«Heyman, Michael Benjamin (1999) Isles of Boshen : Edward Lear's literary nonsense in context. PhD thesis. Copyright and ...»
The children of this scene react hypothetically according to all we have observed from the theories and literature which created them. It now comes as no surprise that of the constructed children who gathered around Lear, Alfred, the child of Locke's theories, is the first to react, and the one whose disapproval is strongest; he experiences a flash of amusement, a reflexive return to memories of a childhood which he no\v sees as mostly useless and worthless. Emile, whose imagination has been discouraged from birth, cannot understand the appeal of this writing. It serves no purpose, illustrating situations contrary to his experiences of nature. He does not recognize the references to other children' s literature because he has only been allowed to read Robinson Crusoe. Edwin, the utilitarian child, reacts in a similar way. He appreciates the external non-conformity of the characters in the face of "them," just as Emile did, but the unreality and uselessness.
coupled with his stunted imagination, inhibit him from appreciating nonsense. The illustrations confuse him because they do not faithfully represent the text; they seem childish scrawlings which inhibit his desperate, but failing attempt to find the moral.
Catherine, the child of the Lambs' more progressive h1rs. Leicester '5."'iellOol, appreciates
derive partly from the child created by Rousseau's theories. Rousseau's construct presents the child's attributes more as a result of the child's vacuity, and lack of mental capacity and ability. Thus, a child's responses have no validity--they are empty actions of a thoughtless creature. When these children imagine, laugh, aspire beyond their limitations, or have any other response associated only with childhood, it is only a negative good, one without any real basis. Locke, Rousseau, Edgeworth, Godwin, and even the Lambs were trying to make "sense" of childhood, to contain it within a state from which it could then be moulded according to the "elevated" standards of adults.
Mary, the Romantic child, responds similarly to Ann, the nonsense child, to all the devices and themes of nonsense. Her temporary inactivity is what Edgeworth calls "reverie," but now in Mary is exalted, being the divine imagination, forming paradoxical visions of other worlds. Her imaginings are individual, restrained by no conventions either external or internal. She is "wild" and unpredictable, and laughs to see her reflection in nonsense. But most importantly, her reactions have a positive basis. Her imagination is not idle daydreaming, but the divine creative force, to which her proximity to God entitles her. Her characteristics are evidence of a "fullness" present in childhood, a positive ability justifying and exalting all her actions. She represents a childhood state of innocence and imagination that is higher than adulthood's conformity and domesticity, a state from which adults inevitably and unfortunately fall, though they retain some of the "earlier-gained treasures" which are the real energy and force behind existence, As a child, i\1ary would never understand these reactions to nonsense, nor would she feel any discrepancy between
constructs. This Romantic child and the nonsense child are sisters in that, though they have their differences, they are both reactions to the portrayal of the child in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Whether in political, economic, social, or religious contexts, the child was dissected and re( -)formed in order to serve the purpose of the moment. In children's literature and educational theory, Lockean and Rousseauistic theories clashed, but the resulting combinations of the child-image formed the basis of the rational, sensible, predictable, and profitable human being. Wollstonecraft and Gexh\in, Day and Edgeworth--all assumed that if only the nature of the child could be known and displayed, surely education could be reformed and possibly the future of humanity could come closer to the ideal. The child has been paid no less attention by Blake, Wordsworth,
and Coleridge, yet its worth lay in its breaking of rules, rather than in its adherence to them:
its mystery is its value, a mystery which an adult must forever perceive from the other side of Blake's visionary river, or from Wordsworth's distant inland spot away from the shore of the infinite ocean. The nonsense child resembles this child, yet lacks the sense of direction given by the Romantics. Because nonsense, unlike nature's teaching no matter how "promiscuous" it seems, does not come back around to sense, the nonsense child remains, at best, in a blissful state beyond our comprehension.
The creation of the nonsensical child brings us back to the opening question 'I thIS thesis concerning the cause of literary nonsense's isolated historical pOSItion as a children' S genre. Lear's immense popularity in mid- to late-Victorian England sho\\s that his historically constructed intended reader was indeed close to the real audicnn' of the tllnc.
books while simultaneously being tied to them. Some contemporary critics would simply give up when they tried to describe his work, such as Sidney Colvin in his reyiew of,\fort?
Nonsense, Pictures, Rhymes, Botany, &c. (1872) in The Academy: In this review, which gives considerable space to other authors such as Rossetti and MacDonald, Lear is only given a paragraph, which begins, and nearly ends, with "A stout, jovial book of Afore Nonsense, by Mr. Edward Lear, transcends criticism as usual. "448 Add to this Lear's implied recognition of the new child construct from the Romantics, and the reason for the genre's rise in the child's domain becomes clearer.
We are now left with the question of the genre's partial departure from children's literature and re-emergence in the adult world. While Lear's books were immensely popular--his A Book of Nonsense went into fifteen reprints in his lifetime--they have undoubtedly lost some of their appeal today.449 In addition, many adults nowaday's admit that Lear has never quite appealed to them; his nonsense can seem far more puzzling, or even boring, than humorous to a modem audience. That children (and adults) today do not find him as appealing perhaps exposes his construct of the child, and literary nonsense itself, as time-bound, restricted to the literary and historical conventions of its day. For this same reason we cannot now read Taylor's seventeenth-century nonsense without much
and creativity. Children today are thus far less likely to notice what now seem to be the somewhat tame rhymes and plain illustrations of Lear. What once appeared to be open rebellion in the dull world of children's literature now, to some, appears dull itself. The decline of Lear's popularity, it seems, has partially been caused by the culturally and historically specific reader.
As we have seen, literary nonsense usually clings to and rebels against some kind of contemporary, literary frame of reference. It seems that once the climate of children's literature had improved--after the popularity of Carroll and the new freedom it entailed-there was no longer sufficient fuel for nonsense as children's literature. The world had begun to shift, becoming more serious, and more bloody, and nonsense was taken back to the adult world. Its potential for subversion was rediscovered and redirected. Nonsense filtered into surrealism, existentialism, and the absurd, in the questioning of reality and modem existence. Its tendency towards meaninglessness was exploited by Edward Gorey, whose nonsense drains away all optimism from its Victorian predecessor, leaving only a tainted ennui. It became a tool for such writers as Stein, Joyce, and Stevens by which they could question the efficacy of language. Of course, it has never disappeared entirely from children's literature, and its ability to remain, in however diminished a state, reveals that we can we still enjoy Lear's nonsense even if we can never be the historically (If textually constructed implied reader.
Lear's writing is still available, in one form or another, which cannot be said of almost any of the children's versifiers of his time: it is hard to imagine today's (hlldren (or adults) reading the Taylor sisters, the Lambs, or Margaret Gatty, yet Lear's works somehow manage to hold their place in the canon of children's literature, (X'G1Sl(lllally being reprinted alone, with Carroll's Yerse, or in anthologies, and usually \\ Ith new illustrations. Gyles Brandreth, in a recent volume of nonsense, writes a telling tribute to Lear in his acknowledgments, "My principal debt, of course, is to the genius of Edward Lear, the first of the great nonsense writers and, in my view, the greatest. "450 Wolff's historical intended reader of Lear's nonsense no longer exists, but enough of an audience still does to maintain Lear's influence. This phenomenon may be explainable on the historical side, simply because literary nonsense is only partially a historical construct.
Nonsense devices themselves are not bound to anything temporal--they can be applied to any genre with relatively equal effectiveness. We may no longer see all the humour of Lear's botanical drawings, as botanical illustration has gone out of vogue, but such techniques could be applied to superhero comics, Teletubbies, or contemporary political cartoons, for example. It is only once the nonsense devices have been applied that the result usually is to some extent time-bound. Additionally, in Iser's textual terms, it appear~ that the genre has been and still is effective exactly because we can never be thc true nonsense reader construct. This construct is the non-existent co-conspirator in the play of nonsense, the listener in the above scenario who can provide the missing sensc-context.
As long as she is never found, she and the genre will remain nonsense creations.
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