«Heyman, Michael Benjamin (1999) Isles of Boshen : Edward Lear's literary nonsense in context. PhD thesis. Copyright and ...»
appropriate unsuccess of a struggle to define the child's experience as it \\'L~ felt at the time.
No adult wisdom is offered, and none would be acceptable" (p. 47). Adults cannot make sense of that unpredictable organ, the child's mind. Similarly, in ''To H.C., Six Years Old," the child "fittest to unutterable thought / The breeze-like motion and the self-born carol" (11. 3-4). The child's thoughts are "unutterable," which implies that even if the child had the use of an adult's vocabulary, he could not express his thoughts. His thoughts are beyond adult comprehension because they are beyond the limited adult language. Likemng him to a "breeze-like motion" shows that this thought is wild and mysterious, \\ith unknown origins and purposes.
When a child is forced to speak his ''unutterable'' thoughts, it is quite fi tting that the child speaks nonsense. Johnny in "The Idiot Boy," though in age probably a teen-ager, is mentally a child. 432 After his horseback adventures, Johnny is found and taken back home. When Betty asks him where he has been, what he has heard, and what he has seen, he can only reply,
inexpressible, unknowable, and truly beyond meaning or "sense." According to Woodman, Johnny is Wordsworth's portrait of the poet as infant, as the wielder of unconscious vision, and as the creator of his own reality.434 Wordsworth, in a letter to
my own mind, that sublime expression of scripture that, 'their life is hidden with God.' "435 Thus, Wordsworth aligns Johnny with children, vvhose lives are also mysterious and "hidden with God," or at least much closer to God than adults.
Johnny is an earlier version of some other mystic-children who, while demonstrating the continuance of Wordsworth's "nonsense-child," also shO\\' the substantial change of Wordsworth's view of the child. In 'The Blind Highland Boy, A Tale Told by the Fire-side, after Returning to the Vale of Grasmere" (1804-06) the child, much like Johnny, is probably mentally, and certainly physically, handicapped, a condition which further removes him from the confines of adult classification. Though the boy leads
a different kind of life, he retains a mystical happiness:
Unlike Johnny, the Blind Highland Boy's joy is specifically given to him by God. and because of this, his mental state is far beyond what adults can comprehend. Yet instead of
sensical, or at least more explainable. He has Visionary dreams of eagles screaming, and roaring water which lead him to his misadventures on the water, and when the adults are about to end his fantasy, he speaks nonsense, but again, the slightly older Wordsworth
was not as willing to keep such speech as open as Johnny's:
Although this child's motives and goals remain unknown and unknowable, his nonsensical speech is now translated by the narrator, something which the younger Wordsworth (of the 1798 "Idiot Boy'') did not do. The boy is taken home and becomes reconciled to his loss of vision, a result far different from the triumph of Johnny. In his old age, Wordsworth would again change his conception of the child as seen in ''The Norman Boy," in which the boy's mystical experience becomes subsumed in religion. The poor shepherd boy who makes a rude shelter from a storm and affixes a cross inside trusts in religion "as the surest power and best / For supplying all deficiencies, all wants of the rude nest... " (De Selincourt, 11.21-2). The child's mystery is now the mystery of faith, but this child is far different from Wordsworth's earlier children who would know little of faith and less of religion and religious symbols. While divinity has always been present in the child, it is no longer an instinct, but a more intentional adult abstraction; the child's mystical nature remains, yet is transformed. And the children in Wordsworth's later poems need religion because their nature had also drastically changed. The innocent child of his youth had acquired Original Sin, as can be seen as early as the Ecclesiastical Sonnets (1827), in
-l36De Selincourt, 11. 201-5.
-l37Ibid, 11. 1-4.
This child, the antithesis of the "naked savage" or the child-philosopher, is inherently sinful, as is the child's "mother," or nature. In Wordsworth's earlier poems, however, children's experiences, like Johnny's and the Blind Highland Boy's, must ever be unknown, and "nonsensical" to adults, remaining "far hidden from the reach of words.,rl38 The most fitting words for Wordsworth's child-construct are therefore nonsense, and the implied reader recognizes in them a kindred spirit of sorts--a reflection of his or her O\vn nature.
Though this thesis is concerned with the earlier, and far more influential work of Wordsworth and Coleridge, it is important to note the great changes concerning their ideas of childhood and education throughout their lives. Young men full of the revolutionary spirit of the late 80s and early 90s, they became somewhat disillusioned after the excesses of the French Revolution, and their view of the child was shaped by this experience. Their organic, wild, divinely creative image of the child, in a way, was a conservative gesture aimed against the more "progressive" utilitarian reformers, but also truly progressive in what we now consider a more modem approach to the child. 439 And though, in the early stages of their poetry the child fluctuated between naked savage, angelic bard, and mischievous imp, there was a common base of assumptions which would inform the great child-poems around the tum of the century. In the first few years of the nineteenth century, though, their views would change. Their interest in education led them both to educational experiments, like the Wordsworths' tuition of young Basil Montagu (slightly earlier), and to disasters like Thomas Wedgwood's "nursery of genius," a system by which a child was brought up in sensual deprivation, without ever seeing the outdoors. Coleridge took Wedgwood's plan far more seriously than Wordsworth, but they both declined Wedgwood's proposals and became quite involved in the Madras system of Andrew Bell.
Coleridge lectured on this system and Wordsworth practiced it, with Bell, in Grasmere 438ThePrelude III 1.185. See also Wordsworth's "The Danish Boy," in ~\".hich another Il1y~~crious child who, in the words ~f Spiegelman, "living or dead, visible or invisible, Ill1htant or lync... defIes our knowing him" (pp. 64-5).,. \". and Colcrid c' s 439For opposition to the "new schools," see Wordsworth s ThePrelude. Book. g BiographiaUteraria, Chapter 1.
school classrooms in 1811 and 1812. 440 Both men would enthusiastically support Bel1's
monitors and the master's ever-vigilant eye. But Wordsworth and Coleridge began to have increasing doubts about the system. Coleridge, in his unpublished Logic, departs from the Madras system, claiming that the first part of education, that which should be instilled by nature, is a process far beyond human comprehension or knOWledge. The beginnings of education are to be acquired "promiscuously" in nature, and, contrary to Bell's system, "the plan is not formed by the selection of the objects presented to the notice of the pupils, but by the impulses and dispositions suited to their age... "441 Coleridge continues: "nor would it have been possible, had the matter been left to our own invention, to have discovered or invented a medium possessed of advantages so many, so peculiar, and so appropriate, to all its [Nature's] various and numerous purposes" (p. 15). In this educationally conservative view, humanity could never devise a system of education as appropriate and complex as nature's.
Wordsworth's disenchantment with Bell's system can be seen by 1828, in a letter to Hugh James Rose. He complains in this letter of the Madras system's lack of imaginative stimulation and overall effectiveness, and "against all Dr Bell's sour-looking teachers in petticoats that I have ever seen. "442 He calls for a return to a more traditional, less structured plan that, contrary to Bell's system, would "encourage the imaginative feelings, without which the practical understanding is of little avail.... "~43 Of course, such sentiments had appeared much earlier, in the 1805 Prelude: referring to the contemporary utilitarian educationalists (not to mention Rousseau), he writes that the "tutors of our youth"
The references to contemporary educationalists are obvious here, as is Wordsworth's disapproval of systems which too closely monitor and control the child. Children must be more in tune with the "unreasoning progress of the world," by definition a world which appears nonsensical to mortals who cannot comprehend the ministerings of nature. By the end of his life, Wordsworth came full circle in his educational theory, and though his view of the child had changed drastically, he returned to the less structured, more imaginative educational ideal he advocated fifty years earlier, one based on freedom, the imagination, and the teachings of nature. Of course, the reasons for this tum-around, both religious and political, were quite different from those of the younger Wordsworth. 444 I have mainly ignored the reasons of these philosophical shifts, for they do not concern this thesis, but It is important to recognize that the image of the child and its proper education, some of the most popular topics and themes of Romantic writing, were constantly changing throughout Wordsworth's and Coleridge's lives. Nevertheless, as far as the Victorians were concerned, the child of Ode (HThere was a time... ") and Tintern Abbey would forever be the Wordsworthian, and hence "Romantic," child.
Though the Romantic child of the younger Wordsworth and Coleridge appears to resemble the nonsense child, there is ultimately an unbridgable gap between them. The inscrutability the Romantics saw in the child was the inscrutability of God, which, in the end, would hopefully be the opposite of nonsense. If adults had access to God's \\IlI, then the child's actions would indeed make sense, but as this is impossible, children remain mysterious testaments to the incomprehensibility of God. Nonsense utilizes the acti\'e imagination, but it creates in a goo-like fashion impossible worlds, Such an act oPP)'\cs a
human spokesman, and his art is a moral art.,,445 This is akin to Coleridge's faith, which Wordsworth had to some degree, that the imagination led to truth and, ideally, to the divine.
Wordsworth expresses this more ambiguously in The Prelude, writing about the "mystery of words":
The "veil" here refers to "words," which, though they can be opaque, through verse become representatives of "objects recognised." This "recognition," means they corroborate the previous experience of the reader, thus reinforcing reality through defamiliarization and then the "flash" of recognition. The "glory" may derive from the imagination of the reader, but it only occurs by recognizing the truths of reality. Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge had faith to some degree in poetic symbols as a type of revelation perceived by the imagination. Victorians like Lear, on the other hand, found it increasingly difficult to hold such a faith, and they often viewed poetic symbols as subjective devices lacking any connection to higher truths:u6 Lear's nonsense is a hyperbolic expression of such subjectivism, as in the end it leads to nothing, or at least certainly not conventional "reality." However, though it may not find such solid ground, it does not seem to mind. The Gromboolian Plain may remain a mystery, but at least \\c may forever play "battlecock and shuttledore" there.
The year is 1875, and a group of children, three boys and three girls around eight ycars old, gather round an elderly, rather round, bearded gentleman, with glasses perched near the end of his large nose. Edward Lear is 63 years old, at the height of his nonsense career, and he entertains yet another group of children. However, this group is Iwllike any other. Each child is the representative construct of the previously discussed theorists, writers, and poets. The children eagerly wait, as Mr. Lear produces a drawing pad, dips
his pen, and begins to create his "nonsenses":
Lear continues in this fashion, drawing pictures and telling tales about eccentrics, and strange, mythical creatures inhabiting other worlds, until he notices varied and dissonant reactions from the children. Alfred, dressed in ill-fit adult clothes, smiles an instant, but then frowns in disapproval. He looks with disdain at the puzzled Lear, who has nc\'Cr
walking away, slightly puzzled and disgusted, carrying his toy "substantial cart." In amazement, Lear stares after him, as his glasses slip a little further down his nose.
Catherine is smiling in amusement, but then after a moment seems to rethink, and shakes her head with an embarrassed and amused expression. Mary, who all this time had not reacted very much at all, staring away blankly, suddenly rolls on the floor in spasms of laughter. The last child, Ann, joins her. Lear, whose glasses had almost reached the end of that ample nose, finally relaxes, seeing the reaction in Mary and Ann which he had envisioned from the start. He stands up, takes them by the hand, and walks mvay, wondering where on earth those other children had come from.