The term ‘sick verse’ is kin to black comedy; it is queasily, uneasily funny, mordant, sardonic, and occasionally macabre. Its themes are misfortune, death, disease, cruelty, love-sickness, and morbid preoccupations related to mental illness (sometimes masochistic and sadistic). It is the product of melancholy, ennui, despair and nausea of the world. At its strongest, it displays horror and necrophiliac urges. It ranges from the apocalyptically sombre vision of James Thomson’s City of Dreadful Night to the com-paratively light-hearted jingle of W. S. Gilbert’s Nightmare.
A very large number of poets have written verse that qualifies as sick. Some would find parts of Juvenal’s more misanthropic satires fairly sick, but there is little of note until the 15th c. when the disastrous wars and plagues which devastated Europe inspired poets to express disgust and regret. Some notable examples from this period of what we might now describe as sick verse are Villon’s Regrets de la belle heaulmière, Ballade des dames du temps jadis, and Ballade des pendus; Chastellain’s Le Pas de la Mort; and Olivier de la Marche’s Parement et Triumphe des Dames. A preoccupation with death, decay, and disease sometimes inspired Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists (especially Webster and Tourneur) to write appropriately sick verses for some scenes. A macabre and ‘sick’ element is particularly noticeable in revenge tragedy.
Sick verse becomes rare after the middle of the 17th c., but a certain blackness of spirit and a dwelling upon the gloomy and horrific reappears towards the middle of the 18th c. in the Graveyard School of Poetry, and during the 19th c. sick verse of one kind and another is common. Out of the many examples available one should mention George Crabbe’s Peter Grimes and Sir Eustace Grey; many works by Thomas Lovell Beddoes (especially his play Death’s Jest- Book); The City of Dreadful Night by James Thomson, already referred to, and the same author’s Insomnia; Edgar Allan Poe’s poems The Raven, The Bells, The Conqueror Worm, The Sleeper; Robert Browning’s poems Madhouse Cells, Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister, The Laboratory, Sibrandus Schafnaburgensis, and Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came; A.C.Swinburne’s Faustine and After Death. In more recent years some of the more notable contributions have been made by Robert Graves (The Halls of Bedlam, The Castle, The Suicide in the Copse); Robert Service (The Cremation of Sam McGee); W. H. Auden (Miss Gee); John Betjeman (Death in Leamington; Late-Flowering Lust); Sylvia Plath (Surgeon at 2 a.m., In Plaster).
Also read; What is Pulp literature and its examples