Absurdism, Books

On Edward Lear

Edward Lear did not invent the limerick, a form that has been traced back to England in the early eighteenth century, and limerick was not the word he used (the term not being documented until the 1890s). Lear called them nonsenses, but he did fashion them into a literary form that made them famous.

There was a Young Person of Smyrna,
Whose grandmother threatened to burn her;
But she seized the cat, and said ‘Granny burn that
You incongruous old woman of Smyrna’

There was a Old Man of Peru,
Who never knew what he should do;
So he tore off his hair, and behaved like a bear,
That intrinsic Old Man of Peru.

There was a young lady in white,
Who looked out at the depths of the night;
But the birds of the air, filled her heart with despair,
And oppressed that young lady in white.

There was an Old Man of Cape Horn,
Who wished he had never been born;
So he sat on a chair, ‘till he died of despair,
That dolorous Man of Cape Horn.

There was an Old Person of Gretna,
Who rushed down the crater of Etna;
When they said, ‘Is it hot?’ he replied ‘No it’s not’
That mendacious Old Person of Gretna.

There was an Old Lady of Prague,
Whose language was horribly vague;
When they said, ‘Are these caps?’ she answered, ‘Perhaps!’
That oracular Lady of Prague.

Lear’s nonsenses are light ditties formed of a single sentence, and darkly anarchic. These six examples gambol their way without further ado towards torture, self harm, melancholy, death and suicide. The nonsense is propelled with energetic haste and a refusal to linger ending with a final snap. The sharpness of the telling adjective in the last line, incongruous, intrinsic, oppressed, dolorous, mendacious oracular, wobble the ballast of the whole sentence. The mood is made unpredictable and bestows an elusive judgement. (Oracular means relating to the oracle, if this lady of Prague with her linguistic vagueness is the oracle, what hope is there?) The final line of a Lear limerick is a variation of the first, ending on the same word giving a circular effect. The destination circles its return to the original point of departure casting a reflection backwards over the whole. The final line is then read differently from the first: little has changed and everything has.

There was an old person of Rimini
Who said, “Gracious! Goodness! O Gimini!
When they said, “Please be still!” she ran down a hill
And was never once heard of at Rimini.

There was an Old Person of Hyde,
Who walked by the shore with his bride,
Till a crab who came near fill’d their bosoms with fear,
And they said, ‘Would we never left Hyde!’

There was a Old Person of Rhodes,
Who strongly objected to toads;
He paid several cousins, to catch them by dozens,
That futile Old Person of Rhodes.

There was an Old Man on a hill.
Who seldom, if ever, stood still;
He ran up and down in his grandmother’s gown,
Which adorned that Old Man on a hill.

The protagonist is never assigned the specificity of a name. Their key attribute is an attachment to place: Lahore, Madras, Rhodes, Hyde, Ems, Cape Horn, Peru, Smyrna, Dunblane, Rimini, Gretna, New York. Their affiliation with place raises the suggestion that they are the famous inhabitant, and moreover have been made famous by what happened in the nonsense. But the protagonists seem to have an unsustainable relation to their location: does living in Rhodes breed a hostility to toads? Why should an inhabitant of Rimini not be unstill? Why should a man of Peru act like a bear? The relationship between person and place seems, to say the least, arbitrary. There is a whole world of nonsense here crossing borders with ease, and an epidemic of odd comic happenings popping up in cities far and near. The ‘of’ limits the person to their town, but these are characters often attempting to flee. Some of the inhabitants seem to take flight with curious, reckless abandon showing an urge to hide, run or even die as they embark on a journey of impossibility. Others are rooted to the spot and wrecked with inaction.

There was an Old Man in a Marsh,
Whose manners were futile and harsh;
He sate on a log, and sang songs to a frog,
That instructive Old Man in a Marsh.

There was an Old Man of Madras,
Who rode on a cream-coloured ass;
But the length of its ears so promoted his fears,
That it killed that Old Man of Madras.

There was an Old Person of Ems,
Who casually fell in the Thames;
And when he was found, they said he was drowned,
That unlucky Old Person of Ems.

There was an Old Man of Lahore,
Who heard the loud waterfall roar;
But in going to look, he fell into a brook,
And he never was heard of no more.

These nonsenses are peopled by odd protagonists acting bizarrely wandering alone in a nonsense land in bohemian conditions. Some are contemplative, musical, joyous and gentle, others wild and violent. These are verses of unlikely pairings: man and bird, man and frog, man and ass, young woman and homicidal grandmother. People are defiant, some don’t care, others simply sit on chairs inflexibly staring at birds in the air, some refuse aid, others evade safety, for some their life is defined by misadventure others are trapped forever within their place. There are exhibitionists riding on asses, tearing out hair, singing to frogs, behaving like bears, running up and down hills, escaping from crabs in out-and-out full-on futile action.

‘They’, in the third line, are a lurking and malign presence:

There was an Old Man who screamed out
Whenever they knocked him about;
So they took off his boots, and fed him with fruits,
And continued to knock him about.

There was an Old Man with a gong,
Who bumped at it all the day long;
But they called out “Oh law! You’re a horrid old bore”
So they smashed that Old Man with a gong.

There was an old person of Sestri
Who sat himself down in the vestry,
When they said “You are wrong!” – he merely said “Bong!”
That repulsive old person of Sestri.

There was an Old Man of Whitehaven,
Who danced a quadrille with a raven;
But they said – ‘It’s absurd, to encourage this bird’
So they smashed that Old Man of Whitehaven.

There was an Old Man of Melrose,
Who walked on the tips of his toes;
But they said, ‘It ain’t pleasant, to see you at present,
You stupid Old Man of Melrose.’

There was an Old man of Dunblane,
Who greatly resembled a Crane;
But they said, – ‘Is it wrong, since your legs are so long,
To request you won’t stay in Dunblane?’

‘They’ say he is wrong, ‘they’ call him a bore, ‘they’ ask him to leave town, ‘they’ knock him about, ‘they’ smash the absurd. If violence and horror, murder and death are lurking never far away it is the confrontational ‘they’ who are administering it. Why can’t ‘they’ leave people to resemble cranes, or dance quadrilles with ravens, or walk on tip toes, or sit in vestries all day? When ‘they’ from Ems said he was drowned, are they lying? Is the Old Person of Ems unlucky not because he fell into the Thames but because ‘they’ gave false information? ‘They’ smash, offer unsolicited advice, ask impertinent questions, run you out of town.‘They’ are the puritans, the realists, the sensible, the right thinking ones, the public, the mob; ‘they’ are plotting their deleterious challenge to the non sensible. The gentle eccentrics are running against conformity and are under attack from the pettifogging crowd. If we are at one with the protagonists ‘they’ are the enemies of romance, eccentricity, curiosity. It is ‘they’ who have the esprit de corps and seek to intolerantly impose rules to maintain order and sense. Lear’s nonsenses both recognise and defy the rules. Lear’s protagonists on the other hand seem to be in full revolt against the shrewdness of worldly wisdom. The sensible protect, discourage, avoid risky enterprise and act with prudence. They are of this world

There was an Old Man of Peru,
Who watched his wife making a stew;
But once by mistake, in a stove she did bake
That unfortunate Man of Peru.

There was an old man of New York,
Who murdered himself with a fork;
But nobody cried – tho’ he very soon died, –
That unlucky old man of New York

There was an Old Man on some rock
Who shut his wife up in a box;
When she said, ‘Let me out,’ he exclaimed, ‘Without doubt,
You will pass all your life in that box.’.

There was an Old Person of Tartary,
Who divided his jugular artery;
But he screeched to his wife, and she said “Oh my life!
Your death will be felt by all Tartary!’

There was an Old Person of Stroud,
Who was horribly jammed in a crowd;
Some she slew with a kick, some she scrunched with a stick,
That impulsive Old Person of Stroud.

There was an Old Person of Cromer,
Who stood on one leg to read Homer;
When he found he grew stiff, he jumped over a cliff,
Which concluded that Person of Cromer.

Men and women come to terrible ends: baked in ovens, trapped in boxes, drowned, smashed, kicked by the mob, bled to death, threatened with arson by grandmothers, plunged to their conclusions. (Did the person from Cromer jump up and over or down the cliff? Is his conclusion death or merely a cessation of his reading?) Life seems to be full of mishap and danger as routines turn to chaos. What have these wretched people done to deserve such fates? If this is a work for children, which is how the work is presented, it is a study of incomprehension and adults in crisis. This is a world that delivers melancholy, murder, drowning, panic, harm and suicide in a light, breezy style. There seems to be no evidence of God’s presence or justice here. These are the Learical ballads, where absurdity is of the essence.

There was an Old Man in a tree,
Whose whiskers were lovely to see;
But the birds of the air pluk’d them perfectly bare,
To make themselves nests in that tree.

There was an Old Man of Spithead,
Who opened the window, and said,-
‘Fil-jomble, fil-jumble, fil-rumble-come-jumble!’
That doubtful Old Man of Spithead.

There was an Old Person of Bangor,
Whose face was distorted with anger!
He tore off his boots, and subsisted on roots,
That borascible Person of Bangor.

Borascible is an invented word. With portmanteau terms, neologisms, gleeful alliteration and tongue-rolling words, Lear favoured wordplay in much of his nonsense: ombliferous, slobaciously, flumpetty, scroobious, runcible, purpledicular, spongetaneous. This is a world of verbal liberty and joyous inventiveness with a poet’s feeling for words born of melody, colour and tone. “Nonsense is the breath of my nostrils” Lear wrote. Here language is alive and protean, with musical words within musical phrases that enchant. “Bosh requires a good deal of care…and incapable of any meaning but one of sheer nonsense”. Lear stated “Nonsense pure and absolute, [has] been my aim throughout”. He aimed at a rupture of the logic of the rational world by standing it on its head. Lear’s nonsenses are not the opening of a window onto another world, but a particular way of seeing, or failing to see, our own.

They went to sea in a Sieve they did,
In a Sieve they went to sea:
In spite of all their friends could say,
On a winter’s morn, on a stormy day,
In a Sieve they went to sea!
And when the Sieve turned round and round,
And everyone cried, ‘You’ll all be drowned!’
They called aloud, “Our Sieve ain’t big,
But we don’t care a button! We don’t care a fig!
In a Sieve we’ll go to sea!
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.

Lear’s nonsense verse show exemplary form, rhythm, scansion, metre and rhyme that all operate by the literary rules. Even his invented words have the semblance of signification (adding -ly – furibondiously – slobaciously- creates a pseudo-adverb). Esoteric words are taken for grids, codes, decodings and Lear’s images and texts tantalisingly stimulate a hidden meaning that eludes. All language presupposes sense: whenever we communicate we position ourselves within the possibility of sense (why else do it?). Words are taken to stand for implicitly understood sentences which all raises the suggestion that sense cannot be far off, human rules must be operating here somewhere. The construction of meaning is an intrinsic part of narrative: our sense of the possible is that the world and words have meaning. With impeccable syntax, linguistic structure and the proper form nonsense language purports to exhibit sense but is in rebellion against sense. It masquerades as operating within linguistic margins but surreptitiously twists narrative into linguistic muddle. Nonsense then is language that denies sense while positioning itself as if sense were available. It is meaning making (and interpretation generating) but like all absurdity is taut with tension between meaning and its lack. Nonsense language appears to be empty and full of significance simultaneously: a hermeneutical farce. All this creates an unsettled tension between the pretence of meaning and the absence of meaning. Nonsense is both meaning bearing and elusive, both too much and not enough.

There was an Old Man of Vesuvius,
Who studied the works of Vitruvius;
When the flames burnt his book, to drinking he took,
That morbid Old Man of Vesuvius.

Perhaps nonsense raises the fear that in all expressions of language sense is unavailable and meaningless. If nonsense teases with a suggestion of meaning and then fails to deliver, how can one be confident that sense’s indication of meaning will be any more sure footed? Nonsense raises the conceivability that sense may be faking it all along. Language is a question of relation to the world and nonsense puts into play the entire conceptual foundations of the world. Perhaps we should leave the friction between sense in nonsense and nonsense in sense to the philosophers to resolve, but nonsense, as we have seen, is a lingual prancing that stimulates an excess of meaning. When interpreters rush in to explain nonsense are not these critics furiously battling for territory in desperation to shore up the sense of sense? Those who set out to mean not to mean are an affront, and the baroque excess of explanations of, for example, Alice in Wonderland and Beckett’s plays are a sharp riposte.

There was an Old Man in a tree,
Who was horribly bored by a bee;
When they said “Does it buzz? he replied, Yes it does!
It’s a regular brute of a bee!”

There was an Old Person of Hove,
Who frequented the depths of a grove
Where he studied his books, with the wrens and the rooks,
That tranquil Old Person of Hove.

There are various strategies in relation to Lear’s verse adopted by those who seem to be unable to face up to their lack of meaning. (1) It is merely for children (2) it is too silly and trivial to even contemplate (3) it is a meaningful way of explaining Mr Lear and his psychological make up following a difficult childhood (4) it was written by someone else. When Book of Nonsense was published in 1846, anonymously, various alternative authors (the Earl of Derby and Lord Brougham) were attributed by the public. Even when the words Edward and Lear appeared in 1862 on the cover of the re-published Book of Nonsense and More Nonsense the name was taken as disingenuous and a subterfuge for the Earl of Derby whose Christian name was Edward (Lear being an anagram of Earl).

In the end the verses have been sidelined and made safe as ‘children’s literature’. Lear’s nonsense was first published in 1846 (to little acclaim) when children were used to being given moral and edifying and comforting tales to read. Children accept fairy tales and nursery rhymes and rarely interrogate stories, merely existing with them, exulting in them. Children freely allow themselves into these flat-toned worlds turned upside down and accept peculiar people undergoing strange adventures. Children are not ‘they’, but know only too well who they are. It is practical, sensible, realists who are in revolt against nonsense and the nonsense people who people it, and they are called adults. And adults are wise. Adults talk in codes of moralism, didacticism and with assertions of finality and curt dismissal; adult are sensible and deploy an ordered, tidy, reasonable language. Nonsense seems to be that which is left behind when adulthood is attained, and to properly read Lear’s verse we must abandon our adult wisdom and become child-like again. To understand nonsense means only understanding why it cannot and shouldn’t be understood, that it is only comprehensible as oracular foolery. Nonsense is for children and fools. So I propose not marginalising Lear’s verses by marking them ‘for children only’, but marginalising ourselves as fools so that we can exult in them. Lear’s songs are those of a fool, a nonsense man.

Fools, like children, are playful, accepting, imaginative, tolerant, open and curious. Nonsense is the art of not saying, of not including, of not explaining, of exhibiting no purpose, it is where sense and logic are flung to the wings. It is gratuitous, and makes no apology for its lack of moralism and didacticism, instead it is a form of play. Play is not an anarchic violation of the rules but a creation of another set of rules whereby normal logical schemata are deformed and the logic of the incongruous embraced. What the world takes itself to be, is not. Nonsense exposes the arbitrariness and artificiality of conventions, and by inviting us to willingly reject the logical and normal is subversive. All play sustains a balance between order and disorder, but nonsense obliges us to live with disorder and the unlikely.

The Owl and The Pussycat went to sea
In a beautiful pea green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
‘O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
You are,
You are!
What a beautiful Pussy you are!’

Pussy said to the Owl, ‘You elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married! too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?’
They sailed away for a year and a day,
To the land where the Bong-tree grows,
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood,
With a ring at the end of his nose,
His nose,
His nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.

‘Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?’ Said the Piggy, ‘I will,’
So they took it away and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

The 1862 republication sold far and wide, was reprinted many times with twenty four editions in Lear’s lifetime, became a classic and has never been out of print. As well as the usual European languages it has been translated into Rumanian, Hindi, Bengali, Japanese, Arabic and Armenian. Mill’s On Liberty and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species were published in 1859. For me Book of Nonsense and More Nonsense in 1862 and Alice in Wonderland in 1864 form, with them, a quartet of texts from English authors that in the space of five years reorganised the world. Nonsense is an assertion of freedom in the face of oppressive circumstances and proof that life is worth living. Aldous Huxley said in an essay on Lear that for as long as the mind can wander to the land where the Bong Tree grows and to the hills of the Chankley Bore and over the Great Gromboolian Plain, victory is ours.


One thought on “On Edward Lear

  1. Pingback: Volume 1, Issue 1 – Notes on Lost Time

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