‘The Germ’ is one of a series of poems Nash wrote about living creatures. Some of the others are ‘The Octopus,’ ‘The Fly,’ and ‘The Cow.’ Humor is one of the most important elements in ‘The Germ,’ and in Nash’s other animal/creature poems. They are filled with puns and clever explanations for what an animal does. Often, they are reduced to their simplest level. For example, germs cause diseases, flies are annoying, and cows moo and make milk.
Explore The Germ
Summary of The Germ
In the first four lines, the speaker discusses how “mighty” the tiny germ is. It has the power to live in tiny places and do great things. While it’s not as big as a pachyderm, it’s still impressive. The speaker also emphasizes that germs love to live in the human body. He speaks directly to the listener, a young child, in the second stanza. He asks this child if they feel “infirm.” This higher-level word is contrasted with the final line where the speaker says, if so, you “probably contain a germ.”
You can read the full poem here.
Themes in The Germ
In ‘The Germ,’ Nash engages with humor, life, and strength. The strength element of the poem comes from the juxtaposition between the germ’s size and its power. This is at the root of the poem and the source of much of the humor around the topic. The germ lives down inside one’s body, in the tiniest places. This is a simple and child-like way of describing what it does and where it makes its home, but it works for this series of poems. The speaker makes sure to note, using humor, that the germ chooses to give people diseases to satisfy his pride. He’s small, but when he makes people sick, he feels big.
Structure and Form
‘The Germ’ by Ogden Nash is an eight-line poem contained within a single stanza of text. The lines follow a simple rhyme scheme of AABB and changing end sounds in the next quatrain. Rhyme is very common in Nash’s poems, mostly because he was interested in creating puns. Many of his poems are also aimed at young audiences, and rhyme is almost always a part of children’s poetry. The meter is just as consistent as the rhyme scheme is. Each line contains four sets of two beats for a total of eight syllables.
Nash makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Germ.’ These include but are not limited to alliteration and enjambment. The first of these, alliteration, is a common technique used by poets to increase the rhythm and rhyme in a poem. It is concerned with the use and reuse of words that start with the same consonant sounds. For example, “pachyderm” and “place” in lines two and three of the first stanza, as well as “diseases” and “Do” in lines two and three of the second stanza. There are a few more examples, as well.
Enjambment is another common literary device. It is concerned with how and where the poet uses line breaks. If a line break appears before the end of a sentence or phrase, the line is likely enjambed. This means that the second half of the phrase is continued one line down.
Analysis of The Germ
A mighty creature is the germ,
Though smaller than the pachyderm.
His customary dwelling place
Is deep within the human race.
In the first stanza of ‘The Germ,’ the speaker begins by calling the germ “A mighty creature.” This is an interesting juxtaposition that also creates the possibility of a vivid image in the reader’s mind. This is followed up by the image of a pachyderm, or a camel. Likely, the reader did not expect a poem about germs to also contain a camel’s reference, but that’s part of Nash’s humor. He goes on, saying that the germ customarily lives “deep within the human race.” This is a creepy but accurate way of describing the way that humans get diseases.
His childish pride he often pleases
By giving people strange diseases.
Do you, my popet, feel infirm?
You probably contain a germ.
In the second quatrain, the speaker goes on to personify the germ. He describes it as having “pride” and taking pleasure from giving people “strange diseases.” Although the germ is quite small, it makes itself feel better by infecting people with odd afflictions.
The last two lines are directed to “my popet,” a pet name for a young child. The speaker asks this person if they feel “infirm” or unwell. If so, he adds, then there’s probably a germ inside them, making them sick.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Germ’ should also consider reading some of Ogden Nash’s other best-known poems. These include ‘A Caution to Everybody,’ ‘A Word to Husbands,’ and ‘The People Upstairs.’ The first of these is a caution to all those reading and everyone else in the world, about valuing progress over humanity’s morality. The latter is more humorous. It describes, in upbeat language, what the speaker thinks the noisy upstairs neighbors could be doing. Readers should also check out poems by Edward Lear and Shel Silverstein.