Wandering through the humour of a ghost poem: On the Reading Process of Humour in May Kendall's ‘The Conscientious Ghost’ (1887)

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This article has two goals. Firstly, it aims to contribute to the research on the works of Victorian author May Kendall (1861-1943). In his article on 'The Lay of the Trilobite', John Holmes notes that there exist only few critical discussions of Kendall’s most famous poem. As a possible explanation, he points towards the idea that ‘what it says appears on the face of it straightforward’ (Holmes 2010:1). This apparent straightforwardness is arguably present in all of Kendall’s humorous poems. My article demonstrates, however, that there is a complexity and a subtlety to the humour in her poetry that can be analysed using insights from the interdisciplinary field of humour studies. Concretely, it examines the process by which readers can interpret the humour in May Kendall's poem ‘The Conscientious Ghost’ (1887) , while reading the text as one would ‘typically’ read a poem. In so doing, the article understands the search for multiple and complex meanings (heightened semantization (Wolf 2005: 24-30)) by associating elements and structures throughout the text as typical of the poetic reading process. Secondly, the article hopes to further the research on the applicability of models for verbal humour to poetry. It claims that the incongruity-based models for verbal humour, the type of model most often used for the analysis of textual humour, suggest a simple, predominantly linear, quick way of reading. I argue that such a reading process is inconsistent with the way poetry is typically read and incompatible with the experience of the complex literary qualities of humour that literary scholars have noted in poems such as Kendall’s science poems. I therefore propose to model the reading process as one that entails a more literary way of reading, consisting of three ‘flows’ of reading: a decoding, a poetic, and a meta-reflective flow.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)185-199
Number of pages15
JournalCahier voor Literatuurwetenschappen
Publication statusPublished - 2023


  • humor
  • Humour
  • Humor en literatuur
  • Literary studies
  • english literature
  • Poetry
  • poetry
  • poetry analysis


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