‘A Silly Poem’ is exactly that, an almost frustratingly clever quip written by Milligan based on a line from Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’. Milligan sets up the punchline of his poem by staging a scene in which Hamlet is speaking to Ophelia, asking her which pencil he should use to draw her. You can read the full poem here.
The poem only measures four lines, with the second and final line rhyming. The rhyme scheme is A-B-C-B. The single stanza has no instances of caesura, and can be read very quickly. This helps to deliver the joke fluidly, capturing the audience with how short it is. Moreover, the use of the rhyme between lines 2+4 makes it so that the final ‘2B’ is stressed. This reflects the fact that the poem is a joke, with the rhyme emphasizing this final line, which is also the punch line.
The lines are measure 8,6,8,6 syllables. This steady rhythm allows for a rhythm to be established when reading through the poem. The flow this creates allows the reader to quickly read through the poem, arriving at the punchline. This form of writing is called the Common meter. The lines alternate between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, with each foot consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. The alternating between stressed and unstressed syllables also means the final ‘2b’ punchline is stressed. This means that through rhyme, rhythm, and placement within the poem, the final word is emphasized. Milligan really wanted people to read through this poem and quickly fall upon his linguistic wordplay.
Analysis of A Silly Poem
The title of the poem, ‘A Silly Poem’, instantly sets up the reader to understand that this poem is going to be a comedy. The poem’s intention is so singular that Spike Milligan doesn’t even think to come up with a title that reflects the poem, he simply writes that the poem is ‘silly’. This helps to set the tone of the poem and allows the punchline to feel more effective due to the reader expecting a joke. By having an ambiguous title, Milligan also doesn’t spoil any of the content, the reader begins the poem knowing nothing – the perfect territory for Milligan to craft a joke. The title also suggests to the reader that they don’t need to take the poem too seriously. It is after all, just intended as ‘A Silly Poem’.
Said Hamlet to Ophelia,
Milligan begins ‘A Silly Poem’ by staging a conversation between two characters from Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’. The eponymous Hamlet is the main character within the play, and he is speaking to Ophelia. Ophelia, daughter of Polonius, is Hamlet’s love interest in the play. The role of Ophelia is a tragic one, being torn between her family and her love for Hamlet. It is odd to see Ophelia in the midst of Milligan’s comic poem, furthering the impact of the quip. Moreover, Ophelia and Hamlet are huge names in literature. It is funny to see these characters brought down to a colloquial level, asking each other about pencils.
Milligan uses ‘thee’ in the second line to emulate an older form of English, replicating the language which Shakespeare used in his writing. This helps to characterize Hamlet, using words which he would have used. Indeed, the very joke within ‘A Silly Poem’ stems from this echoing of Hamlet’s own words, with the source material of the play Hamlet being where Milligan takes the punchline from.
2B or not 2B?
Within Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark. To see the character now associated with just drawing pictures begins the comedy of the second half of the poem. The casualness of the comment, ‘What kind of pencil shall I use?’ contrasts greatly to Hamlet’s impulsive character.
The final line, ‘2B or not 2B?’ is literally portraying Hamlet asking Ophelia what kind of pencil he should use to draw her. 2B is a form of drawing pencil, and Hamlet is wondering if he should use that pencil or another kind.
The comedy stems from the line also being a reference to one of the most famous lines from English Literature: ‘To be or not to be’. This quotation is spoken by Hamlet as a mediation on life and death – he is grappling with these huge concepts throughout an incredibly famous soliloquy. He ponders that living is to leave yourself at the mercy of unfair fortune, and therefore is killing yourself not a way of taking action and defeating this fortune. For Hamlet, living is a passive state; dying is an active one. You can read the full passage where Milligan takes the lines from here.
Milligan takes this important speech, perhaps even the most known line from Shakespeare’s literature completely, and makes it a pencil joke.
The clever wordplay, with 2b actually being a pencil type and therefore completely echoing ‘to be’ is the main punchline of the poem. It is short and sweet, much like the poem, and often gets a little chuckle. ‘A Silly Poem’ is a great example of the ridiculous comedy of Milligan.
About Spike Milligan
Born on the 16th of April 1918, Terence Alan Milligan, better known as Spike Milligan, was a British-Irish poet, writer, and comedian. He was born in Ahmednagar, India, and grew up in Poona, India. He lived much of his adult life in England and served in the British Army Royal Artillery division in World War II.
His poetry is often lovingly categorized under ‘literary nonsense’, with the purpose of comedy often being easily achieved. His poetry is widely known, with his poem ‘On the Ning Nang Nong’ being amongst the ten most commonly taught poems in primary schools in the UK. He was very acclaimed during his life, even being made an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) in 2001. He died on February 27th, 2002 at the age of 83, although his legacy still lives on through his contribution to film, tv, music, and poetry.