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Don’t seek sense in nonsense - Johnny Grimond

Blog | By Johnny Grimond | Jul 14, 2022

After the discovery of a lost Edward Lear poem, Johnny Grimond questions whether such nonsense verse should be critiqued, or whether that rather defeats the point

There was an old man on a Bycicle,

Whose nose was adorned with an Icicle;

But they said – ‘If you stop,

It will certainly drop,

& abolish both you & your Bycicle.’

When a researcher came across this lost verse by Edward Lear the other day, she ‘laughed out loud – it was humorous and nonsensical’. I shared her delight.

I rank Lear among the greats, for his watercolours and even more for his nonsense. I was less enthusiastic, though, about her next comment: ‘I think this is a really major find for 19th-century literary studies.’

For me, the pleasure to be had from a limerick by Lear is more likely to be diminished than amplified by literary study. It’s not that there is nothing to be said about this merry, melancholic, complicated man. Jenny Uglow’s Mr Lear, published in 2017, is one of the best books I’ve read in recent years, filled with interesting description and analysis. But the whole point of Lear’s nonsense is that it has no point: it’s simply fun. It makes one laugh, particularly when it’s illustrated with his drawings.

Some, however, feel they must find a purpose, or a hidden meaning. They think the absence of meaning in Lear’s nonsense is satirical: he is drawing attention to the pretentiousness of people whose writing is purportedly sense, not nonsense. And yes, you could certainly argue that, in this letter to his friend Evelyn Baring, Lear was mocking English spelling and punctuation: ‘Deerbaringiphowndacuppelloffoto grafsthismawningwitchisendjoo thereiswunofeechsortsoyookankeep bothifyouliketodooso… Yossin seerly DwedL.’

But Jean-Jacques Lecercle, a French philosopher of language, believes Lear mocks more than spelling. He cites another letter to Baring: ‘Thrippsy pillivinx, Inky tinky pobblebockle abblesquabs? – Flosky! beebul trimble flosky! – Okul scratchabibblebongibo, viddle squibble tog-a-tog… Flinkywisty pomm, Slushypipp.’

Here Lecercle thinks Lear is lampooning all those who write official letters full of clichés and empty emotions.

Well, perhaps. Perhaps he was also lampooning botanists when he named his flowers Nasticreechia Krorluppia or ridiculing cooks with his recipes for Amblongus Pie. Or perhaps his parodies were written just for the pleasure of turning everything skimble-skamble.

Lewis Carroll, whose nonsense works came after Lear’s, has also been subjected to critics’ scrutiny. Carroll’s nonsense, with puzzles and hidden riddles, was more intellectual than Lear’s, and his peculiar (to us) interest in young girls has also made him an object of psychoanalytical study. They were different in other ways. Whereas Carroll extolled the ‘innocent unconsciousness’ of children, likening it to ‘something sacred’, Lear, in Uglow’s words, liked their animal side – not the ‘sacred’.

Yet the two poets had much in common besides nonsense. Both were bachelors, liked children and were welcomed by their families. Both suffered from an unusual form of epilepsy. They were also alike in refusing to attribute any significance to their nonsense. When asked whether his longest poem, The Hunting of the Snark, bore any meaning, Carroll would just say, ‘I don’t know.’ Lear was equally unforthcoming.

Before attributing motives to Lear’s work, the critics might look at his character. Lear was not a conformist. He was amiably irreverent, even subversive, about those in authority: the unidentified ‘they’, who so often appear in his limericks. ‘They’ are usually killjoys.

Lear loved words. He liked reduplicative phrases like ‘Yonghy-Bonghy’, ‘Pipple-Popple’ and ‘twikky mikky bikky’. He liked rhythm and onomatopoeia. He liked puns: ‘Are you a tome or R U Knot?’ He liked making people laugh. He did not want to change the world; he wanted to invent a mad, fantastical land for children, and some grown-ups, to inhabit. I like to think in doing so he might have made fun of absurd academics who took his work, and they themselves, unduly seriously.

But, as Baring said, ‘He was too warm-hearted to be satirical.’