Bump is a limerick poem which dispels fear of “things that go ‘bump’ in the night”. A limerick is a poem in which lines 1,2 and 5 rhyme and have between seven to ten syllables. Lines 3 and 4 also rhyme and have between five and seven syllables. This poem fits neatly into this structure.
Bump can easily be told to a child to dispel fear. Within the poem, Milligan suggests that the noises in the night are really just the imagination and the lack of light which plays tricks on the mind. You can read the full poem here.
The phrase ‘things that go bump in the night’ was first used in print in the year 1918, in the Bulletin of the School Oriental and African Studies: “To a people … who … believe in genii, ghosts, goblins, and those terrific things that ‘go bump in the night’, protective charms are eagerly sought for.” The fact that the quote is not explained insinuates that the phrase would have been familiar to readers at the time. This means that the common usage of the phrase could extend back further than we know.
Bump begins with focusing on the vague ‘things’. In doing this, Milligan is encompassing all the possibilities of ‘things’ that could be making noise in the night. Moreover, the unspecified nature of the origin of the noise reflects the fear of the unknown, which is being dispelled within the poem.
By beginning with the phrase itself, ‘things that go bump in the night’, Milligan calls upon this familiarity. This is a phrase which I assume almost all people reading would be familiar with, allowing Bump to take on a personal and understandable note.
‘Bump’ is also typical to Milligan’s writing, with him often using onomatopoeia within his wiring. Indeed, his most famous poem, On The Ning Nang Nong, relies entirely on this concept. Onomatopoeia can be seen throughout lots of Milligan’s writing, also appearing in Teeth. This is because Milligan’s poem were often read out loud, with the focus on sound within his poems reflecting his enjoyment of words that produce a large sound.
By setting Bump at ‘night’, Milligan draws into the idea of fear and worries. The fact that the ‘bump’ has happened at ‘night’ is the central fear. Of course if it were day, then the strange noise wouldn’t be a source for alarm. This focus on night and not knowing relates to a fear of darkness, with people feeling safer in the light daytime.
The adverb ‘really’ modifies the verb ‘give’, with the parental tone coming across strongly here. The ‘really’ implies a softness in tone, with the image of Milligan speaking to one of his children coming through the poem. The elongation of the line, using ‘really’ means that it is not as harsh, it is not presented as a command, further reflecting the parental tone.
The conditional ‘should’ suggests that although the child who is scared ‘should’ not be scared, they actually are. The subtle linguistic descriptor gives the reader an insight into the actual situation. It seems that a child has woken up because of the ‘bump’ and is worried about what could be making the noise.
The first rhyme within Bump links the idea darkness and fear, ‘night’ and ‘fright’. This opening couplet sets up the concept discussed in the poet. The linking of the two concepts are classic within literature, with ‘night’ often being associated with darkness and darkness with fear or evil. Milligan uses this rhyme to suggest the link, with the ‘night’ causing a ‘fright’. Assuming a child has woken up from nightmares, Milligan is using this short limerick as a way of dispelling their fear.
Lines Three and Four
The third and fourth lines explain that it is the ears that let in the noise. From there, because it is dark, the imagination can run wild about what the noise could be. This is where the fear comes from, not the noise itself.
The personification of ‘fear’ as something that can climb into your ear presents the concept as something concrete. This conceptualisation could help the child to visualise exactly what Milligan is saying.
The final line, rhyming in the limerick fashion with the first two, explores the idea of ‘night’ creating ‘fright’ further. Because it is nighttime, and what has made the noise is unknown, imagination can run wild. Milligan understands this, but dissuades the child from fearing. He explains that it is only the ‘absence of light’ that is the scary part. If the noise were to happen in the daytime, it would not be scary. This explanation is elevated by the exclamation mark, coupled with the completing of the limerick form by the rhyme with the first two lines.
The fact that the ‘light’ in Bump is separated by two middle lines from ‘night’ and ‘fright’ also represents the idea that ‘night’ and ‘fright’ are closely linked, whereas ‘light’ could dispel these fears. ‘Light’ is emphasised through the final exclamative end stop. Moreover, the earlier caesura after ‘that’ suggests that this line would have had a slight pause before it. This leads the final resolution on ‘light’ to be more striking to the reader. Similarly, by employing the limerick form, lots of emphasis is always placed on the final word, as it links back to the opening couplet rhyme.
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 categorised 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 poem 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.