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«Heyman, Michael Benjamin (1999) Isles of Boshen : Edward Lear's literary nonsense in context. PhD thesis. Copyright and ...»

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Of course, Lear's text is not particularly nonsensical, but when taken with the picture, illustrating an exaggerated nose which loops around near a group of excited children, it becomes absurd. From the slightly comic, to the ridiculous, the limerick form and content from the 1820s limericks seem to be parodied, according to some of the definitions of parody as an exaggeration of the form and content of the model text. Yet no critics seriously consider Lear's limericks to be parodies, even when they are familiar with the 1820s models. So what, then, has occurred?

Perhaps Legman's main complaint is relevant at this point, to illustrate, albeit negatively, the real changes Lear imposed on the limerick.

Lear's imitation of this form, as is well known, invariably drops back, from the simple but dramatic resolution of the action in the final line, to the namby-pamby repetition of the first line--very weak, even for nonsense verse--made to do double duty as the last line as well, possibly with some tremendously unimportant change in the adjective rung in by way of climax..... The whole thing, and most particularly the invariable echoic last line, represents a clear failure of nerve, an inability to take the obvious and final jump and to resolve even the stated nursery situation in some satisfactory way. This is the neurotic problem at the root of all 'nonsense', and is -- as much with Lewis Carroll as with Lear -- the secret or Sense of Nonsense. (Legman, p. 12) If, indeed, Lear were merely writing an imitation of the limerick fonn, this critici m mIght be more per uasive. The haracteri tics Legman mentions, if I ked at in the light of imitation or even parody, in which imitation is understood, would corroborate Legman's claims. However, the very characteristics which distress Legman are those which help to create an original genre. The repeated first line, far from a "failure of nerve," does not attempt to resolve any simple "nursery situations." As we have seen, it achieves far more (or less) than this, intentionally leaving the situation unresolved. Furthennore, the "tremendously unimportant change" of the adjective or verb in the last line, is a climax of sorts, in that at that moment the possibly, if not problematically, sensible structure built so far comes to a grand anti-conclusion. As Orwell notices, "The very slight change increases the impression of ineffectuality, which might be spoiled if there were some striking surprise" (p. 181). This is no mistake or "namby-pambyness"; it is simply one fonn of a different genre. To take this major step, we need only look again at the definitions of parody. While Lear's nonsense does mimic, it does not imitate the "characteristic turns of thought and phrase" of the old limerick fonn. Far from exaggerating or attacking the simple, nursery-sense of the 1820s limericks, its aims are mainly elsewhere (if anywhere).

Rather than "correcting the well-meaning eccentric," Lear's verse encourages eccentricity;

rather than "cooling the fanatical," his verse seems positively inflammatory. If there is a referential exaggeration, as we saw with the Old Man with a Nose, the exaggeration is usually so far beyond the original text (here, the Old Woman at Lynn) as to leave it almost forgotten. We feel little or no attack, however mild, on the fonn or content of the traditional limerick. Likewise, all of the devices of nonsense we have examined, including the picture/poem discrepancy, the nonsense words, and the general lack of logic, push the fonn in a different direction from the original 1820s limericks.

The following nonsense alphabet by Lear is perhaps the only one that is consistently and conscientiously in the genre of literary nonsense. It follows in the tradition of the alliterative alphabet, which was a fairly new product of the increasing levity of nineteenth-century children's books. A famous example of such a work is Peter Piper's Practical Principles ofPlain and Perfect Pronunciation (1813), which is a combination

alphabet, pronunciation guide, and tongue-t,vister book:

–  –  –

This pattern is maintained for all of the letters. The text has considerable humour, and the woodcuts are well-made and contribute to the levity. This work was successful in Britain and America throughout the nineteenth century and was imitated by many. Lear's alphabet, however, though referring loosely to such alliterative works, is literary nonsense. His

series, included in the 1872 More Nonsense, Pictures, Rhymes, Botany, &c., begins with:

–  –  –

The nonsense devices here are much the same as were found in the limericks. A major difference, however, is that, far from swift sketches, the drawings for this alphabet are comparatively ornate and detailed. One exception occurs in the "Dolomphious Duck" illustration, which shows one of the frogs, leaping in attack, frog-fangs bared, towards the duck, while the frog that is in the spoon seems to be waving at the duck in friendly recognition. Other possible discrepancies between picture and text occur when the drawing does not reflect one of the adjectives describing the animal. For instance, the "Enthusiastic Elephant" does not appear so, nor does the drawing of the quail illustrate how it is "Queer" or "Querulous." It is no more queer than any of the other creatures here, and it looks quite contented, sitting on the tea kettle, peacefully smoking.





The "pure" nonsense words and neologisms are present in abundance in this alphabet as well, including the "Rural Runcible Raven" and the "Scroobious Snake," among others. Lexical misappropriations abound here, including the "Obsequious Ornamental Ostrich, / who wore Boots to keep his / feet quite dry" (p. 216). The word "Obsequious" does not make sense, other than its beginning with the required "0," \ hich in the nonsense world of words is sufficient reason. The alphabet serie call for an "0 ' w rd, and that is what is gi en, regardless, or even in pite of, the sen e. Nor do \ve e

–  –  –

decorative. In a similar fashion, we meet ''The Visibly Vicious Vulture, / who wrote some Verses to a Veal-cutlet in a / Volume bound in Vellum" (p. 219). All sense and logic are relinquished for the structural requirements of words beginning with "V". Nevertheless, Lear does not limit himself to words beginning with the featured letter. Rather, the seriality of one letter may be broken for a completely different letter, as with, in the "I" verse, the "Inventive Indian, / who caught a Remarkable Rabbit in a / Stupendous Silver Spoon" (p.

213). Here we find, apparently for the sake of alliteration on an inappropriate letter, two subsequent words starting with "R" and three with "S", seemingly undermining the whole alphabet form. Form has usurped meaning, and meaning has become absurd, overshadowing form, resulting in nonsense.

Of course, the alphabet's short descriptions gain their humor not just from the idea of nonsense seriality, but also from the ensuing illogic and sheer absurdity: the idea of a vulture writing poetry to a veal cutlet. Similarly, we learn that the gull carries 'the Old Owl, and his Crimson Carpet-bag / across the river, because he could not swim" (p. 212).

The situation itself makes no sense because, while it is obvious that the owl cannot swim, it certainly should be able to fly. As this alphabet is less narrative than the limericks, their fallacious causality is replaced by absurdity of situation. Observe ''The Perpendicular Purple Polly, / who read the Newspaper and ate Parsnip Pie / with his Spectacles." Here, the situation is absurd enough without the ambiguity in the adverbial phrase which could imply Polly's ability to eat pie with "spectacles." In the illustration we see the spectacles on the Polly, but the text implies that the spectacles could be used as an eating utensil, or even that he will eat the spectacles as well.

Through these nonsense devices, this alphabet becomes far more than a normal alphabet, a humorous alphabet, or even a parodic alphabet. In addition, unlike Lear's conventional or parodic alphabets, this one is entitled ''Twenty-Six Nonsense Rhymes and Pictures," rather than "Nonsense Alphabet," which de-emphasizes its underlying structure.

Nor does it graphically highlight the featured letter in any way. In every other alphabet, Lear begins each letter's verse with the letter itself, alone, and proceeds from there. The "Abstemious Ass" alphabet, on the other hand, has no such indicators of its supposed function. Such ambiguity misled reviewers like Sidney Colvin, who complained of the "alliterative pieces"in his review in The Examiner, without realizing, or at least commenting on the fact, that these "pieces" were actually an alphabet. 104 It is telling that, in Jackson's Complete Nonsense edition of Lear, this alphabet is laid out with several of its letters out of alphabetical order, as if it were simply a nonsense series rather than an alphabet.! 05 The devices of nonsense in Lear's alphabet, while potentially parodic in isolation, collectively go far beyond mere comment on the form or the content of the traditional alphabet. With its illustrations, non-sense words, and neologisms~ with its insistence on form over meaning and ensuing outrageous situations, the resulting product passes through the doors of parody and securely into the realm of nonsense.

Having said this, however, it is important to recognize that in all referential nonsense the anterior text is still present, and it may be argued that any absurd imitation implies ridicule. Indeed, Carroll is careful to keep some reference to Watts's verse, even while his nonsense seems to break free from such restraints. Or in Lear's "Abstemious Ass" alphabet, the basic alphabet structure remains, however distorted. In much of Carroll's and Lear's nonsense there is some reference to the anterior text or genre involved, but this presence adds to, rather than detracts from the play of nonsense. As Gray states, nonsense achieves its "own plangency within an idiom which never really is but never openly acknowledges that it is not the idiom it plays against" (p. 171). Watts's poem is simultaneously present and absent in Carroll's verse. That is, the absence is felt even more intensely because of the text's marginal, yet essential presence. This very relationship of presence and absence, meaning and anti-meaning, is the heart of literary nonsense, and, as might be expected, is present not only regarding the ordinary meaning of sense, but also to the "sense," the necessary critical stance, implied in parody. Only in the meeting of nonsense and parody can this secondary form of sense be the material of play.

104Sidney Colvin, The Academy, 3 (15 January, 1872), 23-4 (p. 2-l).

105 In the original editions of Lear the alphabet is laid out ~n proper order. Jackson' s edi~on was. probahI}~ printed in this way partially because ?f layout problems wrth the more honzontally dr3\\ n dhrslrdliOns, )ct such an alteration is somewhat shocking for the alphabet form.

Indeed, to read literary nonsense as a parody of its anterior text can lead to \vild interpretations, yet, in the play of nonsense, the nonsense text often does ask to be seen at least partially in the light of its model. Take, for example, the song sung by the guests at Alice's dinner-party, ''To the Looking-Glass world it was Alice that said." Scott's "Bonny Dundee" is the model text behind this verse which been called "direct parody" by more than one reader,lo6 yet to read the former as parody of the latter raises many questions and answers none. The few references to Scott's song are countered by nonsense as well as entirely new material, in much the same manner as in '''Tis the voice of the lobster."

Scott's song is about the doomed Highland uprising, headed in 1689 by John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee, against William and Mary, in support of the exiled James.

There would be interesting implications if indeed these two texts held a real dialogue.

Because Alice has just become a queen, is she being compared to William and Mary? Is her right to her crown being questioned in a similar manner? Or does she represent James, or Dundee himself, upsetting the existing world order--just as she does by pulling the tablecloth from under her guests? Does Carroll's version comment in any way on either the content or the structure of Scott's verse? Again, these are questions which lead nowhere, but which Carroll would have us ponder over playfully.

It is important to recognize, as does Smith (p. 188), that any absurd imitation must reflect negatively upon its model to some degree. Nevertheless, even when a text closely follows the form of an anterior model, such as Carroll's ''Twinkle, twinkle," it still may be considered nonsense rather than parody. The result is "ridiculous" in relation to the anterior text, but it goes beyond any real critical response to it. Ann Colley notes that in nonsense parody "the taking over of one text by another is a form of negation, of cancelling out and/or transforming the meaning of the confiscated text. Thus the history of parody is a replica of the reversibility of other structures of communication, of the ability to take back what has been framed as a fiction." (p. 76). Though nonsense is "a critical activity," it is far less critical of any particular text than of sense in general. As a critical device, then, I06Sidney Herbert Williams and others, ed., The LeWIS Carroll Handbook (London: OUP, 1%2), P 284 llldAlice, p. 200. Scott's song was first puhlished in The Doom of Devorgoi/, 1830.

nonsense is indiscriminate. It paints over its varied material, all of its generic guises, with only one colour, showing absurdity, but never critically engaging the text. The relationship of parody to referential nonsense can be seen as that of sense to nonsense itself: on one hand there is necessarily a small element of the parodic, but if there is no overt criticism (positive or negative) then we are stuck between the two modes. It is parody, but it is not parody--simultaneously, just as in Tigges's definition of nonsense as the simultaneous presence and absence of one meaning. Here it is the presence and absence of the anterior text, structurally and thematically, which would give it some sort of "meaning."



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