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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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315Hans-GeorgGadamer, "The Relevance of the Beautiful:~ 1977, in.The Relevance oflhe BeQl~tiflil and Other Ess(/\'s, trans. Nicholas Walker, ed. Robert Bemascom (Cambndge: CUP, 1986). pp. 1-.)3 ~. 23) Thouoh no~sense perhaps has no ultimate "purpose," it does intentionally create this alternate reality Ilowc~'er, because of its indefinite nature, it can be considered as "play" in Gadamer' s and Sewell's scn:-;c 316G adam er, p. -).

")( 317Iscr, "The Reading Process," p. 275

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This series starts concretely and realistically, naming everyday objects, even down to "a useful Cart. ''318 The series spirals away from reality into the fantastical with the monkey's "lollipop paws," and finally to the nonsensical, with an arbitrary, yet uselessly specific number of bottles of "Ring-Bo-Ree, " an unknown substance. Yet rather than continuing the progression further into nonsense, Lear returns to the stolidly British "Stilton Cheese," a substance which could not be more familiar to the audience. Moving from nonsense to the solidly real, the play of nonsense returns the players to the known, keeping them engaged without boring or overstraining them. This is not to say that the meaning of the "Ring-Bo-Ree" has been found, or that the nonsense is solved or diluted in any way. The imagination still must work to create a meaning for this mysterious potion, but its activity is balanced with the comforting normalcy of the real. Such requirements of true nonsense have been recognized practically since it was written, as can be seen in the artic1elreview of Lear's Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany and Alphabets (1871), ''The Science of Nonsense," from the 1870 Spectator: "Nonsense is exactly this,--a gay rebellion against sense. But there is no relief to the mind unless there be enough sense in the nonsense to make the nonsense visible.... ''319 The next chapter discusses in more detail the intimate relationship between sense and nonsense.

In ''The Science of Nonsense," the writer tries to explain the workings of nonsense by its reception by children. He claims that a child will laugh at the gap in meaning of a nonsense word, but that he or she should not, as this kind of nonsense is "a trifle nearer to the grave talk of an idiot asylum, than to the nonsense of sane people" (pp. 1505-6). But the child laughs because "there is something in a child's mind which exactly corresponds to 318The "useful cart" is reminiscent of Edgeworth's "substantial cart" (p. 2) the only toy. she claims.

suitable for a child, though there is probably no direct connection (from Essays on Practical Education) 319"lbe Science of Nonsense," The Spectator (17 December, 1870). 1505-06 (p. 1505) the sensitiveness of the soles of its feet or the annpits to gentle tickling" (p. 1506). This writer gives no credit to the child's cognitive power or imagination. It seems the animalistic reflexivity of Locke's child construct still exists.

More recent opinion, however, observes that the nonsense child construct has an active imagination which rises to the challenge of nonsense. Sewell claims that in the play of nonsense 'The mind is seemingly partly the player and partly its own plaything, not alternately but simultaneously, in a mutual interchange" (p. 187). The nonsense child is able to combine contrary ideas together imaginatively, as Keats wrote, "without any irritable reaching after fact & reason. ''320 The assumption in nonsense is that the child has a type of imagination that, instead of trying to make "sense" like an adult, will accept and create a new world from combining the contradictory materials it is given. Lear notes this poetic faculty in a letter to John Gould, 28 August, 1841: "I forgot the celebrated Chestnut trees... but these were rather disappointing--being I believe a groupe [sic] of trees which the poetical mind of the guide chooses to think a single stem.,,321 The poetic faculty of imaginative combination is what allows a child to combine a meaningless word (to the child), and the same word, put through the "play" process of the imagination, with an individual, original meaning. As Lecercle states, nonsense "does not seek to limit the text's meaning to one single interpretation--on the contrary, its dissolution of sense multiplies meaning. This is because nonsense text requires to be read on two levels at once--two incompatible levels.,,322 Nonsense assumes that this is within the child's ability.

The child reading nonsense is given some known materials (structure and meaningful words and images) and some unknown materials (undefined words, and unclear semantic relationships) out of which, through the "play" thereby ensuing, he or she receives and creates, inventing a new world in the process. From the clues and more 32CTro George and Tom Keats, 21, 27(?) December, 1817. Keats's Letters, I, 193. Negative cap~bility is quite interesting in relation to nonsense but is not especially tied to childhood by ~eats. Keats himself was instinctively endowed with a "nonsense-like" combinative ability, as he wrote. ill a le~ter to Fanny Brawne in Februarv, 1820, describing spilled jelly on a book: "I have lick'd it but It remaIns very purple [Keats wrote "p~lue," but Rollins edits this out, adding it in the note only]--I did not know \'he~er to say purple or blue, so in the mixture for a colour made up of those two... " (p. 262). See also ~eats s "nonsense "letters to his sister, letters which have occasionally been put in nonsense anthologtes.





ELSL, p. 59.

~22

- I,l'l't?rcle, p. 2(l definite components of nonsense, the child evokes a private, imaginative image of, for example, what the ''tumultuous tops of the transitory Titmice" are, in the above passage from Four Little Children. Lear has placed them in the landscape, upon mountains, with sound echoing off the water through them, but by leaving them undefined, he necessitates the play of the imagination to take over and form the final images by combination of the familiar and the unknown. By combining unlike words or ideas, the child construct is expected to continue the process of creating the "world" side of the text. In the passage from Four Little Children, "while all nature cheerfully responded to the cerul~an and conspicuous circumstances," the child would understand "nature cheerfully responded," but is then confronted by alliterative, emotive words apparently deprived of referential meaning. The child must combine the known and the unknown, difficult words, to create what happens to nature here. An adult, who knows the meanings of the unusual words, would try to make "sense" of them, which cannot be done. The adult finds humour in the discovered incongruities, but will not, unless having more of a childlike mind (in a positive sense), combine all incompatibles into another world, the individual fantasy reality beyond the linguistics. As Sewell writes, "to play, no matter at what, is to play at being God" (p.

187). Similarly, the "nonsense child," whose mind is far more than the sole of a foot or an underarm, possesses an imagination akin to divine creative power.

We must keep in mind that the child construct is in no way a real child, or even a grouping of the expected reactions of any particular real child; rather, it is a wholly artificial idea born of the text and the historical context. This nonsense child emerges partly from what Iser, albeit in the context of narrative, calls "blanks" in the text. In literary nonsense, these blanks are the semantic and logical gaps whose meanings are left empty or incomplete, such as in the ''tumultuous tops of the transitory Titmice" above. Chapter 7 goes into more detail as to the workings of Iser's theory in the context of nonsense, but here we should only notice that the implied reader is assumed to be able to fill the blanks in nonsense, however impossible that may appear. The combination of contrary elements is the divine imagination at work, which theoretically creates a new world. In reference to a narrative form which clashes internally, not unlike nonsense, Iser states ~e can...imagine a c~ in which the.forms are ?eliberately made to clash wIth on~ another. In t~s case there wIll be a radIcal change in the intention underlYIng t~e c~ncep~Ion of the nov~l,.for the clash of forms must destroy one of the pnm~ IntentIo~s of th~ realIstIc noyel: the illusion of reality.

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. 3 23 Likewise, in literary nonsense, a genre rife with clashes of form and meaning, the "illusion of reality" is destroyed in favour of a new, nonsense reality, a paradoxical reality which is implied but cannot exist. The nonsense child's imagination, the impossibly combinative faculty arising from the paradoxical gaps which create this reality, is the source of this reality--where it ostensibly begins.

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The imagination is one of the most important and divisive issues in child theory.

All theorists recognize in their child constructs the tendency to exercise imagination, but before the Romantics, this faculty was often humoured at best and absolutely condemned in the most extreme cases. If we return to Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning Education, we notice the roots of such a deprecatory image of the child's imagination. Locke is tolerant of childish fancy, but this fancy is nothing like the exalted Romantic imagination~ it is the predecessor to the activities of a child's mind likened to the "sensitiveness of the soles of its feet or the armpits to gentle tickling." Childhood and its creations are simple folly, without any value. The child's fancies emerge from a mind which is "narrow, and weak, and usually susceptible but of one Thought at once.,,324 Thus, Locke could not conceive of a child's combining or holding two contrary ideas simultaneously, a concept so vital to nonsense. Imagination is dangerous and can fill children's heads with frightening stories of "Raw-Head and Bloody Bones" which will make them "afraid of their Shadows and Darkness all their Lives after.,,325 The underdeveloped imagination of Locke's child construct could not manage the difficulties of nonsense.

323Wolfgang Iser, "Generic Control," p. 80.

32-l I,m:kc, p. 221.

32S Ibid, p. 196.

Rousseau continued Locke's tradition of discouraging the child's imagination, further distancing Emile from the Romantic and nonsense child. Emile is perhaps the most resistant to creating imaginative worlds, with the utilitarian child coming close behind.

Emile's imaginative faculty has been strictly discouraged since birth. Rousseau suggests,

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Because Emile's imagination is undeveloped, Lear's words and ideas would only seem like pure "non-sense"--unrelated, undefined, and therefore unimportant. Without imagination to manipulate the components of nonsense, the genre disintegrates. Maria and Richard Edgeworth do promote the "innocent" cultivation of the imagination but claim the faculty should be discouraged?26 It is better to read the "history of realities,,327 than imaginative material, which induces "reverie," or "castle-building." This tendency is extremely dangerous, as "Inventive castle-builders are rather nearer the state of insanity than of reverie; they reason well upon false principles; their airy fabrics are often both in good taste and in good proportion; nothing is wanting to them but a foundation.,328 Such is not a bad description of what nonsense does: the "false principles" are the different, closed rules of the nonsense world, which are self-referentially in "proportion," and they indeed lack a conventional foundation. The Edgeworths do not consider that the imagination may itself constitute a foundation. Nor is the utilitarian child receptive to the unusual language of nonsense. The proper language for a child is closest to a "philosophical" language with exact definitions, because "Children, who have not the habit of listening to words without understanding them, yawn and writhe with manifest symptoms of disgust whenever they are compelled to hear sounds which convey no ideas to their minds.,,329 Nonsense, which is full of nonsense words and misappropriations, is entirely opposed to this idea of

–  –  –

perspicuous language. While Emile has no use for his imagination, the utilitarian child's meagre allowance of it, coupled with an intrinsic dislike of so much of the essence of nonsense, leaves both child constructs without the ability to enter wholeheartedly into the nonsense world. 330 The Lambs, who could not entirely escape the past deprecatory views of childhocxl imagination, mainly condemn the active imagination, but at least it is recognized and produces some slight benefit. It resembles the type of imagination which nonsense requires--powerful, active, and combinative. Mrs. Leicester's School demonstrates this imagination in most every story, as the imaginative child grows up and out of this harmful tendency. In Charles's ''The Witch Aunt," he portrays Maria Howe, the narrator, as demonstrating in her youth a potent imagination. When she reads Glanvile' s book on witches, she admits

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Maria cannot understand all the words, but she nevertheless gleans from the book enough to stimulate her imagination to ''feel'' the fire in the pictures. She resembles the previous childhood theories in not being receptive to new words and novelty, but her powerful imaginative response is Romantic. After reading this book she fancies her slightly unusual aunt a witch and becomes confused upon seeing her in daylight: "a confusion was in my head, who it was I had seen that night--it was my aunt, and it was not my aunt--it was that good creature who loved me above all the world.... Again, it was a witch,--a creature hateful to God and man... " (p. 374). Here, the child has the combinatorial powers also needed to appreciate nonsense--the ability to combine simultaneously two contrary images or ideas. She sees her aunt as the relative \vho loves her and also an evil witch who could 330Godwin's view of imagination and its role ameliorated drastically as he grew older and hccame better acquainted with Coleridge. See \\'illiam St Clair, "\\'illiam Godwin as Children's Bookseller" i~ Children and Their Books: A Celebration of the Work of10lla and Peter Opie, eds. Gillian A\ery.md JulIa Bnggs (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989). pp. 169-70.



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