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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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were pure at heart; children were becoming sentimentalized, exaggeratedly angelic creatures, weak in body and mind, if closer to God. Children also became "pure" in appearance. In contrast to the utilitarian child, who usually succeeded over the vain, beautiful child, the later Victorian children became attractive, and were rewarded rather than punished. 259 In the early example of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (1847), we overhear the two nurse maids comparing the plain Jane to the beautiful Georgiana: '''Yes,' responded Abbot; 'if she were a nice, pretty child, one might compassionate her forlornness; but one really cannot care for such a little toad as that.' ''260 Georgiana is loved for her "long curls and her blue eyes, and such a sweet colour as she has; just as if she were painted" (p.58).

Jane is constantly punished while Georgiana ''who had a spoiled temper, a very acrid spite, a captious and insolent carriage, was universally indulged. Her beauty, her pink cheeks, and golden curls, seemed to give delight to all who looked at her, and to purchase indemnity for every fault" (pp. 46-7). No longer is the spoiled, attractive, well-dressed child, like Tommy Merton of Day's Sandford and Merton, punished and taught to be frugal and modest; instead, the beautiful, vain child rules the nursery. We can also look to graphic representations of the beautiful child, such as Mary Cassalt's painting "The Sisters" (c. 1885), which features two indistinct, angelic children, with wide, innocent eyes, arms around each other. The spiritually angelic child of Wordsworth had been distorted to become an angel in all ways, to the detriment of the child's inherent "power" and individuality. Even in Cassalt's painting the two children are barely distinguishable from each other both in physical features and clothing, their white frocks forming a collective, glowing cloud around them. There were some exceptions, including of course Lear's later nonsense, Carroll, and novels like Rora Shaw's Castle Blair (1878) which shows thoroughly wild children who, contrary to most other works, do not become the props for eventual moral lessons. Carroll's Alice and Lear's Violet, curious and bold, stand out all 259Gillian Avery, Nineteenth Century Children: Heroes and Heroines in English Children's Stories 1780London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1%5), p.176.

260Chariotte Bronte, JaJleEyre (Hannondsworth: Penguin. 1%6), p. 58.

the more when compared to the typical heroines of contemporary girl's stories. 261 But these exceptions, especially in works meant at least partly for girls, were rare. It is difficult to sum up accurately the ''wild'' child of the Victorian period, as, at this stage in children's literature, there was a continually expanding assortment of genres and an ever-growing number of writers for children. This brief sketch has shown some of the major trends that took the cue from Romanticism, nonsense, and novels like Holiday House to incorporate the "wild" child into works for children, even if in a diluted, sentimentalized form.

261Carroll did comply to standards of the time, however, in using the more.ange~c" beautiful ~Iary Hilton Badcock rather than Alice Liddell for the illustrations to ~th books. EYen 1D Ailee s Adventures Under Ground he changes Alice's appearance to be less tom-boYIsh.

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Although Rousseau had recognized the separate state of childhood, theorists and writers after Rousseau still would often treat children as if they were adults, or as if they should be elevated to the state of adulthood, whether through reason or refining of sentiment. They saw, as Rousseau did, the attributes of the child as negative, coming from vacuity. It was not until Blake and Wordsworth in particular, and Lear's nonsense, that in differentiating the worlds of the child and the adult, the image of the child, its attributes now seen as "positive," was elevated above the adult. As Cammaerts suggests, to an adult, nonsense is "the only way, by which those unfortunate beings who have fallen down from the blessed state of childhood are able to evoke the spirit of the nursery... ''262 It is the adults who have "fallen" from childhood instead of vice versa. But in differentiating the two states, both the Romantics and Lear attempt to show that this is not a fortunate Fall. Rather than suffering a total separation, the adult keeps a vestige of childhood's perceptions and insights throughout his or her life, though usually this becomes buried under the weight of custom.

Lear's nonsense attempts to highlight this non-ideal separation through the use of various devices which show adults that there is something "wrong" with their thinking, that things in the nonsense world will not work the way they do in the "real" world. Nonsense shows its adult readers that their childhood has not been properly preserved in them, that the worlds of the adult and the child have split to too great a degree. Though nonsense is written primarily for children, many of its conventions and inventions are thus clearly meant for the notice of the adult. The adult should recognize that, being tainted with what 2()2Cammaerts, p. 35. Cammaerts stresses the relations of nonsense to the nursery rhyme, but the "nursery" here represents the world of the child.

Blake would call "experience," he or she may read nonsense differently from a child. An adult's "incorrect" reading can indicate the superiority of the child's perspective. For the adult to read like the child, it takes effort; what a child can do naturally, an adult may have to enact an "act of faith" to enjoy.263 Lear's contemporary critics have repeatedly claimed that his nonsense "will be best appreciated amongst adult readers by those who retain a childlike freshness of imagination. ''264 The points where the adult's and children's readings differ are the adult "traps" of nonsense.

One of the main devices used in nonsense to "trap" the adult is the illustration.

Locke recognized that children were especially receptive to illustration, but until the early nineteenth century, children's books were filled with generic, half-whimsical, half-dreary wood cuts illustrating the various "good and bad boys and girls. "265 Lear's illustrations, on the other hand, were quite original in their simplicity and also their interrelatedness with the text. 266 Blake was perhaps the first to have so intimately related his poetry with his art, and as he wrote to Dr. Trusler on 23 August, 1799, "I am happy to find a Great Majority of Fellow Mortals who can Elucidate My Visions, & Particularly they have been Elucidated by Children, who have taken a greater delight in contemplating my Pictures than 1 even hoped. "267 Nonsense limericks rely greatly on this faith in children's receptivity to illustrations. While Lear's longer poems do not depend heavily on illustration for effect,

the illustrations are crucial for the limericks, such as that in the young person of Janina:

p. 202.


DaVidson, 26-l"Nonsense Pure and Simple," The Spectator (3 November, 1888), 1503-05 (p. 1505).

265Locke, p. 147. A particularly good example of entirely dull, predictable illustrations is Mary ~ Kilner's very popular The Adventures of a Pincushion designed chiefl~ for the use of Young Lad,es, (c.

1780) which includes characteristic and entirely drab woods cuts of mopmg children.

266S cc Chapter 2 for more on illustration.

267Thc Letters of William Blake, cd. Geoffrey Keynes (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 19S6). p. 36.

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The illustration shows that the fan is quite far from the young person and probably could not have committed the beheading, yet its serrated edge might indeed prove lethal. Her uncle still seems to be fanning and smiling, as if nothing had happened. Also, her head floats above her body, as if it were a balloon, another detail which could not happen if the crime were committed as stated. I would argue that the child reader is perhaps more likely to notice the incongruity--an incongruity which, in this and many other cases, cannot be resolved. In an analysis of her own experiments with children, Morag Styles also suggests that the child is more likely to notice picture-text incongruities: "Picture books that often confused or intrigued me were pored over by little people, laughing aloud eagerly devouring every visual joke. Inevitably, they noticed things I didn't, even when it was a book I thought I had examined closely" (pp. 26-7). As Lear's illustration shows the crime ene is anything but conclusive, demonstrating the common device of picture/poem di crepancy. A similar incongruity occur with the Old Man of Peru, "Who \ atched hi wife making a stew; / But once by mistake, in a stove she did bake, / That unfortunate Man [ Peru" (p. 28). In the drawing it is ob i u that this "mi take" i n t at all ac id ntal.

Th w man i laughing, p inting directly at her hu band, who i angry and, it eem, trying to escape.268 The majority of Lear's limericks depend, for their comic effect, on this type of discrepancy, and the child reader is perhaps more attuned to this level of Lear's nonsense.

The final lines usually revolve around one central adjective describing the old person. Lear commonly fills this descriptive "blank" with the misappropriation of difficult or long words which do not necessarily fit into the context, creating a gap in meaning. The young person of Janina describes her uncle as "propitious," which is probably not in a young child's vocabulary. When (or if) the adult does understand the joke of the picture/poem discrepancy, he or she discovers the misappropriation, the word "propitious," for there is nothing about the man or his actions which is propitious. To the child this is a nonsense word, and no "sense" can be made of its relation to the picture. 269 The child's humour must come from something other than definitions. Thus, there is the unresolved tension resulting from the misappropriation--one which only the adult, who tries to make "sense" of the whole, can fully see. As Ann Colley observes, "this vague and ambiguous adjective creates a gap in which the reader must supply the means of combining or tying together the incongruous details.,,270 Colley here is assuming an adult reader, who knows the meanings of all the words. But in this world of words, the definition of a word may not be as important as its verbal qualities, or it may even be misleading. A child might enjoy the words for their sheer musicality, which could be their primary function. The child who does not know Lear's difficult words cannot see an incongruity, only an unknown. Only an adult, who understands the components and sees that they truly are incongruous, can try to combine the un-combinable into conventional "sense," which will ultimately fail. The child must either fabricate a meaning for what is, in effect, a neologism, or ignore it, while the adult possibly falls into the trap of trying to make false "sense" of the misappropriation. Whether from the adult's or the child's perspective, much 268The original illustration of this limerick is even more harsh than the final vcrsion, showing a more sinister expression on the cook, with her teeth bared. See Lear in the Original, p. 109.

269Compare this with Carroll's use of longer words. \\nen the narrator uses thc word "~uppress~d," (Ailee, p. 90) he is quick to explain the tenn in a humorous manner. Lear declined such authonal mtruslon.

270Collcy. "Edward Lear ' s Llmenck" p.,..,,, i.. 'S, _'/-t.

of the humor of Lear's nonsense is found encoded in the gaps of meaning within the picture/poem relationship which cannot be filled with certainty.

Another adult "trap" is Lear's innocent use of words which have a sexual, or otherwise "unfit" meaning in their application to children or children's writing. Lear's favourite word of this type is "promiscuous," which, at the time of Lear's writing nonsense had gained a sexual meaning in addition to its meaning of "indiscriminate.,,271 But when Lear uses this word, it is always in the older, innocent sense, such as in The Adventures oj Mr. Lear, the Polly, and the Pusseybite on their way to the Ritertitle Mountains: "Mr.

Lear, the Polly and the Pusseybite all tumble promiscuous into the raging river and become quite wet.,,272 The adult will immediately think of sexual connotations, which are certainly improper here. In nonsense, there can be no overt sexuality, and the adult's knowledge only interferes with the tone and method of nonsense. Thus, as Prickett observes, Lear is "trying to get the adult reader to be half-shocked in order to show, by this false reaction, what a dirty mind the reader has... " (p.126). This reaction is "false," in that it differs from the child's, the primary audience's, reaction, and the adult who discovers this will realize that adulthood is tainted and neither innocent nor spontaneously creative enough to accept nonsense for what it really is.273 Like Lear, Wordsworth also shows the division between the adult and child world with the "trap" of what adults might read as a misappropriation "unfit for children".

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Prelude Wordsworth describes the "real" child as "not too wise, / Too learned, or too good, but wanton, fresh... " (V, 11. 436-7). The word "wanton" is used innocently here, but its placement between "not too... good" and "fresh" highlights its ambiguity. Just like 271 According to the OED, "promiscuous" has had a pejorati ve meaning since the seventeenth century and sexual connotations since at least the mid-nineteenth century.

272 Teapots and Quails, p. 52.

273S ee also Lear's use of the word "sousy" in his "A was an apple-pie" alphabet, in the verse for the letter "m" (p. 141). Only an adult would think of the entirely inappropriate meaning of "drunken" in this context.

27..lIn Paradise Lost, Milton uses "wanton" in a similar way to describe Eve before the Fall. such as ~ her hair's "wanton ringlets" (The Poems oj John Milton, ed. John Carey and Alastair Fowler (London. ]\;~w York: Longman, 1968), IV, l.306). Milt?n uses the tension ~f this word's possible derogatory mearung to highlight the difference between prelapsanan and fallen humaruty.

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