«Heyman, Michael Benjamin (1999) Isles of Boshen : Edward Lear's literary nonsense in context. PhD thesis. Copyright and ...»
Several of Lear's alphabets are not nonsensical at all and only mildly humorous. In his Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany, and Alphabet (1871) we see an example of the
standard a1 phabet:
60Darton, p. 60.
610pie, pp. 48-50.
62Percy Muir, English Children's Books. 1600-1900 (London: B.T. Batsford, 195+), p. 220 63 The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear, ed. H~lbrook. Jac~son (New York: Dover, 194""), p.l3l. All Lear's poems, unless otherwise noted, are quoted from this editIon.
This alphabet continues in this light way, rarely approaching anything like true nonsense.
One of the possible exceptions is the verse for "P," a small pig, "But his tail was too curly, / And that made him surly" (p. 134). Here we see a glimmer of the nonsense logic so
common in the limericks. Again, in the rhyme for "S," light nonsense appears:
The nursery-type nonsense, "nippity nee," has no other function than to create satisfying rhythm and rhyme. Taken out of the context of the highly formulaic limerick, with its inherent structural order and expected narrative coherence, such babble does not rise to true nonsense. The picture and rhyme for 'X', the ever-present King Xerxes, are also amusing, with the stretched rhyme of "Xerxes" with ''Turks is." Though the letters "P" and "S" approach nonsense, they fall far short. The reader sees this alphabet as one among many such mildly humorous alphabets. Even the "Xerxes" rhyme, one of the more amusing ones, can be seen as a slight parody of traditional alphabet form, such as in A
Little Book/or Little Children, around 1703, in which "X," next to a sober woodcut, is:
"Xerxes the Prince was great, / and nobly born. "64 Two other of Lear's alphabets follow a similar path of normalcy, one starting with "A was an ape" (1871) and the other more prosaic-sounding "A was an Area Arch" (1877). These alphabets are conventional imitations, with only the slightest hints of parody and nonsense.
Much of Lear's nonsense is imitative not just of genre, but also of specific works.
From vague references to significant borrowing, literary nonsense is created in the image of a variety of other texts. Lear's The Courtship o/the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo, for instance, has a rich background in ancient Mummer's plays, and probably in Tennyson and Wordsworth. A Mummer's play from Great Wolford, Warwickshire has "Fidler Wit," a
foolish character, recite the following lines:
64Muir, English Children's Books, p. 38.
This greatly resembles Lear's big-headed character whose riches amount to ''Two old chairs, and half a candle,-- / One old jug without a handle" (11. 5-6). The sound and rhythm of Lear's poem also bears some resemblance to Tennyson's "'Frater Ave atque Vale'," while the image of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo going to sea on a turtle's shell is surprisingly similar to the protagonist's flight in Wordsworth's ''The Blind Highland Boy."
Another instance of intertextuality is in Lear's The Dong with a Luminous Nose, which borrows much of its plot, rhythm, images, and sound quality from Thomas Moore's A
Ballad: The Lake a/the Dismal Swamp, the first two stanzas of which are as follows:
A young man goes insane after the death of his lover, and he searches for her in the Dismal Swamp, where he expects to see her lamp. Through difficulty he finally finds her "meteor bright," much like the Dong's "Meteor strange and bright," and, so the legend goes, the couple are reunited. At midnight both the doomed couple and the Dong can been seen by their moving light. Of course, in Moore's tale the couple join in a ghostly reunion, but the 65R.J.E. Tiddy. The Mummer's Play (Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1923), pp. 230-1.
66S poken by the "young man." I have modernized the quotation marks. In The Poetical Works oj Thomas Moore, collected by himself, 10 volunles (London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green. & Longmans, 1840), n.223-2--l.
likeness of these poems is more than coincidental. The Dong also resembles forsaken figures like Tennyson's Mariana, whom Lear often echoes in his diaries,67 and especially Wordsworth's Margaret in The Ruined Cottage, who wanders the wilds after haYing lost
her eldest child:
In this aimless wandering she resembles the Dong who, after the Jumbly girl leaves him, "arose and said;-- / 'What little sense I once possessed / Has quite gone out of my head!' --" The Dong also searches in deluded hope, as he "seeks in vain / To meet with his Jumbly Girl again." Echoes like those found in The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo and The Dong with a Luminous Nose are common, and often noted by critics. Elizabeth Sewell finds Spenser's Epithalamion and Milton's Comus in The Dong and The Owl and the Pussy-cat, and nursery rhymes in The lumblies (1871), while Thomas Byrom finds echoes from Shakespeare, Gray, Bums, Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson, and Arnold in Lear's "Cold are the Crabs. ''68 I do not have the space here to list all of Lear's referential nonsense, and the specific implications of it do not concern this thesis; they could easily constitute a separate study. In all of these textual references, whether direct, distant, or coincidental, Lear betrays, among many things, his love for Romantic melancholy and for the solitary. His intertextual references add to the richness of his texts but are usually understated or vague enough not to be easily noticed, and far from indicating parody, they usually show a deep respect for the spirit of the original, often startling us into seeing the close thematic similarities of the echoed poems and nonsense.
When Lear chose to create an unequivocal parody, it differed significantly from his attempts at non-parodic children's literature and nonsense. In fact, some of his straightforward parodies came in the form of humorous illustrations to the popular ballads which he himself sang throughout the drawing-rooms of well-to-do Victorian society. Lear 67Lear, in ill-health, writes in his diary for February, 1866, "He only said--my life is ugly-- / \ly life's a bore he sai d. " 68S ew dl, pp. 6-1--69; Byrom, p. 230.
illustrates many of these songs, often providing parody by making ridiculous the serious sentiments therein. In his parody of William Mee's "Alice Gray" (1815~ also parodied by Carroll in 1855), Lear's joke, which is no longer very funny, is to portray Alice as a scrawny black woman, wearing the fashionable gear of the day. Her suitor mourns her profusely, and in Lear's close-up drawing of her face, we see the contrast between the lyrical text and the ugly illustration.
Lear's exaggerated inversion of the beautiful Alice Gray makes the poem, and its melodramatic genre, quite absurd. The parody consciously engages with the conventions of the genre and explodes them by showing the inappropriateness of the poem's subject.
A similar device is used in Lear's illustrations for Thomas Moore's "Rich and Rare were the Gems She Wore" (1807). The subject of the poem, a beautiful young woman who fearlessly displays her beauty and her wealth on "this bleak way," is drawn by Lear as an old hag, whose "rich and rare" gems consist of a huge ring through her bulbous no e, 9Lear ill/he Original, p. 145.
an outrageously large earring, and other absurd adornments. The last drawing, of the line "On she went & her maiden smile" shows the old woman striding away, cane in hand, flashing a particularly devious and altogether un-maidenly smile.
These series of illustrations directly engage and negatively criticize the poem's subject, as well as the style and genre.
Outright parody also occurs in some of Lear's alphabets, such as the alphabet starting "A tumbled down, and hurt his Arm.... " This alphabet is modelled after one which was well-known in 1671, starting "A was an apple-pie; / B bit it, / C cut it, D dealt it,.... " The old version continues in this way, each letter having something to do with the applepie. Again, such an old alphabet is relevant here, as it was very popular in the nineteenth
century, and is still being reprinted. 70 Lear wrote an alphabet in a similar vein:
70 pi, pp. 47--+8.
if only it would wink.'" and "W said, 'Some Whisky-Whizzgigs fetch, some marbles and a ball! '" These small instances of nonsense-like levity are amusing, but do not mark the alphabet as anything other than what it claims to be; however, they hint at the culminating
joke of this alphabet. After all the letters offer their advice, we hear from ''Z'':
Here, in the true colours of parody, Lear turns the rhyme upon itself, with the last letter finally fed up with this never-ending good advice and kindness. "Z" lashes out, creating, true to the definitions of parody, "a ridiculous effect" by way of commenting directly on the form and content of this traditional alphabet.
Carroll also participated in definite moments of parody, particularly in some of his early poetry. Like Lear, Carroll was raised on the popular children's literature of the nineteenth century. Throughout his life, the Reverend Dodgson himself wrote many morally and religiously didactic verses in the same vein as the ones he seems to mock in his parodies and nonsense as "Lewis Carroll." This apparent contradiction in ideology and method cannot be reconciled, nor need it be, but it can provide a clue as to the functional ambiguities of some of his imitations. While the literary nonsense of Lear and Carroll breaks out of the rigidly edifying conventions of children's literature, their parodies speak more directly in criticism and mockery, and they do this with little or no use of nonsense, even as a device. Carroll's "Brother and Sister," written when he was fifteen years old, is
a typical example of didactic verse parody:
The poem continues, with the brother asking the cook for a pan to cook his sister in an Irish stew. After the cook refuses, we are given the ridiculous moral: "Never stew your.I sister." Compare these sibling relations with the conventional ones portrayed in The Parent's Cabinet of Amusement and Instruction, of 1834: in a piece called ''Toast and Tea" two brothers amicably share their treat: ''Their father used to give to each of the boys a share. But each boy did not eat his own. The fun was for each to share with the other" (p.
191). In showing vicious, unrepentant, and unpunished children, Carroll parodies the whole genre of moralistic, didactic children's literature, portraying absurdly good children.
Carroll wrote many other parodies, including ones imitating Old and Middle English, such as the famous "Jabberwocky" (originally "Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry") and "Ye Carpette Knyghte" in Phantasmagoria (1869).
In the Wonderland version of Watts's "Against Idleness and Mischief" Carroll gives us a verse closely related in structure and meaning to Watts's original. Watts's poem, from his Divine Songs for Children (1715) begins,
The poem, like all of Watts's verse for children, is a moral lesson. It teaches us that idleness leads to evil, which is a sentiment Dodgson approved of in other works.73
Nevertheless, Wonderland causes Alice to recite this poem quite differently:
71 From The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll (London: Nonesuch Press, 1940) p. 782.
72Issac Watts, Divine and Moral Songs for Children (London: Sampson Low, Son, and Marston, 1866), Moral Songs, Song XX.
73S ee his introduction to Sylvie and Bruno (1889), in which he proposes to write a "Child's Bible" and a book of Bible selections which would, during times of idleness, "help keep at hay many an--uous thoughts.
worrying thoughts, uncharitable thoughts, unholy thoughts" (Carroll, Complete, p. 282)
Carroll's version is quite close structurally to the original. In the first line only the animal in question is replaced, while the succeeding lines follow fairly closely the syntax of Watts.
However, he replaces the signifiers of the old version and creates a new, though related description. Linda Shires notes, "By... supplying new signifiers for his poetic formula, Carroll calls Watts's words into question.... he mocks the moral and parodies the process of moralizing" (p. 275). I would argue, however, that the aim of this parody is not Watts's moral, "do not be idle" so much as it is the genre in which he wrote. The result is anything but nonsense: the crocodile beautifies himself in order to attract his meal of fish.
In this light, it falls particularly under the label of parody according to Bex, who asserts that parody is almost always directed towards genre rather than individual texts or authors (p. 226). Here, in a moralistic frame, cleanliness is promoted, but only as a deceitful and cunning ploy to kill fish. This goes against one of the most popular themes of children's literature, kindness to animals, not to mention the evils of lying and vanity, also among the most popular themes of the day. In nearly every nineteenth-century work for children, as well as the many earlier works still popular, these three themes would have been found, and the audience of both children and adults would probably have been shocked or amused at such a contrary treatment of moral transgressions. The structural similarity, along with the direct thematic relevance to the genre, place this in the category of parody.