Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2380
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.
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, mysterious events, and unexpected reversals abound. Lear has created a world in which anything wonderful may happen. The rules of decorum do not apply, do not exist. An owl marries a pussycat, and the Poker woos the Shovel. The title characters in “The Daddy Long-Legs and the Fly,” unwelcome in polite society, sail away to “the great Gromboolian Plain,” where they spend their days at “battlecock and shuttledoor.” Disgusted with idleness, a Nutcracker and a Sugar-tongs ride off on stolen ponies, never to return—ignoring the protests of their household companions. Less adventurous, a perambulating table and chair ask some friendly animals to lead them safely home. Most successful in their quest are the Jumblies of the green heads and blue hands. Despite the warnings of “all their friends” (akin to the limericks’ “they”), the Jumblies go to sea in a sieve, discover “the Lakes, and the Torrible Zone,/ and the hills of the Chankly Bore,” and return home after twenty years to be lionized by their neighbors. Unlike most of Lear’s songs, “The Jumblies” has no undercurrent of melancholy or dread.
Marriage, family, and Freudian interpretations
A wanderer for most of his life, Lear often wished for (but doubted that he really wanted) a home with a wife and children. His “laughable lyrics,” which sometimes poke fun at the conventional sex roles, courtship rituals, and marriage, reveal that he was ambivalent about committing himself to a woman. As George Orwell remarked in his essay “Nonsense Poetry,” “It is easy to guess that there was something seriously wrong in [Lear’s] sex life” (Shooting an Elephant, and Other Essays, 1950). More recent critics, reading nonsense literature as a manifestation of the author’s repressed emotions, have noted that it is the pussycat, not the owl, who proposes matrimony; judging by Lear’s cartoon, the owl is somewhat afraid of his bride. Again, a duck (a cigar-smoking female) talks a rather effeminate kangaroo into letting her ride around the world on his tail. Deserted by the girl he loves, the sorrowful title character in “The Dong with a Luminous Nose” wanders in lonely frustration; at night his great red nose, illuminated by a lamp “All fenced about/ With a bandage stout,” is visible for miles. In pre-Freudian times, this poem was surely “laughable” in a simpler way than it is now.
“The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò”
The hero of “The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò” proposes to a married woman; when she regretfully refuses him, he flees to “the sunset isles of Boshen” to live alone. Remaining in Coromandel, “where the early pumpkins blow,” the lady “weeps, and daily moans.” So romantic and comical an ending would have been impossible if the Bò had offered himself to a woman who was free to marry him. “The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò,” one of the songs for which Lear composed a piano accompaniment, uses the verbal music of repetition, assonance, and alliteration. Indeed, in this and other songs he achieves a lyricism reminiscent of the Romantic poets. Parodying the Romantic manner as he made verse out of personal concerns and fantasies, he was looking for a way to deal with his emotions. He once burst into tears while singing the song, written while he struggled to make up his mind about marrying “Gussie” Bethell.
“The Pelican Chorus”
To the Nutcrackers and Sugar-tongs, domesticity—perhaps the most sacred of Victorian ideals—is a “stupid existence.” Home is sweet only to the timorous table and chair, the phobia-ridden Discobboloses, and the cautious Spikky Sparrows. Mr. and Mrs. Sparrow don human clothing, ostensibly to protect themselves from catching cold but actually, it seems, to “look like other people.” Lear does portray some happy and admirable couples. In “The Pelican Chorus,” King and Queen Pelican sing of their present joys and recall their daughter’s courtship by the King of the Cranes. They are content, even though they realize that they will probably never see Daughter Dell again. A less skillful poet would have allowed the song to become maudlin or merely ridiculous, but Lear maintains a balance of melancholy, nostalgia, and humor. He reveals the singers’ pride in their “lovely leathery throats and chins” and pleasure in the “flumpy sound” their feet make as they dance. (This kind of music is impossible for the crane, who, it is whispered, “has got no webs between his toes.”) They complacently visualize Dell’s “waddling form so fair,/ With a wreath of shrimps in her short white hair.” The old pelicans’ confusion—or fusion—of past and present is at once amusing and poignant; each stanza ends with this refrain:
Ploffskin, Pluffskin, Pelican jee,We think no Birds so happy as we!Plumpskin, Ploshkin, Pelican jill,We think so then, and we thought so still!
“Mr. and Mrs. Discobbolos”
“Mr. and Mrs. Discobbolos,” another poem about a family, ends with what must be described as an entertaining catastrophe. For twenty years, this couple lives in peaceful isolation atop a wall—because they are afraid of falling off. Then, quite suddenly, the wife begins to fret because their “six fine boys” and “six sweet girls” are missing the pleasures and opportunities of social intercourse. Disgusted, perhaps driven mad, Mr. Discobbolos slides to the ground and dynamites home and family “into thousands of bits to the sky so blue.” One feels that he has done the right thing, even though his action is surprising and mysterious. Possibly he cannot endure mixing once again with conventional society or thinking that any of his children may marry such a “runcible goose” as his wife. Perhaps the poet is once again exploding the myth of the happy home. The attempt to make sense out of exquisite nonsense is part of the pleasure of reading Lear.
“Incidents in the Life of My Uncle Arly”
No doubt he exposed more of his hopes and fears than he intended. Some of the songs, especially those written late in his life, involve the emotions in a way that the limericks do not. Since the poet sympathizes with the pain and joy of these creatures of fantasy, so does the reader. Lear’s last ballad, published posthumously, is clearly autobiographical. “Incidents in the Life of My Uncle Arly” is a formal imitation of “The Lady of Shalott,” which tells of the wanderings and death of a poor and lonely man. At last “they” bury him with a railway ticket (representing Lear’s freedom and rootlessness) and his sole companion, a “pea-green Cricket” (symbolic, perhaps, of the poet’s inspiration to make music of his own experience). Lear, the “Adopty Duncle” of many children, states four times that the hero’s shoes are “far too tight.” Among the many afflictions of the poet’s last years were swollen feet. Arly’s tight shoes may represent any of the constraints on the poet’s happiness. Thomas Byrom has pointed out that Lear, like UncLE ARly, was a homeless traveler for more than forty years before building a villa in Italy (Nonsense and Wonder, 1977). Sad without being pessimistic, the poem characterizes a man whose life was lonely yet rich in experience.
Lear’s “Eclogue” is the product of his capacity for making fun of his sorrows and his tendency to self-pity and grumbling. In this parody of a classical genre, the singing contest between shepherds, Lear and John Addington Symonds catalog their woes; the latter’s wife, Catherine, finally judges whose miseries are greater. The “Eclogue” is laughable, but the reader of Lear’s correspondence sees how truly it reflects his assessment of himself and his career; but A Book of Nonsense saw thirty editions in his lifetime.
“The Quangle Wangle’s Hat”
Lear’s pleasure in his verse is expressed most clearly in “The Quangle Wangle’s Hat.” Wearing a beaver hat 102 feet wide, the title character sits sadly in a Crumpetty Tree, wishing (like Lear in San Remo) that someone would come to visit. Then he is approached by a series of exotic animals, some of them (like the Quangle Wangle himself) familiar from Lear’s other writings. When they ask for permission to live on his hat, the hero welcomes each one. Enjoying a simple yet profound comradeship, an assembly of Lear’s creatures blissfully dances “by the light of the Mulberry moon”—“and all [are] as happy as happy could be.” Here in microcosm is Lear’s imagined world, singularly free of conflict. The real world is not like this, but Lear persuades readers to imagine that it might be. Friendship and sharing of oneself offer the best hope of contentment in the fantasy world, as in the real one. The Quangle Wangle is Lear.