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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