The Science of Nonsense

MR. LEAR has followed up his delightful “Book of Nonsense” by a new one, called “Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany, and Alphabets,” [R.J. Bush, Charing Cross.] which contains many great triumphs of the scientific feeling for nonsense, and we are disposed to say,—though this is somewhat rash, without the co-operation of a jury of children,—some decided failures also. The old “Book of Nonsense” contained no failures. The present writer has seen an eminent statesman, great in finance, unequalled on the Bank Act, laugh over it the whole of a summer morning (when out of office). It is true that if the delightful legend which attributes its origin to the intense desire of the late Lord Derby to betray the present Lord Derby in his boyhood into a nonsensical mood, has any foundation in fact, the book most likely failed in its immediate purpose, for no one could be so exceeding sober as that usually prudent statesman who had ever had a hearty laugh over one of Mr. Lear’s nonsense rhymes. But it is not the first time that great unintended fruits have been reaped from an enterprise which had apparently ignominiously failed. The whimsical has probably no charms for Lord Derby, to whom the following nonsense verse would be quite appropriate:—

“There was a young man of Coblence
Who had such confounded good sense!
When they dared him to fight
He said, ‘Have I the might,
Can I spare the pounds shillings and pence!'”

But the rest of the world, old and young, have really enjoyed in their leisure hours Mr. Lear’s capital nonsense. Who has not been struck by that remarkable prophecy of the grotesque medicinal alternative presented (more than once since Solferino) to the Austrians?—

“There was an old man of Vienna
Who lived upon tincture of Senna,
When that didn’t agree
He took Camomile tea,
That nasty old man of Vienna.”

And who has not moralized over that pathetic parable of the results of a rash or ill-assorted marriage, in demoralizing even the sincerity of the sufferer?—

“There was a young person of Gretna
Who jumped down the crater of Etna,
When they asked ‘Is it hot?’
He replied ‘It is not!’
That mendacious young person of Gretna.”

In the “Book of Nonsense” Mr. Lear never went beyond the limits of true nonsense. His delightful rhymes and delightful pictures defied sense,—which is just what nonsense ought to do,—but the defiance was in itself at once acknowledgment and rebellion. What we want from Nonsense is exactly this,—a gay rebellion against sense. But there is no relief to the mind unless there be enough sense in the nonsense to make the nonsense visible, just as,

“Glowing embers through the room
Teach light to counterfeit a gloom.”

Thus nothing can be more admirable than Mr. Lear’s Nonsense Botany. His picture of “the Bottleforkia Spoonifolia” is one which would make Dr. Hooker roar; the thing looks so like a new botanical genus, with its bottle-shaped calyx, and fork-shaped stamens, and spoon-shaped leaves, and sounds so like a true genus as well. So again, the “Manypeeplia Upsidownia” is so delicious a caricature of the fuchsia that we are not sure it would not engender a new sense of humour in that pendulous plant, and make its petals quiver with suppressed mirth. The “Piggiwiggia Pyrarnidalis ” might at a little distance betray a Campanula into something like recognition of kindred; and as for the “Plumbunnia Nutritiosa,” it is a sort of gigantic strawberry with a mottled and darker colour, and the same sort of leafy calyx. The nonsense botany is genuine nonsense,—extravagant enough to make the most prosaic man laugh; but yet nonsensical precisely because it recognizes the laws of sense, and directly traverses them. But is there any real science of nonsense in nonsense cookery of the following kind ?—though we feel pretty sure that Mr. Lear would not let it appear in public if it had not already proved its power to amuse:—

“To Make An Amblongus Pie.
“Take 4 pounds (say 41/2 pounds) of fresh Amblongusses and put them in a small pipkin.
“Cover them with water and boil them for 8 hours incessantly, after which add 2 pints of new milk and proceed to boil for 4 hours more.
“When you have ascertained that the Amblongusses are quite soft, take them out and place them in a wide pan, taking care to shake them well previously.
“Grate some nutmeg over the surface, and cover them carefully with powdered gingerbread, curry-powder, and a sufficient quantity of Cayenne pepper.
“Remove tho pan into the next room, and place it on the floor. Bring it back again, and let it simmer for three-quarters of an hour. Shake the pan violently till all the Amblongusses are become of a pale purple colour.
“Then having prepared the paste, insert the whole carefully, adding at the same time a small pigeon, 2 slices of beef, 4 cauliflowers, and any number of oysters.
“Watch patiently till the crust begins to rise, and add a pinch of salt from time to time.
“Serve up in a clean dish, and throw the whole out of window as fast as possible.”

That seems to us a trifle nearer to the grave talk of an idiot asylum, than to the nonsense of sane people. Yet we are far from denying that children would laugh over it. There is such a fund of animal spirits in children, that they will laugh almost for the sake of laughing on the slightest excuse, and the mystification about the Amblongus, the careful directions, “remove the pan into the next room, place it on the floor, bring it back again,” and finally, “throw the whole out of window as fast as possible,” might tickle the very easily tickleable childish fancy. There is something in a child’s mind which exactly corresponds to the sensitiveness of the soles of its feet or the armpits to gentle tickling. If you suddenly substitute a flat no-meaning where the law of association led them to expect meaning, children will laugh, often almost hysterically. But the question is not so much ‘Will a child laugh at this?’ as ‘Is it the sort of nonsense at which it ought to laugh?’ And we can’t think it is. There is not the trace of that gaiety and elasticity of feeling in the author which is the sine qua non of all good nonsense. Only compare it with this delightful ballad from the same book, which is of the very essence of first-rate nonsense!—

Said the Duck to the Kangaroo,
‘Good gracious! how you hop!
Over the fields and the water too,
As if you never would stop!
My life is a bore in this nasty pond,
And I long to go out in the world beyond!
I wish I could hop like you!’
Said the duck to the Kangaroo.

‘Please give me a ride on your back!’
Said the Duck to the Kangaroo.
‘I would sit quite still, and say nothing but “Quack,”
The whole of the long day through!
And we’d go to the Dee, and the Jelly Bo Lee,
Over the land and over the sea;–
Please take me a ride! O do!’
Said the Duck to the Kangaroo.

Said the Kangaroo to the Duck,
‘This requires some little reflection;
Perhaps on the whole it might bring me luck,
And there seems but one objection,
Which is, if you’ll let me speak so bold,
Your feet are unpleasantly wet and cold,
And would probably give me the roo-
Matiz!’ said the Kangaroo.

Said the Duck ,’As I sate on the rocks,
I have thought over that completely,
And I bought four pairs of worsted socks
Which fit my web-feet neatly.
And to keep out the cold I’ve bought a cloak,
And every day a cigar I’ll smoke,
All to follow my own dear true
Love of a Kangaroo!’

Said the Kangaroo,’I’m ready!
All in the moonlight pale;
But to balance me well, dear Duck, sit steady!
And quite at the end of my tail!’
So away they went with a hop and a bound,
And they hopped the whole world three times round;
And who so happy, — O who,
As the duck and the Kangaroo?

The four pictures which illustrate this delightful ballad are as good as the ballad itself. First, there is the Kangaroo towering up in lofty, prim reserve above the suppliant Duck in its nasty pond, which looks the very picture of urgent humility,—of passionate plebeian yearning; while the Kangaroo’s small elegant head reared at a vast height above the Duck, and her dropped paws, indicate respectively aristocratic breeding and a certain indifference to the Duck and her humble sphere. In the second picture, where the Duck’s wheedling is evidently taking effect, the condescension with which the Kangaroo stoops from her immense height to listen to the Duck’s pleadings, and the lackadaisical expression with which she takes pity on the poor waddling thing,—who is drawn in an attitude inexpressibly vulgar, cook-maidy, and self-humiliated, as she approaches the Kangaroo,—are quite irresistible. Mr. Lear has never drawn anything more humorous. In the third drawing, the Duck is well in the saddle at the tip of the Kangaroo’s tail, while the Kangaroo, who is jumping along, looks affectionately and anxiously back to see that the Duck is comfortable in its new and somewhat hazardous position, while the Duck, who has entirely lost its crestfallen and dispirited air, looks the very picture of cosy satisfaction. In the last drawing something of the élan of adventure has come upon the Kangaroo, who leaps away with the full enthusiasm of travel, and eager forward glance into the new world; while the Duck, who has got all its desires fulfilled, is the image of petted and luxurious happiness. It is quite impossible to conceive happier illustrations of the true science of nonsense than this ballad, or that of “The Owl and the Pussy Cat,” who go to sea together, the owl playing love ditties on the guitar to his love, to which the pussy, in the true spirit of woman’s lights, replies by pressing an immediate marriage on the “elegant fowl,” —or that of “the Jumblies,” who go to sea in a sieve, afford us.

All nonsense should be audacious and capricious defiance of sense, but never go far enough from sense to lose the feeling of the delightful freedom which is implied in the rebellion. Mr. Lear is a little too fond of inventing absurd words or using existing words in an absurd sense. The discovery of “The Co-operative Cauliflower” by the four little children who explore the world, is not a bad idea, and perhaps there is enough ghost of suggestion to be nonsensical about the statement that the Co-operative Cauliflower arose and hurried off “in a somewhat plumdomphious manner towards the setting sun;” but when the children promise a testimonial to Lionel “as an earnest token of their sincere and grateful infection,” the Malapropism has no particular fun as being out of character with the story; and so, too, of the statement that “they cooked their provisions in the most translucent and satisfactory manner and that after stuffing their rhinoceros, they placed it outside their father’s door as a “Diaphanous Doorscraper.” We can’t laugh at this, and we doubt if children could. Anything that gives to nonsense the air of far-fetchedness destroys its exhilarating character. It must bubble up from a real spirit of extravagance and joyous rebellion against sense, or it is not true nonsense. The sense of effort destroys its true character. Nonsense written for the sake of nonsense is not good, and has a tendency to become gibberish; nonsense written for the sake of defying sense, is one of the most delightful of the many forms in which human liberty asserts itself. The lower animals are capable of plenty of sense, but only just touch the verge of nonsense. A retriever who runs off with your boot to express her delight that you are going to put it on, reaches indeed the very verge, but hardly passes it. An animal capable of true nonsense, as distinguished from mere high spirits, would be the equal of man. And in spite of little failures here and there, the ideal of nonsenseis attained by Mr. Lear, who, in this respect, may be said to stand at the very summit of the human race.

The Spectator. Volume 43, no. 2216, 17 December 1870, pp. 1505-1506.

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