(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Edward Lear is known as the founder of nonsense literature, and he has never been surpassed in that genre. Charles L. Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) had the opportunity to learn from Lear, and Lear may have learned from him; however, Carroll’s nonsense verse is much different: funnier, more intellectual, and less musical. Lear was a true poet, keenly sensitive to the sounds and “colors” of words. His poems have lasted not only because they are amusing and melodious but also because they express the innocence, melancholy, and exuberance of Lear himself.

The limerick form

According to Lear himself, he adopted the form for his limericks—or “nonsense rhymes,” as he called them—from “There was a sick man of Tobago,” published in Anecdotes and Adventures of Fifteen Gentlemen (c. 1822). Most of them begin with this formula: “There was an Old Man [or Old Person, or Young Lady] of [place name].” The last line is nearly the same as the first, with Lear typically using an adjective (sometimes appropriate, sometimes whimsical) before the character’s designation. Each limerick is accompanied by a cartoon of its main character in action—riding a goose, sitting in a tree, refusing to respond sensibly to a sensible question. More than three-quarters of the limericks concern old people; even some of those called “young” in the texts appear elderly in the drawing. Most of Lear’s folk are eccentrics. One old man runs through town carrying squealing pigs; another will eat nothing but roots. Physical oddities such as very long legs or huge eyes are common. Several characters with noses even more prodigious than Lear’s deal variously with that handicap: One hires an old woman to carry it, another allows birds to roost on it, while a third adamantly denies that his nose is long. Lear’s intended audience, children of the Victorian era, were surely amused not just by his characters’ oddness but also by the fact that these laughable people were supposed to be “grown-ups.”

Formulas for humor

Lear often found humor in incongruity and arbitrariness. An old man of Dunrose, “melancholy” because his nose has been “seized” by a parrot half as large as himself, is said to be “soothed” on learning that the bird’s name is Polly. A few characters suffer terrible ends—drowning, suicide, choking on food, death from despair, being baked in a cake. Yet even their situations are amusing; either the text indicates that these people somehow deserve their fate, or the poem or cartoon indicates that they are not distressed by it. For example, the “courageous” Young Lady of Norway, flattened by a door, asks, “What of that?”

Lear’s avowed purpose was to write “nonsense pure and absolute” for the amusement of “little folks.” Consciously or not, he also dramatized the conflict between the individual and society. Even children must have noticed how often the limericks’ heroes and heroines were at odds with the people around them. In Brill, Melrose, Parma, Buda, Columbia, and Thermopylae, and other real-world settings specified by Lear, “they”—representatives of Respectable Society—stare, turn aside, express disapproval, offer unwanted advice, and punish. A man who “dance[s] a quadrille with a Raven” is “smashed” by his countrymen; so is the fellow who constantly plays his gong. A fat man is stoned by the children of Chester. The reader is not surprised that one old man has “purchased a steed, which he rode at full speed,/ And escaped from the people of Basing.” Aldous Huxley called Lear a “profound social philosopher” for his portrayal of the consequences of nonconformity (On the Margin, 1928). Lear’s touch, however, was always light; even the limericks containing violence or death are not sad or horrific.

The eccentrics are more likely to be friendly with animals than with other human beings. They live with birds, ride bears, play music for pigs, and try to teach fishes to walk—but they can also be attacked by insects, bulls, and dogs (Lear was terrified of dogs). Apparently, being truly alive is a lonely, risky affair. Accidents, physical and mental afflictions, and rejection by others, all in the nature of things, seem especially likely for the person who is different from his neighbors. Yet, unpredictably, “they” are sometimes solicitous and considerate, inquiring about the comfort of some irascible characters, warning others of imminent danger. “They” treat a depressed man by feeding him salad and singing to him; “they” glue together a hapless fellow “split quite in two” by a fall from a horse.

Lear’s society, then, is committed to maintaining order and the general well-being—if necessary, at the expense of people who behave in ways “they” do not approve of and cannot understand. This is the world we know. Without the preachiness of much contemporary children’s literature—or rather, literature written for the edification of children—the limericks convey that civil, mannerly behavior is expected. From Lear’s perspective, as from the child’s, adult judgments appear arbitrary. For some reason, or no reason, “they” are delighted with a girl named Opsibeena who rides a pig; “they” seem less likely to appreciate innovation than to encourage decorum, however meaningless: One man ingratiates himself with his neighbors by sitting in his cellar under an umbrella.

Imaginary settings

The nonsense songs are set in an imagined world in which animals and objects talk, sing, and dance with one another. Some of these characters are heroes; others are bored and lonely misfits. Like Lear, an early admirer of Lord Byron, they seek happiness in love, companionship, and travel. Odd friendships and courtships,...

(The entire section is 2380 words.)