Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Classic Funny Poems: 'Faithless Nelly Gray' by Thomas Hood

Here's a poem written by Thomas Hood, a British Poet and Humorist, excerpted from 'The Humorous Poetry of the English Language' by J. Parton (Mason Brothers, 1857).

This poem is strikingly similar to John Godfrey Saxe's 'Briefless Barrister' (previously posted here, also excerpted from the same book) - lots of puns, lots of word-play. Note: The humor is a bit darker, and I can't tell if this was meant to be a farce of a farce, given the full title of the poem is 'Faithless Nelly Gray: A Pathetic Ballad'.

Without further ado:

Faithless Nelly Gray: A Pathetic Ballad
By Thomas Hood (1798-1845)

Ben Battle was a soldier bold,
And used to war's alarms;
But a cannon-ball took off his legs,
So he laid down his arms.

Now, as they bore him off the field,
Said he, "Let others shoot;
For here I leave my second leg,
And the Forty-second Foot!"

The army-surgeons made him limbs:
Said he, "They're only pegs;
But there's as wooden members quite
As represent my legs!"

Now, Ben he loved a pretty maid,
Her name was Nelly Gray;
So he went up to pay his devours,
When he devoured his pay!

But when he called on Nelly Gray,
She made him quite a scoff;
And when she saw his wooden legs,
Began to take them off!

"O, Nelly Gray! O, Nelly Gray!
Is this your love so warm?
The love that loves a scarlet coat
Should be more uniform!"

Said she, "I loved a soldier once
For he was blithe and brave;
But I will never have a man
With both legs in the grave!

"Before you had those timber toes,
Your love I did allow;
But then, you know, you stand upon
Another footing now!"

"O, Nelly Gray! O, Nelly Gray!
For all your jeering speeches,
At duty's call I left my legs
In Badajos's breaches !"

"Why then," said she, "you've lost the feet
Of legs in war's alarms,
And now you cannot wear your shoes
Upon your feats of arms!"

"O, false and fickle Nelly Gray!
I know why you refuse: --
Though I've no feet -- some other man
Is standing in my shoes!

"I wish I ne'er had seen your face;
But, now, a long farewell!
For you will be my death; -- alas
You will not be my Nell!"

Now, when he went from Nelly Gray,
His heart so heavy got,
And life was such a burden grown,
It made him take a knot!

So round his melancholy neck
A rope he did entwine,
And, for his second time in life,
Enlisted in the Line.

One end he tied around a beam,
And then removed his pegs,
And, as his legs were off -- of course
He soon was off his legs!

And there he hung, till he was dead
As any nail in town--
For, though distress had cut him up,
It could not cut him down!

A dozen men sat on his corpse,
To find out why he died--
And they buried Ben in four cross-roads
With a stake in his inside!

[I have to admit one thing though: I did not understand the ending of this poem. If you have an interpretation of the last two lines, please share your insight via a comment for the benefit of the rest of us].

My favorite pun in this poem was 'Death...Nell' - how about yours?

Here is the biography of Thomas Hood from the same book. (Presumably, since this was written closer to his lifetime than, say, Wikipedia, we may consider it more authentic):
HOOD, THOMAS - Author of the "Song of the Shirt", which Punch had the honor of first publishing. Born in 1798; died in 1845. Hood was the son of a London BookSeller, and began life as a clerk. He became afterward an engraver, bur was drawn gradually into the literary profession, which he excercised far more to the advantage of his readers than his own. His later years were saddened by ill-health and poverty. Some of his comic verses seem forced and contrived, as though done for needed wages. Hood was one of the literary men who should have made of literature a staff, not a crutch. It was in him to produce, like Lamb, a few very admirable things, the execution of which should have been the pleasant occupation of his leisure, not the toil by which he gained his bread.

Thomas Hood


  1. Well...that was dark now, wasn't it?? Fun poem, though - I've always been a fan of classic literature, and Hood wrote some real unique stuff. I'm not sure why the men sat on his corpse...however, I would assume the 'stake reference is because back then, suicides were very much looked down upon: The bodies were often taken to distances far out of the area (the 4 crossroads reference) and buried unceremoniously with a stake driven through their body. (This is likely the source of the legend why vampires are killed with stakes through their heart)

    Anyway, thanks for sharing, Vikram!

    1. Thanks for the explanation Matt. I was thinking there had to be a joke or pun somewhere in the last 2 lines, but I couldn't find it :)
      I agree this is a very dark poem - the use of language definitely elevates it to a humorous standard and I'm actually surprised it wasn't considered scandalous back in those Victorian days...

    2. As I recall, he was a sickly fellow, so he found delight in this type of dark humour. I particularly like the line, "Though I've no feet -- some other man /
      Is standing in my shoes!"

    3. Oh, and by the way...I think there is some irony in the fact that he had two peg legs he got rid of, yet spent the rest of eternity with a 'peg' of sorts stuck through his body!

  2. I have always thought that the 12 men referred to were the coroner's jury. It was usual to bury suicides outside consecrated ground so if he was buried at a crossroads then he would have the wooden pole of the signpost going through him

  3. A simple pun of stake for steak? I came here by chance as am searching for another of his works in which
    They went and told the sexton
    And the sexton toll'd the Bell...


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