Edward Lear: Destruction

Edward Lear & The Victorian Nursery

A revolutionary figure in the history of English language children’s literature, Edward Lear exploded the conventions of the Victorian nursery and replaced the relentless didacticism of Isaac Watts and Charles and Mary Lamb with what George Orwell has termed a “poltergeist interference with common sense.” [1] In his lifetime, Lear attracted the attention of Tennyson, Ruskin, Wilkie Collins and Queen Victoria. During the Twentieth Century, George Orwell, G.K. Chesterton and Anthony Burgess penned their appreciation of Lear. And yet, in the Twenty First Century, Lear’s legacy has been overshadowed by that of another influential titan of Victorian children’s literature, Lewis Carroll. Apart from “The Owl and the Pussy-cat,” few of Lear’s works are widely known today, and – compared to the kaleidoscopic infinities of Carrolliana – Lear remains largely untouched by academia and Hollywood alike. And yet, without Edward Lear, the trajectory of modern English language children’s literature would have been quite different. To celebrate the 205th anniversary of Lear’s birth, and the recent 170th anniversary of A Book of Nonsense (1846), I offer here a reappraisal of Lear’s poetry, from his earliest limericks to his final nonsense songs.

More than a century after its composition, the Rev. Isaac Watts’ Divine Songs Attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children (1715), remained a favourite in the Victorian nursery, and children’s books like the Peter Parley series, which “asserted the importance of factual information for young readers” [2] were favoured above any flights of imaginative fancy. Caught in Rousseau’s much-despised “pedantic craze,” [3] their message was uncompromisingly utilitarian. Children’s literature was expected to espouse Victorian ideals of diligence, piety, hygiene and Christian virtue. Indeed, as Dennis Butts writes, “the rising middle classes … [had] built their lives upon a combination of Puritan morality and economic ambition, believing in … prudence and self-help and an authoritarian view of society in general.” [4]

But this authoritarianism would not go unchallenged, and a voice of scepticism emerged in most unlikely quarters, the nursery. As Humphrey Carpenter writes:

“[A] lone voice was beginning to mutter, chiefly into the ears of children. Its message was that the public world was vindictive and intolerant … that the man of vision, the true artist, must alienate himself from society and pursue a private dream.” [5]

Children’s literature presented a young Edward Lear with the perfect vehicle for his subversive dreams. It began privately, with poems composed to amuse Lear himself, like-minded adults, and their assorted child friends. What began as a private shorthand between intimates soon became a code for misfits and outsiders everywhere. [6]

Lear’s Cosmic Saturnalia

With its excess of violence and carnivalesque inversions, Lear’s nonsense was more closely related to the popular culture of the medieval and Victorian street, than to the didactic literatures of the nursery, and G.K. Chesterton’s description of Lear’s nonsense as “a sort of cosmic Saturnalia or season when anything may happen,” [7] echoes Bakhtin’s analysis of medieval and Renaissance folk forms in Rabelais & His World. Despite Noel Malcolm’s objection to the “Bakhtinian argument,” [8] Lear prominently acknowledged his debt to such tradition, having published A Book of Nonsense pseudonymously as “Old Derry down Derry” – a character from the mummers’ plays – making the connection between his nonsense and folk tradition inevitable. Lear’s autobiographical limerick about the Derry down Derry, the first poem in A Book of Nonsense, states the fundamental aims of his poetry. [9]

There was an old Derry down Derry,

Who loved to see little folks merry;

So he made them a Book,

And with laughter they shook,

At the fun of that Derry down Derry!

From the outset, Lear set himself in opposition to the Rev. Isaac Watts and Charles and Mary Lamb, the moral giants of the Victorian nursery. The Derry does not write because he desires the “all-endearing cleanliness” [10] of the Lambs, nor, like Watts, to teach children to “love working and reading.” [11] Rather, the old Derry writes because he “loved to see little folks merry”. In Lear’s illustration, the Derry stands amid a throng of delighted children. He may be fat, balding and wearing the suit of a gentleman, yet his leg is kicking, and his arm waving. Just like the children.

From San Remo, Italy, in 1871, Lear wrote that “if a man ain’t able to do any great service to his fellow critters, it is better wie nicht [than nothing] to make half a million of children laugh innocently.” [12] As in William Blake’s “Laughing Song” in Songs of Innocence (1789), “the sweet chorus of ‘Ha, Ha, He’” is paramount. [13] Blake’s rhymes, like Lear’s, were written at the behest of one child, so that “every child may joy to hear.” [14] For all the wide-ranging interests of Lear’s poetry, this remains his fundamental concern until the end.

Lear was, of course, conscious of the appeal his work held for many adults, and it was through his poetry that Lear formed friendships with many prominent Victorians. He sent an early manuscript of “Uncle Arly” to Wilkie Collins, [15] with whom he had a long friendship, likewise the Tennysons, and Lear was justly proud when Ruskin named A Book of Nonsense his favourite book. Yet Lear remained sceptical of any critical attempt to “explain” his poetry, and objected that “critics are very silly to see politics in such bosh.” [16] Yet here, as ever, Lear underestimated himself, failing to see that the mere creation of his poetry was, in itself, a political and disruptive act.

Like Lewis Carroll, extemporising Alice’s Adventures Underground on the banks of the Thames to the Liddell girls, Lear literally knew his audience. The limericks of A Book of Nonsense were originally written to amuse the children of Lord Stanley, Earl of Derby, in whose home Lear lived and worked as an ornithological draughtsman between 1830 and 1837. Like all good anthropologists, Lear dwelt among his tribe. If adult language in Victorian England was governed by grammar, decorum, and immutability, then its presence in the childhood realm appeared exuberant, dynamic and malleable. [17] Functioning beyond the lexical matrices of social convention, nonsense “allows for what could be called a second, more sophisticated babbling stage.” [18] Ironically, language offered Lear and his readers an escape from Language.

Jean-Jacques Lecercle has argued that “nonsense … [is merely] the negative moment in the pedagogic dialectics of the acquisition by the child of good manners,” and insists that “the moral of nonsense” actually lies in a reassertion of dominant linguistic paradigms. [19] To me, this misses the subtlety of Lear’s nonsense. Indeed, as Marnie Parsons contends, “concluding that Nonsense is un-revolutionary because it supports syntactical rules misses the ripe possibility of turning a binary into a tertiary, of seeing the revolution in Nonsense inherent in its occupation of a terrain between subversion and support.” [20]

That is a challenge of Lear’s nonsense, as it elevates the word through the very act of destabilising words. Thus, Lear’s nonce words paradoxically achieve iconic status, even as they act as agents of iconoclasm. And yet, for some, even the value of nonsense is contested. In an essay that he admits “will make me enemies,” Anthony Burgess once argued that Lear’s longer poems “are spoilt by nonsense words”. It is a devilish assertion. Disliking the disruptive influence of nonsense upon the poem’s internal logic, Burgess contends that, “[T]he runcible spoon is the one flaw in the otherwise perfectly visualized ‘Owl and the Pussy-cat’. Carroll’s neologisms, like Joyce’s, are polysemantic and delight through a witty counterpoint of meanings; Lear’s are evasive. If both a hat and a spoon can be runcible, runcible means nothing. Even nonsense verse should be more than glossolalia.” [21] Orwell agrees, once describing the “runcible cat” in “The Pobble Who Has No Toes” [22] as “arbitrary” and “rather embarrassing.” [23]

One can at least understand their difficulty. In the “real world”, a word is legislated by the thing it describes. Meanings may change, yet dictionaries, schoolmasters and social propriety conspire to keep them stable. Even the nadsat of Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange is only nonsensical until decoded. This is not the case in a nonsense poem. What, after all, is an “amblongus”? [24] What do the “Timskoop Hills” look like? [25] How, indeed, can both a hat and a spoon and a cat be “runcible”? With few exceptions, Lear never illustrated these objects. They are “evasive”, and exist only as sound and letter.

Certainly, Lear’s poetry lacks the obvious, pedagogical, cleverness of Carroll’s nonsense, which may partially explain why he is often marginalised, even in studies of nonsense. [26] Where Carroll composed with the calculated cunning of a mathematician’s mind, Lear’s poetry is informed by his artist’s eye. Unlike Carroll, who preferred portmanteau constructions, Lear’s nonsense does not invite close analysis as, for instance, “Jabberwocky” may. Yet in the absence of Burgess’ “polysemantics”, in Lear sound becomes meaning. Far from being a failure, Lear’s nonce words are empowering and engage the reader in a complex linguistic transaction. The meaning of “runcible” is located in the space between sound and thought, and not in the pages of a dictionary, or classroom primer.

Perhaps most importantly, why should “evasiveness” of meaning equate with “nothing”? As Bakhtin observed, the “carnival experience” is “opposed to all that [is] ready-made and completed, to all pretence at immutability … a dynamic expression, it demand[s] ever changing, playful, undefined forms.” [27] Within the context of Lear’s carnival subversion of linguistic paradigms, “runcible” can mean whatever Lear (or the child reader) wants it to mean. Humpty Dumpty’s conclusion in Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass is identical. In his famous piece of nonsense exegesis, Humpty Dumpty explains, “when I use a word … it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” [28] Indeed, as Lecercle concedes, “we are interested to know the local intentional meaning [of a nonsense word, but] … we can do without it if we must.” [29]

The Trouble With Limericks

Lear’s first nonsense reached British bookshelves in 1846. Consisting entirely of limericks, A Book of Nonsense would become a favourite in the Victorian nursery. Given his early private successes with long-form nonsense, it is worth asking why Lear was drawn to the limerick at all. [30] Not until 1870 did Lear publicly explore the possibilities of longer nonsense. Much critical debate hinges on Lear’s curious habit of concluding the final line of his limericks with the last word of the first line. Anthony Burgess has contended that:

“[W]ithout the drawings … the rhymes are not much … most people only pretend to like the limericks … Lear lets the form down by making the last line a feeble near-reprise of the first, and the usual excuse – that repetition expresses the hopelessness of the invariable eccentric set upon by ‘They’ – is offered because one must not be nasty to poor Mr Lear.” [31]

George Orwell, on the other hand, argues that the reprise is “part of their charm. The very slight change increases the impression of ineffectuality, which might be spoiled if there were some striking surprise.” [32] Arguably, the obscenity appended to the final line of ribald limericks detracts from the overall effect of the poetry, thus placing excessive rhetorical weight on one line.

Lear takes full advantage of his formal decision, and in ninety-two of the limericks in A Book of Nonsense the repeated word is a place name, thereby creating links between a character’s fate and place of origin. (In only one of the limericks involving a death is this not the case). With destiny shaped by looming rhyme, the future becomes inevitable, thus the Old Person of Tartary “divided his jugular artery,[33] the Old Person of Ems “fell in the Thames,[34] and the Lady of Clare was “pursued by a bear.[35] Precious few place names rhyming with “happily ever after,” Lear’s characters are instead enmeshed in the tyranny of rhyme, his nonsense prophets finding ruin, not honour, among their kin.

Rather than rely upon an expletive for additional humour and surprise, Lear favours a Blakean juxtaposition of text and image, so giving his illustrations, as Thomas Dilworth notes, “equality with and often primacy over the text.” [36] Whereas John Tenniel’s illustrations materialise Carroll’s world, Lear’s own drawings often contradict his text. For example, although Lear writes that the Old Man of Ancona “found a small dog with no owner,” the dog, as drawn, is gargantuan and threatening. [37] Lear subverts the authority of his own text, even as he adheres to a self-consciously restrictive formal paradigm.

Linguistic Violence

This tendency is reflected in Lear’s nonsense alphabets, cookery, and botanies too (not to mention his outrageous spelling habits). Like the limerick, these forms superficially satisfy the taxonomical mandate of the rational Victorian mind, whilst simultaneously indulging in the wildest nonsense, and allow Lear to expose the destructive forces inherent in these formal systems.

The eating and preparation of food had become increasingly codified in Victorian society, and Lear would have experienced first hand the particulars of upper class dining, in “the French fashion,” at Knowsley Hall. [38] Lear’s poetry displays an obsessive interest in food and eating. As he once noted in his diary: “it is funny to see what attention I always pay to dinner/details: but I have a notion that food is a great factor in our fooly life.” [39] Lear’s nonsense cookery, featured in Nonsense Songs, is rich both in detail and in foolery. To the casual observer, his recipes, for Amblongus Pie, Gosky Patties and Crumbobblious Cutlets, might seem normal enough; but only to the casual observer. The recipe for Gosky Patties, for example, is described thus:

“Take a Pig, three or four years of age, and tie him … to a post. Place 5 pounds of currants, 3 of sugar, 2 pecks of peas, 18 roast chestnuts, a candle, and six bushels of turnips, within his reach; if he eats these, constantly provide him with more … beat the Pig alternately for some days, and ascertain if at the end of that period the whole is about to turn into Gosky Patties … if it does not then, it never will.” [40]

As Marilyn Apseloff and Celia Anderson contend, “nonsense must be grounded in accepted conventions. If it becomes complete gibberish, it is simply mad ravings rather than humour.” [41] Offering precise measurements and quantities, and requiring ingredients as mundane as peas and turnips, Lear’s recipe superficially submits itself to the conventions of Victorian home economics. Nevertheless, in the excess of ingredients, “constantly provide him with more,” and the inclusion of paper, pins, linen and a candle, Lear apes the relentless excesses and inedible eccentricities of haute cuisine. The reader’s revulsion (and laughter) at the violence inflicted on the pig interrogates Victorian determinations of the culturally acceptable, implicitly reminding us that the reduction of pig to pork is no less destructive a process than the transformation of porker into Gosky Patties. Of course, it is also a process of linguistic violence, in which a nonsensical shifting of words / names (from pig to pork or bacon) consoles the carnivorous conscience, and cosily alienates the consumer from the consumed by denying a pig’s true identity. The title of the recipe, “Gosky Patties”, is itself never explained, confirming Lear’s interest in the dissonance between a name and the thing it describes. For Lear, destruction was inherent in the formal.

Conform or Die: Violence in Lear’s Limericks

Lear’s poetry marked a turning point in the depiction of violence in English language children’s literature. In their carnival excess, his limericks lean more towards Andersen and the Grimms, than the writings of Watts, or the Lambs. [42] Certainly, Lear’s poetry owes a debt to the fairy tale genre, and the formulation “there was” that begins his limericks recalls the conventional “once upon a time” of fairy tale. Nevertheless, the limericks undermine the morally calibrated social schema of fairy tale – in which violence is linked to sin and transgression – replacing it with an anti-schema, characterised instead by a profound apprehension of the absurd.

Disgusted by the hypocrisies of Victorian “X-tianity,” [43] as he called it, Lear longed for a return to the authentic teachings of Christ. Lear’s separation of suffering from moral judgement in A Book of Nonsense offers a significant meditation on the problem of pain, philosophically recalling Christ’s own teaching. As St. Luke writes, Jesus asked:

“[S]uppose ye that these [dead] Galileans were sinners above all the Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, Nay … or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, Nay: but except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” [44]

This sense of the arbitrariness of death, devoid of moral implication, defines Lear’s limerick sensibility. Like the Galileans, Lear’s characters die, not because they are wicked, but because they have lived.

Yet Marie Swabey argues that Lear’s nonsense is unsympathetic to its protagonists. She claims, “a certain anaesthesia of the heart is clearly present … gazing at the chill, gorgon like visages of various eggheads … the spectator has a sense of his veins turning to ice water.” [45] Even Lear’s biographer, Vivien Noakes, argues that he remains detached from his characters, thus making it “quite acceptable and not at all distressing to find a man being baked in an oven.” [46] On the contrary, the Job-like suffering of Lear’s limerick characters is profoundly moving. Lear displays an almost Kierkegaardean understanding of the absurdity of life, whilst never relinquishing faith in a greater good. As Richard Keller Simon writes:

“[A]n aesthete laughs in total mockery, then despairs of his attitude and becomes an ironist … when he understands the limited viewpoint of this attitude he despairs and becomes the ethical individual … and now he is very careful to use his laughter for clear ethical principles.” [47]

For all its violent excess, this is philosophical territory that Lear’s poetry navigates.

Although Lear admires some of his characters and perhaps dislikes others, it is difficult, if not impossible, to draw specific moral guidance from his nonsense. This, Wim Tigges argues, is because “the tension between meaning and the absence of meaning is left unresolved … preventing a point from being made.” [48] Certainly, the often-contrary collision between text and image, and the apparently arbitrary sequencing of Lear’s limericks, [49] cleanses A Book of Nonsense of the didactic whiff of his contemporaries. Instead, like Artaud’s “theatre of cruelty”, the ethics of A Book of Nonsense are left to emerge from an eddy of violence and decay.

Indeed, the threat of violence and abuse haunts Lear’s limericks. Death stalks, as characters perish in freak accidents, or are killed by their oppressors, seen and unseen. The limericks expose a world in which, as Hans Speier writes, “capital punishment is decreed before judgment is rendered,” [50] in which J.S. Mill’s “whips and scourges … of the literal or the metaphorical sort” are deployed to promote the moral hygiene of the individual and society. [51] As the Red Queen says in Alice, “sentence first – verdict afterwards.” [52] Within this system of legislative violence, Lear’s limericks align in sympathy with the plight of the physically, behaviourally and mentally eccentric. The childlike adult, “smashed” by the system, is the central image of the entire Lear canon. Lecercle describes Lear’s “They” as “the silent majority, with their solid common sense and established prejudice,” [53] and proceeds to offer a Heideggerian reading of Lear’s limericks in which the “‘They’ is a threat to the authenticity of Dasein” for Lear’s non-conformist protagonists. [54] As Heidegger writes, “the they is essentially concerned with averageness … [and] maintains itself factically in the averageness of what is proper, what is allowed, and what is not.” [55] Thus, the “true dictatorship” of the “they” emerges from the dissolution of Dasein “in such a way that ‘the others’, as distinguishable and explicit, disappear more and more.” [56] This anxiety of literal self destruction is at the core of Lear’s nonsense.

For Lear, the child and childlike faced the constant threat of extermination. The Old Man of Leghorn, [57] for example, experiences the danger of appearing like a child to the world. Suffering the misfortune of being “the smallest as ever was born”, he is, in effect, trapped in a child’s body, denied the stature and security of the adult world, and so dies in the maws of a dog. If only he had been an adult, in the physically obvious sense of the word, the Man would have been safe from the dangers of predation. [58]

Similarly tiny, the Old Person of Buda is destroyed for his outrageous behaviour. Lear writes that his “conduct grew ruder and ruder; / Till at last, with a hammer, they silenced his clamour, / By smashing that Person of Buda.” [59] Although the text offers no details of the Person’s disruptive behaviour, Lear’s illustration depicts him standing on one leg. For Lear, this was a symbol of all non-conformist behaviour. To Fanny Coombe he once wrote that “[the] apathetic tone assumed by lofty society irks me dreadfully … nothing I long for half so much as to laugh heartily and to hop on one leg down the great gallery – but I dare not.” [60] For no more a crime than this, the Old Person is smashed.

In Lear’s nonsense criminology, there is a fine line between murder and manslaughter, and the distinction between accident and execution is seldom clear. Lear writes that the Old Man of Peru was baked in a stew “once by mistake,” yet his illustration is at odds with this claim. [61] Twice his size, the woman not only points at her unfortunate little husband, but laughs maniacally at his plight. In a digestive double-act, the Old Man of Peru disappears into the stew – not the other way around – only to face the prospect of being consumed again, this time by his wife.

The Peruvian is not alone in his fate (as in Alice, the reversal of the consumer and consumed is a common theme in A Book of Nonsense). [62] Like his counterpart, the Old Man of Berlin perishes when mixed with food. [63] Once again, this allegedly occurs “by mistake,” yet it is clearly another murder. In Lear’s illustration, the baking ladies conduct their business in a sadistically calm, almost prayerful, manner, paying no heed to the man’s wild distress (echoing the destruction of livestock before consumption). Lear thus taps into the primal fear of being eaten, whilst projecting it onto the world of adult relationships. The implication shared by these limericks is that the Men are subsequently eaten – eaten by women – the wife eats the Old Man of Peru, and the three baking ladies consume the Berliner in a cannibalistic conspiracy. Since motivation is irrelevant in A Book of Nonsense, the question of whether or not the men deserved eating is never explored. As always in his limericks, Lear presents a moment without history, but with lasting, devastating, consequences…

Sex and the Victorian Self

Unlike Orwell, who insisted that Lear never made “dirty” jokes, [64] Thomas Dilworth’s “Society and Self in the Limericks of Lear” pursues a predominately psycho-sexual reading of the limericks. The Old Man of Whitehaven’s relationship to his raven, for instance – like the old man on the Border’s relationship with his cat – is perceived in terms of bestiality. Of course, Lear is not celebrating the forbidden act itself, but rather the intimate mental communion that many humans share with animals (wild or domestic). Lear himself often preferred the company of his cat, Foss, to other people. Like many animal lovers, Lear perhaps imagined that life would have been easier if he could choose his pet for a partner.

But it is not just animals with which Thomas Dilworth believes Lear’s characters perform forbidden deeds. Whilst the spout of the teapot in which the “old man, who when little” resides is unquestionably phallic, [65] Dilworth goes so far as to conclude that old man’s genitals are “inside the spout, so that he is having intercourse with the kettle.” [66]

Intriguingly, Lear’s “Old Person in black” [67] foreshadows Salvador Dalí’s “The Great Masturbator” (1929), [68] “The Lugubrious Game” (1929), and others, in its use of a grasshopper as an image of destruction, and it is not impossible to suggest Lear as a direct influence. [69] In a 1934 lecture, Andre Breton publicly acknowledged the influence of nonsense poetry on the Surrealist and Dada movements, and claimed Lewis Carroll as one of their own. [70]

In “L’Amic de les Arts,” Salvador Dali explained that “I have always felt a real dread of grasshoppers … their memory always provokes in me an impression of the most distressing anguish.” [71] In Lear’s illustration, as in Dalí’s paintings, the insect presses itself threateningly against a human body. Lear writes how, “smitten with fear,” the Old Person is “helpless” when confronted by the fearsome insect. Whereas, in Dali’s “The Great Masturbator”, the grasshopper’s abdomen is covered in ants, suggesting the onset of decay, the grasshopper in Lear’s limerick seems poised to strike. It is only from Lear’s drawing that we realise that this grasshopper is, in fact, as large as the man, as the text offers no hint of its monstrous aspect. This undermines the humour of the poem, and replaces it with palpably pulsating dread, as the insect leers at its victim, phallic body raised to strike the Old Person, hunched over with fear. Of course, there is the double meaning of “smitten”, which may imply love or sexual subjugation as readily as it may imply a direct physical blow. If we take the former definition, the Old Person in black demonstrates a sadomasochistic ambiguity towards his role as passive receptacle of the sodomitical insect’s desire, literally “in love” with fear. It is not clear that the man is not naked from the waist down, and he places his hands across his front, as if in shame. Sitting, literally, upon “stool”, the man appears to strain as if to defecate, an act intimately linked to sexuality in Dalí and the Freudians. Morally “black”, the man himself is transformed, and his two legs and one arm showing, added to the three legs of the stool, amount to the same number of limbs as has a grasshopper. It is, without doubt, Lear’s most terrifying image. If sexuality is to be found in Lear’s limericks, it is a sexuality of death.

Unlike the nonsense songs, there are no cathartic sexual transgressions in Lear’s limericks. Although the Old Man on a hill expresses himself by wearing “his Grandmother’s gown,” his octogenarian gender fluidity is not presented as a triumphant act. [72] In Lear’s illustration, the Man wears women’s clothing over his masculine attire. It has not displaced it. Moreover, he “ran up and down” and “seldom, if ever, stood still,” suggesting that he is neither settled nor comfortable in his new attire. Unlike the Duck and the Kangaroo, he is not freed by his transgression.

Indeed, transvestism was a contentious topic in Victorian England. Within Lear’s lifetime, England would be scandalised by Ernest Boulton and Frederick William Park, two young men arrested in 1870 for wearing women’s clothing. As Thais Morgan writes, Boulton and Park “confound[ed] the gender distinctions structurally necessary to the Victorian status quo. Worse still, they committed this transgression repeatedly in public.[73] Wearing a gentleman’s hat, a masculine suit hidden beneath his gown, Lear’s Old Man reflects this tension between Victorian norms and authentic sexual expression. Standing “on a hill,” he could hardly be any more clearly in the public eye.

Death and Melancholia

Lear was deeply engaged with the bleaker ills of Victorian society. Olive Anderson writes that, during the mid-Victorian era, “[male suicide] rarely attracted the illustrators and artists of the day,” [74] and yet, of all artists, Lear presents four such deaths in A Book of Nonsense. [75] The Old Person of Cromer’s “stiff” life is “concluded” by jumping “over the cliff,” [76] the lovelorn Old Man of New York “murdered himself with a fork,” [77] the melancholic Old Man of Cape Horn “died of despair,” [78] whilst, standing in front of his wife, the Old Person of Tartary “divided his jugular artery.” [79] Unlike the Romantic depiction of suicide as final escape, Lear’s suicides are presented in a universally gruesome and negative light.

With his enormous nose, balding egghead and short useless limbs, the grotesque and “dolorous” Old Man of Cape Horn, “wished he had never been born.” It is a heartbreaking image, and recalls Lear’s own lifelong battle with depression, or “the Morbids,” [80] as he called it. Alone, face streaked with tears, the Old Man “sat on a chair, till he died of despair”. Unwilling or unable to move, the Old Man’s melancholia ends in self-annihilation.

Melancholia, described by Gerhard Joseph and Herbert Tucker as “mourning minus the scripted denouement” [81] was, they argue, a peculiarly Victorian syndrome, exemplified by “that foremost of cultural icons, Queen Victoria herself.” [82] Following the death of Prince Albert in 1861 from typhus – the year A Book of Nonsense was revised – they argue that a cult of melancholia emerged in England “with all the occult force that the nascent mass culture of the nineteenth century vested in celebrity.” [83] The self-imposed destruction that would ultimately befall the Victorian mourner – or the melancholic Lear – is tragically reflected in the fate of the Old Man of Cape Horn.

More violent still is the death of the Old Man of New York:

There was an Old Man of New York,

Who murdered himself with a fork,

But nobody cried though he very soon died, –

For that silly Old Man of New York.

A gruesome snapshot, Lear’s illustration almost photographically captures the moment of suicide. The Old Man’s hand grips the infernal weapon, his hat still falling from his head. Even in New York, the young city forever awake, the Old Man dies alone and unmourned. Malefactors surround the protagonists of Lear’s other limericks, yet here, in a city as bustling as New York, this Old Man is left to kill himself. Finishing his life with a pitchfork to the heart – suggestive of romantic failure – even his final act of will is dismissed as “silly”. This epithet confirms, as Anderson notes, that Victorian male suicide “[was] most often shown simply as the fitting end of a villain or a weakling.” [84] Defiantly un-Romantic, Lear has no intention of portraying the Old Man like an heroic Young Werther. [85]

Premonitions of Escape

In the shadow of such destruction, the escapes of the Old Man of Coblenz, and the Old Person of Basing are indeed exceptional. From the 116 limericks in the complete A Book of Nonsense, a mere two characters affect an escape, and the latter of these only appeared in the revised edition of 1861. First to be liberated is the Old Man of Coblenz, “the length of whose legs was immense; / He went with one prance, from Turkey to France.” [86]

He is, as Lear notes, “surprising,” one of those characters in the limericks whose unusual physiognomy is a blessing rather than a curse. Nevertheless, it is the Old Person of Basing, whose “presence of mind was amazing,” that earns the greatest admiration from the poet. [87] Intelligence and insight are always admirable traits in Lear’s universe, yet this Old Person is particularly special. Unlike other adepts, such as the Old Person of Philae, [88] the Person of Basing transforms intellect into action. As Lear writes, he “purchased a steed, which he rode at full speed, / And escaped from the people of Basing.”

This is an early iteration of Lear’s grand poetical credo: the validation of intellect or imagination by action, as the gifted malcontent flees the tyranny of the “people”. At this stage in Lear’s career, most thinkers demonstrate the very opposite tendency, and neglect the self-actualising mandate of their intellect. For instance, despite his mental excellence, the academically inclined Old Man of Vesuvius “who studied the works of Vitruvius,” becomes so lost in his ancient textbook that he neglects to notice the volcano erupting in the background. [89] Even when “flames burnt his book,” the bookish fool turns not to escape, but to rum, and grimly awaits the end. Like so many of the educated young men of Lear’s acquaintance, his is an intellect squandered. [90]

Similarly pathetic is the bright Young Lady of Portugal, whose ideas, Lear writes, “were excessively nautical.” [91] In the ultimate breach of imagination, this talented and inquisitive lady “climbed up a tree, to examine the sea / But declared she would never leave Portugal.” In the broader context of Lear’s poetry, her parochial reticence is heartbreaking. As always, Lear depicts the sea as a symbolic field between ignorance and self-knowledge, the transformative divide between destruction and escape. And yet, despite her “excessively nautical” ideas, the Young Lady is content not to experience. In Lear’s universe, this is the ultimate spiritual failure. In refusing to leave “port” (Portugal), the Young Lady, although “nautical”, is merely naughty, and therefore must amount to nought. [92]

Although the intellectual redundancy of the Portuguese girl and the Vesuvian makes the Old Person of Basing all the more promising a figure, his escape is not identical to those of the nonsense songs. His escape is distinguished from that of the Jumblies or the Daddy Long-legs by its solitariness. For Lear, the limerick was an inherently lonely form. Thus, even in this rare instance of escape in A Book of Nonsense, the Old Person of Basing flees alone. He has no lover by his side like Mr. Floppy Fly. It would take years for Lear to portray such an escape. The Old Person of Basing has escaped, to be sure, but he is still ageing and alone.

Class Consciousness

Unlike the children’s literature of his contemporaries, property and class are of little or no consequence in Lear’s nonsense. Questions of finance had ruined Lear’s father, and he was notoriously poor. [93] As Jackie Wullschlager argues:

Alice was rooted in a don’s Victorian Oxford, Peter Pan in the upper-middle-class nursery, The Wind in the Willows in the life of an Edwardian country gentleman. But Lear’s poems, peopled by … creatures who have no possessions and who wander the earth, are, as Lear himself was, impossible to pin down to any class or place. Not until … Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 1964 was a classic of English children’s literature classless in this way.” [94]

As Lear was keenly aware, there were pleasures that were unassailably classless and democratic. Singing, for instance, or dancing, or wearing one’s grandmother’s gown, all offer alternatives to the tyranny of the mundane. Given the real, or imagined, difficulties Lear’s characters face in achieving literal escapes from their limerick confines, such moments of expression in A Book of Nonsense should be cherished … even if they may result in death. [95] The suspicion cast upon such individuals was symptomatic of Victorian attitudes to leisure and class. As Peter Bailey observes, “in a work-oriented value system [leisure] represented an invitation to indolence and prodigiality – the weakness of an ill-disciplined and animalistic working class.” [96] So it is for the Old Man with a gong, to whom “they called out, “O law! You’re a horrid old bore!” / So they smashed that Old Man with a gong,” [97] the suggestion thus embedded is that the gong is used as a weapon against him. [98]

In many respects, these characters are the nonsense antecedents of the “tuneful prole” in Nineteen Eighty-Four, solitary singers in a tuneless night. As J.S. Mill noted in On Liberty, “spontaneity forms no part of the ideal of the majority … but is rather looked on with jealousy, as a troublesome and perhaps rebellious obstruction.” [99] And there are few things so spontaneous or rebellious as a scream. The Young Lady of Russia, like an elemental sonic force unleashed, “screamed so that no one could hush her / Her screams were extreme, no one heard such a scream.” [100] The Young Lady’s attendants flutter around her, overwhelmed, helpless to stop the scream. That, given the weight of oppression in the limericks, is a triumph in itself.

In those rare instance where an individual in Lear’s limericks meets with the approval of society, it typically comes for passive or conformist behaviour, rather than any startling idea or invention. The Young Lady of Welling, for instance, “whose praise all the world was a telling,” is not likely to change that world with her behaviour. [101] This supposedly “accomplished” individual is praised by “all the world” because “she played on the harp, and caught several carp”. Such behaviour is ideal within the confines of Lear’s totalitarian states, which, in More Nonsense, would reach its apotheosis with the following limerick:

There was an Old Man of Hong Kong,

Who never did anything wrong;

He lay on his back, with his head in a sack,

That innocuous Old Man of Hong Kong. [102]

What is not clear is whether the Old Man is even alive.

“Creepy and Unclean”

Burgess contends that “one always feels uncomfortable in [Lear’s] presence: there is something going on that is creepy and unclean.” [103] Lear, I think, would be pleased. The Lambs’ “all-endearing cleanliness,” after all, was more of a fantasy than anything Lear conceived, an unnatural and self-inflicted violence upon the individual and society. [104]

The Old Man of Leghorn was “the smallest as ever was born,” [105] the Old Man of Peru “tore off his hair, and behaved like a bear,” [106] and the head of the Old Person of Dutton “was so small as a button,” [107] not to mention the “immoderate mouth” of the man of the South, [108] or the young lady who played the harp with her chin which “resembled the point of a pin.” [109] Perhaps the most peculiar assembly of characters in English literary history, A Book of Nonsense constitutes Lear’s very own festa stultorum, a blood-splattered jamboree of the misfit and deformed. [110]

As Richard Jenkins explains:

“[I]deas about normality were developed in nineteenth-century Europe in the context of two related ideologies. The first was racism which asserted … the inferiority of the colonised and disadvantaged … the second, the Eugenics movement, similarly grounded in ‘evidence’, aimed to improve the ‘fitness’ of the European population … by discouraging the breeding of the ‘unfit’ and the ‘inferior.’” [111]

The hand of Providence was becoming, by mid-century, the hand of nature, its aberrations the refuse of “creation”. Within this context, the extermination of the physically and mentally aberrant in Lear’s limericks becomes no less than a campaign for the purification of Victorian society, as socially disruptive forces – like an endlessly noisy gong or a man who encourages ravens – are neutralised, caged or destroyed.

Lear’s limericks echo the screams of the freak-show. [112] These travelling carnivals preserved “freaks” for the education and amusement of the biologically “superior”, whilst serving to separate genetic aberrations from polite society and bloodlines. As Armand Leroi writes, from the Middle Ages “deformity was often taken as a mark of divine displeasure,” [113] a perception that continued into the Victorian age. The physically different were sometimes assumed to be the result of human sexual encounters with animals, or sex during menstruation, disapproved of in Old Testament law. [114] Like the inmates of a sideshow, Lear’s peculiar protagonists live, often alone, within the confined space of the limericks’ five-line structure, to be scrutinised by readers like specimens in a poetical zoo. Indeed, Lecercle describes Lear’s limericks as “cells”, in which grotesques are “kept under lock and key, and regularly exhibited for the enjoyment of audiences.” [115] He adds that:

“[T]he position of the reader … [is] the position of the doctor, who examines, prods, and experiments. The initial ‘there was’ in the limerick is the analogon of the pointing gesture of the doctor, as he introduces the next patient to an audience of medical students.” [116]

It is a horrifying thought, even more so should the reader identify with the specimen instead. And it is fair, given his medical history, to suggest that Lear himself did just that. For some critics, including Hans Speier, illness is the key inspiration of Lear’s nonsense. [117] Added to depression and near-sightedness, Lear suffered from epilepsy, which “attacked him up to ten or fifteen times a month, sometimes several times a day … [Lear] thought as most people did … that the spasms had some gruesome connection with sex, and maybe madness.” [118] By the mid-nineteenth century, psychiatry had emerged in Britain as a discrete medical profession, [119] and an increasing number of people were institutionalised for mental disorders. [120] Not surprisingly, given Lear’s own conditions, many of his limericks are driven by a madness anxiety, [121] his characters marginalised or destroyed because of their mental, verbal, or behavioural incompetence.

Holy Fools

The mentally and behaviourally incompetent in Lear’s limericks form two distinct series. [122] The first consists of those fools described by Richard Jenkins as “intellectual deficits … interpreted as signs of spiritual grace, ‘simple’ states of nature that were closer to God … [in] a state of perpetual childhood.” [123] Condescendingly indulged by society, they are marginalised for their vague or infantile language. For instance, the “amiable” Old Man of the Isles is left alone, his epithet implying the condescending goodwill of his society. [124] His face “pervaded with smiles,” the Old Man passes the time singing, “high hum diddle,” and playing the fiddle.

Similarly, the “bewildered” Old Man of Corfu, “never knew what he should do / So he rushed up and down, till the sun made him brown.” [125] In Lear’s illustration, the Old Man’s limbs, nose and hat, are spread out in all directions, emphasising a lack of direction both physical and mental.

Not all of Lear’s incompetents, however, are so undisruptive, and his second series of madmen threaten the peace with their violent and deranged speech. Perhaps embedded here is an acknowledgement of the disruptive nature of Lear’s own nonsense in society. The words of these characters are abusive, threatening, or malformed. [126] For instance, when the Young Lady of Lucca’s “lovers completely forsook her,” she climbs a tree and shouts “Fiddle-de-dee!”, an outburst “which embarrassed the people of Lucca,” who run about in utter distress. [127] Similarly disruptive, the Old Person of Sestri is “repulsive” because “when they said, ‘You are wrong!’ – he merely said, ‘Bong!’” [128]

As Thomas Szasz writes, “where religious heresy ends, psychiatric heresy begins; where the persecution of the witch ends, the persecution of the madman begins.” [129] Notice the disdain on the onlooker’s face when the Old Person of Wick explodes with a nonsensical, “Tick-a-Tick, Tick-a-Tick / Chickabee, Chickabaw.” [130] In each instance, there is an equation of nonsense with the repulsive, the provocative, the dumb and the embarrassing.

Finally, notice how the Old Man of Spithead is drawn opening his window from the page, leaning out towards the reader, almost as if Lear’s book were the very asylum that housed him.

There was an Old Man of Spithead,

Who opened the window, and said, –

‘Fil-jomble, fil-jumble, fil-rumble-come-tumble!’

That doubtful Old Man of Spithead. [131]

Nonsense and madness were dangerous bedfellows.

Second Childhood

Victorian Britain also saw a marginalisation and infantilisation of the aged. Teresa Mangum connects Lear’s elderly protagonists with the Victorian association of age and senility with “second childhood”. She argues that,“whilst quaint and amusing … [the limericks] reinforce the view that older people are inept, unreasonable, and helpless … unlike children, they are past the age when society accepts [this] as an appropriate or endearing quality.” [132] In fact, compared to other children’s literature more popular at the time A Book of Nonsense was first published, Lear’s treatment of the elderly is positively humane. In the fairytales of Hans Christian Andersen, and the Brothers Grimm, old age is frequently pathologised, and, in counterpoint to the nobility of youth, becomes rhetorically associated with criminality. In Hansel & Gretel, for instance, the villain is “an old woman as old as the hills, leaning on a crutch, [she] hobbled out … [she] only pretended to be kind. She was really a wicked witch.” [133] As punishment, the old woman, solitary like so many of Lear’s grotesques, is forced into an oven by her social opposite: a young girl on the cusp of sexual maturity. The Grimms write that she was “screeching dreadfully. But Gretel ran off, and the godless witch burned to death in a horrible way.” [134] It is an awful death, but evidently deserved.

On the other hand, when the Old Man of Peru is baked in an oven in A Book of Nonsense, there is no moral judgement implied. Guilt is irrelevant. His awful death is simply that. Indeed, despite the excessive violence of A Book of Nonsense, Lear’s interest in these aged grotesques is fundamentally compassionate. Unlike the old woman in Hansel & Gretel, Lear’s old people do not die because they are “wicked,” or “only pretended to be kind.” On the contrary, they are punished for being unique. The Old Man of Whitehaven is “smashed” because he “danced a quadrille with a Raven,” a private and ludic pastime problematic for the people of Whitehaven, not for health or moral issues, but because “it’s absurd, to encourage this bird!” [135] When Lear’s Old Man with a gong is “smashed” because he was “a horrid old bore,” it is the closest Lear comes to seeing someone killed for being “old.” [136] And yet, despite Mangum’s assertion, it is not Lear who believes these grotesques are “threatening the health of the nation,” rather the society whose irrational hatreds he seeks to expose. Unlike the Grimms, Lear exposes the plight of the aged, rather than contributing to it. The Derry down derry, after all, was “old” as well.

Ultimately, Lear attempts to restore the dignity of the monstrous, understanding, like Montaigne, that “what we call monstrosities are not so to God.” [137] Lear had himself achieved much, despite extensive disabilities. As he undoubtedly knew – despite the later imposition of medieval and Victorian prejudices – Christ Himself had denied the link between biological defectiveness and sin. Jesus, as St. John writes:

“[S]aw a man which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.” [138]

For Lear, himself almost blind, the annihilation of the “defective” in A Book of Nonsense became the annihilation of the divine.

A Book of Beasts

Like so many children’s writers, Lear’s writing display a preoccupation with the zoological. Both in the sense that Lecercle describes, in which Lear’s humans are, arguably, reduced to specimens, but also in the more obvious sense of the word, A Book of Nonsense reads like a Victorian bestiary. Like the bestiarists of medieval and Renaissance England, Lear collects his specimens in discrete textual cells for the reader to observe (or to identify with). As Wullschlager notes, “even in old age [Lear’s] drawings of people, round, beak-nosed and with arms fluttering like wings, still resembled birds rather than human beings.” [139] By nineteen, Lear was considered one of the pre-eminent draughtsman of the day, and his Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots was considered “one of the finest books of ornithological illustration ever published in England.” [140] It was this talent that earned him the patronage of Lord Stanley.

In The Discarded Image, C.S. Lewis describes the medieval and Renaissance approach to zoology, writing that “to us an account of animal behaviour would seem improbable if it suggested too obvious a moral. Not so to them. Their premises were different.” [141] By the middle of the nineteenth century, culminating in the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859, developments in the biological sciences had made it impossible to pass off such mytho-zoology as fact. Emerging from the mind of an untrained, but expert, naturalist, Lear’s limericks are unlike the medieval fables and bestiaries, or the morally calibrated writings of Aesop, and offer no consolation in the form of zoological moral exempla. Where the author of The Book of Beasts, written in the twelfth century, uses the bumblebee as an exemplum of Christian kingship and pious industry, writing: “How right the Scripture is, in proclaiming the bee to be a good worker, when it says … mark its handiwork and copy the operation thereof,” [142] Lear’s bumblebees are mindless aggressors.

Thus, the Old Person of Dover, attempting an escape from his society, returns home after “some very large bees, stung his nose and his knees.” [143] The only clear sense in which the Old Person of Dover has sinned lies in his abortive attempt to escape from home. Whereas, for Emily Dickinson, these “buccaneers of Buzz” [144] symbolised liberty, “with no Police to follow / Or chase Him” [145], for Lear, they were the police. Like Lewis Carroll’s “How doth the little crocodile…” in Alice, [146] this rhyme may also be seen as a reaction against Rev. Isaac Watts’ famous poem, “Against Idleness and Mischief,” [147] which begins:

How doth the little busy bee

Improve each shining hour,

And gather honey all the day

From every opening flower!

And continues:

In works of labour or of skill

I would be busy too;

For Satan finds some mischief still

For idle hands to do.

Although traditionally seen as benevolent, Lear was not interested in forcing scriptural meaning upon a creature whose behaviour was inherently inscrutable. [148] Unlike Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, Aesop’s fables, or the manger animals of Watt’s “Cradle Hymn,” [149] Lear finds no moral comfort in the company of beasts. Like Lear’s humans, their behaviour is random, absurd and dangerous. At least, for the moment…

Continue to PART TWO


[1] George Orwell, “Funny, But Not Vulgar,” Leader, 28 July 1945, http://www.nonsenselit.org/Lear/essays/orwell_2.html

[2] Dennis Butts, “How Children’s Literature Changed: What Happened in the 1840s?”, The Lion and the Unicorn 21.2 (April 1997), p.154.

[3] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile; or, On Education (1762), trans. Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1979), p.78.

[4] Butts, “How Children’s Literature Changed”, p.153-4.

[5] Humphrey Carpenter, Secret Gardens: The Golden Age of Children’s Literature (London: Allen & Unwin, 1985), p.11.

[6] In an 1855 letter, Lear thanks Chichester Fortescue for having “axed me to dinner”; he felt “like a cow who has swallowed a glass bottle – or a boiled weasel – and [had I sung I] should … have made a noise like a dyspeptic mouse in a fit.” This, and others like it, makes Lear’s correspondence a constant delight. The closer Lear’s intimacy, the wilder the nonsense, and early letters to his sister Ann are entirely in verse. Vivien Noakes (ed.), Edward Lear: Selected Letters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p.131.

[7] G.K. Chesterton, “Child Psychology and Nonsense,” Illustrated London News, 15 October 1921. http://www.nonsenselit.org/Lear/essays/chesterton.html

[8] Noel Malcolm, The Origins of English Nonsense (London: Harper Collins, 1997), p.118-9.

[9] Noakes (ed.), Edward Lear: The Complete Verse & Other Nonsense (London: Penguin Books, 2001), p.71.

[10] Iona & Peter Opie (eds.), The Oxford Book of Children’s Verse (Oxford: Clarendon, 1973), p.144.

[11] Ibid, p.51.

[12] Noakes (ed.), Selected Letters, p.228.

[13] Michael Mason (ed.), William Blake (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), p.247.

[14] Ibid, p.238.

[15] David Shusterman, “An Edward Lear Letter to Wilkie Collins,” Modern Language Notes 71.4 (April 1956): 262-263.

[16] Noakes (ed.), Selected Letters, p.228.

[17] One need only briefly consult Lindley Murray’s 1824 English Grammar to appreciate the extent of this codification.

[18] Celia Catlett & Marilyn Fain Apseloff, Nonsense Literature For Children: Aesop to Seuss (Hamden: Library Professional, 1989), p.44.

[19] Jean-Jacques Lecercle, Philosophy of Nonsense: The Intuitions of Victorian Nonsense Literature (London: Routledge, 1994), p.113-4.

[20] Marnie Parsons, “Philosophy of Nonsense: The Intuitions of Victorian Nonsense Literature,” Victorian Studies 38.4 (Summer, 1995): 623.

[21] Anthony Burgess, Homage To Qwert Yuiop: Selected Journalism 1978-1985 (London: Abacus, 1987), p.299.

[22] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.397.

[23] George Orwell, “Nonsense Poetry” (1945), Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays (London: Penguin Books, 2003), p.205.

[24] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.249.

[25] Ibid, p.456.

[26] As Marnie Parson’s laments in her review of Lecercle’s The Philosophy of Nonsense, “the book is not really about Victorian Nonsense; it is about Carroll’s Nonsense”. Yet Lecercle’s approach is typical.

[27] Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World (1965), trans. Helene Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), p.10-11.

[28] Lewis Carroll, The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition, Martin Gardner, ed. (London: Penguin, 2001), p.23.

[29] Lecercle, The Philosophy of Nonsense, p.224.

[30] For further discussion of the limerick form, see: Alex Preminger & T.V.F. Brogen, eds. The New Princeton Encyclopaedia of Poetry & Poetics (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1993), p.694.

[31] Burgess, Homage, p.298.

[32] Orwell, “Nonsense Poetry”, p.203.

[33] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.77.

[34] Ibid, p.104.

[35] Ibid, p.88.

[36] Thomas Dilworth, “Society and the Self in the Limericks of Lear,” Review of English Studies 45.177 (Feb 1994): 42.

[37] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.363.

[38] J.C. Drummond and Anne Wilbraham, “The Rich Man’s Diet,” The Englishman’s Food: A History of Five Centuries of English Diet (London: Jonathan Cape, 1939), p.400.

[39] Edward Lear, quoted in Noakes ed. Complete Verse, p.511.

[40] Ibid, p.250.

[41] Catlett & Apseloff, Nonsense Literature, p.54.

[42] For a full overview of the violent contents of Lear’s limericks, see Appendix One: A Queery Leary Table of Maims.

[43] Noakes (ed.), Selected Letters, p.139.

[44] St. Luke 13:1-5.

[45] Marie C. Swabey, “The Comic as Nonsense, Sadism, or Incongruity,” Journal of Philosophy 55.19 (September 1958): 832.

[46] Noakes, Life of a Wanderer, p.224.

[47] Richard Keller Simon, “Transcendental Buffoonery: Kierkegaard as Comedian,” in Richard Keller Simon, ed. The Labyrinth of the Comic: Theory and Practice from Fielding to Freud (Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1985), p.104.

[48] Wim Tigges, Anatomy of Literary Nonsense (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1988), p.142.

[49] Ibid, p.141.

[50] Hans Speier, “Wit And Politics: An Essay on Laughter and Power,” American Journal of Sociology 103.5 (1998): 1371.

[51] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859), David Bromwich & George Kateb, eds. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), p.140.

[52] Carroll, Annotated Alice, p.129.

[53] Lecercle, Philosophy of Nonsense, p.108.

[54] Ibid, p.108.

[55] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (1927), trans. John Stambaugh (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), p.119.

[56] Ibid, p.119.

[57] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.73.

[58] This height anxiety is equally true of Alice, also harassed by a puppy, and threatened with drowning in a sea of tears.

[59] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.93.

[60] Jackie Wullschlager, Inventing Wonderland (London: Methuen, 2001), p.72.

[61] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.72.

[62] As Wullschlager notes, both Carroll and Lear “have people falling into soup tureens.” See: Inventing Wonderland, p.75.

[63] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.77.

[64] Orwell, “Funny, But Not Vulgar,” http://www.nonsenselit.org/Lear/essays/orwell_2.html

[65] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.329.

[66] Thomas Dilworth, “Society and the Self in the Limericks of Lear,” Review of English Studies 45.177 (Feb 1994): 54.

[67] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.333.

[68] See Appendix Four.

[69] For further examples of grasshopper imagery, see: Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, Vol. IV, (Rev. edition, Copenhagen: Rosenkilde & Bagger, 1957), p.147.

[70] Andre Breton, “What is Surrealism?” Lecture delivered in Brussels 1st June 1934, http://andrebreton.org/whatissurrealism.html

[71] Salvador Dalí, “L’Amic de les Arts”, March 1929, in The Collected Works of Salvador Dalí, trans. Haim Finkelstein (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p.100.

[72] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.158.

[73] Thais E. Morgan, “Victorian Effeminacies” in Richard Dellamora, ed. Victorian Sexual Dissidence (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), p.116.

[74] Olive Anderson, Suicide in Victorian and Edwardian England (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987) p.197.

[75] Arguably, four more than one might expect in a book of nursery rhymes.

[76] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.169.

[77] Ibid, p.100.

[78] Ibid, p.97.

[79] Ibid, p.77.

[80] Noakes, Life of a Wanderer, p.19.

[81] Joseph Gerhard & Herbert F. Tucker, ”Passing On: Death” in Herbert F. Tucker, ed. A Companion to Victorian Literature & Culture, p.120.

[82] Ibid, p.121-22.

[83] Ibid, p.122.

[84] Anderson, Suicide in Victorian and Edwardian England, p.197.

[85] Perhaps deciding that he went too far, Lear removed this limerick from the 1861 edition of A Book of Nonsense.

[86] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.71.

[87] Ibid, p.166.

[88] Ibid, p.167.

[89] Ibid, p.83.

[90] Perhaps Lear is thinking here of Roman author, Pliny the Elder, who perished in Pompeii when Vesuvius erupted in AD79.

[91] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.163.

[92] With thanks to Dr. Bruce Gardiner for pointing out the first two of these puns.

[93] Noakes, Life of a Wanderer, p.18.

[94] Wullschlager, Inventing Wonderland, p.73.

[95] See Appendix Three for a summary of expressive behaviour in A Book of Nonsense.

[96] Peter Bailey, “The Victorian Middle Class & The Problem of Leisure,” Popular Culture and Performance in the Victorian City (New York: Cambridge University. Press, 1998), p.19.

[97] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.160.

[98] Dilworth, “Society and the Self in the Limericks of Lear,” p.48.

[99] Mill, On Liberty, p.122.

[100] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.106.

[101] Ibid, p.104.

[102] Ibid, p.345.

[103] Burgess, Homage, p.303.

[104] Opies (eds.), Children’s Verse, p.144.

[105] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.73.

[106] Ibid, p.87.

[107] Ibid, p.172.

[108] Ibid, p.94.

[109] Ibid, p.162.

[110] Bakhtin, Rabelais, p.5.

[111] Richard Jenkins, “Culture, classification and (in)competence,” in Richard Jenkins, ed. Questions of Competence: Culture, Classification and Intellectual Disability (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998), p.17.

[112] Shelagh Wilson, “Monsters & Monstrosities: Grotesque Taste and Victorian Design,” in Colin Trodd, Paul Berlow & David Amigoni, eds. Victorian Culture & the Idea of the Grotesque (Ashgate: Aldershot): 143-162

[113] Armand Marie Leroi, Mutants: On the Form, Varieties & Errors of the Human Body (London: Harper Collins, 2003), p.6.

[114] Ibid, p.6.

[115] Lecercle, Philosophy of Nonsense, p.205.

[116] Ibid, p.205.

[117] Speier, “Wit And Politics”, p.1371.

[118] Peter Levi, Edward Lear: A Biography, (London: Macmillan, 1996), p.6.

[119] Matthew Thomson, The Problem of Mental Deficiency: Eugenics, Democracy and Social Policy in Britain c.1870-1959 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1998), p.121.

[120] Marlene A. Arieno, Victorian Lunatics: A Social Epidemiology of Mental Illness in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England (London: Associated University Presses, 1989), p.115.

[121] Lecercle, Philosophy of Nonsense, p.204.

[122] See Appendix Two for a complete summary of verbal incompetence in the limericks.

[123] Jenkins, “Culture, classification and (in)competence,” p.16.

[124] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.82.

[125] Ibid, p.80.

[126] Lecercle, Philosophy of Nonsense, p.107.

[127] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.169.

[128] Ibid, p.372.

[129] Thomas Szasz, The Manufacture of Madness (St. Albans: Paladin, 1973), p.139.

[130] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.338.

[131] Ibid, p.353.

[132] Teresa Mangum, “Growing Old: Age,” in Herbert F. Tucker, ed. A Companion to Victorian Literature & Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), p.100.

[133] Maria Tatar (ed.), The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002), p.53.

[134] Ibid, p.56.

[135] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.172.

[136] Ibid, p.161.

[137] Michel de Montaigne, The Essays of Montaigne, Volume Two, trans. E.J. Trenchman (London: Oxford University Press, 1927), p.161.

[138] St. John 9:1-3.

[139] Wullschlager, Inventing Wonderland, p.74.

[140] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.xxii.

[141] C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964), p.152.

[142] T.H. White (ed.), The Book of Beasts: Being a Translation From A Latin Bestiary of the Twelfth Century (New York: Dover, 1984), p.158.

[143] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.166.

[144] Thomas H. Johnson (ed.), The Complete Works of Emily Dickinson (London: Faber & Faber, 1970), p.601.

[145] Ibid, p.328.

[146] Carroll, Annotated Alice, p.23.

[147] Opies (eds.), Children’s Verse, p.49-50.

[148] Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, Vol. IV, (Rev. edition, Copenhagen: Rosenkilde & Bagger, 1958), p.59-60.

[149] Opies (eds.), Children’s Verse, p.52.

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