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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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In this poem, a ridiculously exaggerated and ugly black person is pictured, with a bone in her hair, large stiff earrings, and an enormous ring (almost the size of her head) through her nose. 147 Obviously, she wants another ring for her nose. Also, this is anything but a conventional love story, judging by the hideous looks of the woman. Such a person \ ould not live in a normal house (which is knocked on in the poem), nor would a "spruce single man" come to call. She is hardly a "hand-maid" nor does she seem a "poor innocent thing." The humour is caused solely by the incongruities between the picture and the expectations raised in the text. This kind of humour can be found in issues of Punch as well, in the one-panel "cartoons," which usually have a caption at the bottom completing the joke. The popular and "adult" drawings of Thomas Hood and Punch were thus mirrored in the deceptive childishness of Lear's drawings.

The last type of illustration resembles the first, in that it causes a dialogue between image and text which creates humour and nonsense. However, these illustration directly or indirectly contradict the limerick they supposedly represent. This is the ca e with the

old man of Ancona:

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The "small" dog is anything but small, and it does not seem to want to move a paw, let alone walk "up and down" the street. The man pulls on the leash, and the dog, teeth bared, looks as if he might just bite. The text labels the man "anxious," but not for the text's probable reason, finding the dog's owner; rather, the man should be anxious because a dog the size of a hippopotamus seems about to eat him. Nevertheless, the interplay continues in that the man has a thoroughly pleasant expression on his face, despite the well-justified, if different, causes for anxiety given in the picture and the text. The humour and skill of this picture and poem is in the sheer richness brought about by the interaction between two.

This kind of discrepancy was not unique to Lear, though he exploited it as no other children's illustrator would for many years. The chapbook Dame Wiggins of Lee and her Seven Wonderful Cats (1823) also has this kind of picture/poem relationship. In this chapbook, like The Comic Adventures a/Old Mother Hubbard and Her Dog, the cats also participate in human activities, to the delight of the Dame. But here we find, in one of the last illustrations, the picture/poem discrepancy. The cats get out of control,

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The illustration of this verse shows the cats riding on the backs of the geese, but, contrary to the text, two of the cats are on the backs of flying geese. The joke here is that only one of the cats seems to be "half-drowning." Three others are riding the geese like boats, while two are flying the geese, smiling in pleasure. The picture and the text are at odds, like Lear's limericks, creating further humour.

After the appearance of Lear's limericks and Hoffmann's cautionary tales, the na"lve style was copied by many, but rarely successfully. One of the reasons, perhaps, was that

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Lear's success resulted from much more than a simple child-like style. Yet, in most imitations, this was the primary, sometimes the only, attribute retained. In Gordon Brown's Nonsense; For Somebody Anybody or Everybody Particularly the Baby-Body (1895), a clear Lear imitation, the illustrations have some humour, but the text is far less engaging than Lear's, and the crucial picture/poem discrepancy is absent More successful was W.S. Gilbert's BabBaliads (1869), which does keep the tradition of the inextricable picture/poem unit, but, of course, Gilbert was not writing for children. 149 Claude Lovat Fraser found some success in his Learian illustrations for traditional nursery rhymes, 150 but again, there is little humour found in any kind of interchange between picture and rhyme.

Taking into account Lear's borrowing from earlier styles of illustrations, it becomes harder to justify the claim that Lear's nonsense was quite so "revolutionary." Indeed, nearly every aspect has some kind of predecessor. His illustrations draw upon a hundred years of illustration, primarily from the chapbook but also from other illustrations in adult and children's literature. Yet, even a cursory comparison of Lear's nonsense to book illustrations in the 1830s and 4Os, let alone reprints from much earlier times, shows Lear's startling differences and innovations. The uniqueness of Lear's nonsense was in the masterful combination in children's literature of already-established adult characteristics, like caricature and parody, with what was more original, the child-like quality and the interrelationship between picture and text. In this way, the illustrations are like the text of literary nonsense: combining an "adult," intertextual side with the "folk" style. His use of a child-like style can belie not only his subtle, yet precise artistic skill, but also the crucial dynamic interchange between picture and poem, the combination of the two making Lear the initiator of a style which would be copied, usually unsuccessfully, by many others.

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One of the most interesting approaches to the origins of literary nonsense is its relation to the conception of the child and its similarity to the new, Romantic constructs of the child which had yet to be fully represented in children's literature. I use the tenn "Romantic" with some hesi tation, as during the Romantic period there were many different conceptions of the child. However, Wordsworth's image of childhood, which is related to Blake's and other Romantics' ideas to some degree, is the one usually considered to be the most original, comprehensive, and influential. Alan Richardson remarks, "It is significant that the most frequently cited authority in nineteenth-century writings on education and in Victorian children's literature alike...is not Locke's Some Thoughts or Rousseau's Emile, but Wordsworth's 'Intimations' ode" (p. xv). Wordsworthian images of childhood are the ones which survived and flourished after the Romantic period, and thus I use the word "Romantic" in relation to childhood theory, as Richardson does, with reference primarily to Wordsworth and ideas similar to his in other Romantics. 152 The work of Charles and Mary Lamb, which I often refer to in the following chapters, represents an intermediary 148.





151 LEL, p.

152Wordsworth and Coleridge would change their conceptions of the child repeatedly throughout their liyes, as can be seen in their acceptance and later rejection of Andrew Bell's Madras system of education, their views becoming more conservative as they aged. However, their poetry written as younger men was that which remained popular and shaped the \" ictorian conception of the child.

stage in the conception of the child, though their more commercial works belie their inclination towards the Wordsworthian view of the child.

Childhood theory and writing for children have traditionally been related to some extent. Throughout the eighteenth-century writers such as Isaac Watts, Sarah Trimmer, Maria Edgeworth and Anna Barbauld were both active educationalists and children's authors. Their more theoretical works emerged hand in hand with their writing for children. Trimmer, for instance, the author of the popular Fabulous Histories; Designed for the Instruction of Children, respecting their Treatment ofAnimals (1786, later called History of the Robins, and reprinted throughout most of the nineteenth century) started two magazines intended to quell the pernicious and later, Jacobean tendencies which she thought could take root in the nursery: The Family Magazine (1778-89) and The Guardian of Education (1802-06). Another preacher to and analyst of the child was William Godwin, whose The Enquirer: Rejlections on Education, Manners, and Literature (1797) set the stage for his later ventures in children's book writing and publishing. But this tradition somehow changed concerning the concept of the child emerging primarily from Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge. Though this concept of childhood was one of the central aspects of Romantic thought, the children's literature which emerged at the same time was, for the most part, unmarked by the new theories. Lear's A Book of Nonsense was among the very first children's books to approach the Romantic conception of the child. 153 Reflecting this innovation, Lear wrote to Chichester Fortescue in 1859 that, through the educational mill of current childhood theory, the person loses "all" of something which was present in childhood. Adulthood is, unfortunately, a time of forgetting, a losing of the "earlier-gained treasures" which, if present, would place the adult, as the child always is, "on the threshold of knowledge." A sentiment similar to Lear's letter is expressed by Wordsworth in The Prelude, referring to his "escape" from the utilitarian education theories during his childhood. He

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I S3The text which came closest to such an ideal was Blake's Songs of Innocence (1789), but the..

classification of such a deceptively simple work is problematical in many ways, not the least of which IS its questionable status as children's literature.

–  –  –

Both Wordsworth and Lear use the metaphor of being "dried up" or "cut and dry for life,,,154 implying that these education theories take away a vital "substance" which is present in the child. It is only in opposition to pre-Romantic theories of childhood, and through the developing Romantic theories, that this "substance" which is lost can be understood.

Writing children's literature is similar to writing childhood theory in that the literature also must assume a construct of a child and embody the characteristics of that child. 155 When Lear wrote nonsense, he had in mind a construct of the child, even though he was writing directly for the Earl of Derby's grandchildren. Lear's children's writing assumes a "nonsense child," the implied reader, who intrinsically shares characteristics of literary nonsense, and who would thus respond sympathetically and naturally to it. But this "nonsense child" is, like the genre it reflects, an elusive creature. Chapters 3 through 6 attempt to illustrate this child and are structuerd as follows: each chapter introduces a specific quality of the nonsense child (individual, wild, elevated, divine), then contrasts this with the constructed children of pre-Romantic writers, beginning with Locke and Rousseau, the two most fundamental influences on the image of the child. Each chapter then moves on to writers like Maria Edgeworth and William Godwin, who create something closer to a ''utilitarian'' child. Next in this progression are Charles and Mary Lamb, representing Romantic-period writers who did not quite achieve the Wordsworthian image of the child in their children's literature. Finally, at the end of each of these chapters I discuss the similarities between the nonsense child and the Romantic construct of the child with reference to the chapter's topic characteristic. Chapters 7 and 8 go deeper into the 154According to the OED, "cut and dry," used since the early eighteenth century, originally referred to "herbs in the herbalists' shops, as contrasted with growing herbs; hence, fig. ready-made and void of freshness and spontaneity."

155Karin Lesnik-Oberstein, in Children's Literature: Criticism and the Fictional Child (Oxford: OUP, 199-t.), discusses a similar construct of the chi~d, but,on.e which i.s created by the critics ~f children's literature. Her thoughts may also apply to children s hterature ItSelf, as not only the cntlc. but also the writer, necessarily implies a child construct within his or her writing.

significance of the nonsensicality of the genre and show how the construct from Lear's nonsense and the Romantic construct are both, in some ways, "nonsense" children.

It may be helpful to see the child construct in terms of some of the current readerresponse theories, which are based on the idea that, in a text, the author fabricates a construct of the reader. As Wayne Booth states, ''The author creates, in short, an image of himself and another image of his reader; he makes his reader, as he makes his second self, and the most successful reading is one in which the created selves, author and reader, can find complete agreement. "156 This reading is based on an "aesthetic response"157 which stresses the importance of the dialectic between text and reader. There have been many theories built around this premise, but the two most relevant to literary nonsense are Erwin Wolff's "intended reader," and, to a greater extent, the "implied reader" of Wolfgang Iser.

Wolff stresses a historical perspective in the reader-construct, while Iser's concept, rather than being based on a theory of historical reception, emerges solely from the text. What is important in these theories is not the "meaning" of a text, but its construction of the reader. 158 The child construct in Lear's nonsense emerges from a combination of these theories, arising partly out of the cultural references and the generic guises of Lear's work and, more strongly, out of the unique and baffling combination of semantic and syntactic fields inherent in nonsense. For this thesis, I primarily use Iser's theory for the textual construct, with Wolff's construct implied in the historical context.

The consequences of such theories are two-fold: the text can be seen as eliciting particular responses from an imagined, more or less ideal, reader by way of textual signals.

The specific processes and signals of this phenomenon, important in themselves, will be dealt with in the following chapters, but one of the significant outcomes is the formation of the reader-construct, the potential and competent recipient of such textual promptings.

Erwin Wolff's "intended reader" represents one side of the construct found in Lear's literary nonsense, the side pertaining to the audience's historical position. Wolff claims 156Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric o/Fiction, 2nd edition (London: Penguin Books, 1983.1991). p. 138.

See also John Preston. The Created Self. The Reader's Role in Eighteenth-Century FictIOn (London:

Heinemann, 1970). esp. pp. 196-211.

157Iscr. Act. p. x.

158Ibid. p.18.



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