Mr Lear’s New Nonsense

[The idea of “correcting” Edward Lear’s nonsense, which I discussed while reviewing John Crombie’s nice booklet, is as old as Lear’s books. Here is a review from 1871.]

Mr. Lear commences his new book of nonsense with an amusing account of the obstinacy of a fellow-traveller some few years ago on the line between London and Guildford, who had taken it into his head that there was no such artist in existence as Edward Lear, and that the real author of the Book of Nonsense was the late Earl of Derby, which he proved (after a fashion) by pointing out to his fellow-travellers that ‘Lear’ was only an anagram on ‘Earl,’ and as the late Earl’s Christian name was Edward, ‘Edward Lear’ was a mere tacit confession by the noble author of his responsibility for all this fun. A lady in the carriage objected that some friends of hers told her they knew Mr. Lear. ” ‘Quite a mistake! Completely a mistake,’ said the old gentleman, turning rather angry at the contradiction. ‘I am well aware of what I am saying. I can inform you no such a person as Edward Lear exists.’ Hitherto I had kept silence, but as my hat was, as well as my handkerchief and stick, largely marked inside with my name, and as I happened to have in my pocket several letters addressed to me, the temptation was too great to resist, so flashing all these articles at once on my would-be extinguisher’s attention, I speedily reduced him to silence.” Let us add that Mr. Lear has taken his revenge on the old gentleman by drawing him, in caricature, on the cover and above the introduction, as engaged in peering into the inside of Mr. Lear’s hat and lifting up his hands in foolish surprise at the confutation he reads there. The two ladies (rather young and pretty) are looking on with a certain feminine hero-worship at the victorious artist’s performance; but the boys whose ‘Book of Nonsense’ led to this éclaircissement, and who must heartily have enjoyed the scene, are unfortunately not included in the sketch. The old gentleman, however, will go down to posterity as the very type of thick-headed credulity and self-opinionated tenacity,—the kind of man who builds so firm a structure of belief on a petty coincidence that one is quite aghast to consider the materials of which unswerving British faith is made. Certainly, there was far more sense in Mr. Lear’s nonsense than in that old gentleman’s dogged sense; and again, there was more nonsense in his sense than in Mr. Lear’s nonsense. Indeed, he is in every respect so instructive an old gentleman that we almost feel disposed to think of him as created for the purpose of standing in a kind of “pre-established harmony” with Mr. Lear’s book,— as a sort of embodied proof of the danger of making nonsense out of sense by laying too much emphasis upon it, and, comparatively at least, of the wisdom of turning sense into nonsense.

And this, Mr. Lear, in his ‘Nonsense Botany’ at least, has done most efficiently. Nonsense is a result of the elasticity of the mind, a rebound from sense. If the old gentleman had had any elasticity of mind, instead of dwelling so morbidly on the fact that ‘Lear’ is an anagram on ‘Earl,’ he might have observed that Lear is also an anagram on Real, and that in that manner it could just as well be proved that Lear was the ‘real’ author, as that the author was Edward an Earl. Mr. Lear has this elasticity of mind. He cannot see the grand Latin names attached to all the delicate little plants, such as, for instance, Potentilla frigida, Campanula excisa, Azalea procumbens, and the rest,—without at once being carried away by the impulse to make our rather artificial and grandiloquent science see the absurd side of its own pedantry, and accordingly in his Nonsense Botany he draws us the most delightful pictures of plants, only a little more artificial than the real, and gives us the most exquisite scientific names for them. Thus we have the Stunnia Dinnerbellia, a hanging Campanula of gigantic size, with the tongue ready to give out a tremendous peal; the Sophtsluggia glutinosa, a flabby Arum ; the Arthbroomia rigida, a very stiff Goat’s-beard, with a perfect besom at the top; the Enkoopia Chickabiddia, a kind of monster double anemone, with a coop of hen and chickens in its calyx; the Jinglia Tinkettlia, a species of river-flag flowering in a bunch of kettle-shaped blossoms; and best of all, perhaps, the Nastycreechia Krorluppia, a vegetable Mercury’s wand, precisely resembling a thoroughly stripped branch of a shrub all covered with caterpillars. It is impossible to give any conception of the infinite fun in these ‘Nonsense Botany’ pictures,—we have mentioned but a few,—without seeing them; but certainly they, with their admirably chosen names, are delightful specimens of the purest nonsense, such nonsense as Mrs. Elliot had in view when she said:—

“Sense may be all true and right,
But Nonsense, thou art exquisite!”

It takes only sense to appreciate sense, but it takes sense, and something more, a power of joyous rebellion against sense,—of vital rebound from it,—to appreciate true nonsense. The power of nonsense is given only to those who, having sufficient fundamental sense to feel the extremely narrow limits of all sensible thinking, have enough quicksilver in the heels of their mind to feel also the charm of a free gallop into the impossible. Humour and wit deal also with the incongruous, but keep mostly within the bounds of the possible, dwelling on the paradoxes of feeling and thought and speech which actually present themselves in real life. But the very charm of Nonsense consists in the joyous defiance of possibility,—and of children’s nonsense in the defiance of possibility in modes easily intelligible to children. No one has ever succeeded better in such nonsense than Mr. Lear, and we regard his ‘Nonsense Botany’ as the climax of even his efforts. There is a touch of subtlety about it which, without rendering it in the least degree obscure to childish apprehension, will give a freshness of flavour to their enjoyment.

The new Rhymes and their illustrations are also, for the most part, very good, though we fancy there is a certain decline in the perorations of these rhymes, as compared with those of our old friend the first Book of Nonsense. It is difficult to find anything here quite as good as,—

“There was a young person of Norway,
Who casually sat in a door-way;
When the door squeezed her flat,
She cried out, ‘What of that?’
That courageous young person of Norway;”

—or as,

“There was a young person of Sweden,
Who went by a slow train to Weedon;
When they cried out ‘Weedon Station!’
She made no observation,
But thought she would go back to Sweden.”

Perhaps the following is as good as any in the new volume:—

“There was a young person whose history
Was always considered a mystery;
She sat in a ditch, although no one knew which,
And composed a small treatise on history.”

The third line, and the picture of this very self-complacent femme savante composing by the light of a very gorgeous setting sun in a ditch,—whereof it is quite certain that nobody could possibly tell which it is,—are quite up to the high level of Mr. Lear’s best nonsense. But as we said, there is too much tendency to negligence about the winds-up, which is a very critical point in these rhymes. Take this, for instance, which opens remarkably well:—

“There was an old person in grey,
Whose feelings were tinged with dismay;
She purchased two parrots, and fed them with carrots,
Which pleased that old person in grey.”

The last line is very feeble, and there is a want of consecutiveness between the tinge of dismay and the action taken thereon, which is not the sort of want of consecutiveness that the higher Nonsense demands. The true line of direction in which Mr. Lear’s excellent nonsense-opening produces itself, is more nearly, we take it, this,—

“She said, ‘Surely this gloom is a shadow of doom!’
And rent her apparel of grey.”

Again, Mr. Lear is a little too much disposed to verbal nonsense, which is, we admit, not unfrequently a success with children, but depends for its success entirely on the private intelligence between the inventor and the children to whom it is confided. This nonsense therefore is not a sufficiently generalized kind of nonsense for public use, and should be kept in the secret department of the nonsense-producer. Take this, for instance:—

“There was an old person of Ware,
Who rode on the back of a bear:
When they asked, ‘Does it trot?’ he said, ‘Certainly not!
He’s a Moppsikon Floppsikon bear!'”

We don’t say that Mr. Lear was wrong in revealing this rhyme to his young friends, with great show of mysterious intelligence as to the import of the terms, but we do say it is not public nonsense,—it is merely not sense, which is very different. So, again, with this rhyme:—

“There was an old man of Cashmere,
Whose movements were scroobious and queer;
Being slender and tall, he looked over a wall,
And perceived two fat ducks of Cashmere.”

We couldn’t laugh at that without a previous initiation, even if it did not contain the manufactured word ‘scroobious.’ It may have taken very well with children whose minds were prepared by mysterious hints to receive it, but in relation to the public opinion of children it is too near the mere negative of sense to do Mr. Lear credit. We should say the same of a good many of the descriptions of the alphabetic pictures, such as,—

“The Rural Runcible Raven,
Who wore a white wig and flew away
With the carpet-broom;”

—or,

“The Fizzgiggious Fish,
Who always walked about upon stilts,
Because he had no legs.”

Verbal nonsense is dangerous ground, and at all events requires the aid of living humour of manner, and a good mutual understanding between the teller and those to whom it is confided, to carry it off at all.

On the whole, however, this book is a delightful addition to the capital nonsense Mr. Lear has furnished for us in such abundance, and the “Nonsense Botany” is nonsense and something more, true humour as well. If sufficient attention were devoted to the editing of the rhymes, we submit that several of them might be greatly improved in a new edition. Good nonsense requires either inspiration or a good deal of musing to produce it.

The Spectator, volume 44, no. 2269, 23 December 1871, pp. 1570-1571.

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