The appeal of A Book of Nonsense is nearly universal. Children can enjoy its verbal playfulness virtually as soon as they are verbal themselves, and adults appreciate the limericks on several levels. Although generations of children have read Lear’s works, they are by no means exclusively children’s literature. Nevertheless, like many children’s books, especially of the Victorian era, A Book of Nonsense originally began as trifles invented to amuse other people’s children—in Lear’s case, the grandchildren of his patron, the Earl of Derby. Lear, who had built a reputation as a painter of animals, was commissioned by the earl to capture his menagerie collection on canvas. During his stay at the Derby estate in Knowsley, Lear entertained the children with his nonsense rhymes, which he later published under the pseudonym “Derry Down Derry.”
Critics of Lear’s verses, building on the observations of novelists Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, see the world of the limericks as one of confrontation between Victorian conformity, represented by the eccentric subjects (the “Old Man” or “Young Person” or “Young Lady” in the first line of each poem) and an intolerant society (almost invariably called “they”). Yet, this point of view was developed largely as a reaction against Victorianism: The eccentric person in the poems is not always harmless. The “Old Man with a poker,” for example, “knocked them all down” with it, his only provocation being their calling him a “Guy.” Conversely, “they” often show kindness to the eccentric subject, such as keeping the “Old Person of Rheims” awake in order to protect him from his “horrible dreams.”
Regardless of how one characterizes the subject or “them,” however, most...
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No children’s literature known as “nonsense,” or resembling Lear’s form of it, existed before A Book of Nonsense appeared in 1846. Only Lewis Carroll came close to Lear in spirit, and his first “nonsense” book was not published until nearly two decades later, in 1865. Before that time, Lear had published an expanded edition of A Book of Nonsense (1861). More nonsense (although not in limerick form) followed in Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany, and Alphabets (1871); More Nonsense (1872), including one hundred new limericks with drawings; and Laughable Lyrics (1877). The posthumously published Nonsense Songs and Stories (1895) concluded Lear’s output of nonsense.
Lear’s non-limerick poems, the most famous being “The Owl and the Pussycat” (1871), continue some of the themes of alienation and nonconformity established in A Book of Nonsense. Another 1871 nonsense song, “The Jumblies,” presents the familiar “they,” the voice of conformity telling the Jumblies that their adventure is foolish. Yet the Jumblies succeed, and the scoffers praise the Jumblies and want to be like them. As in the limericks of A Book of Nonsense, the childlike eccentrics in Lear’s nonsense poems sometimes triumph; their childlike nature itself, which values the nonsense, makes that triumph possible. All of Lear’s nonsense books feature a lavish sampling of his delightful drawings, which often provide a complementary (and sometimes contradictory) reading of the situations in the poems; Laughable Lyrics even includes Lear’s own musical settings of two of his poems.