‘Teeth’ is a comic poem in which Milligan pokes fun at the stereotype of English people, commonly considered to have bad teeth. He chants the positives of ‘English Teeth’, before revealing they are all ‘brown grey and black’. You can read the full poem here.
Structure, Rhythm, and Rhyme
The poem is one continuous stanza, but can be divided into three quatrains based on the rhyme sequence. The poem is 12 lines long, and read naturally in three differing quatrains. The first two quatrains are marked by beginning with a line that has a double exclamation.
The rhyme scheme is continuously ABCB within each quatrain. By employing this rhyme scheme, the poem takes upon a sing-song chant, reflecting the jovial content. The rhyme scheme also means that when the punchline does come on line 12, it is elevated due to the rhyming of ‘clack’ and ‘black.’
The use of enjambment on the majority of lines means that the poem naturally flows quickly towards each exclamation. It reads quickly, which furthers the impact of the joke when it arrives. Much like many of Spike Milligan’s other poems, the poem is intended to make the audience laugh.
The syllables of the first two lines in each quatrain are consistent, the first line having 6, the second having 5. This step down from 6 to 5 syllables begins each quatrain with a jovial tone, the lines are easy to read and flow well into one another.
The repetition of ‘English Teeth’ throughout the poem centralizes the reader on exactly what Milligan is talking about. Having lived much of his life in Britain, Milligan would have been aware of the stereotype and is playing up to this. He creates the comedy of the poem by seemingly emphasizing the ‘happy’ and ‘fun’ nature of the teeth, then subverting the notion and referencing the stereotypical off-white colors.
Analysis of Teeth
Lines One – Four
English Teeth, English Teeth!
Aye, each and every one.
The poem begins by drawing attention to the subject matter, ‘English Teeth’. The double repetition and exclamation start the poem with excitable energy. The poem is set in a warm and light atmosphere, with the ‘sun’ being the first image after the ‘shining’ teeth. This atmosphere helps to set the tone of the poem, it is jovial and intended as a joke.
Within this first quatrain, Spike Milligan makes a reference to ‘British heritage’, which is a subtle reference to the stereotype. The ‘heritage’ in this case is the idea that British people have bad teeth, this being passed down through the generations.
‘Each and every one’ is polysemic. It can first be interpreted as referencing ‘each and every’ tooth in the mouth. Yet, it can also be understood as him saying that all British people are part of this stereotype, all having bad teeth.
Although no one is certain where exactly this stereotype came from, many argue that it is from the film which gained international fame, Austin Powers, in which the British protagonist has terrible teeth. Moreover, the lack of funding in the NHS meant that often dental procedures were too expensive, meaning that alternate devices (not braces) were prescribed by dentists. This symbol of Britain, having bad teeth then became a strong association and a common stock joke for Americans.
Lines Five – Eight
English Teeth, Happy Teeth!
And sausages half done.
This quatrain again begins with a reference to ‘British teeth!’, but this time characterizes them as ‘Happy Teeth!’. This feeds back into the tone built in the first quatrain, one of joviality. The following line, ‘always having fun’, relates further to this idea, with ‘fun’ further characterizing the ‘happy teeth’.
The use of the verb ‘clamping’ is directly pulled from the semantic field of teeth. The image of teeth chewing is paired with typical British foods. Milligan references ‘fish’, which is a reference to fish and chips widely considered a national dish of England. This poem is typically British in its connotations.
Lines Nine – Twelve
English Teeth! HEROES’ Teeth!
Three Cheers for the Brown Grey and Black.
The use of ‘click’ and ‘clack’ followed by an exclamation presents a moment of the teeth clamping down. This image of teeth chewing, first referenced in the second quatrain, is repeated here. The exclamation can be taken as the noise of the teeth clamping down. Both of these words are cases of onomatopoeia, with this being a classic favorite of Milligan’s poetic techniques. Indeed, his most famous poem, ‘On The Ning Nang Nong’, relies entirely on this technique.
This poem again sings the praise of ‘English Teeth’, but with the final twist coming in the last line. There is an enforced hyphen that forces a break in the otherwise fast poem. This leads to the last line being read much slower than the rest. It is here, during the last line, where the punchline of the joke comes. Milligan is saying that British people have ‘brown grey and black’ teeth. This goes against the built-up tone of the ‘happy’ and ‘fun’ ‘teeth’. Milligan pokes fun at the stereotype, characterizing the ‘Teeth’ as browning and rotting.
The poem is not one meant to offend, it is just Milligan writing in his typical comic style.
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.