In many languages, it is said, there is no nonsense poetry, and there is not a great deal of it even in English. The bulk of it is in nursery rhymes and scraps of folk poetry, some of which may not have been strictly nonsensical at the start, but have become so because their original application has been forgotten. For example, the rhyme about Margery Daw:
See-saw, Margery Daw,
Dobbin shall have a new master.
He shall have but a penny a day
Because he can’t go any faster.
Or the other version that I learned in Oxfordshire as a little boy:
See-saw, Margery Daw,
Sold her bed and lay upon straw.
Wasn’t she a silly slut
To sell her bed and lie upon dirt?
It may be that there was once a real person called Margery Daw, and perhaps there was even a Dobbin who somehow came into the story. When Shakespeare makes Edgar in KING LEAR quote “Pillicock sat on Pillicock hill”, and similar fragments, he is uttering nonsense, but no doubt these fragments come from forgotten ballads in which they once had a meaning. The typical scrap of folk poetry which one quotes almost unconsciously is not exactly nonsense but a sort of musical comment on some recurring event, such as “One a penny, two a penny, Hot-Cross buns”, or “Polly, put the kettle on, we’ll all have tea”. Some of these seemingly frivolous rhymes actually express a deeply pessimistic view of life, the churchyard wisdom of the peasant. For instance:
Born on Monday,
Christened on Tuesday,
Married on Wednesday,
Took ill on Thursday,
Worse on Friday,
Died on Saturday,
Buried on Sunday,
And that was the end of Solomon Grundy.
which is a gloomy story, but remarkably similar to yours or mine.
Until Surrealism made a deliberate raid on the unconscious, poetry that aimed at being nonsense, apart from the meaningless refrains of songs, does not seem to have been common. This gives a special position to Edward Lear, whose nonsense rhymes have just been edited by Mr R.L. Megroz, who was also responsible for the Penguin edition a year or two before the war. Lear was one of the first writers to deal in pure fantasy, with imaginary countries and made-up words, without any satirical purpose. His poems are not all of them equally nonsensical; some of them get their effect by a perversion of logic, but they are all alike in that their underlying feeling is sad and not bitter. They express a kind of amiable lunacy, a natural sympathy with whatever is weak and absurd. Lear could fairly be called the originator of the limerick, though verses in almost the same metrical form are to be found in earlier writers, and what is sometimes considered a weakness in his limericks—that is, the fact that the rhyme is the same in the first and last lines—is part of their charm. The very slight change increases the impression of ineffectuality, which might be spoiled if there were some striking surprise. For example:
There was a young lady of Portugal
Whose ideas were excessively nautical;
She climbed up a tree
To examine the sea,
But declared she would never leave Portugal.
It is significant that almost no limericks since Lear’s have been both printable and funny enough to seem worth quoting. But he is really seen at his best in certain longer poems, such as “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat” or “The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò”:
On the Coast of Coromandel,
Where the early pumpkins blow,
In the middle of the woods
Lived the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò.
Two old chairs, and half a candle
One old jug without a handle
These were all his worldly goods:
In the middle of the woods,
These were all the worldly goods
Of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò,
Of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò.
Later there appears a lady with some white Dorking hens, and an inconclusive love affair follows. Mr Megroz thinks, plausibly enough, that this may refer to some incident in Lear’s own life. He never married, and it is easy to guess that there was something seriously wrong in his sex life. A psychiatrist could no doubt find all kinds of significance in his drawings and in the recurrence of certain made-up words such as “runcible”. His health was bad, and as he was the youngest of twenty-one children in a poor family, he must have known anxiety and hardship in very early life. It is clear that he was unhappy and by nature solitary, in spite of having good friends.
Aldous Huxley, in praising Lear’s fantasies as a sort of assertion of freedom, has pointed out that the “They” of the limericks represent common sense, legality and the duller virtues generally. “They” are the realists, the practical men, the sober citizens in bowler hats who are always anxious to stop you doing anything worth doing. For instance:
There was an Old Man of Whitehaven,
Who danced a quadrille with a raven;
But they said, “It’s absurd
To encourage this bird!”
So they smashed that Old Man of Whitehaven.
To smash somebody just for dancing a quadrille with a raven is exactly the kind of thing that “They” would do. Herbert Read has also praised Lear, and is inclined to prefer his verse to that of Lewis Carroll, as being purer fantasy. For myself, I must say that I find Lear funniest when he is least arbitrary and when a touch of burlesque or perverted logic makes its appearance. When he gives his fancy free play, as in his imaginary names, or in things like “Three Receipts for Domestic Cookery”, he can be silly and tiresome. “The Pobble Who Has No Toes” is haunted by the ghost of logic, and I think it is the element of sense in it that makes it funny. The Pobble, it may be remembered, went fishing in the Bristol Channel:
And all the Sailors and Admirals cried,
When they saw him nearing the further side—
“He has gone to fish, for his Aunt Jobiska’s
Runcible Cat with crimson whiskers!”
The thing that is funny here is the burlesque touch, the Admirals. What is arbitrary—the word “runcible”, and the cat’s crimson whiskers—is merely rather embarrassing. While the Pobble was in the water some unidentified creatures came and ate his toes off, and when he got home his aunt remarked:
“It’s a fact the whole world knows,
That Pobbles are happier without their toes,”
which once again is funny because it has a meaning, and one might even say a political significance. For the whole theory of authoritarian governments is summed up in the statement that Pobbles were happier without their toes. So also with the well-known limerick:
There was an Old Person of Basing,
Whose presence of mind was amazing;
He purchased a steed,
Which he rode at full speed,
And escaped from the people of Basing.
It is not quite arbitrary. The funniness is in the gentle implied criticism of the people of Basing, who once again are “They”, the respectable ones, the right-thinking, art-hating majority.
The writer closest to Lear among his contemporaries was Lewis Carroll, who, however, was less essentially fantastic—and, in my opinion, funnier. Since then, as Mr Megroz points out in his Introduction, Lear’s influence has been considerable, but it is hard to believe that it has been altogether good. The silly whimsiness of present-day children’s books could perhaps be partly traced back to him. At any rate, the idea of deliberately setting out to write nonsense, though it came off in Lear’s case, is a doubtful one. Probably the best nonsense poetry is produced gradually and accidentally, by communities rather than by individuals. As a comic draughtsman, on the other hand, Lear’s influence must have been beneficial. James Thurber, for instance, must surely owe something to Lear, directly or indirectly.
Orwell, George. “Nonsense Poetry.” Tribune, 21 December 1945. Republished in Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays, London, Sacker and Warburg, 1950, pp. 179-84. The text is taken from the Project Gutenberg Australia edition of August 2003.