Milligan is one of the best-loved writers of children’s poetry and in ‘The ABC’ he uses the alphabet in a new, creative way. It is at once entertaining and educational.
The poem takes the reader through the majority of the alphabet. Emphasizing the shape of letters and the ways that they can change the sounds and meanings of words. They jump in front of one another, criticize one another’s shapes, and bicker over small things.
You can read the full poem here.
‘The ABC’ by Spike Milligan is an eight stanza poem that’s divided into sets of four lines, or quatrains. These quatrains follow a loose rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD, changing end sounds as the poet saw fit. Despite the simplicity of the subject matter and rhyme scheme, Milligan makes use of several poetic techniques. The most prominent is alliteration.
It occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. Instances of alliteration can be seen all over the poem, but one prominent example is “Cow and Cool and Cape” in stanza four.
Milligan also uses enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transitions between lines one, two, and three in the first stanza.
Analysis of The ABC
‘Twas midnight in the schoolroom
Was heard a loud “Tut-Tut!”
In the first stanza of ‘The ABC’ the speaker begins with the word “’Twas midnight”. This is a traditional way of starting out a story and carries with his allusions to the magical and otherworldly. Rather than bring the reader to a new, unknown world, the speaker announces that the story is going to take place somewhere very familiar to a young reader, the schoolroom. To make things a little different, it’s midnight. There are of course no children there, and “every desk was shut”.
This stanza works as the rising action or prelude to the rest of the poem. It builds up to the fourth stanza in which strange things start to happen. The third line is enjambed, making the surprise of the fourth all the more impactful. This would certainly be the case if the poem was read out loud. There was a loud noise, a “‘Tut-Tut!’”
Said A to B, “I don’t like C;
Is a semi-circular back!”
It turns out that the alphabet, left alone in the classroom without anyone to keep an eye on it, was out and about talking. Starting from the first letters, the speaker goes through the entire series describing how they feel about one another. “A” and “B” are discussing how they feel about “C” in the second stanza. “A” doesn’t like “him” because his manners are poor. The reason for this dislike is meant to be amusing, it’s also meant to teach a young reader more about the alphabet. “A” only ever sees “C’s” “semi-circular back!”
“I disagree,” said D to B,
An uncompleted O.”
In the next stanza of ‘The ABC’ the conversation continues on, moving through the alphabet. “D” decides to get into the discussion and disagrees, and speaking directly to “B”. This letter has a very different perceptive on what “C” as a shape, looks like. It sees it as “An uncompleted O”.
C was vexed, “I’m much perplexed,
And Cow and Cool and Cape.”
The amusing discussion becomes more interesting when “C” weighs in and tries to explain why it is the way it is. The shape is necessary in order to spell out “C” words like “Cat” and “Cool”. By using alliteration in these lines Milligan is able to make them even more fun to say aloud.
“He’s right” said E; said F, “Whoopee!”
“Don’t do it please I pray.”
The next letters of the alphabet celebrate in stanza five of ‘The ABC’. Milligan moves quickly through “E,” “F,” “H” and “G”. One of the best moments of the poem is when “H” chastising “G” for saying “hooray” like “‘ooray!” And “‘Ip!” The letter seems to take offense at being left out of the celebrating exclamation.
“Out of my way,” LL said to K.
And presto! ILL was JILL.
There is something resembling a fight in the sixth stanza. A double “L” wants to jump in front of “K” and make the letter “I” look like “ILL”. This seems like something negative and “J” jumps in front to turn “ILL” into “J”. By personifying these letters and their actions Milligan sought to make the alphabet more interesting for children. They are meant to learn through the reading of ‘The ABC’ how each letter has a job to do. Perhaps, when learning to read and spell, this fact will come back to them.
“U know,” said V, “that W
I’m half as young as he.”
A bit of the alphabet is skipped in the seventh stanza of ‘The ABC’, and Milligan jumps down to “U,” “V” and “W” who spend the seventh stanza comparing their shapes to Roman numerals. The letter “V” claims to be half the “age” of “W” because a “Roman V is five” and two “V’s” is ten.
X and Y yawned sleepily,
They did, then “Z-z-z.”
The last letters send ‘The ABC’ and the child off the bed. The “X” and “Y” yawn and very simple they all head off to “beddy byes” with the letter “Z” characteristically ending the poem.