Katharine West, Nonsense and Wit (1946)

SHOULD the British Council or arty other body concerned with the “projection of Britain” endeavour to make known abroad the unique British heritage of nonsense? Every country has its nursery rhymes and fairy tales; but, as M. Emile Cammaerts writes in The Poetry of Nonsense, “nowhere else in Europe do we witness a movement so popular and so widespread as that started by Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll in the Victorian era…. I have tried in vain,” he continues, “to discover anything similar in French or German literature.” As material for pamphlets and lectures, nonsense has the immense advantage of being unpolitical. For surely even the touchiest of allies could take no offence at the “Young Lady of Russia, who screamed so that no one could hush her,” while Vasco da Gama’s countrymen might be flattered by the conception of the ” Young Lady of Portugal, whose ideas were excessively nautical.” If only we could win the peoples of Europe to enjoyment of Jabberwocky and the Jumblies, might they not be convinced of the child-like simplicity of “perfide Albion”?

I am afraid not. In the first place, there is the insuperable difficulty of translation ; for, though Jabberwocky has on occasion been set as an exercise in Greek verse, the results were not intended for consumption by E.L.A.S. As for the Lear limericks, they are untrans- lateable into any existing language, and would surely lose something of their charm if rendered—however scientifically—into Basic English or Interglossa. Nor can the spirit of the verses be communicated, even to a generation of Europeans which has learned the international language of Surrealism. Nonsense is too invisible and intangible an export, confronted with which foreigners would, I fear, either suspect another subtle English scheme to double-cross them or welcome another proof of our degeneracy. So we must be content to keep our jokes in the Anglo-Saxon family, and may be allowed to pride ourselves a little on the possession of a gift denied to Latins and Scandinavians. To quote M. Cammaerts again: “There seems to be in the English temperament a certain trend of broad humour which predisposes it to appreciate the freaks of the nonsense spirit, and to enjoy a joke even if there is no point in it.”

Although many of the old Mother Goose rhymes were compounded of the genuine nonsense ingredients, Edward Leir was the original begetter of English nonsense as a fine art; and it is just one hundred years since he published, as The Book of Nonsense, the verses and drawings which he had made to delight the thirteenth Earl of Derby’s grandchildren, nephews and nieces. The book was dedicated to the children of these children; and (in passing) Baconians who pin their curious faith on anagrams should take warning from the gentleman who solemnly assured Lear in a railway train that he (Lear) did not exist. “That,” the gentleman said, “is only a whim of the real author, the Earl of Derby. ‘Edward’ is his Christian name, and Lear is only Earl transposed.” The popularity of The Book of Nonsense was immediate with children and adults alike, and in the ensuing century that popularity has never waned. For real nonsense, like all great art, is dateless; and if it is not also universal that (as we have seen) is no fault of the great English masters. Lewis Carroll, whose Alice in Wonderland was published nineteen years later, was no rival to Lear on his own ground. They represent two schools of thought—both perfect nonsense, but different and complementary. Carroll’s magic (for one admirer at least) has always lain in his relentless logic and metaphysical implications. “It’s really dreadful,” Alice once protested, “the way all the creatures argue;” and indeed the Alice books might almost be described as a system of nonsense dialectic. Lear’s characters, on the other hand—though they ask questions, make statements and constantly contradict—seldom argue.

They are creatures of emotion rather than intellect, and express them- selves in action or in poetry rather than in logical thought.

I have been reading The Book of Nonsense and More Nonsense once again, savouring every absurdity and last-line adjective, and relishing the subtle crudity of the drawings. Once again I have analysed that world-wide conflict (first recorded by Mr. Aldous Huxley in a delightful essay) between Lear’s protagonists and public opinion personified as “they.” ” They ” smash the Person of Buda and the Old Man with a Gong; “they” ask impertinent questions and proffer unsolicited advice ; “they” are lavish in their pronouncements of platitude and prejudice. The undiscriminating power of conventional opinion is, however, perhaps best illustrated by the unaccountable things of which “they” sometimes see fit to approve; but such approval, being usually confined to the inhabitants of one place, may be attributed perhaps to local fashion rather than universal human stupidity. For instance, the “Old Person of Skye who waltzed wth a Bluebottle Fly” had the good fortune to entrance “all the people of Skye,” when he and his partner might so easily have been smashed by them. A similar local esteem was won by the “Old Person of Filey, of whom his acquaintance spoke highly,” merely, it would seem, because “he danced perfectly well to the sound of a bell and delighted the people of Filey.” Not all towns were as tolerant nor were many persons as happy in their social environment. The saddest rebuff of any, since it embodied all the harsh, Pharisaic respectability of middle-class life, was experienced by the “Old Person of Bow, whom nobody happened to know; so they gave him some soap and said coldly, ‘We hope you will go back directly to Bow.'” The most entrancing feature of the drawings is their approximation of human to animal types. The old man in a tree, for instance, is horribly bored by a bee which smokes a pipe where its proboscis ought to be, and the “Old man who said, ‘Hush! I perceive a young bird in this bush!'” is as ingenuously round-eyed as the fledgeling, and his walking-stick juts up like a wren’s tail behind his back. The “Old Person of Nice whose associates were usually geese” is simply a gander with necktie and buttons. In one instance the identification of man and bird has even spread from the drawing to the verse:

“There was an Old Man of El Hums, who lived upon nothing but crumbs,
Which he picked off the ground with the other birds round,
In the roads and the lanes of El Hums.”

Some of the drawings remind me of the composite creatures communally evolved in the game of “heads and tails.” They are all as inconsequential as the verses—perfectly fitted to them and infallibly right.

As for the verses, the truest test of their imaginative power is to try to write anything of the sort oneself, or to compare them with the spate of limericks which has flowed since Lear’s day. Many of these later limericks, indeed, have been neat and witty ; but few are nonsense. For they have striven to make a point, and, having succeeded, they belong to the world of wit rather than of nonsense. Wit is an intellectual process controlled by reason, whereas nonsense—like all real poetry—wells up unbidden from the imagination. It was in such later works as The Jumblies, The Dong with the Luminous Nose and The Yonghy Bonghy Bo that the haunting, melancholy beauty of Lear’s nonsense found its full flowering. Yet already in The Book of Nonsense the essential elements are present. Such words as “scroobious” and “ombliferous,” for instance, prefigure “runcible” and the “Attery Squash.” The birds of the air make their first visitations to the “young lady whose bonnet came untied when the birds sat upon it” and to the “old man on whose nose most birds of the air could repose,” just as unaccountably and possessively as they do later to the Quangle Wangle’s hat. While over and over again, in the strange predica- ments of various persons, we are confronted with the ultimate mystery of life.

How blessed are those English children (and perhaps there may be some in the United States and the British Dominions, too) who have grown up under Bong trees and eaten their porridge with runcible spoons! “How pleasant to know Mr. Lear,” if only through his “volumes of stuff;” for, although he is no longer “one of the singers,” he will never be “one of the dumbs.”

Katharine West, “Nonsense and Wit”
The Spectator, 29 March 1946. p. 9.

This entry was posted in Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Katharine West, Nonsense and Wit (1946)

  1. Gerry Brisch says:

    Marco…thanks for all these recent posts but you have been neglecting the diary!

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