«Heyman, Michael Benjamin (1999) Isles of Boshen : Edward Lear's literary nonsense in context. PhD thesis. Copyright and ...»
Discobbolos detonates a trench filled with "dynamite, gunpowder gench," destroying his whole family.
Conformity and domesticity can thus return even after an initial rebellion, and death is offered as the only alternative to this couple who failed to remain individuals.
Both intrinsic and social limitations are dashed more openly and finally in The Nutcrackers and the Sugar- Tongs (1871). The two heroes of this story begin in their traditional roles, ''The Nutcrackers sate by a plate on the table, / The Sugar-tongs sate by a plate at his side" (p. 75). The Nutcrackers expresses the desire to escape "this stupid existence for ever, / 'So idle and weary, so full of remorse" (p. 75). The Nutcrackers has its doubts, seeking support and confirmation, "'Shall we try? Shall we go? Do you think we are able?' / The Sugar-tongs answered distinctly, 'Of course!'" (p. 75). Their leap of faith and effort propel the pair beyond their physical conditions and beyond their conventional roles sitting by a plate and a table. They jump on horses, and, to the surprise and disapproval of the household implements, they ride away ''with screamings and laughter" from the house.
Unlike the protagonists in The Table and the Chair, who return after their rebellion to questionable domesticity, this pair succeeds in "snapping" the confines of their supposed physical limitations and "cracking" their societal roles, to leave them free forever.
Though the Nutcrackers and the Sugartongs enjoy a happy ending, there is some doubt in general about the success of the individual's escape from convention. After alL the fate of the Discobbolos family is quite disturbing. And heroes such as the YonghyBonghy-Bo and the iconoclasts of the limericks have questionable fates~ they often escape convention, but at what price? The dangers could include social isolation possibly leading to solipsism, not to mention insanity (the Dong) and criminal behavior (Mr. Discobbolos).
Part of the problem is that, as always, the genre does its best to foil our irrepressible search for meaning. Tigges argues that nonsense reflects personal and cultural tensions, yet refuses to resolve them, and that therefore it is "an aesthetic form of resignation rather than self-reliance and confidence" (p. 254). While it is true, as we have seen, that the "victory" of the individual is sometimes questionable, and occasionally a failure, I would argue that in most cases, the individual, and almost militant individuality, is successful.
In one respect, I agree with Tigges: the limericks and longer narrative pieces do not resolve any of the tensions of life with a concrete "answer." Because most individuals are successful, or at least happy, in their paradoxical or ridiculous pursuits, I would argue that nonsense's refusal to give an answer is itself the answer. Rather than "resignation," nonsense represents an aesthetic form of acceptance, which is slightly, but crucially different. The acceptance of contraries, as Keats wrote, "without any irritable reaching after fact & reason"193 is a triumph and indeed a sign of "self-reliance and confidence."
Lear happily accepted the unsolvable in his own life. Though he was disgusted by organized religion, he did believe in Christian values. He admits, in a letter to Chichester Fortescue on 9 September, 1879, that "in the Gospels one finds nothing which is perfectly clear, "194 and that this state of uncertainty, far from a resignation, is an important step in finding happiness. As many critics of nonsense have seen, the joy in nonsense lies within its uncertainty. Chesterton, who saw nonsense as a proof of religious faith, claims that "a thing cannot be completely wonderful so long as it remains sensible. "195 The human condition, with its questions of alienation, individuality, and mortality, is laid before us, 193To George and Tom Keats, 21, 27(?) December, 1817. Keats's Letters, I, 193.
194LLEL, p. 22'+. Written in Greek and translated by the editor.
195G.K. Chesterton, "1\ Defence of Nonsense," in The Defendant (London: 1. \1. Dent & Sons, 191.+), pp. 42-50 (p. 48). See also Aldous Huxley, "Edward Lear" in On the.\1argin (London: Chatto & \\ llldus, 1923). pp. 167-172.
but, as Byrom states "we too stand on tiptoe, next to the Old Man... and look over the lip of the intelligible world into the wonderful night beyond" (p. 150).
As we have seen in this chapter, the individuals in the limericks usually revel in their circumstances. In many cases they are alone, as with the Old Person of Wick but there is little indication of solipsism. Though we cannot understand his speech, we haye no reason to believe that his world is limited to our lack of understanding. The limerick protagonists usually interact with their neighbours, even if it is in defiance of them. The Old Man with a nose (p. 4), for instance, informs "them" that his extended nose is not too long, and he expresses great pride and joy in displaying his nose, which "they" have to jump over to avoid. Though his proboscideferous nose may alarm his neighbours, he gives no indication that he lives in any kind of solipsistic world derived from his unique ideals: he simply does not agree with all of the norms of his community. Similarly, the Old Man of Kilkenny (p. 9) may be "wayward," in his preoccupation with onions and honey, but he seems a perfectly happy, well-adjusted fellow. When the individuals of the limericks are not shown in their communities, they are often in the company of animals, more often in a sympathetic, rather than antagonistic, relationship. In the longer poems, with the exception of the Dong, the individuals usually escape to the Gromboolian Plain, or some other mythical and happy nonsense land, with a friend. The Duck and the Kangaroo, the Daddy Long-legs and the By, and the Nutcrackers and Sugartongs, all either intrinsic or extrinsic individuals, escape convention and domesticity together.
The next section of this chapter contrasts the pre-Victorian child construct as "individual" with what I call the nonsense child. I begin with Locke, and move to Rousseau, Edgeworth, Godwin, and the Lambs, at which point I turn to the similarities between the Romantic and the nonsense child. Locke's theories of childhood represent the antithesis of the child construct which would evolve from the assumptions behind Romanticism and Lear's nonsense. Locke does allow for the toleration of childish behaviour, but the period of childhood is mainly worthless and sinful, one full of "natural wrong Inclinations and Ignorance. "196 Locke discourages the social individuality and the internal individuality, advocating the repression of "unreasoned" desires. He writes, "It seems plain to me, that the Principle of all Vertue and Excellency lies in a power of denying our selves the satisfaction of our own Desires, where Reason does not authorize them" (p.
107). The child is also subject to strict control by adults, even to the point of controlling his bodily functions (p. 99-101). Thus, Locke's child construct is typically one of Lear's "them", adhering to the standard norms of adult life. Since childhood is only a separate stage of error, the child is not independent--he relies heavily on instruction from adults.
The "individuality" of the child is mostly ignored or condemned.
The next major development in childhood theory is Rousseau's Emile, but Emile would not respond favourably to Lear's nonsense. Emile would be shocked by nonsense's lack of intrinsic conformity. Rousseau states, "When man is content to be himself he is strong indeed; when he strives to be more than man he is weak indeed.,,197 The nonsense characters do not recognize their inherent limitations and are rewarded, while those \vho do "confine their wishes within the limits of their powers" (p. 35) are punished, or at least marginalized. This tendency of nonsense is perhaps similar to Blake's emblem, in For Children: The Gates ofParadise (1793), of a child climbing a ladder to the moon. The inscription below is "I want! I want!" Only in the state of innocence particularly associated with childhood can such desires seem fulfillable, and though the adult knows the child will never reach the moon, the emblem, and indeed much of Blake's work, implies that the state of innocence is a desirable one, even though we inevitably gain experience as life goes on.
Rousseau, in contrast, teaches that only by confining unreasonable desires to the realm of the rationally "possible" will the children "scarcely feel the want of whatever is not in their power" (p. 35). Rousseau's world is a place of freedom--but a freedom which is circumscribed by the limitations of individual ability, environmental restrictions, and the machinations of the tutor. Emile also would hate the fact that the outward circumstances of 196John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, 1693, eds. John \V. and Jean S.
Clarendon Press, 1989), p. 90.
197Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Emile or Education, 1762. trans. Barbara Foxley (London: Dent; New York:
Dutton. 1911, 1974), p. 45.
the nonsense world are not usually limiting, for Emile has been taught to bear the harsh, unforgiving forces of nature and to recognize his limits within it But he would be pleased by the defiance of "them," as he can appreciate the indi viduali ty and independence of the nonsense figure opposed to "social conventions," which are only designed to make him part of the collective and lose his individuality (pp. 6,7). However, Emile would not approve of Lear's blatant sanctioning of this juvenile state of individuality. While this state exists, it should not be promoted to this degree, since it is irrational. If only the Old Man of Melrose were a bit more like Robinson Crusoe...
Approaching the child constructs of writers closer to the Romantic period and Lear reveals the consequences of the past theorists: the child construct of utilitarianism, which nonsense more directly confronts.1 98 Toa utilitarian child 199 who has been taught taste according to conventional standards, the activities of these nonsense characters would be
quite disturbing. Edgeworth writes of teaching the child about taste:
the first objects that he contemplates with delight will remain long associated with pleasure in his imagination~ you must, therefore, be careful, that these early associations accord with the decisions of those who have determined the national standard of taste.... [but] no exclusive prejudices should confine your pupil's understanding. 200 While Edgeworth wishes to make her pupil open-minded, promoting only a "toleration" of other ideas implies a definite division between correct and incorrect ideas. Some utilitarians, particularly the earlier Godwin, would sympathize with much of nonsense's individuality, although without approval. According to Godwin, the present order of society "is the great slaughter-house of genius and of mind.,,201 Utilitarianism as a moral and social theory is based on the principle of individuality and non-conformity to this 1981 use the term "utilitarianism" to refer to the philosophy generally recognized as starting with Bentham, and continuing with variations through Godwin and Maria Edgeworth. It is important to recognise that.
Godwin tried to distance himself from Benthamite utilitarianism, which he saw as based on selfish motIves.
1995ee Dickens' "Bitzer" in Hard Times (1854) for a stereotypical utilitarian child.
200 Maria and R. L. Edgeworth, Essays ofPractical Education, 1798, 3rd edition, 2 volumes (London:
Baldwin Cradock, and Joy, 1815), 11,280. All references to Edgeworth are from these volumes, unless othenvis~ noted Richardson calls this work "exemplary" of the "progressive educational thought of its day;
it assimilates many of the suggestions not only of Locke and Rousseau, but of the liberal-radical group of educational writers... " (p. 52).
20] \Villiam Godwin, The Enquirer: Reflections on Education. Manners. and Literature (Dublin: 1. Moore, 1797), p. 17.
corruptive society, in "Happiness to the individual in the first place" (p. 1). However, the individual must be directed in a useful manner, which nonsense characters are not Nevertheless, since the underlying principles are similar (self-discipline, independence of thought), the utilitarian viewpoint is sympathetic to such individuality, although its sympathies end when faced with works without a real moral and some use for this nonconformi ty.
Charles and Mary Lamb's works for children, while written in the Romantic period, do not, however, project an entirely progressive construct of the child. The Lambs' conception of childhood is difficult to gauge, as their works for children do not match their letters' more Wordsworthian opinions. 202 While such works as Poetry for Children (1808-1809) may be discounted as mainly being motivated by the children's book market, Mrs. Leicester's School (1809) seems to capture something of Wordsworth's view of the child. It is an interesting compromise between the old and new theories, but it does not explore childhood as deeply as Blake, Wordsworth, or Coleridge. In Mrs. Leicester's School, social acceptance and immersion are the indicators of happiness. Maria Howe, the young, solitary girl in Charles Lamb's "The Witch Aunt," reads forbidden books until she becomes frightened and finally cannot distinguish fantasy from reality. She imagines her aunt to be a witch and is not "cured" of this fancy until she is removed from her solitary existence to another place, where she has companions of her own age. When she returns, she is happier and has kinder feelings towards her aunt. She remarks "I became sociable and companionable: my parents soon discovered a change in me.... They have been plainly more fond of me since that change, as from that time I learned to conform myself more to their way of living.,,203 Social conformity is not only the cure for imaginative ills, but also what makes the child shed her fears and become happy.204 This kind of outcome occurs in 202 See C. Lamb's letter to Coleridge, 23 October, 1802, quoted on p. 20.
203Charlcs and Mary Lamb, "The Witch Aunt" (Charles) in Mrs. Leicester's School: or, The History 0/ Several Young Ladies, Related by Themselves, 1809, in Books/or Children, The Works a/Charles and Marv Lamb, 1903-5, ed. E.V. Lucas (London: Methuen, 1912), III, 37·+.