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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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These are: "We are Seven," ''The Idle Shepherd-Boys, " and "Anecdote for Fathers." In each poem, the values of childhood are placed above the meddling adult's values. McGillis attributes this elevation to the implication that children "are poets in their immediacy of response to nature and in their unmeditated speech. They speak a pure language untainted by self-consciousness, the will to power, or the need to rationalize....,,290 These attributes enable the children in each of these poems to demonstrate a higher understanding than the adults. What to Rousseau might appear to be empty ignorance is to Wordsworth a positive, superior mode of thought. The first of this series, "We are Seven," is the most revealing and relevant to Lear's nonsense, as it deals with a child's perception of death. In the 1802 preface to Lyrical BaUads, Wordsworth comments on this poem, citing "the perplexity and obscurity which in childhood attend our notion of death, or rather our utter inability to admit that notion.,,291 But this inability is not, as it is for Rousseau, a result of the child's vacuity. Rather, Wordsworth sees this as a more enlightened view, as evidence of the "indomitableness of the spirit',292 of children. The little girl in the poem, so much

like Lamb's Elizabeth Villiers, understands the questions she is asked and replies directly:

'''Seven boys and girls are we; / Two of us in the church-yard lie, / Beneath the churchyard tree'" (11.30-32). When the adult tries to reason with the child, she only responds '''Their graves are green, they may be seen'" (1. 37), implying that she sees in the physical representation of death beyond the physicality of death--that the buried bodies have little to 290McGillis, p. 163.

291 In Gill's Wordsworth, p. 598. Thus the child in Ctk ("There was a time... ") sees death as "a lonel y bed without the sense or sight / Of day or the warm light, / A place of thought where we in waiting lie" (H.


292Fenwick Note in Wordsworth's Works, IY, 463.

do with the spirits. The child simply cannot express in words her perception that the graves are a proof of both death and life. The narrative voice asks "What should it know of death," (1. 4) and the answer given in the poem only makes a fool of this presumptuous adult. Similar endings occur in ''The Idle Shepherd-Boys" and "Anecdote for Fathers, " which show the child, though unable to articulate himself perspicuously, as teaching the adults, demonstrating the child's superiority over their older "pupils."

The examples of the child teaching the man illustrate the Romantic concern with the harmful division between these states. While Lear's separation of childhood from adulthood is always only implied the Romantics are usually more overt about their division.

For Blake, this division is the "Contrary States of the Human Soul:,,293 "innocence" and "experience." Coveney comments that ''The Songs of Innocence are... the affirmation of human life in children; the Songs of Experience the comparative denunciation of the forces in society which deny to both child and adult the expression of their imaginative joy, their essential humanity.,,294 Wordsworth expresses this division in the Ode (''There was a time... ''), in which he definitively creates the two separate states of childhood and adulthood, yet with the latter retaining something of the former. Though the adult narrator begins the poem in doubt and confusion, he discovers that both childhood and adulthood have advantages. The child's is a time of "splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower" (1. 181), but while the adult finds solace in ''the soothing thoughts that spring / Out of human suffering" (11. 186-7), his joy, though elevated, is still not on the level of the child.

Wordsworth writes "I love the Brooks which down their channels fret, / Even more than when I tripped lightly as they" (11. 195-96), but this only indicates that what appears to be the "fortunate fall" of the adult still leaves him on a lower level ultimately than the child.

The adult may love nature more, but since the child is under the "habitual sway" of nature, he is a part of it, and thus, he can only love it as he loves himself, instinctually; he cannot love it as an entity separate from himself. The adult, even though he has learned enough from childhood to have a "faith that looks through death" (1. 188) is still in a state in which Blake, Songs, plate 1.

294Coveney, p. 56. I would argue that adults can also partake in the state of innocence, though they cannot achieve it in as undiluted a manner as children.

''The Clouds that gather round the setting sun / Do take a sober colouring from an eye / That hath kept watch o'er man's mortality" (11. 199-201). There is a certain melancholy, weighted with experience, which adds the dark colour in the mind's perception of the sunset. This melancholy comes from the adults' clearer perspective of the human


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Though the adults' perspective is much broader than the child's, they only achieve this in so far as they have distanced themselves from the ocean of divinity. Its sounds still reach them, but not with the immediacy and intrinsic sympathetic perception of the child. The adult can no longer fathom the

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The child's is indeed the highest point of existence, whose relative position to the adult is described in the Ode as "thy Beings height" (I. 125).

Thus, we have arrived at the crux of the difference between the child and the adult:

the child's proximity to divinity which affects its character and actions. This is the child who floats on a cloud in the introduction to Blake's Songs of Innocence. It is Wordsworth's childhood state in which "Our simple childhood, sits upon a throne / That hath more power than all the elements.,,295 This is also the child, as we shall see in the next chapter, whose divine, combinative imagination will allow access to the paradoxical world of nonsense. It is the child of ''To H.C., Six Years Old," who "no forewarning gives; / But, at the touch of wrong, without a strife, / Slips in a moment out of life" (II. 31Death comes as if the child were only barely on this side of lifc. There is no 29517lePrelude, V, 531-33.

resistance and no great distance between the states--only one "slip" and the child has crossed back to the realm of divinity. This same child is floating in a boat which seems ''To brood on air than on an earthy stream; / Suspended in a stream as clear as sky, / Where earth and heaven do make one imagery" (11. 8-10). Like Blake's angelic child, this child exhibits his "intimations of immortality." He is like the earthly stream but which here seems to be in some mid-point between the earth and heaven, mixing the two, in the reflection of heaven. 296 But he is also the child in the stream, with its reflections and strange middle state, who illustrates that "Heaven lies about us in our infancy.,,297 Wordsworth asserts in The Prelude, "awful is the might of souls" of children--"awful" in the same way that divinity, so close to childhood, is awe-inspiring. In "It is a beauteous Evening, calm and free" (written 1802), Wordsworth ascribes this inscrutable divinity in

his daughter Anne-Caroline (by Annette Vallon):

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Even when the child appears not to appreciate the grand scene, the "gentleness of heaven... on the Sea" (1. 5), she holds closer communion with the divine than the observant and reverent adult. It is this proximity to divinity which endows the Romantic child with a creative imagination--one which is essential to a child's enjoyment and interest in Lear's nonsense.

also The Prelude, III, 135-6, for another image of the child being likened to the reflections of 296 See hcaH~n on the waters.

297 Ode (,There was a time... "), 1. 66.

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The assumption that a child has a close relation to divinity has far-reaching implications.

Such a child has a "divine" creative imagination, which is necessary for the child's response to literary nonsense. Nonsense accommodates this faculty by supplying the materials necessary for the imagination to create another world. If the child is able to make this creative leap, then nonsense provides ample recompense. Lear wrote to Emily Tennyson on 5 October, 1852, concerning his attempts to illustrate Tennyson's poetry, that Alfred Tennyson's poetry (with regard to scenes--) is as real & exquisite as it is relatively to higher & deeper matters:--that his descriptions of certain spots are as positively true as if drawn from the places themselves, & that his words have the power of calling up images as distinct & correct as if they were written from those images, instead of giving rise to th em.

Lear admires Tennyson's ability to evoke the reality of a poetic "other" world, which he recognizes as being approachable from two perspectives. Tennyson, Lear claims, is able to use words to create the impression of a source reality for the poetry, creating in the reader's mind a world which seems to exist outside the reader's mind, and which appears to dictate the words. The words seem to be describing a real place instead of evoking an imaginary landscape. The other, less valuable kind of poetic world which Lear claims for poetry is the poet's ability to use words to "giye rise" to a subject, which is consciously a poetic 298Percy Bysshe Shelley, Shelley's Poetry and Prose, eds. Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers C',en York, London: Norton, 1977}.

'99 ELSL. p. 117.


construct. This world is imaginatively limited to the words which create it; the \vords are the world created. In both cases, a poetic scene creates an alternative reality, whether represented by or consti tuted by words.

This two-fold system of creating other worlds is also employed in the fantastic side of nonsense. But here we must distinguish between the world of the limericks and the world of the other nonsense poems. Because the limericks occur in recognizable places (Melrose, Tibet, Hong Kong) and lack unnatural creatures (the Jumblies, the Quangle Wangle, the Dong), they are nominally in the "real" world, even with their distortions of humanity. The following discussion, therefore, concerns mainly the longer poems and the prose. The most prevalent critical opinion of the nonsense world is that it is a world created by, and made entirely of words: it is the words. Iser accounts for this type of world by the clash of narrative forms and perspectives. In nonsense, the clash is not with narrative form, which is coherent and part of the "sense" side of nonsense, but between meaning and anti-meaning. Iser writes, "Instead of evoking a manifold picture of reality, this clash of forms will create a semantic reality of its own, which can be tackled by the reader only through interpretation. ''300 Likewise, in nonsense there is a "semantic" reality, created by the clash of words against each other. This is the type of poetic creation which Lear valued less. Sewell sees this world as "Not a world of 'things' but of words and ways of using them... " (p. 17). Dolitsky agrees, defining the nonsense reality as limited to the confines of a self-referential hermetic text; nonsense is an "evocation of a world far different from the one readers normally operate in, where words do not take their meaning from conventional relations among them and with the things and experiences encountered in the objective world, but where meaning is emergent from the words' own interanimation within a specific text.,,301 Because in this type of reality the words are the world, the syntactic and semantic relations dictate the rules of this world. And because such relations are, in nonsense as well as in other writing, quite strict, the reality which emerges is one 300Wolfgang Iser, "The Generic Control of the Esthetic Response: An Examination of Smollett's Humphry Clinker" inThe Implied Reader: Patterns of communication in prose fiction from Bunyan to Beckett (Baltimore: The 10hns Hopkins UP, 1974), pp. 57-80 (p. 80).

301Mmlcne Dolitsky, Under the Tumtum Tree: From Nonsense to Sense (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, p. 8.


which is "logical and orderly, with separate units held together by a strict economy of

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construction, usage, and syntactic relations. In Four Little Children, a scene of nonsensical

sublime includes these strict syntactic and word relations:

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