The Old Man of Corfu Who Fancied a Loo with a View

No feature of Edward Lear’s limericks has attracted greater criticism than the repetitive last lines; sooner or later someone was bound to try to ‘improve’ them by providing a more satisfying ending to Lear’s “nonsenses,” as he generally refferred to his limericks. Over the years I have been sent several rewritings of the Book of Nonsense, usually steering Lear’s compositions towards the bawdy form approved by Legman and his modern followers.

One thing distinguishes the latest attempt, John Crombie’s The Old Man of Corfu, Who Fancied a Loo with a View. Putting the Limerick Back into Lear’s Nonsense Rhymes.With incidental drawings by Sheila Bourne (Kickshaws, 2011; only 26 copies lettered A-Z printed): the awareness, emphasized by the subtitle, that Lear’s micro-epics are being transformed into something different, they are being translated from “pure” nonsense into conventional humorous narratives. Compare for example the following

There was a young lady in blue,
Who said, ‘Is it you, Is it you?’
When they said, ‘Yes, it is,’ —
She replied only, ‘Whizz!’
So they rented her out to the Zoo.

with Lear’s original

There was a young lady in blue,
Who said, ‘Is it you, Is it you?’
When they said, ‘Yes, it is,’ —
She replied only, ‘Whizz!’
That ungracious young lady in blue.

The point of both is that the young lady is not behaving according to expectations, but while Lear simply comments on this with a slightly euphemistic adjective and avoids closing the situation, Mr. Crombie feels compelled to provide narrative closure; in this particular case, by the way, it is not without its merits and has the advantage of avoiding the obvious; the lady is not locked away in the rhyme-necessitated zoo, but rather “rented out.”

Mr. Crombie seems to feel a peculiar hate for Lear’s adjectives, sometimes obvious, sometimes totally unexpected, and sometimes only a little out of register, but this does not prevent him from trying to obtain the same effect by different means. With the help of a nice illustration, the rewritten ending makes the story funny within the narrative convention which requires the characters’ actions to have consequences.

Lear did write limericks of this sort, witness the unfortunate fate of the old man with a gong, who was smashed for disturbing the neighbourhood (the nonsense effect in this particular case is mainly provided by the illustration), but in his “nonsenses” he was not interested in telling stories: avoiding making sense for most of the time was more than enough for him, and a superfluous adjective, as in the case of the lady in blue, or a  totally inappropriate one in other cases, was clearly a good way to stop our innate ability to bring everything within the confines of the already-seen.

Mr. Crombie is perfectly aware of this and in his well-documented introduction writes:

Despite prosodic affinities, the limerick and the nonsense rhyme do of course operate at opposite ends of the moral spectrum. The former teases optimally ingenious — and, ideally, bawdy — tales from any available set of rhymes; nonsense on the  other hand uses their  chance affinities precisely to subvert all logical connections, to set at naught their narrative or sense-making capacity.

Some copies may still be available from jmcdc at mail dot com, so if you are interested in this nice booklet hurry, my copy was marked “G.”

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One Response to The Old Man of Corfu Who Fancied a Loo with a View

  1. Pingback: Mr Lear’s New Nonsense | A Blog of Bosh

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