Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 733
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...
(The entire section contains 733 words.)
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- Critical Essays
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 of the limericks in A Book of Nonsense present a tension between the two. This tension is essential to the nonsense itself and may be a key to children’s delight in them. Children’s understanding is challenged whether they identify with the eccentric subject or with the conventional “they.” If identifying with convention, the child can enjoy a sense of self-esteem in rising above the silliness of the Young Lady of Norway who sat in a doorway, or the Old Man of Dundee who sat in a tree, or the man of Whitehaven who danced with a raven. If identifying with the eccentric, the child can validate feelings of alienation from the adult world which, particularly in the nineteenth century, stigmatized the imaginative peculiarities of children.
Another reason that A Book of Nonsense is popular with children is that the illustrations are as whimsical and crude as the rhymes. This is odd, because Lear, recognized as one of the foremost landscape and wildlife painters in England, could certainly draw better than the rough sketches illustrating A Book of Nonsense. Their childish simplicity, however, appeals to both juvenile and adult readers, and the situations in the limericks are so far-fetched that a more realistic style of illustration would be inappropriate. In Lear’s illustrations, perspective and proportion are virtually nonexistent; characters torture themselves into impossible positions, often floating above the horizon line that separates the illustration from the text below it.
A third source of appeal to children in the limericks is the large number that refer to animals. Some 40 of the 112 limericks mention animals, and others show animals in the accompanying illustration. If the animal is presented in the limerick as threatening the subject, it is drawn to resemble the human it annoys. The bee boring the Old Man in a tree looks just like him, down to the pipe that he smokes. The Old Man of Quebec resembles the beetle on his back, the Old Man of Whitehaven lifts his coattails to imitate the wings of a raven, and the Old Man who said “Hush” has a beak and circular eyes like the bird in a bush. One Old Man not only looks like his cow but also holds his arms over his head in an awkward position mirroring the cow’s horns.
Lear’s limericks have delighted generations of readers, and they fascinate literary critics and psychologists as well as children, who can be adept at both criticism and psychology. Later generations accused Lear’s of valuing sense and conformity, but the fact that these poems revelling in nonsense and nonconformity were immediately popular show him to be in touch with his times and with children of all eras.