«Heyman, Michael Benjamin (1999) Isles of Boshen : Edward Lear's literary nonsense in context. PhD thesis. Copyright and ...»
As the illustration shows, the old person greatly resembles the owls. He "screamed out with the rest," following their convention, and thus begins to look like them as well. Of course, as is the nature of nonsense, the laws of causation are always shifting, and such a deduction can never be certain, but such a treatment of conformity is fairly consistent in Lear. In the fragment The Adventures of Mr. Lear, the Polly, and the Pusseybite on their Way to the Ritertitle Mountains, another instance of identity anxiety occurs. The small party falls "over an unexpected cataract, and are all dashed to atoms.,,180 A page is then missing in the manuscript, but the next one is a frightening scene of utter identity confusion: ''The 2 venerable lebusites fasten the remains of Mr. Lear, the Polly and the Pusseybite together, but fail to reconstruct them perfectly as 3 individuals" (p. 54).
Lear offers a nightmarish image of the three adventurers with interchanged bodie and limbs. In such nonsense worlds it is no wonder that Carroll ' Alice answer the
questioned and tested, and the confusion is not helped by her habit of talking to herself as two people. 182 At the end of Through the Looking-Glass, the "serious" question is who "dreamed it all." Neither Alice, nor Lear's adventurers change themselves; instead, outside forces are responsible--hence the passive construction in the above quotation, "have been changed," from Carroll. In Lear's diary he seems to lose his self-coherence in a similar manner: Below an entry for 29 January, 1866--"A cold in the head, & swoln nose"--is a caricature of himself with huge, bulbous nose. At the bottom of page there is a set of disembodied Lear-body-parts (two arms, two legs, a head, and a round middle). To the right is what looks like a strange mis-combination of the parts, with the arms on top, then the legs, then the head, then the body. In London Lear felt a similar anxiety, as he remarks
in a letter to Chichester Fortescue on 28 May, 1877:
Upon returning to the city after living in self-imposed isolation, Lear feels the crowd constricting him, and his identity becomes threatened. Sometimes he wished he was "an octapod or a Jerusalem Artichoke, or a Hippopotamus. "184 This anxiety is an indication of the fear about which nonsense is so sensitive--the fear of conformity and loss of individuality.
Assertion of the independent, individual, non-conforming self is the surest method to avoid this anxiety. Most of Lear's work is about just such individuals. The protagonists are mostly outcasts and misfits, but they always brave the censure and violence of "them" 181 Alice, p. 35.
182p. Gila Reinstein, Alice in Context (New York, London: Garland Publishing. 1988), p 186.
183 LLEL, p. 204. cf. Keats's letter to Richard \\'oodho~se of 27 October, 181~, f~r a si~ilar loss of identity, in The Letters of John Keats, ed. Hyder E. Rollms, 2 volumes (Cambndgc. CUI, 1958), I. 386To Fortescue, 27 June. 1880. Quoted in Noakes. p. 295.
to assert their individuality. However, eccentricity is not always punished. In the world of nonsense, rules are never stable, and often unconventional activity has no negative effects.
But the individual in nonsense never cares, one way or the other. I t is a strict, unashamed individuality, upholding itself in the face of all adversity, social pressure, and even violence or death.
The first type of individual shown in nonsense is the intrinsic individual, best exemplified in The Scroobious Pip (written 1871). The Pip, according to the unfinished drawing and the verse, is a creature exhibiting features of all different types of natural living beings. Yet, when the inquisitive animals gather to ask the Pip what conventional category of creature it is, it can only give a nonsensical explanation, singing "these words with a chirpy sound-- / Aippetty chip-- / Chippetty flip-- / My only name is the Scroobious Pip.,,185 The Pip is intrinsically an individual, a class of being all to itself, through its physical appearance, for which it has no explanation. No word exists to describe a class which consists of only one individual, and so the only fitting answer is indeed nonsense words, which better than any other words relate an answer beyond expression or reason.
At the end of the poem all the different types of creatures congregate and celebrate the individuality of the Pip, who is at once all of them and none of them--a rare victory for the individual.
The other creatures in The Scroobious Pip, the "they," all belong to the natural world, which is rare in Lear's verse. Such an unreservedly happy ending is not usually available when the individual is of the second type, the extrinsic individual, who must assert his or her individuality through actions (or non-actions), braving the censure of fellow beings and possibly the uncertain consequences of natural nonsense "law." The limericks are saturated with eccentrics; opening to almost any page reveals a figure such as
the Young Lady of Lucca:
The Young Lady has lost her attachment to society, her lovers, and now is brazenly defiant, which is shocking to "them." But according to the illustration, she appears not to care at all about their reaction; her blissful smile and wild posture, so characteristic of Lear's eccentrics, reveal her whole joyous outlook. Her defiance of societal norms, and eccentric actions of climbing the tree and speaking nonsense, are private joys, regardless of what "they" think. This attitude is shared by almost every eccentric, as if each reacted as the lumblies do: "'Our Sieve ain't big, / But we don't care a button! we don't care a fig! / In a Sieve we'll go to the sea!'" (p. 71).
Nearly the only time "they" are really pleased is when an individual is conforming to societal regulations. However, such conformity is not an ideal state, as the Old Person of Crowle demonstrates, being "depressing" because of his conformity. The same is true of the Old Person of Shoreham, "Whose habits were marked by decorum; / He bought an Umbrella, and sate in the cellar, / Which pleased all the people of Shoreham" (p. 184).
While usually conformity only leads to boring, innocuous, inacti e existence, it can al 0 lead to punishment, as with the Old Person of Cadiz, who is "always polite to the ladie '
about defying convention, and Lear's nonsense world allows the bending of rules which enables those who are willing to break all restrictions, both intrinsic and social, in wild rebellion.
The force opposed to this rebellion is not only "them," but also the more insidious topos of domesticity; however, returning to the home is ultimately a defeat. As Fred Miller Robinson states, "the greatest threat to the characters of Lear's nonsense is 'la Vie Quotidienne.' "186 A few of Lear's poems, however, seem to end in a happy conformity, but even in such apparently happy endings there is usually an undercurrent of gloom. Most of Lear's longer poems involve some kind of escape from the home, with varying results.
More conventional conclusions are reached in Mr. and Mrs. Spikky Sparrow, The Broom, the Shovel, the Poker, and the Tongs, and The Table and the Chair (all 1871), among others. In all of these poems, the protagonists escape the confines of their homes, whether in open rebellion, as in The Table and the Chair, or in more sanctioned escape, as with the other two, only to return in the end. In Mr. and Mrs. Spikky Sparrow, the parent birds fly away from their children on a shopping trip to London. After buying clothes to keep them warm, they return to their children, who cry,
The illustration shows a scene of avian domestic bliss, with the parent birds dressed in their new London clothes. The problems of warmth are solved, but the children raise a disturbing point. Wearing clothes, the birds will "look like other people," which was not the purpose of the shopping spree. Looking like "people" rather than birds is a strange quality to laud, but this is the final line of the poem, save the repeated nonsensical twittering of the birds, and carries curious implications about conformity. By doing as "other people" do, the birds, in a way, lose their identities. The ending is about as happy as a return to domestic life allows, yet there is, however minor, this disturbing note.
186Fred Miller Robinson, "Nonsense and Sadness in Donald Bartheleme and Edward Lear," South Atlantic Quarterly, 80 (1981), 164-76 (p. 173).
In The Broom, the Shovel, the Poker, and the Tongs, all of the characters go for "a drive in the Park," at which time the male utensils (the Poker and the Tongs) try to woo the female utensils (the Shovel and the Broom). They are met with violent threats of rejection, and the Coachman, "Perceiving their anger," drives them back home. Once home,
There is no verbal rapprochement and the illustration shows the characters back at home, stiffly "sitting" (more like leaning against chairs), across from each other. Tea is set out, but the scene looks nothing like a cosy reconciliation. Even the verse, which spends so much time on the cause of the trouble, seems to bailout at the end, trying to salvage the illusion of happiness with a weak and inexplicable solution. It is interesting to note that in both Mr. and Mrs. Spikky Sparrow and The Broom, the Shovel, the Poker, and the Tongs, Lear uses a refrain of what could be called "pure" nonsense words, in the former case the changeable ''Twikky wikky wikky wee" of birdsong or in the latter, simply "Dinga-dong! Ding-a-dong!" These more traditional, nursery-type nonsense words are rarely used by Lear, which is one of the main distinctions between his nonsense and nursery rhyme or "mad" poetry. Rather than the challenging, endlessly circular nonsense Lear perfected, here we find nursery babble. Thomas Byrom claims that the use of such nonsense "encourages as it mocks the kind of compromise which, so the other poems [of domestic escape] tell us, is exactly what Lear most dreads. It is the coward's way out, a false peace; it spells the loss of the sublime. "187 The nonsense sublime is indeed the goal of the eponymous Table and Chair. After disregarding conventional standards of furniture mobility, the protagonists hop about on two legs "With a cheerful bumpy sound" around the town. Once they stroll about a bit,
they head for their intended destination:
187Byrom, p. 171.
The "castle in a valley" is another manifestation of Lear's mythical land of romantic escape and adventure, called variously the "Gromboolian Plain," the Hills or the streams of the "Chankly Bore" (in The Dong with a Luminous Nose and The Pelican Chorus, among others), or "the sunset isles of Boshen" (The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo). The heroes of The Table and the Chair are unable to find their castle, and rather than continuing their search, they pay a few friendly creatures to take them back home. Once they arrive, they whisper, "What a lovely walk we've taken! / Let us dine on Beans and Bacon!" and, after dancing on their heads, toddle off to bed. Their party seems to celebrate their walk, which, though an exceptional accomplishment for furniture, was still, in the end, a failed mission. As Byrom remarks, the moral at the end seems to be to stay at home if you do not have the courage to break free of restrictions. 188 Still, though, there is relative happiness in the end, and the activity of the party, that of dancing upon their heads, shows that their new-found abilities, far from being wasted, have expanded further.
All three of the poems which show a return to domesticity resemble one of Wordsworth's more curious poems about a child. In Wordsworth's "The Blind Highland Boy, A Tale Told by the Fire-side, after Returning to the Vale of Grasmere" (1804-06), a visionary youth escapes home using a turtle shell (not unlike the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo) as a
sea vessel.1 89 When the villagers try to retrieve him, he speaks nonsense:
This boy, much like the Idiot Boy, utters nonsense, but in this case, it is translated by the narrative voice. 191 His nonsense is uttered just as he perceives the crisis in his plan of visionary escape. But he is taken back and realizes that his dreams,
He returns to his comfortable home, having given up his visions: "And, though his fancies had been wild, / Yet he was pleased and reconciled / To live in peace on shore" (11. 243Compared with Wordsworth's earlier accounts of childish mischief, this episode seems a decisive defeat. 192 The child loses his dreams and is happy to live without them, but, contrary to what occurs in The Prelude (in all versions), there have been none of nature's "severer interventions," no sublime haunting of the perceptive child--his dreams are simply taken away without recompense. Though Wordsworth would probably have seen such submission, at this stage in his poetic career, in more religious terms--as the quelling of fanciful and futile dreams and the denial of misguided passion--such an ending may make the modem reader distrustful of the implied final happiness. It seems unlikely that the Wordsworth of the 1799 Prelude would have depicted the events in such a manner.
As in The Broom, the Shovel, the Poker, and the Tongs in which the kettle steaming on the fire in the end is not necessarily a sign of ultimate happiness, it is hard to imagine the Highland Boy's visions of escape and freedom disappearing so easily.
Lear's boldest statement about domestic "happiness" occurs in Mr. and Mrs.
Discobbolos, Second Part. Part one shows the young Discobboloses escaping convention, climbing to the top of a wall "to watch the sunset sky / And to hear the Nupiter Piffkin cry," where they are happily isolated from other beings and from possessions: "'We want no knives nor forks nor chairs, / 'No tables nor carpets nor household cares, / 'From worry of life we've fled" (p. 248). But after "twenty years, a month and a day," the Discobboloses are old and have a large family, creating the domestic scene they had originally escaped. When Mrs. Discobbolos expresses discontent about their situation, !\1r.
1925cc Chapter 4- for more on \\Tordsworth's glorification of childish violence.