What is the origin of this contradictory poem?

  • Does anyone know where this poem originates from:

    One fine morning in the middle of the night,

    Two dead men got up to fight,

    Back to back they faced each other,

    Drew their swords and shot one another.

    I suspect it is from the Victorian era but would be interested to know if it has any definite origins?

    Bonus: Are there more of this type of poem and is there a name for this genre of poem?

    I've heard a few variations of this poem. Most were longer than this one but essentially started the same way

    As for the genre, I would call it a "nonsense poem".

    What research have you done? Why do you "suspect it is from the Victorian era"?

    Cited as an example of nonsense verse on Wikipedia. There are other examples there if you're interested.

    Other people have been searching for the source of this poem for a while, eg http://www.poetrylibrary.org.uk/queries/lostquotes/?id=134. One comment on that page says "*In one form or another the modern version of Two Dead Boys, including many orphan pieces, has been collected from children in playgrounds since the middle of the 19th century. A detailed study with examples collected throughout the British Isles since the turn of the 20th century can be found in Iona and Peter Opie?s The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren [1959, Oxford. Oxford University Press, pp. 24-29].*"

  • It's old. Like, really old. So old that it's impossible to tell where it originated.

    The book The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren by Iona and Peter Opie, published in 1959, catalogues many different schoolyard poems from throughout the first half of the twentieth century, including the following version of the one you're interested in:

    Ladles and jellyspoons
    I stand upon this speech to make a platform
    the train I arrived in has not yet come
    so I took a bus and walked
    I come before you to stand behind you
    and tell you something I know nothing about!

    One fine day in the middle of the night
    two dead men got up to a fight
    back to back they faced each other
    drew their swords and shot each other
    a paralysed donkey passing by
    kicked a blind man in the eye
    knocked him through a nine inch wall
    into a dry ditch and drowned them all.

    I haven't actually read the Opies' book myself, but according to this page:

    Opie noted that this had been collected in 12 different schools around the UK, but that it had also been collected, with almost no variation, fifty years before. It was probably older than that, too.

    This rhyme most likely evolved from other nonsense rhymes based on similar themes: opposites put together, blind people watching, deaf people hearing, and so on. A manuscript in the Bodleian library dating back to 1480 contains the following lines:

    I saw three headless [men] playing at a ball,
    A handless man served them all.
    While three mouthless men laughed,
    Three legless [men] from them ran.

    I've also found several sources pointing to a 1305 manuscript The Land of Cockaigne for an even older version of this kind of nonsense poem, but I haven't managed to track down a copy of the original manuscript to check the details. The primary source here appears to be The Mummers' Play by R. J. E. Tiddy, published in 1923, the relevant citation being on p. 116.


    With such a long history, it seems the best conclusion we can draw is that the idea of this poem has been around so long that it's pretty much a folk tradition. It's been handed down from generation to generation, probably mostly orally, and has of course changed and mutated quite a lot over the last seven hundred years. But trying to pin down an 'original author', for any particular version of the poem, is a fruitless venture in this centuries-long game of Chinese Whispers. Even today, there are many slightly different versions of the poem, and no single 'canonical' wording - just look at the number of variations listed here and here, for example.
    As for your bonus question about the genre of this poem, I would say it's a classical nonsense rhyme. It should be noted, however, that there are two distinct kinds of nonsense poem: ones like this where the words make sense individually but become nonsensical when put together in the right way, and ones like Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky which are full of nonsense words.

    Some would say that only the latter counts as a true nonsense rhyme:

    Although the Two Dead Boys poem (“One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night”) is often referred to as a nonsense rhyme, the description is not strictly accurate. It is clearly understandable in any of its many forms and versions and the impossibilities in the story are no more than sensible words and phrases that have been transposed. An example of a true nonsense rhyme can be seen for instance in the first four lines of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” from Through the Looking Glass [...] One can get a feeling for the severe, gathering darkness of the poem from Carroll’s introductory lines but, until Humpty Dumpty explains it in its entirety, the poem, and particularly these first four lines, makes no sense at all.

    But in everyday parlance, "nonsense verse" can certainly be used to cover both types of poem.

    The former type specifically have also been called ballads of impossibilities:

    The folklorist and writer Ed Cray, writing to others on an Internet ballad chat line, noted that the rhyme [the same one you're asking about] was a “Ballad of Impossibilities” and that, “A number of these songs/ballads of impossibilities were printed as broadsides in the 18th and 19th centuries.[”]

    The version I know has a line about "A deaf policeman heard the shot" and "This true story contains no lies/A blind man saw it with his own two eyes." There are plenty of variants.

    @LaurenIpsum - The version I know ends: "A deaf policeman heard the noise, came and killed those two dead boys! If you don't believe this lie is true, ask the blind man, he saw it too..." Compare also the "man without eyes" riddle, which seems like the same sort of nonsense, but actually has an answer: https://riddlesbrainteasers.com/plum-taking/

    I would love to get a look at that 1305 manuscript The Land of Cockaigne (re: Baudelaire's The Invitation To the Voyage

    The Journal of American Folklore in 1926 has the version: One fine day // In the middle of the night, // Two dead men jumped up and caught a fight. // A blind man saw it fe play, // A dumb man shouted, "Hip hip, hurrah!" // A dead white horse came galloping by // And knocked them // Through eight inch wall // And in a dry ditch // Drowned them all.

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Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM