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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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The typical nonsense series, strongly signalled by the typography, describes a fight in which all of the participants die violently, yet because the series turns nonsensical, the seriousness and emotional impact are dispelled. Some of the words make sense, some come close, and some are complete nonsense. Though the overall idea here is parodic, lampooning the absurd consequences of heavily moralistic literature, Lear goes beyond parody: the exaggerated consequences of not listening to their parents' advice are almost forgotten in the sheer abundance and absurdity of the nonsense. Only at the end of this enormous sentence, taking up most of the chapter, do we learn of the actual devastation, but at that point the nonsense has at least partially numbed us. And as a crowning touch, Lear adds one of the nonsensical alliterative adjective pairs, discussed earlier, to summarize the incident: "And that was the vicious and voluble end of the Seven young Parrots" (p. 112). Nonsense is present here, but whether it overshadows the parody is not so certain.

Other sets of children meet equally horrible fates, yet in almost every case the final image is mitigated with nonsense. Aside from the nonsense series, Lear also uses faulty logic and misappropriation to soften the parody. When the Plumb-pudding Rea emits a fatally loud bark in the presence of the seven geese "by degrees every one of them suddenly tumbled down quite dead" (p. 114). Here we have the contradictory logic of their falling as "by degrees" and "suddenly." At the climactic point in this chapter, Lear makes the final action ambiguous, thereby taking the edge off of the tragedy. Similarly, when the se\"en guinea pigs all hit their heads together simultaneously, "the concussion brought on directly an incipient transitional inflammation of their noses, which grew... till it incidentally killed them all Seven" (p. 116). Again, at the moment of death the action becomes blurred with nonsense. Such long words, a favourite device with Lear, would be unknown to children, and to adults who are familiar with them, the overall meaning is no clearer. Nor do we understand when the seven owls "all fell superficially" (p. 115) down a well and to their deaths. The alliterative set of adjectives also appears in the context of death. In each fatal case, some nonsense device appears to ease the blow. Nor does this happen in this story only. Rather, nearly every time some kind of violence occurs, whether it is in the limericks or longer verses, it is outweighed by the nonsense. The short section of Lake Pipplepopple which parodies the "animal party" books also uses similar devices to mitigate what is truly a gruesome scene.

The end result of this tug-of-war between parody and nonsense cannot perhaps be determined until the story's ending, which seems to accentuate the parodic elements. After the adults are pickled, they wish to have their bottles labelled "with Parchment or any other anticongenial succedaneum... for the perpetual benefit of the pusillanimous public" (p.

121). This initial burst of nonsense is then tempered by the final anti-moral:

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This final statement shows the utter futility of the parents' enormous sacrifice in the name of moralizing. Their pickled bodies will float unnoticed, among countless other useless artifacts. Compared to the nonsensical ending of Four little Children, in which the journey is abruptly ended, and the rhinoceros which had borne the travellers is stuffed and used as a "Diaphanous Doorscraper" (p. 106), Lake Pipple-popple seems relatively sensible.

Though the nonsense often gains the upper hand within the story, the last statement seems to win the final contest for parody.

Literary nonsense rarely forgets its parodic background: when it does, it is often

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verses and drawings have no apparent order (though the number reminds us of an alphabet) and are a curious mixture of objects and arbitrary causal relationships which have no

known literary precedent. A typical example is as follows:

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While some of the illustrations are amusing, and the outrageous mixtures of objects and events baffle the sense-seeking eye, these verses seem weaker than more referential nonsense, whether in form or content. One of the critics' main objection to Lear's nonsense is that it sometimes diverges too far from sense. This opinion can be seen as far back as the first detailed appraisal of the genre, in ''The Science of Nonsense" from The Spectator of 17 December, 1870. Here the writer objects to Lear's nonsense recipes, claiming they are "a trifle nearer to the grave talk of an idiot asylum, than to the nonsense of sane people" (pp. 1505-6). A similar opinion is voiced by the reviewer of "Mr. Lear's New Nonsense" in The Spectator of 23 December, 1871, in which he labels some of Lear's more fantastic work as "verbal" nonsense, that is, nonsense in which language has no referential function at all. 91 This tradition of criticism has continued into the twentieth century with Orwell, and its result is that most recent criticism ignores non-referential n n en e text, a tudy f which might prove intere ting.

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Literary nonsense often goes far beyond a parody of the source genre or text As Lecercle claims, nonsense texts can be seen as a "refraction," rather than a reflection, of their source(s). In its purest form nonsense declines to comment on its source(s), often using them to further the play between meaning and anti-meaning. Of course, it is impossible to pigeon-hole texts into categories like "parody," "nonsense parody," or "pure nonsense," but there is a gradient of sense-implication which I have tried to follow as a measure of the genre. We can see this paradoxical operation in Lear's limericks, alphabets, and what many consider the "parodies" of Carroll.

For the first twenty-five years of Lear's nonsense publishing career, he was famous for only one form: the limerick. 92 Though it has been claimed to the contrary, Lear did not invent the form, but he did popularize it. In fact, the form seems to be almost as old as the English language, appearing in ageless nursery rhymes like "Hickory Dickory Dock" (which comes very close) and songs as far back as the fourteenth century. It has been used for a wide variety of topics, from the utter nonsense of the "Bedlam" songs of the sixteenth century, to the love poetry of Robert Herrick's "Night-piece: To Julia" (1648).93 In the early nineteenth century the form saw a slight revival, in a few chapbooks, starting with

The History of Sixteen Wonderful Old Women, illustrated by as many engravings:

exhibiting their Principal Eccentricities and Amusements (1820-1 by Harris and Son). This work was followed by a few others, including the one Lear cited as the impetus for his first "nonsenses" (he never called them "limericks''), the Anecdotes and Adventures of Fifteen Gentlemen (1822).94 The popularity of these works was minimal, and the limerick form might have slipped back into limbo had not Lear taken it and made it his own.

However, exactly what Lear did to the limerick is under debate. Because, roughly speaking, they are, ostensibly, absurd imitations of an older form, they could be considered parodies. According to Legman, Lear's limericks are a "clean" bastardization of the time it had not acquired that name. There still is no answer as to the origin of the limerick's fonn 92At or name. For discussion of the limerick's history, see G. Legman, The Limerick: 1700 Limericks covering every bawdy topiC from the 14th century to modern times (London:. G.ranada Publishing, 1964, 1(79) and Cyril Bibby, The Art of the Limerick(London: The Research PublIshing Co., 1978) 93 LegmU1, pp. 7-20.

94Anecdotes and Adventures of Fifteen Gentlemen (London: !'.farshalL 1822).

what has always been, and always should be, a scatological fonn: ''The limerick is, and was, originally, an indecent verse-fonn. The 'clean' sort of limerick is an obvious palliation, its content insipid, its rhyming artificially ingenious, its whole pervaded with a frustrated nonsense that vents itself typically in explosive and aggressive violence.,,95 Marco Graziosi argues against Legman's assertion that the limerick was always an indecent fonn and claims that "Lear invented almost nothing, he simply refined and brought to perfection a fonn that had already had a brief fad in the 1820s....,~6 What is clear is that Lear had a major impact on the limerick fonn, but I would argue that his contribution to the limerick went beyond making it "clean." Lear appropriated the old form and, within this tight structure, created the basis for a new genre.

Comparing a traditional limerick of the 1820s with Lear's limericks will be helpful in illustrating the technical revisions so important in nonsense. Take, for example, one of

the limericks from Fifteen Gentlemen:

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This typical limerick leaves no room for wonder or uncertainty. The illustration perfectly illustrates the text, creating an easy, pleasurable, and mildly humorous experience. The text is a coherent narrative, with all causal relationships explicit, except perhaps the snipe's motivation, which is unimportant. Lear copies this model, which most likely was still in

the minds of his readers, and plays with it, as in the following verse:

95 Legman, p.7.

96Marco Graziosi, 'The Limerick" on Edward Lear Home Page (http://www2.pair.com/mgrazLear/index.html). For more on the history of the li~erick, see ~so H.

Langford Reed, The Complete Limerick Book (New York, London: Jru:ro1ds, 192.); \V.S. ~.anng-GouI~, The Lure of the Limerick. All Ullillhibz:ted f!istoTY (London: Hart-DavIs, 1968), Part. ~e: The ~re ot the I,imerick", and Jean Harrowven, The Llmenck Makers (London: The Research PublIshing Co., 1 )76).

97Quoted in Bibby, p. 3() See Lear ill the Original for Lear's yersion of this. p. 37.


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This limerick, like its "sensible" model, purports to tell a complete story within the confines of the form. The first line establishes the character and place. The second and third lines detail the conditions and "action" of the narrative. By nature of the regular form and the rhyming structure, an expectation is created--an expectation of a sensible outcome or explanation in the last line. Lear, however, posits in the middle lines seemingly unrelated conditions and actions, in this case the attack of midges and the action of reposing and eating veal, which the reader still will expect to be explained in the last line, the "punchline." When the last line does arrive, it seldom supplies the cohesion needed to make "sense" of the seemingly at-odds components. 98 In addition, the last lines of Lear's limericks frequently follow a strict pattern: they repeat the first line, with the addition of an adjective or verb describing the state of the character involved. However, this added adjective or verb often is a nonsense word, a misappropriation, or simply an incongruous or puzzling word in connection with the previous elements. With the man of Three Bridges, we learn he is "relieved," but the cause-- his sitting on a wheel and eating ''underdone veal "-- remains inscrutable. The last lines of Lear's limericks, which, by the standard of the 1820s limericks should show the logical effect of the narrative, are often imultaneous r cognition and di regard for logical, cau al relation hip will b d alt with 10 m rc 9 Lear' d tail in haptcr 7.

inconclusive, circular, contradictory, or simply baffling. As Ann Colley comments, the last line pretends "to move forward from cause to effect. The originality of Lear's verse is that the last line, by repeating the first, undermines the progressive movement of the 1823 models.,99 Nor does the illustration help matters; this limerick, like many others, exhibits a picture/poem discrepancy. The man's arms are spread as injoy, but his face seems to betray that the cloud of midges is still not forgotten. Lear's revisions to his model limericks are extensive. The reader is given both the structure and expectation, based on the standard limerick model, of sense, but Lear refuses to comply. Whether or not such liberties within a "conservative" form constitutes parody, we shall see.

On one hand, there is no question as to whether Lear "mimics" the limericks of the 1820s. His limerick form is closely related in rhyme, in metre, in its insistence on naming an "old" or a "young" person, in giving a location, and even in adopting, what displeases so many limerick fans including Legman, the same-rhyming last line which is found in the first set of limericks, the Sixteen Wonderful Old Women. In fact, Lear makes the form even more restrictive by following these rules, with very little variation, in almost every limerick. Graziosi shows this tight adherence to form by illustrating Lear's limerick "formula" with mathematical variables, precise rhythmic models, and prescriptive functions for each line. 100 Anatomized like this, the limericks appear far more tightly structured, and perhaps limited, than almost any existing verse form. 101 It could be said that such absolute strictness in a way exaggerates, and thus parodies, an already tight form. In addition, the effect of Lear's limericks are often ridiculous in their exaggeration of the relatively tame idiosyncrasies of the subjects from the 1820s limericks. Compare, for example, the Old

Woman at Lynn, from the Sixteen Wonderful Old Women, with one of Lear's limericks:

99Ann Colley, "Edward Lear's Limericks and the Reversals of Nonsense," Victorian Poetry, 29 (1988), 285-299 (p. 293).

1OOGraziosi, on Edward Lear Home Page.

101 Wim Tigges has presuasively argued that the limerick ~an be regarded the "sonnet o~ n?nscns~," in i.t~ strict structure, implication of expected theme, and content s transcendence of the foml, III 'The Llmenck.

The Sonnet of Nonsense?" Dutch Quarter/v Revielv, 16 (1986), 220-236.

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102 rom a partial facsimile of The History of lxteen Wonderful Old Women. illustrated by ali mall)' n ravings; exhibitillg their principal eccentricities wId amusements (London: Ham and son. HeO) in onard De Vrie, Flowers of Delight ( nd n: D nni bson, 19 5), P 11

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