H. Jackson, Masters of Nonsense (1912)

I DO not think it is good for anyone to be always sensible. Not that anyone is always sensible –on the contrary; but most of us think we are. It is from this illusion that we require a holiday, in fact, several holidays, and, were I autocrat, I should make such holidays periodical, like the festivals of the Church ; for, as Sir Thomas Browne says, “Many things are true in Divinity, which are neither inducible by reason, nor confirmable by sense.” Doubtless I shall be almost alone in this amiable wish, since we live in a practical and business-like age, and have little time to cut capers. Material success is our aim, and nonsense has nothing whatever to do with that aim. Nonsense is shy of success, even of its own; and I believe this shyness is due to certain delicate and even fairylike qualities which are apt to become soiled in the market-place as what thing does not? One of the inevitable results of a strenuously material era is the brushing away of the more subtle and illusive qualities of life; these suffer at the hands of popular success as butterflies’ wings suffer at the hands of him who is vandal enough to touch them. There is also an arrogance of material success — a swagger of certainty born of pride in accumulated substance — which spoils the taste for finer things. Those afflicted thus, for it is an affliction, surrounded though they are by what the world calls great possessions, possess naught. This is true not only of a man but of an age, for a man, whatever he may be, is, finally, the epitome of his age. The possession of a great many things, even the best of things, tends to blind one to the real value of anything. And the humour, and the pathos as well, of such an age as ours, which values a man according to the number of more or less troublesome things he possesses, is that it places what is called good sense above what is called nonsense. “Be sensible” is the advice we are all giving one another. And I think we are agreed that to be sensible is to be rational, shrewd, useful, proper, respectable, and even honest — when there is no great risk in our being otherwise. “Honesty,” we say, “is the best policy.” You see there is no nonsense about honesty being good in itself — it is simply the best policy, that is all.

This good sense would be called an English characteristic; it has made us what we are, it has made us rich (at least some of us) the kind of richness typified so frankly in the popular pictures of John Bull; the kind of richness that made Napoleon sneer at us for a nation of shopkeepers. And we have little doubt that this sense is good sense, since it has given us those fine things, factories and ironclads, locomotives and guns, and banking accounts. But still, it would seem, and in spite of all these sensible things, that there are some things, in every sense their direct opposites, which bear a more convincing mark of immortality than the ingenious material achievements so much admired to-day. My modern and successful reader will, of course, say, “Nonsense!” And I shall not contradict him. It is nonsense, deliberate, unadulterated nonsense, but I am disposed to believe it is all the better for that. And, as if the Fates were on my side, it is not a little strange that this most sensible of all ages, this age of practical rationalism, should have invented, in the pauses of its pursuit of fleeting things, an art of nonsense. Maybe it is a reaction, but reaction is only bad when it throws back towards what is monstrous and unnecessary ; but even if, say, the invention of the nonsense verse is reactionary, it is wisely so, for it reacts somewhat after the manner of a boomerang. It is our age laughing at itself, pulling wry faces at itself, if you will, realising perhaps shyly and without courage that this civilisation of ours is rather a joke, and perhaps a little top-heavy with seriousness.

There is undoubtedly some deeper relationship between what is called good sense and nonsense, something deeper than the popular conception of these things as the obverse and reverse of the same medal. If, for instance, we took longevity as the test of worthiness, nonsense would be found to rank higher than sense. And I, at least, should be forced to a similar conclusion were I to judge nonsense as a creator of disinterested happiness. But there are so many things in favour of nonsense that I should not be in the least surprised if, one of these days, that much-abused faculty were judged to be the final and consummate expression of sense, a kind of Nirvana of the intelligence. We even get a hint of this in our own sensible civilisation; for, just as we have seen our national symbol is a rather gross and tubby person called John Bull, distinguished only by reason of his uncomfortable girth, so the most characteristic human product of our age is the millionaire. Surely these Falstaffs of finance are the climax of the sensible line of evolution, and, like all extremes, have met their opposites, though they have not yet admitted it! But to avoid the charge of trifling with modern ideals, I shall not pursue this line of thought any further. Besides, are there not happier phases of my theme?

One of these is the significant way in which those most exalted and nonsensical of creatures, our poets and dreamers, have often been evolved out of such sensible persons as mathematicians or even more laboriously learned people. Take the case of Edgar Allan Poe, who was a mathematical genius, and something of a conchologist. He might have remained a sensible devotee of science, only his genius was too much for him. It forced him to consider less rational things, and before it was too late he turned from the temple of mathematics and knocked at the door of the Muses, with results that have placed him in the forefront of the world’s imaginative workers. There are many such instances in the annals of literary history. And there are other instances of men, like Rabelais and Dean Swift, who possessing the intuition of artists have used the language of nonsense to express the idea of sense, who have bedecked rational satire in irrational clothing, but Time, after his manner, stripping away the causes of the irony with the passing of the years, has treated with tender care the nonsensical form in which that irony was enshrined; thus dropping a kindly veil of forgetfulness over the crabbed words of ages that are gone. Time has touched to immortality the conceptions of Gargantua, Pantagruel and Gulliver, leaving us to-day unmoved by any other quality but their fantastic charm.

But stranger still, and here history plays into my hands with something approaching magnanimity, the deliberate creators of nonsense for the sake of nonsense have turned to that noble work from what was acknowledged by their contemporaries to have been sound and sensible work ; but in spite of all offers of financial reward, and other temptations, they became masters of nonsense, and their whimsical ideas and images have given delight not only to past generations but to the present, and there is every sign that they will continue to give delight to many, and perhaps all, generations to come; for nonsense rarely dies. Let me take but three examples of this type of genius: Lewis Carroll, Hans Andersen, and Edward Lear. The first of these was the creator of that classic of nonsense, “Alice in Wonderland,” and yet how strange it is to think that Alice was a mere incident –an accident really — in a life which might easily have lost itself in a morass of theology and mathematics. Doubtless he took himself more seriously as the Rev. C. L. Dodgson, mathematician and theologian, than as Lewis Carroll, creator of Alice; but who shall say that he did not touch infinity in the latter capacity ? His mathematics, upon which he prided himself, will be forgotten (even Euclid is becoming passé) ; his theology, which, doubtless, was much to him, will be dead: but Jabberwocky, the Mad Hatter, the Duchess, the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon, and all their jolly fellows, will prance merrily down the ages, cutting happy capers for happy children and happier adults, until the crack o’ doom.

Just as Lewis Carroll took himself seriously as a mathematician, so Hans Andersen took himself seriously as a novelist. But the spirit of Eternity judges neither one nor the other by such standards; Eternity has touched neither their mathematics nor their novels with his magic wand. That wand has waved and descended gently upon Alice; and it has waved with like immortal results over “The Ugly Duckling,” “The Tinder Box,” and “The Wild Swans.”

But the most remarkable of all nonsense-artists is Edward Lear; if the rest are masters of nonsense, he is surely our Prince of Nonsense. He has raised nonsense, nonsense pure and simple, nonsense free of all sense, morals, and prettiness, to the heights of great art. His work is the very apotheosis of nonsense; he is “the prophet of the utterly absurd, of the patently impossible and vain.”

His world was peopled with men and animals that never were on sea or land; strange lights flared in his dreams, showing us a realm of prank here in the very heart of our rational day. He has given us the keys of the heaven of nonsense, and as we turn them in the doors and enter therein we breathe lightly and without care of the morrow, as though we were one with a rout of children dancing and shouting:

“Sally go round the moon!
Sally go round the sun!
Sally go round the chimney-pot
On a Sunday afternoon.”

And, characteristically, again, he raised himself to that eminence in the spare moments of a busy career devoted to the most obviously sensible things.

He permitted many years of a life, which might have been entirely devoted to nonsense, to be dissipated in ornithological studies and in the drawing and painting of birds and landscapes. Probably, like Lewis Carroll, he was prouder of his learned work on “The Family of the Psittacidae” than of “The Pobble who has no Toes.” But, as it was in the cases of Lewis Carroll and Hans Andersen, the judgment of Time is against him.

Still, in spite of other endeavour, Edward Lear is the first to have made a fine art of nonsense. His work in that direction is irresponsibly defiant of all the scaffolding by which the intellect is supported, and though one is carried away on the wings of a chuckling fascination as one reads through his verses or looks at their illustrations, one is filled with a disturbing, mystical, yet exhilarating feeling that something unusual is happening, that a new sort of wisdom is being enunciated, a new order of life being revealed in this scamper of the wits. It is as though a dignified ritual, long become exanimate by repetition, had suddenly been reversed by an unseen but jocular power, and creating, instead of shallow laughter, fathomless joy.

Take his autobiographical verses, for example, and, sheer nonsense as they are, how much clearer a conception of the personality of Lear do they give us than any more sensible account of him could have done?

“How pleasant to know Mr Lear!
Who has written such volumes of stuff!
Some think him ill-tempered and queer,
But a few think him pleasant enough.

His mind is concrete and fastidious,
His nose is remarkably big;
His visage is more or less hideous,
His beard it resembles a wig.

He has ears, and two eyes, and ten fingers,
Leastways if you reckon two thumbs;
Long ago he was one of the singers,
But now he is one of the dumbs.

He sits in a beautiful parlour,
With hundreds of books on the wall;
He drinks a great deal of Marsala,
But never gets tipsy at all.

He has many friends, laymen and clerical;
Old Foss is the name of his cat;
His body is perfectly spherical,
He weareth a runcible hat.

He reads but he cannot speak Spanish,
He cannot abide ginger-beer:
Ere the days of his pilgrimage vanish,
How pleasant to know Mr Lear!”

Much of Edward Lear’s work in the realm of nonsense is in the verse which has become the established medium of nonsensical utterance:

“There was an old man who supposed
The street door was partially closed,
But some very large rats
Ate his coat and his hats
While the futile old gentleman dozed.”

But Edward Lear’s most masterly work does not lie in the classical nonsense verse, nor yet in those delightfully futile sketches by means of which he illustrated his books of nonsense. Rather is it to be found in that series of ballads which, for whimsical fancy and deliberate abandonment of all reasonableness, stands matchless and supreme, the very negation of the rationale of things.

The finest of these ballads is certainly “The Pelican Chorus,” although its excellence does not lie so entirely in the domain of nonsense as in the setting of the quality of nonsense in picturesque surroundings. The chorus itself, whimsical though it is, translates what ought to be Pelicanese into a kind of pidgin-English, which one can easily imagine to be the nearest approximation in human language of the thoughts and emotions of the pelican. There is, in fact, as the reader will readily comprehend, a strong resemblance between the personal appearance of the pelican and the quaint words of the chorus, and if it is the expression of the unseen self, then the natural historical truth of the chorus is obvious:

“Ploffskm, Pluffskin, Pelican jee!
We think no birds so happy as we!
Plumpskin, Ploshkin, Pelican jill!
We think so then, and we thought so still!”

Yes, when Lear tells me of the assembling of these impossible birds on their “long bare islands of yellow sand,” I am convinced that, whether they sing this pleasant verse or not, it is quite obvious that they ought to do so ; and it is an oversight on the part of nature if they do not. But I am somewhat at a disadvantage in the matter. I cannot speak with authority, because my experience of pelicans is confined to those at the Zoo. They certainly did not quote Lear. But what would you expect of creatures that live in a paddock? And now I come to think of it, I noticed that each of those curious guests of the Royal Zoological Society did wear the absorbed expression peculiar to people who want to catch some thought which has just slipped the memory. Captivity had evidently afflicted them with aphasia, just as it afflicts many other creatures of our civilisation. The pelicans at the Zoo are sad birds, and now I know why they are trying to recollect “The Pelican Chorus,” which dangles in their memories just beyond grasping-point.

For the highest nonsense, however, we must turn to the immortal “Pobble who has no Toes”:

“The Pobble who has no toes
Had once as many as we;
When they said, ‘Some day you may lose them all'; –
He replied, ‘Fish fiddle de-dee!’ –
And his Aunt Jobiska made him drink
Lavender water tinged with pink,
For she said, ‘The World in general knows,
There’s nothing so good for a Pebble’s toes!'”

and to the equally great “Mr and Mrs Discobbolos,”

“Mr and Mrs Discobbolos
Climbed to the top of a wall,
And they sat to watch the sunset sky,
And to hear the Nupiter Piffkin cry,
And the Biscuit Buffalo call.
They took up a roll and some camomile tea,
And both were as happy as happy could be –
Till Mrs Discobbolos said, –
(Oh! W! X! Y! Z!
It has just come into my head
Suppose we should happen to fall!!!!!
Darling Mr Discobbolos!'”

and to “The Quangle Wangle’s Hat”:

“On the top of the Crumpetty Tree
The Quangle Wangle sat,
But his face you could not see,
On account of his bever Hat!
For his hat was a hundred and two feet wide,
With ribbons and bibbons on every side,
And bells, and buttons, and loops, and lace,
So that nobody ever could see the face
Of the Quangle Wangle Quee.”

In these three poems Edward Lear is seen at his best. In these poems one meets all those strange creations of his which meet their peers only in the Jabberwock and the Mock Turtle of Lewis Carroll. You are introduced to them all at once, for all of them meet at a grand re-union on the amazing hat of the still more amazing and mysterious Quangle Wangle. The Finable Fowl, with the corkscrew leg:

“And the Golden Grouse came there,
And the Pobble who has no toes –
And the small Olympian Bear –
And the Dong, with the luminous nose.
And the Blue Baboon, who played the flute,
And the Orient Calf from the Land of Tute,
And the Attery Squash and the Bisky Bat,
All came and built on the lovely hat
Of the Quangle Wangle Quee.”

There is an exalted futility about these poems suggestive of things as final and as certain as any imaginable. One cannot explain them, they baffle and elude and convince like

“It was brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.”

Who are all these strange creatures, and why do they enter into our consciousness against all reason? Why do we sympathise as deeply with the absurd whimsies of Mr and Mrs Discobbolos as we do with the adventures of Mr Pickwick or the love of Lucy Desborough and Richard Feverel? Why should the incomprehensible Pobble creep into our lives on such a wave of sympathy? Or why, to take another expression of nonsense, should we have a deeper if more furtive regard for Jabberwocky than we have for the language of Shakespeare? Such questions are as difficult as Pilate’s “What is truth?”

These things are nonsense, unquestionably, but, as the lady in Patience says: “Oh, what precious nonsense!” But nonsense does not always find expression in the same way. We even see hints of it in certain of the phenomena of wild life. Nature was certainly working in the same vein, though expressing it through a different medium, when she created the Gecko, the Duckbill Platypus, and the Tortoise; but it is a moot point whether even she improves upon the Quangle Wangle Quee.

But in spite of it all, nonsense is one of the few things modern learning does not attempt to explain. Nonsense exists; it is delightful: that is all. Furthermore, it is not sense, and perhaps therefore we should rejoice in the fact that it has escaped learned analysis; not even Nonsense could withstand that.

In the hands of Edward Lear and his followers it is becoming not only proud of its isolation, but self-asserting, articulate, and, like the mind of Mr Lear, “concrete and fastidious.”

We are all, in fact, beginning to find, as Alice did, that what sounds like nonsense is no ground for objection. You will remember how she was making up her mind to run to meet the Red Queen in the reasonable way of going forward, for the Red Queen was ahead of her. “You can’t possibly do that,” said the Rose. “I should advise you to walk the other way.” Alice refused to follow this advice, and speedily lost her way, and it was not until she acted upon the nonsensical that she eventually met the Red Queen.

This adventure in Wonderland might well serve as a parable, a hint of that higher thing than sense lying hidden in the heart of the absurd. We know the legend of Punch is a laughing tragedy truer than our truth, and on the same lines there may be long vistas of intelligence, whole realms of consciousness, whose nature mere sense cannot penetrate. Nonsense may be the striving of consciousness towards newer ways of expressing life; it may indicate the final breakdown of intellect and reason, and the beginning of a fresh idea, the childhood of a new world; the proof, in fact, of man’s unwritten belief that what can be proved is not worth proving.

Man is an irrational creature, and the essence of the human comedy is concerned with his attempts to be otherwise. Doubtless the comedy will continue — there will be no last act. So I do not look to nonsense as one looks to some reforming or revolutionary power. It is not that. Indeed, I am not so sure that I would alter the human comedy; I might wish it more varied –but on the whole it is good enough until we are more conscious of its purpose. Nonsense has nothing to do with progress; it is as unchanging as it is uncertain, as young as it is old. Its value lies in its futility. But by showing us the absurdity of things, nonsense may help to keep us usefully sane; by checking ultimate consistency it may help to keep us alive.

Jackson, Holbrook. “Masters of Nonsense.” All Manner of Folks: Interpretations and Studies. London: Grant Richards Ltd., 1912; pp. 30-44.

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