In many languages, it is said, there is no nonsense poetry, and there is
not a great deal of it even in English. The bulk of it is in nursery
rhymes and scraps of folk poetry, some of which may not have been
strictly nonsensical at the start, but have become so because their
original application has been forgotten. For example, the rhyme about
See-saw, Margery Daw,
Dobbin shall have a new master.
He shall have but a penny a day
Because he can't go any faster.
Or the other version that I learned in Oxfordshire as a little boy:
See-saw, Margery Daw,
Sold her bed and lay upon straw.
Wasn't she a silly slut
To sell her bed and lie upon dirt?
It may be that there was once a real person called Margery Daw, and
perhaps there was even a Dobbin who somehow came into the story. When
Shakespeare makes Edgar in KING LEAR quote "Pillicock sat on Pillicock
hill", and similar fragments, he is uttering nonsense, but no doubt these
fragments come from forgotten ballads in which they once had a meaning.
The typical scrap of folk poetry which one quotes almost unconsciously is
not exactly nonsense but a sort of musical comment on some recurring
event, such as "One a penny, two a penny, Hot-Cross buns", or "Polly, put
the kettle on, we'll all have tea". Some of these seemingly frivolous
rhymes actually express a deeply pessimistic view of life, the churchyard
wisdom of the peasant. For instance:
Born on Monday,
Christened on Tuesday,
Married on Wednesday,
Took ill on Thursday,
Worse on Friday,
Died on Saturday,
Buried on Sunday,
And that was the end of Solomon Grundy.
which is a gloomy story, but remarkably similar to yours or mine.
Until Surrealism made a deliberate raid on the unconscious, poetry that
aimed at being nonsense, apart from the meaningless refrains of songs,
does not seem to have been common. This gives a special position to
Edward Lear, whose nonsense rhymes have just been edited by Mr R.L.
Megroz, who was also responsible for the Penguin edition a year
or two before the war. Lear was one of the first writers to deal
in pure fantasy, with imaginary countries and made-up words, without
any satirical purpose. His poems are not all of them equally
nonsensical; some of them get their effect by a perversion
of logic, but they are all alike in that their underlying feeling is sad
and not bitter. They express a kind of amiable lunacy, a natural sympathy
with whatever is weak and absurd. Lear could fairly be called the
originator of the limerick, though verses in almost the same metrical
form are to be found in earlier writers, and what is sometimes considered
a weakness in his limericks--that is, the fact that the rhyme is the same
in the first and last lines--is part of their charm. The very slight
change increases the impression of ineffectuality, which might be spoiled
if there were some striking surprise. For example:
There was a young lady of Portugal
Whose ideas were excessively nautical;
She climbed up a tree
To examine the sea,
But declared she would never leave Portugal.
It is significant that almost no limericks since Lear's have been both
printable and funny enough to seem worth quoting. But he is really seen
at his best in certain longer poems, such as "The Owl and the Pussy-Cat"
or "The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò":
On the Coast of Coromandel,
Where the early pumpkins blow,
In the middle of the woods
Lived the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò.
Two old chairs, and half a candle
One old jug without a handle
These were all his worldly goods:
In the middle of the woods,
These were all the worldly goods
Of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò,
Of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò.
Later there appears a lady with some white Dorking hens, and an
inconclusive love affair follows. Mr Megroz thinks, plausibly enough,
that this may refer to some incident in Lear's own life. He never
married, and it is easy to guess that there was something seriously wrong
in his sex life. A psychiatrist could no doubt find all kinds of
significance in his drawings and in the recurrence of certain made-up
words such as "runcible". His health was bad, and as he was the youngest
of twenty-one children in a poor family, he must have known anxiety and
hardship in very early life. It is clear that he was unhappy and by
nature solitary, in spite of having good friends.
Aldous Huxley, in praising Lear's fantasies as a sort of assertion of
freedom, has pointed out that the "They" of the limericks represent
common sense, legality and the duller virtues generally. "They" are the
realists, the practical men, the sober citizens in bowler hats who are
always anxious to stop you doing anything worth doing. For instance:
There was an Old Man of Whitehaven,
Who danced a quadrille with a raven;
But they said, "It's absurd
To encourage this bird!"
So they smashed that Old Man of Whitehaven.
To smash somebody just for dancing a quadrille with a raven is exactly
the kind of thing that "They" would do. Herbert Read has also praised
Lear, and is inclined to prefer his verse to that of Lewis Carroll, as
being purer fantasy. For myself, I must say that I find Lear funniest
when he is least arbitrary and when a touch of burlesque or perverted
logic makes its appearance. When he gives his fancy free play, as in his
imaginary names, or in things like "Three Receipts for Domestic Cookery",
he can be silly and tiresome. "The Pobble Who Has No Toes" is haunted by
the ghost of logic, and I think it is the element of sense in it that
makes it funny. The Pobble, it may be remembered, went fishing in the
And all the Sailors and Admirals cried,
When they saw him nearing the further side--
"He has gone to fish, for his Aunt Jobiska's
Runcible Cat with crimson whiskers!"
The thing that is funny here is the burlesque touch, the Admirals. What
is arbitrary--the word "runcible", and the cat's crimson whiskers--is
merely rather embarrassing. While the Pobble was in the water some
unidentified creatures came and ate his toes off, and when he got home
his aunt remarked:
"It's a fact the whole world knows,
That Pobbles are happier without their toes,"
which once again is funny because it has a meaning, and one might even
say a political significance. For the whole theory of authoritarian
governments is summed up in the statement that Pobbles were happier
without their toes. So also with the well-known limerick:
There was an Old Person of Basing,
Whose presence of mind was amazing;
He purchased a steed,
Which he rode at full speed,
And escaped from the people of Basing.
It is not quite arbitrary. The funniness is in the gentle implied
criticism of the people of Basing, who once again are "They", the
respectable ones, the right-thinking, art-hating majority.
The writer closest to Lear among his contemporaries was Lewis Carroll,
who, however, was less essentially fantastic--and, in my opinion, funnier.
Since then, as Mr Megroz points out in his Introduction, Lear's influence
has been considerable, but it is hard to believe that it has been
altogether good. The silly whimsiness of present-day children's books
could perhaps be partly traced back to him. At any rate, the idea of
deliberately setting out to write nonsense, though it came off in Lear's
case, is a doubtful one. Probably the best nonsense poetry is produced
gradually and accidentally, by communities rather than by individuals. As
a comic draughtsman, on the other hand, Lear's influence must have been
beneficial. James Thurber, for instance, must surely owe something to
Lear, directly or indirectly.