A Book of Nonsense Critical Context - Essay

Edward Lear

Critical Context

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.