographies are all written in doggerel, which means little dog. Nobody is quite sure why. Perhaps doggerel is the sort of writing that would appeal to a puppy. But perhaps there is a better explanation deducible from the words first* recorded use in The Canterbury Tales. When it finally comes round to Chaucer's turn to entertain the pilgrims with a story, the narrator starts to tell the Tale of Sir Thopas. It's a truly terribly story about a knight and a not very frightening monster, and nobody wants to hear the end, for, as the landlord says:

Mine ears achen of thy drasty [shitty] speech.
Now swich a rhyme the devil I biteche!
This may well be rhyme doggerel," quod he.

"Why so?" quod I, "why wilt thou lette me
More of my tale than another man
Syn that it is the best tale I can?"

"By God," quod he, "for plainly at a word
Thy drasty rhyming is not worth a turd."

So I humbly submit, dear reader, that doggerel is the little bit of dog that is left behind on the pavement, and that rhyme doggerel was originally dog-turd rhyme.

*There are earlier records of doggerel as a name, but they don't appear to have anything to do with poetry.


  1. What a marvelous opening sentence.

  2. Perhaps doggerel is related to cockerel, in which the -erel is a diminuative making a small dog or cock.