The Poetry of Spike Milligan

Spike Milligan (1918 – 2002) is best known for his part in The Goon Show the infamous radio series which re-wrote the rules of comedy as they were at the time. He has written many humorous poems for children but is less well known for his serious poetry, of which I will look at three of my favourites now. All three of these are from Milligan’s book “Small Dreams of a Scorpion”.

Love Song

Spike Milligan’s poem Love Song (Milligan,1980: p46) is simple and sweet, one of my favourites. It consists of two sentences over 6 lines but manages to say quite a lot about this thing that we call love. Let’s look at each sentence in turn.

“If I could write words
Like leaves on an autumn forest floor,
What a bonfire my letters would make.” (Lines 1 – 3)

In lines 1-3 Milligan uses a simile which compares words to leaves, with the words that the poet writes being the tenor and leaves on an autumn forest floor as the vehicle. So the ground here is all about the quantity of leaves found in a forest in autumn, and the poet musing about how many words he would write if he could produce a similar amount. What is really interesting here though is the use of the image of a bonfire, which is usually used to dispose of unwanted waste. Is Milligan saying that this huge number of words created would have no use but to be burned away?

“If I could speak words of water,
You would drown when I said
"I love you."” (Lines 4 – 6)

In the next sentence Milligan uses a metaphor in which he compares the words that he speaks (the tenor) to water (the vehicle) and pulls it all together, giving it power, by using the word “drown”. He is telling his love that if his words were water there is such emotion in his use of the words “I love you” that there would be enough water to drown in.

What is really powerful about Love Song is the contrast between the first three lines and the second three lines, and the overall message this gives us. Milligan is telling us that if he could write a huge number of words they may only be good enough to be burned, they might have no meaning, but a few words that are heartfelt and true can have a real impact. It’s quality instead of quantity. Milligan could be talking here about his own poetry, comparing it with that produced by other poets, but could anyone else say so much in so few lines? Love Song is a perfect example of what poetry can do and prose cannot and maybe that is what the poem is telling us.

True Love

True Love (Milligan, 1980: p60) is another short poem by Spike Milligan that tells the story of a balloon’s love for a little girl and her love for him. The poet personifies the balloon, calling it “he”, saying that the balloon “captures” a girl (line 2), “he strove to take her” (line 4), he had to “prove his love” (line 6) and finally “he died” (line 8). The style of writing in this poem seems to be that of a story told from the child’s perspective, almost like a child’s imaginative play. The phrase “a hundred years later that night” gives a very innocent perception of the passage of time where moments of joy stretch into the distance. Then the inevitable happens, the balloon dies and;

“The little girl cried
for never again would she find
such a pure love.” (Lines 10 – 12)

Milligan ends on a sad image of the end of innocence. Love, the end of innocence, the vivid imagination of the young, the inevitability of time and the bitter-sweet thing that love is, all compressed into twelve simple lines.

Mirror, Mirror

The final poem I will look at is Spike Milligan’s Mirror, Mirror (Milligan, 1980: p81) which examines the theme of beauty being in the eye of the beholder. Milligan begins with a metaphor in which he compares the girl to the month of spring, “young spring-tender girl” (line 1), and tells us that she is combing her “joyous hair” (line 2) which builds a light, innocent picture for us. Then the mood is broken, when the mirror says, “You are very ugly” (line 3). The title of the poem and the fact that the mirror is speaking to the girl brings the fairytale Snow White to mind so consequentially the image of the girl created for me is that of beauty, but that may be too literal. Maybe the mirror is something else; the girl’s view of herself, an internal thing, or the result of what she has been told by others, or society in general, something external.

“But,

  on her lips hung
  a smile of dove-secret loveliness,” (Lines 4 – 6)

The placement of the single word “but” followed by a comma, makes us pause, leaving us to dwell on the meaning of the first three lines and it serves to divide the poem nicely. It is good to see that the girl has not been touched by the mirror’s blunt comment as she wears a “smile of dove-secret loveliness”. To me this is saying that the girls smile is ambiguous but peaceful and capable of deflecting all of the insults in the world.

“For only that morning had not
  the blind boy said,
  ‘you are beautiful'?” (Lines 7 – 9)

In the poems final lines we find the reason for the girls peaceful state, the blind boy has said that she is beautiful. Of course the blind boy cannot see the girl’s physical appearance so the beauty he speaks of is that which comes from within her. The opinion of the boy is given more weight because of his disability because it is often assumed that a lacking in one of the senses means the heightening of those that remain. So, when someone who is blind “sees” beauty then we had better pay attention. The beauty within is also often given more weight because of its hidden nature; if it’s difficult to find it’s rare and what’s rare is valuable to us.

These three poetic visions from Spike Milligan: the power inherent in the words “I love you”; the innocent love of a child and perhaps the end of that child’s innocence; and a question of what true beauty is. With so many ideas covered in such a short number of words, and with so many different layers, Milligan shows the power of the poetic form and his mastery of it.

Reference

Milligan, Spike, 1980, Small Dreams of a Scorpion, Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd.

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Comments 4 comments

chspublish profile image

chspublish 5 years ago from Ireland

Thanks for your great insights into Milligan's serious poems and showing us the power of his words, the complexity of his use of imagery and his mastery of writing.


Barraoc profile image

Barraoc 5 years ago from Co. Meath, Ireland Author

Thank you for reading it chspublish. I've always felt that Spike Milligan is underrated as a poet.


SilentReed profile image

SilentReed 5 years ago from Philippines

Like the Haiku,the economical use of words encourage the reader to look deep into the poem thereby increasing the sense experience,with the discovery of any hidden gems an additional pleasure. Thank you for the introduction and your interpretations of Spike Milligan's poems.


Barraoc profile image

Barraoc 5 years ago from Co. Meath, Ireland Author

Thank you for the great comment SilentReed, I've never thought of Milligan's poetry as being comparable to the Haiku, but now that you've brought it to my attention it's difficult not to see the similarities.

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