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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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... an~ on a signal being given all the Blue-Bottle-Hies began to buzz at once In a sumptuous and sonorous manner, the melodious and mucilaginous sounds echoing all over the waters, and resounding across the tumultuous tops of the transitory Titmice upon the intervening and verdan~ mountains, with a serene and sickly suavity only known to the truly VIrtuOUS. The Moon was shining slobaciously from the starb~springled sky, while her light irrigated the smooth and shiny sides and WIngs and backs of the Blue-Bottle-Hies with a peculiar and trivial splendour, while all nature cheerfully responded to the cerulrean and conspicuous circumstances. (p. 100) In this example the regularity of the words, beyond any meaning, contributes heavily to the creation of the nonsense reality. The world is partially created by alliterative pairs such as "sumptuous and sonorous" and "melodious and mucilaginous," words whose sheer musicality, alliteration, and emotive value accord them a place in this world. In fact, they "become" the world, having no clear meaning. Likewise, words such as "slobaciously" are pure nonsense words, but nevertheless are strictly structured according to phonetic and grammatical rules. Furthermore, the words in the sentence are related to each other in what appears to be a recognizable, logical order. 303 All of these attributes of the hermetic "word" side of nonsense are characteristic of Gilles Deleuze's definition of nonsense as "a word that denotes exactly what it expresses and expresses what it denotes. ''304 Nonsense words are locked into an endless cycle of meaning because they stand alone, without a prior context of sense. They must bear the responsibility for their own meaning, which is an impossible task for any word, but the result of this limitation is that those parts of the Sewell, p. 11-l, 303 Jean-Jacques Lecercle, in his Philosophy of Nonsense, contributes the most detailed investigati~n of the strict phonetic, syntactic, and morphological conventionality of nonsense. I would argue that this level is an under-structure, present, but not dominant, in the practical application and interpretatIon of the genre, though it may be more significant with Carroll's nonsense.

304Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense (originally Logique du Sens, 1969), trans. Mark Lester with Charles Stivale, ed. Constantin V. Boundas (London: The Athlone Press, 1990), p. 67. 'lbe issue of \l'nSC and nonsense will be dealt with in greater detail in the next chapter.

nonsense "world" which are more pure nonsense are constituted only by words. Words create this side of nonsense reality, the side which Lear saw Tennyson surpass.3 05 Not only words create this structural world, but also form. Most recent nonsense criticism claims that the genre privileges form over content. Because nonsense almost always makes use of a pre-established form, whether alphabet, natural history, or limerick, while at the same time denying, in most cases, the genuine efficacy of that form, it can be seen as an empty structure which comments on the very form it inhabits. Rather than having any relevance to the "real" world or even to a fantasy world, this side of nonsense comments on its own discourse. Susan Stewart observes that "nonsense has no everydaylife context... and...is primarily a discourse about discoursing rather than about any 'real life' content" (p. 88). While this may be true in the case of the children's counting rhymes and other child-culture forms Stewart discusses, it is less so in literary nonsense. In a "choosing" rhyme, for instance, there is no tension between meaning and non-meaning;

there is no pretense of meaning aside from the choosing series repetition. This is why many choosing rhymes, regardless of the language, include simple gibberish, such as the English "Eena, meena, mina, mo" or even the Bengali "Agdoom, bagdoom, ghnoradoom, shaje." Such an approach to nonsense, one which is more prevalent in those critics like Stewart and Lecercle whose interest in the genre is more structural, is certainly a part of the nonsense dynamic, yet the imaginative, imagistic mode of thought, paradoxical though it may be, is even more significant, especially for children.

Consciousness of lexical matters and form is partly laid aside when it comes to the other version of poetic reality in nonsense, the one Lear greatly admired in Tennyson's poetry, being written as if ''from the images." Taking a step back from the minute dissection of the language and form of nonsense enables the reader to envision "a mythical landscape of the poet's own invention," which is "an environment of occasional miracles and rather more frequent catastrophes.

,;306 As Isabelle Jan states, "Here, instead of 305Compare Lear's use of language with Blake's, in poems like "A Cradle Song." Accor~ng to Glen:

"through ambiguities of syntax, verbal echoes and assonances--[Blake] portrays the I?0th.e,r s seemlll~l:-" nonsensical, repetitious language shaping itself into a pattern which constitutes a qUlte different realIty (p 135).

306 Hark, "Eccentricity," pp. 113. 116.

sublimating reality or translating it into symbols, it is completely distorted, an altogether different world emerges from which all the familiar landmarks have been removed, a world of pure fantasy.,,307 What was described as a world of words is now a "landscape" and an "environment." This type of reality is not merely verbal, but approaches the creation of what appears to be an alternate reality to which the words refer. In Iser's theory, the blanks in meaning lead the reader "to shade in the many outlines suggested by the given situations, so that these take on a reality of their own. "308 Lehmann recognizes this substantive world, commenting that Lear's "invented places, 'the Hills of the Chankly Bore' and 'the great Gromboolian plain', have resonance as profound as that of Shelley's 'wild Carmanian waste' and 'lone Chorasmian shore'. The result is that, if you succumb to the incantation, if you don't pull yourself up and examine the sense, you are almost ready to accept the poems in which they appear as examples of the great Romantic tradition.,,309 Lehmann implies that these places have the imaginative depth required to "invent" places, something akin to what Lear saw Tennyson doing. This is the world that transcends words, going beyond syntactic and hermetic relation.

Likewise, nonsense is more than simply a metalinguistic process. If this were the dominant quality of literary nonsense, it would not be so engaging, especially for children who may be less aware of metalinguistic manipulation. Nonsense has the ability to create another reality which does not and cannot exist, but because the genre subtly implies a precedent of sense, a fictitious signified, it forces us to attempt to create this world. Of course, the pictures offered are often self-contradictory or impossible, but the memory and feeling remain. In nonsense serializing, for instance, the series which appears infinite is only a completely incongruous and potentially interminable list for the adult, \vho is more apt to place whatever seems impossible or inconsequential into the convenient category of 307Isabelle lan, On Children's literature, ed. Catherine Storr (London: Allen Lane. 1%9, 1973). p. 56.

308Wolfgang Iser, "The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach," in The Implied Reader (Baltimore: The 10hns Hopkins UP, 1974), pp. 274-294 (p. 275).

30910hn Lehmann, Edward Lear and his World (Nonvich: Thames and Hudson. 1977), p. 62 This is the opposite of Sewell's view, which sees nonsense as avoiding the "dream and disorder" which chara~ten/L'~ poetry, although at the end of her study she admits that nonsense can lead back. evenUlally. lo lhis slale nonsense where it need not cause any further trouble.3 10 For the child who can take nothing for granted, the series is more: the events, or objects themselves in the series cannot be ignored. The Jumblies' booty, for instance, of an owl, a cart, some rice, a tart, some "silvery Bees," a pig, some "green Jack-daws," etc., is not a list about the infinitude of listing, but a list of objects, increasingly nonsensical, yet still objects--ones of which we have to make something, or at least ones which, by their collective presence, necessitate an attempt to find a logical connection.

Of words, yet beyond them, Lear's world is a mythical reality attainable through imaginative creation. Its components, contributing to both the ''word'' side and "world" side of nonsense reality, are its scenarios, structure, language, and devices. The places are strange and mythical, as Lehmann notices, and the world of nonsense goes beyond semantics into a fantasy universe, which demonstrates its own inner consistency of place and inhabitants. It includes the famous "Gromboolian plain" and the "hills of the Chankly Bore," for example--regions that are mentioned throughout Lear's writing. Places like these are often described poetically, such as in the famous opening stanza of The Dong

with a Luminous Nose (1877):

–  –  –

Here is a real description of a fantasy world, going far beyond syntax, word relations, and nonsense devices. In moments like these, when nonsense words are used within poetry seemingly to describe real scenes, Lear approaches what he admired so much in Tennyson's writing. Contrary to Lecercle's claim that nonsense "does not construct characters, but rather presents eccentricities, more often than not quirks of language" (p.

310S ee Richard A. Hilbert, "Approaching Reason's Edge: 'Nonsense' as the Final Solution to ~~ Problem of Meaning," Sociological Inquiry, --l7.1 (!977), 25-3!, for ~ experiment in which adults claSSIfied as "nonsense" certain logical connections which seemed ImpoSSIble.

311Tigges, p. 1. +9, daim~ that Lear'~ parody of contemporary travel joumals, Four Llule Children, n"l'" above parody and creates ItS own realIty.

71), these places are inhabited by an equally consistent set of beings which recurs throughout the poems, including the lumblies, the Dong, the Quangle-Wangle-Quee, and the Pobble who has no toes. These are not merely "eccentricities," or even less "quirks of language": they seem flesh-and-blood characters. A review of one of Lear's books in The Athenaeum, 18 November, 1876, recognizes the perception of "reality" behind such


There are men and women who have heard of the Quangle Wangle Quee' but few of us have a notion of the hat of that remarkable creature, of ' which, as yet, no living specimen has been brought to Europe. Mr.

Lear's information respecting this hat, and his further studies of the habits of the beast, will therefore be welcome to drawing-room naturalists. 312 This reviewer humorously demonstrates the "reality" which the words seem to describe.

Or as Nock puts it, "these dream-like, uncertain, undefined creatures... have still such definite personalities that their fates are of considerable importance to the sympathetic reader. ''313 The events of different poems also relate to each other, as anyone who is curious where the lumblies went on their journey need only refer to The Dong to learn of adventures not mentioned in The lumblies. Even some of the nonsense words like "scroobious" and "runcible" are repeated in a way that implies some kind of meaning, even though the words are never defined. The "rules" of nonsense, the mirroring, imprecision, infinity, simultaneity, puns, portmanteau words, and arbitrariness, all contribute to the general logical integrity of the nonsense world, even though these devices themselves usually only reinforce the lack of conventional sense. 314 The nonsense world is made consistent by its geography, characters and events, language, and devices of nonsense; it comprises, yet is more than, the words describing it.

But if the world of nonsense were completely uniform, with its images established, and conventional syntactic, morphological, and phonetic relations, it would cease to be nonsense. These attributes provide the frame which upholds the nonsense reality. But review of Laughable Lyrics, A Fourth Book of Nonsense Poems, Songs, Botan.v..\/usic, 312 Anonymous Etc., in The Athenaeum, no. 2560 (18 November. 1876),664.

313Nock, p. 78.

31--lThese are Tigges' classifications of the deyices of nonsense. For a full description, sec Tigges. pp. 56· 73.

what creates the nonsense is the semantic chaos, coupled with attributes of "sense," which appears nonsensical. It is helpful to see nonsense, as Sewell does, as a game, which offers certain pieces to be played with. These "pieces" are the consistent, definite parts, but what we do with them, and what we make of the semantic inconsistencies, is an individual, creative act of the imagination. Hans-Georg Gadamer describes playas movement for the sake of i tse1f, an excess of words "striving to express itself.,,315 He asserts that a text "issues a challenge which expects to be met. It requires an answer--an answer that can only be given by someone who accepted the challenge. And that answer must be his own, and given actively. The participant belongs to the play.,,316 Nonsense texts, which borrow the Romantic proclivity towards the indefinite, encourage this kind of imaginative play. As Nock has observed in Lear's The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo, ''There is a vagueness in Lear's poems which entrances and leads on the reader, which induces the reader to call up in his own mind the details of the landscape only suggested" (p. 80). But nonsense is more than a "vagueness "--it is a deliberate assertion of paradoxical meaning.

To achieve the combination of contrary images characteristic of a "divine" imagination, the play of nonsense must be careful always to keep its components in balance. Wolfgang Iser also sees the interaction between text and reader as a delicately balanced play: "A literary text must therefore be conceived in such a way that it will engage the reader's imagination in the task of working things out for himself, for reading is only a pleasure when it is active and creative. In this process of creativity, the text may either not go far enough, or may go too far, so we may say that boredom and overstrain form the boundaries beyond which the reader will leave the field of play. ''317 Lear is careful not to make his work too simple and sensical, yet never lets the nonsense become too chaotic or overwhelmingly meaningless, which could cause "overstrain" in the reader's

understanding. In The Jumblies, for instance, Lear lists the items bought by the crew:

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