Pushkar is a special place, one that will remain long in blissful memory. After an anxiety-inducing bus ride from Jaipur – featuring no less than three near-death experiences – I arrive at the lake where Brahma, it is said, once dropped a lotus leaf. I will be staying at the Bharatpur Palace, a whitewashed guesthouse that would not look out of place in the Cyclades, and yet, instead of towering over a beach of glistening Germans, my room watches over ghats of glistening pilgrims. They have come to bathe in holy waters.

Pushkar is a hybrid place, the lake one of India’s key holy sites, yet also a key tourist stop in Rajasthan. The encircling town remains small, and so those worlds – secular and sacred – are balanced in rare harmony. It is, therefore, the perfect place to rest and to recharge after a long journey overland from West Bengal. Presiding over the Palace is Meena, and she runs her guesthouse with a matronly benevolence and strict all-seeing eye.

I love people – I really do – and yet travel alone much of the time. It’s my preferred therapy, all the better to let out the old, and in the new. But sometimes on the road one falls into company so very lovely, so very good, that it is near impossible to say goodbye. And so it was that in Pushkar I met Jim, Fiona, Emilie and Jo, with whom I spent the rest of the week, first in Pushkar, then in Bundi.

Jim and Jo were in India on business (in Jo’s case, jewelry, in Jim’s, tents). Fiona is an artist from London, partly funding her journey with the proceeds of “Jez We Can” bags sold online, and Emily was a wandering soul from Montreal, who had been on the road for years. In so many ways we were all such different people, and yet all connected on that sun-haloed guesthouse roof, even to a point where all participated in our own ritual by the lake, unlocking Jim’s dreads for the first time in a quarter of a century. Until that moment, I had never been so intimate with another grown man’s hair.

I recommend it.

Despite, or perhaps because of, its favoured status with travellers, Pushkar maintains strict discipline over its sacred spaces. One is not permitted to take photos on the ghats. Indeed, as one Italian found out when chased by a naked sadhu with a sword, one really is not permitted to take photos on the ghats! Fortunately for me, the guesthouse’s privileged place, overlooking the holy lake, meant that I might wake each day to witness the old ablution. And hear it too. The sound of bells and chanting rose daily from the temple only feet from my sleeping quarters.

Together we all take sunset walks to hilltop temples (replete with evil monkeys), or stroll around the lake.

We eat, we read, we chat, we sleep.

Pushkar is one of those places.

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I take a taxi to Kalighat, one of Kolkata’s most sacred sites.

As so often in India – as in the world – the nearer one draws to the sacred, the more likely one is to trip over the profane. According to a young man in my hotel, twenty-one rupees is the auspicious and sufficient sum to pay one of the many local guides certain to materialize upon my arrival at the Kali Temple. So as I discard my shoes and plunge into the complex, accompanied by a grinning guide, I slip the tiny sum into my pocket.

Entering the temple, my brow is dyed at a shrine where mothers pray for sons. Next I’m led to a place where, moments earlier, a goat was slaughtered. Paint-red blood drips on the walls and floor, and I watch two men carve the beast into tasty strips. Having perished propitiating Kali, the goat will now serve to feed the local poor.

Ominously, I’m warned to watch for thieves and “wicked characters,” as we move into the inner sanctum of the temple. I will only have a moment to cast my offering to the god. “But hold your wallet,” my guide says, and then orders me to throw my flowers.

Having satisfied the god, I’m led through the temple to a sacred tank, where I am to pray for my family back home, and lay a garland round the neck of another stone divinity. This I do with due solemnity, but then the metaphorical sky blackens. I have been here before, in other times and places, and my heart sinks with the memory of other temple malefactors. Now, I’m told with rising menace, I must make a donation of 5000 rupees.

5000 rupees now! Else a lifetime of bad luck awaits you, friend…

I would have simply walked away, but there were five men around me now. Fumbling in my pocket, I offer 100 rupees to the guide – still five times the recommended fee – and he snatches the note away. “You are a wicked man,” he says, shaking his head. For a moment, I thought he might push me down into the murky tank, but he cursed again and disappeared into the temple, doubtless searching for new prey.

Seeking to shake off my sadness at another sacred place defiled, I wander the alleys behind the complex, past the “Home of the Pure Heart,” Mother Teresa’s still controversial hospice for the dying, and down towards the Adi Ganga. Also known as Tolly’s Canal, this channel runs from the Hooghly River down through Kalighat. Alas, this once navigable river has become an open sewer, killed dead by pollution. Children play among waste rising from pools of sickly water.

After lunch, I take an historical detour and walk the vast grounds surrounding the Victoria Memorial, a masterpiece of imperial design, built to commemorate the reign of the Empress of India herself. The Memorial was opened to great fanfare in 1921. And yet, twenty years after the death of Victoria, the Raj was nearer to the end than its beginning. Inside the Memorial is a museum that recalls the history of colonial Bengal, a microcosm of India’s experience as the object of Western economic, military and cultural desire. The long encounter between Britain and subcontinent contains all the elements of tragedy and romance, of discovery and desecration. It was a relationship premised and sustained on exploitation, yet one that also sowed the seeds of its own demise through the mingling of Indian and European philosophy, art, literature and ideology. The Bengali Renaissance would help give shape and form to the very nationalism that would ultimately drive the invaders back to their island home. The legacy of that renaissance still shapes the identity of the city of Kolkata now.

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Kolkata, a tang of sweat and car fumes, as a prepaid taxi takes the roulette out of arriving in a new city at night. A late check-in inspires a flurry of activity at the Broadway Hotel. The place is ramshackle, yet stately with a clanking manual lift – lovingly maintained – and a ground-floor whiskey bar beneath low-hanging ceiling fans. The kitchen has long closed, so the genial night manager sends a boy to bring me something from the street. He returns with two delicious curries, rice and naan, and I’m guided to the best room in the hotel, or at least the one with the least awful traffic noise, which means the room is only moderately cacophonous.

A good night’s sleep is followed by fair coffee in the bar, and a browse of the Calcutta Telegraph. I have always been a fan of Indian print media. This is a country that takes ideas seriously, with a healthy (if raucous) newspaper culture. In January 2016, the lead story was the suicide of a PhD student at the University of Hyderabad named Rohith Vemula. His tragic death had sparked new debate about institutional discrimination against Dalits and the OBCs (Other Backward Classes) of which Vemula belonged. Meanwhile, the lives, loves, crimes and misdemeanors of Bollywood superstars still dominated column inches. Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan were in court for wearing shoes inside a temple filming Big Boss 9

Far though I was from dosa heartland, these savoury treats have long been my favourite Indian addiction, so I track down a famous southern eatery. After two dosai and some idli, I amble down Ganesh Chandra Avenue towards B.B.D. Bagh (formerly Dalhousie Square), built around a British water tank and surrounded by a cluster of colonial edifices. Kolkata, like Hanoi and Havana, is a city that has elevated imperial decay into an art form.

After wandering the square, I head towards the pastel-walled Portuguese Cathedral of the Most Holy Rosary, and then to the Magen David Synagogue.

Here, thousands of Baghdadi Jews once worshipped, yet their numbers have diminished to some twenty faithful. The synagogue is now all but overwhelmed by a largely Muslim marketplace surrounding it. I am the only visitor, and an old man emerges from the marketplace with the key to show me around.

Today (January 23rd) marks the anniversary of the birth of independence figure Subhas Chandra Bose, a man who remains beloved across swathes of India, yet controversial for ties to Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Bose saw Hitler and Hirohito as bulwarks against the British Empire. A procession of thousands of supporters marched through the streets, grinding Kolkata to a halt. As I wait for the throng to pass, a Bengali Brahmin nears to chat, and I hear the first of many whispered anti-Muslim and anti-migrant (read Bangladeshi) speeches during my time in West Bengal. As elsewhere in the world, social and economic woes are blamed on minorities, migrants and mysterious outsiders. Undoubtedly, Kolkata has endured much, and absorbed millions of refugees from Bangladesh during that country’s war for independence from (West) Pakistan. Australia breaks its moral compass over several hundred…

With the parade dissolving, I make for the markets near Sudder St. The Grand Oberoi watches over its own with machine guns, and everyone else just scrapes along outside. Then I catch a rickshaw along Alimuddin Street, a road lined with Muslim butchers, to reach the famous Motherhouse, from where Mother Teresa conducted her work in life and long continues after death. The famous Missionaries of Charity still wear their trademarked three-striped white saris, and weave among the pilgrims – adoring or just curious – as I sit for a moment of prayer in Teresa’s tomb.

Returning to the city proper, I dive into my first street-food experience. For less than a dollar I inhale two spicy chicken rolls smothered in red spices, herbs, onion and mystery sauce. Judging by the crowd, I’m not the only one who thinks this perhaps the most delicious thing in all Kolkata.

Satisfied, I wander back to my hotel, past groaning trams and buses that shudder through thousands of commuters and several herds of goats. Exhausted from so much walking I opt for early bed, so of course the businessmen in the next room decide to have a dance party. I finally fall asleep, and hardly stir until the call to prayer next day.

Continue to Kolkata, Day Two

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Almost bombed out of existence during World War Two, the city of Nuremberg has recovered beautifully, and – thanks to extensive reconstruction – the city’s medieval centre charms as it must have done centuries ago, albeit with less Plague, and more tourists. Tongue-pleasingly, the city is home to the legendary Nürnberg bratwurst. And, given that a Nuremberg restaurant’s idea of a hearty meal is ten thin wurst in a row served with cold kartoffel salad and cold beer, it is just as well they are so divine.

Other than sausages, the city is, of course, most famous for its role in Hitler’s Germany, host of his notorious Nazi Party rallies, and – years later – where the Allies condemned the masterminds of his regime that had not already died, committed suicide, or fled to Argentina. Thanks to the ice-cold genius of Leni Riefenstahl, most everyone has seen footage of the Nazi rallies, a sinister cross between Disney’s Fantasia and Orwell’s “Two Minute’s Hate”. An old lady singing a Nazi song in a documentary screened in the local museum sobs at the feebleness of its poetry, and how stupid she must have been to fall for it so utterly. Today the song plays almost as self-parody, and yet the remnants of Hitler’s rally grounds stand as mindboggling evidence of parody’s utter absence in his ideological omniverse. Even in ruin, the parade ground seems to gloat over the landscape.


Not much remains of the zeppelin field. In disrepair, it is fenced off haphazardly with wires, like an unexploded bomb. When I visit, there are no admission fees or guards. Bored teenagers climb over the ruins as casually as an ant clambers over land mines.

And yet it is still there. A reminder and a warning…

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In a special two-part workshop at Santa Sabina in mid-2017, I had the honour of working with an incredible cohort of Year 10 English students. To begin, I delivered a one hour lecture that offered a brief overview of the history and culture of the DPRK and looked at ways that authors have sought to explore and illuminate totalitarian societies through literature. 

A few weeks later, I returned to work with a smaller group of Year 10 students. These young writers had volunteered to take part in an intensive workshop, and shared the first paragraphs of their own dystopian creations. The innovation, wit and talent on display were exemplary, and I was tempted to steal some of the students’ ideas for my next book! Better still, I hope these fine young writers go on to write novels of their own. 

Santa Sabina College in Strathfield is blessed with an incredible English Department, and a wonderful Head of Department in Rachel Duke. That Santa Sabina even has an English teacher as Principal, Dr Maree Herrett, tells you that here is a school that loves and values literature!

For more on this fantastic event, check out this lovely piece of student journalism from Patricia Schwarzkopf and Sabrina Orlovic:

“Last week, Year 10 English was privileged enough to talk to Young Adult fiction author, Chris Richardson. Not only is Richardson the author of the Empire of the Waves maritime fantasy series (published by Penguin), he is also an expert on North Korea, and we had the opportunity to listen to him speak about the totalitarian government of that country as part of our ongoing study of dystopian novels … Up until Richardson’s visit, only a tiny minority of us knew much about the history of North Korea, how its government came to be, and the extent of their government’s control over the nation. North Korea is a society with 80,000 to 150,000 political prisoners. Not only are you punished for perceived disloyalty to the regime, but your family is also threatened with punishment; somewhat like the fictional dystopian societies we have read about. Similar to one of the dystopian texts many of us have been studying, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, this totalitarian Government has abolished elements of society such as western television and books, and the freedom of movement and love in order to prevent any of its citizens having differing ideas to the rest of society, and posing a possible threat to the government; the Kim dynasty … Additionally, Richardson identified aspects of North Korean life which are similar to those illustrated in other dystopian texts. For example, the word “Inminban” is the North Korean neighbourhood-watch system; similar to that of the mechanical hounds found in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Violence is very much normalised and ritualised in North Korea; similar to that of the two-minute hate ritual in George Orwell’s 1984. People are expected to marry those from similar, government approved castes, similar to the control of love and marriage we saw in Matched. From his lecture, not only were we able to see concepts of dystopian fiction being implemented into a real modern-day society, but also their effectiveness in enforcing conformity and the impacts of their manipulation of the citizens. Furthermore we also learnt that Richardson, for his PhD, chose to write about childhood literature in North Korea, and we were surprised to discover that childhood literature and comics were sources of government propaganda that demonised their enemies (such as USA and the Japanese Army). Not only were the storylines of children’s books altered in this manner, but even maths problems written in children’s Mathematics textbooks were altered to privilege North Korea and insult their enemies. Overall, the experience was eye-opening and enriched our knowledge of the effects of a dystopian society and totalitarian government in our modern world. Our new knowledge and understanding will help us as we research our chosen dystopian texts for our Textual Interest Projects.”

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On the 18th of June 2017, I was invited to speak at the St. James’ Institute in Sydney, alongside the Hon. Michael Kirby, Chair of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK. The St. James’ Institute is one of Australia’s leading centres for the public exploration of Christianity and culture.

Drawing on my PhD research and conversations with NK exiles, my speech focussed on the long history of Christianity in northern Korea, from the earliest arrival of the faith, to the present age of persecution in the DPRK. The Hon. Michael Kirby discussed his role with the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK, particularly his findings on freedom of religion.

The moderator of the event was Associate Professor Michael Horsburgh AM.

Thank you to the organisers of the workshop, especially the new Director of the St. James’ Institute, Christopher Waterhouse.

An extended version of my remarks are now available online at Sino-NK.

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The greatest plesaure of the author’s life – this author’s life, in any case – is meeting readers. Writing is a solitary task much of the time, even if social media now allows authors to share their triumphs and frustrations in real time, like smoke signals from one deserted island to another. In the case of Empire of the Waves, I toiled for a decade on the novel before anyone other than my closest friends and colleagues had the chance to read my tale. For me, then, visiting schools, libraries and stores to meet readers – young readers in particular – is the ultimate reward after a decade of monastic exile.

In May I had the honour of participating in Newington’s biennial festival of literature. A three day celebration of the word, the festival was one of the highlights of my writing life. For that, I thank Sabine Tanase, Ann Jagger, Sue Gough and Joanne Barnes for the invitation to join their students for eight workshops at three campuses over three days. Your hospitality and kindness were impeccable, and it was a joy to meet so many great teachers, librarians, students and fellow authors.

On the eve of my first workshop I was struck with food poisoning. For one long and shaky night I feared I would not make it to the festival alive. Yet entering a room of wide-eyed readers the next day – their young minds thrilled to share in my created world – soon freed me from the banality of bad takeaway and into that glorious place where story is all. Over three happy days I had the chance to talk to students of all ages, to meet friends old and new, and to savour the greatest pleasure of the author’s life, to meet those for whom one’s words matter.

One of the loveliest aspects of the Newington Festival is reading the coverage by student journalists. Reproduced below are reports on two of my workshops. A special thanks to Luke Mesterovic and William Sun for your generous and thoughtful words! 

Creating Fantasies with Christopher Richardson

by William Sun

Christopher Richardson, a young children’s fiction author and academic, has presented an excellent seminar on the creation of fantasy. Richardson illustrates fantasy as a more mature form of ‘make-believe’ and fantasy writing fantasy is simply a form of “tapping in” to this natural instinct. He opens by reciting the opening chapter of his debut novel, The Voyage of the Moon Child, the first in the series Empire of the Waves. This fantasy novel series depicts six floating islands (lightly based upon Venice) in a flooded maritime world.

“Writing is not about being a genius, but the craft of transferring ideas on paper,” Richardson remarks. He states four key ideas within building a fantasy world:

  1. Give your fantasy world a basis from the real world.
  2. Ensure names are memorable and significant, yet intriguing.
  3. Maps or other visual aid not only benefit the reader, but also helps the author in giving the story a visual scene.
  4. Research in humanities are key for ideas.

“If God is the creator of worlds, then authors are the creators of sub-worlds,” said J.R.R. Tolkien. Being a major inspiration for Richardson, Tolkien inspired him into the genre he now calls his profession. Richardson states that inspiration can occur in any situation, whether you base stories around locations, people or objects, they may all have great potential.

Richardson concluded with a creative activity; produce your very own pirate clan. Map out a name, a leader, a backstory and a flag. This induced conversation and discussion among the students. Richardson utilised creative activities, to engage the students and to make them understand the basis of inspiration within fantasy environments. All in all, Richardson’s lecture was powerful and enlightened Year 8 on the inspiration behind creating fantasies.

Christopher Richardson

by Luke Mesterovic

Wyvern Class 4V was privileged on Wednesday to have renowned children’s author Christopher Richardson come in and give an insightful talk about writing fantasy stories. He started the session by reading an excerpt from his award-winning book [ed: I wish!], Empire of the Waves. Richardson’s voice is smooth and fluid, and instantly draws the attention of every student in the room. He discussed how useful maps are in fantasy – whether it be a way for you to track the character’s journey across Middle Earth or Westeros, or a chance to see where landmarks are in relation to the rest of the world. As a fan of pirates, Richardson delved into nautical maps, and introduced the class to several famous pirates.

At the end, 4V got a chance to create their very own pirate clan – complete with fearless captains and Jolly Rogers that would strike fear into the heart of any man.

Christopher Richardson is a prolific author who is an inspiration to children and adults alike. He is currently working on the second instalment of the Empire of the Waves series, Empire of the Waves: Sea of Fire.


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On the town side of the Danube, opening night of the Regensburg jazz festival offers the predictable pleasures of beer, pretzels and jazz. Yet cross the river and one passes through a Bavarian looking-glass, to a place where Germans of all ages, resplendent in medieval clothes, are partying like it’s Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday. With jousting, sword-fights, archery, fortune telling, suspicious herbal brews, medieval board games, cider, mead, beer, beer-wenches and more beer, it’s a more ridiculous thing than words can describe, and an awful lot more fun. I have no idea what all this neo-feudal chic is in aid of, but who cares? In amongst the knights, ladies, warlocks and hobbits, there was even a man dressed up as a leper! At least, I thought he was pretending….

As I sit with a cup of mead to watch a medieval drama unfold – complete with authentically antiquated musical instruments – an arrow whizzes past my head, and a lady who would have been considered pin-up material (in the 12th century), winks lustily in my direction. I asked a wizened prophetess if this happens very often (this sort of festival, I mean) and she answered “Ja, but not often enough.”

I raise my mead and heartily agree.

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Return to PART ONE

Citizens of Paradise: Lear’s Nonsense Escapes

In Nonsense Songs (1870) and Laughable Lyrics (1876), Edward Lear eschewed the constricted limerick structure of A Book of Nonsense. Embracing the Romanticism he once shunned, the poet’s Calibans are set free, blessed with transformation and transcendence. In 1859, J.S. Mill had argued that, “when a person’s conduct affects the interests of no persons besides himself … in all such cases there should be perfect freedom, legal and social.” [150] This is all the freedom that the inhabitants of Lear’s nonsense isles desire. Yet they must run away to find it.

“The Owl and the Pussy-cat” is a tale of star-crossed lovers. [151] Owls and pussycats, after all, make as likely a romantic pair as Montagues and Capulets. One expects less serenading, and more carnage. Yet defying custom and nature alike, Lear’s lovers set sail in their “beautiful pea-green boat,” become engaged, and are married by a Turkey in the “land where the Bong-tree grows.” Like the protagonists of Lear’s limericks, the radical individuality of the Owl and Pussy-cat sets them apart from Victorian society, yet these romantic rogues do not die the deaths of their grim counterparts.

Escaping persecution, they sail instead to distant shores. As Christ taught the scribe: “birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man hath not where to lay his head.” [152] Lear’s lovers and adventurers burn with a spark of the divine, as, in the name of love, the Owl and Pussy-cat transcend nest and home.

In Lear’s nonsense songs marriage becomes not a sexual union, but the union of free spirits. Yet there are sexual undertones. As Anthony Burgess writes, “the marriage is forbidden, the union of a bird and a mammal is denied by nature, like the union of a man and a man.” [153] On four occasions Lear states that the Piggy-wig is male, yet neither the Owl nor Pussy-cat is gendered. On the one hand, this ambiguity further locates Lear’s poem in a distinctly pre-sexual world, whilst on the other, leaving open the possibility of a queer reading of the poem. Indeed, unlike the Owl and the Pussy-cat, the Daddy Long-Legs and Fly are both definitely male.

Lear never married, and, with the exception of Emily Tennyson and his sister, Ann, his intimacies were mostly with men. Although the weight of opinion holds that Lear was gay, Peter Levi has argued that Lear was merely a “frustrated man, who tried to marry but failed, and that is all – there is no evidence whatever of homosexuality in his life.” [154] Sadly, Franklin Lushington – Lear’s literary executor, and the man widely perceived to be his lover – destroyed most of Lear’s letters and papers after the poet’s death. [155] The standard reading of Lear’s life –  shared by biographers Vivien Noakes and Jackie Wullschlager – holds that Lear was “confused by his own conflict between homosexual longing and the pressure to marry” in Victorian society. [156] Unable to live openly, the peripatetic artist and poet escaped to foreign shores, where he found comfort in the arms of male companions, and solace in the company of children (and cats). For many gay men of Lear’s time, the dictum was not so much “Go West” as “Go East”.

As James Eli Adams writes, “sympathetic constructions of unorthodox sexualities, which would attempt to transform stigma into affirmation” were rare in Victorian literature. [157] This is precisely what Lear offered his readers. Yet Lear’s vision was not a wholly new one. The most obvious antecedent of Lear’s nonsense lovers is “Hey Diddle Diddle,” in which a dish runs away with a spoon. Lear had himself illustrated the famous nursery rhyme. [158] Such mismatched relationships were also, to some extent, Biblical, and emerge from a “nonsense” tradition stretching back to the Old Testament. Imagining a day when “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord,” [159] Isaiah foresaw that “the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together … and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” [160]

This anti-Darwinian reconciliation of warring beasts is central to Lear’s vision of paradise, as love overcomes the inevitability of kind: cats and birds may wed, and daddy long-legs and flies become life partners. “The Owl and the Pussy-cat” also celebrates the unification of the two most important creatures in Lear’s life, the birds he was so famous for drawing as a young draughtsman, and his beloved cat Foss. Only in nonsense could these two aspects of Lear’s persona, one emblematic of his professional self, the other his private and domestic, be reconciled.

Recreation Revolution

Unlike the solitary amusements of A Book of Nonsense, the pleasures of the nonsense songs are social. The Quangle Wangle, for instance, finds happiness in the childlike company that joins him atop the Crumpetty Tree, where “at night by the light of the Mulberry moon / They danced to the Flute of the Blue Baboon.” [161] In each instance, rapture is revealed in almost childish recreation: the Duck and Kangaroo hop, the Owl and Pussy-cat dance, the Nutcrackers and the Sugar-tongs gallop, and the Daddy long-legs and Fly “play for evermore / At battlecock and shuttledore.” Freed like nonsense Crusoes from the trappings of civilisation, Lear’s lovers escape to a comic iteration of Rousseau’s state of nature. [162] Unlike the adult world, in which “happiness” is sought through wealth, title, power and prestige, the happiness of Lear’s new nonsense domain is found in intellectual and spiritual liberation, a rediscovery of nature, and in re-creative play with like-minded spirits. The few glimpses of “civilisation” in the songs are negative. For instance, the Cups, Saucers, Plates and Pans in “The Nutcrackers and the Sugar-tongs” are obsessed with order, propriety and domesticity, trapped in the roles demanded of them by society, and so demand the same of others. [163]

As Lear was writing, Britons were enjoying a recreation revolution. Ships and railways granted new and broader access to activities previously the preserve of a ruling elite. As Peter Bailey writes:

“[B]y the early [eighteen] fifties the major lines in the British rail system were completed or under construction … rail travel both stimulated a general public curiosity and helped to break down regional insularities of mind and practice.” [164]

Centuries of English parochialism were eroding in a cloud of steam and possibility. Not surprisingly, suspicions were soon aroused about the consequences of this steam-fuelled liberty. Undermining the fabric of the social contract, and destabilising time-honoured distinctions between the classes, this transformation had granted the individual a “mobility and anonymity which removed him from that supervision by his fellows … [Supervision was] still regarded as a desirable … constraint upon individual conduct.” [165] Emphasising the motley character of the Victorian traveller, Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass features “a very queer carriage-full of passengers altogether,” including a goat, beetle, gnat and a gentleman in white paper. [166] Whilst we never learn where they are from, we certainly know where they are going, forward, the only direction possible in the Looking Glass world, and – perhaps – in the new age that was dawning.

Lear’s 1870 limerick about the Old Man at a Junction, “wrung with compunction,” leaves the reader under no illusions as to why such flight might be desirable. [167] Although the reason for the Man’s “compunction” is left unstated, the accusatory stance of his companion points to some secret shame. Devastated to have missed his train, the Old Man is unable to move, and, throwing his arms in the air “remained on the rails of the Junction.” Whether he remains suicidally upon the rails, Lear does not specify, but his point is clear: the railway equals escape. To miss the train equals entrapment, or worse, death. [168]

Just as the longing for unsupervised “mobility and anonymity” led the Nutcrackers and the Sugar-tongs to the “beautiful shore,” [169] and Edward Lear himself to the Mediterranean, so were the vulnerable or demented denizens of his limericks trapped in an endless Victorian nightmare of “supervision by [their] fellows.” [170] But by the time Lear published Nonsense Songs in 1870, escape finally seemed a possibility. And not, as in 1861, just for the solitary Old Person of Basing.

Transformative Topographies

Despite his poor health, Lear was an avid traveller, and quickly tired of England. To Emily Tennyson in 1865 Lear wrote:

“I loathe London by the time [I] have been here a month. The walking – sketching – exploring – noveltyperceiving and beautyappreciating part of the Landscape painter’s life is undoubtedly to be envied … the contrast of the moneytrying to get, smokydark London life – fuss – trouble & bustle is wholly odious, & every year more so.” [171]

Keen to indulge the “beautyappreciating” part of his character, Lear journeyed through Italy, Malta, Corfu, Albania, Egypt, Greece, Palestine and Lebanon, always sketching, painting and writing. If London was the “smokydark” seat of a “moneytrying to get” Empire of Sense, and the city Rousseau’s “abyss of the human species,” [172] then the Mediterranean and Levant exposed Lear to a “noveltyperceiving” Republic of Nonsense.

Like many Englishmen drawn by the lure of the exotic, Lear was struck by the Turkish tolerance of the peculiar, writing:

“[T]hey never stare or wonder at anything … if you chose to take your tea while suspended by your feet from the ceiling, not a word would be said, or a sign of amazement betrayed.” [173]

This desire to find transformative topographies of wonder and acceptance drives the nonsense songs, and it was in such lands that they mostly emerged from Lear’s pen. “The Owl & the Pussy-cat,” for instance, was written in Cannes, and in 1870 Lear purchased a property in San Remo, where he spent his final years writing and sketching.

Although Lear’s limericks are also nonsense poetry, it is in his songs that he unleashes his most famous nonce words and neologisms, and claims his final triumph over Victorian conventionality. To his contemporary readers, “Grambleamble,” [174] “the Zemmery Fidd,” [175] “the Jelly Bo Lee,” [176] and the “great Gromboolian plain,” [177] would have sounded as remote and exotic as the Orient through which Lear trekked. When the Jumblies return home, they recall their journey to “the Torrible Zone / And the hills of the Chankly Bore.” [178] One can imagine Victorian children searching for such glorious places on a map.

In Emile, Rousseau argued that travel “completes the job of making [man] good or bad. Whoever returns from roaming the world is, upon his return, what he will be for the rest of his life.” [179] For some, this was a process to embrace. For others, it was something feared. As James Buzard writes, despite the institution of the Grand Tour, there was:

“[W]orry lest exposure to the outside world [would] squander the potential of the young ruling-class Englishman, encouraging him to ape outlandish manners rather than perfect his own English ones.” [180]

Emigration from Great Britain led to concerns at home that the foreign would dilute the stability of nation upon the wanderers’ return. Yet transformation was precisely what Lear and many other fugitive expatriates desired. Only by swimming the Channel does the Pobble learn that “it’s a fact the whole world knows / That Pobbles are happier without their toes.” [181] He is not so strange and disordered after all.

The Jumblies’ wanderlust burns in opposition to the obscurantism of a closed society. [182] Like the Nutcrackers and Sugar-tongs, derided for “awful delusion” by the Frying-pan, [183] the Jumblies depart “in spite of all their friends could say.” Juxtaposed against the hissing Heideggerian “they” of the limericks, the Jumblies board their sieve even when “everyone cried, ‘You’ll all be drowned!’” The sieve-as-boat forms a perfect metaphor for the impossible dream made possible by the sheer determination of the dreamer. When they return home, the Jumblies’ society is transformed, and soon others cry: “We too will got to sea in a Sieve, / To the hills of the Chankly Bore!” It is a glorious validation of their escape. The revolution, impossible in Lear’s limericks, is at last fulfilled.

Although much of Lear’s own travel in the east was facilitated by connections to the British state abroad, [184] there is something distinctly anti-imperialist about Lear’s travellers, and they – mostly – rise above Victorian Orientalism. The Jumblies are wanderers, not settlers. They return from foreign lands, not with colonies, loot or slaves, but self-knowledge. [185] Uninterested in land or empire, the Owl and the Pussy-cat set to sea for love, and the Daddy Long-legs and Fly depart for games of “battlecock and shuttledore.”

The Duck and the Kangaroo

Written for Sir Edward Strachey’s children, [186] “The Duck and the Kangaroo” is Lear’s earliest nonsense song. [187] The Duck, that quintessentially English and bucolic bird, meets Kangaroo, that quintessentially foreign and undomesticated beast. Lamenting that “my life is a bore in this nasty pond,” Duck yearns to see the world, and longs to leap and hop “as if you never would stop!” Itinerary devised, Duck says “we’d go to the Dee, and the Jelly Bo Lee / Over the land, and over the sea.” As Montaigne once exclaimed: “good heavens, how I should chafe if I were reduced to the condition of so many people … riveted to a district of the kingdom.” [188]

For the chafing Duck, the muscular bounding of the kangaroo becomes a symbol of escape. Kangaroo’s unlikely apparition in the English countryside makes Duck’s dreams possible at last. Somewhat unexpectedly perhaps, the humble bird masterminds this extravagant scheme, with the Kangaroo an initially reluctant accomplice. Unlike Duck, who thinks only of liberty, the Kangaroo shares the reader’s scepticism about their unlikely match. Although, like the Owl and Pussy-cat, neither animal is gendered, they are superficially incompatible. Not only do the animals look so strikingly dissimilar – the Kangaroo drawn towering over the tiny bird – but, as the marsupial remarks: “there seems but one objection / Which is, if you’ll let me speak so bold / Your feet are unpleasantly wet and cold.” It is the terror of all lovers that their bodies will repulse their beloved and be rejected. At the heart of Lear’s nonsense is an aching meditation on that sense of otherness, and the attendant longing for transcendence, that all prospective lovers feel. But the amorous Duck persists. Duck responds to Kangaroo’s objections with cool exhortation:

I have thought over that completely,

And I have bought four pairs of worsted socks

Which fit my web-feet neatly.

And to keep out the cold I’ve bought a cloak,

And every day a cigar I’ll smoke,

All to follow my own dear true

Love of a Kangaroo!

Duck’s love triumphs over biology, and annihilates the restrictive taxonomy of phylum, genus, species. Persuaded by Duck’s devoted rhetoric, the Kangaroo proceeds to balance the bird upon his tail “in the moonlight pale”:

So away they went with a hop and a bound,

And they hopped the whole world three times round;

And who so happy, – O who,

As the Duck and the Kangaroo?

It is a triumphant image. Duck, once a citizen of a lonely pond, is now a citizen of the world. The poem begins with Duck’s yearning cry, “I wish I could hop like you.” By the end, balanced on his lover’s tail, he does not need to.

Byronic Wanderers

Despite the exuberance of “The Quangle Wangle’s Hat,” many of the poems in Laughable Lyrics explore the sadder dimensions of escape, thus adding nuance and complication to the more triumphant themes of Nonsense Songs. Rather than trace the adventures of more mismatched lovers, “The Pelican Chorus,” for instance, focuses upon the parents of a Pelican princess, named Dell, who has fallen in love with the Crane King. [189] Rather than follow the lovers to foreign shores – the Gromboolian Plain and Chankly Bore back again – the poem remains at home with the King and Queen. For the first time, Lear deals with the consequences of escape for those left behind, and portrays the sadness of those whose loved-ones have – quite literally – flown the roost. The triumph of Dell’s escape is merely counterpoint to their loss. And yet, although the Pelicans realise “we probably never shall meet again,” the song concludes with the nonsense refrain:

Ploffskin, Pluffskin, Pelican jee!

We think no Birds so happy as we!

Plumpskin, Ploshkin, Pelican jill!

We think so then, and we thought so still!

The Pelicans are “happy” again, but only after resigning themselves to the fact that escape and loss are intimately linked, and by turning, like Lear, to the healing power of the absurd.

Engaging dialectically with his earlier songs, Lear’s last great poem, “The Dong with a Luminous Nose,” is a beautiful meditation upon lost love. [190] It tells the story of the Dong, who falls in love with a Jumbly Girl “who came to those shores one day.” The fourth stanza (and half of the fifth) read like Nonsense Songs, the merry mismatched lovers singing and dancing, with the “lively Dong … always there / By the side of the Jumbly Girl so fair.” But theirs is a doomed love. For the Jumblies to return triumphantly home – as we know they must – the Dong must be left behind. Lear repeats the reprise from “The Jumblies,” only now it is the song of the lonely Dong, “gazing forever more” at the horizon that brought him such bliss, and now such sorrow. From that “hateful day,” the topography of the Chankly Bore, so exotic and inviting in “The Jumblies,” becomes instead a darkened landscape, a “cruel shore” over which “storm-clouds brood on the towering heights.” It is a dark Romantic landscape, and recalls the “waste / And solitary places” of Shelley’s “Julian and Maddalo” (1819). [191]

Significantly, the poem asks the question: where are Mr Daddy Long-legs and Mr Floppy Fly, who, we were told in Nonsense Songs, “play for evermore / At battlecock and shuttledore” on the great Gromboolian plain? And where are Dell and the Crane King? Once a ludic paradise of Virgilian bliss, now, in the time of the Dong “awful darkness and silence reign” over those same lands. Thus abandoned, the romantically impotent Dong applies the titular apparatus to his face:

A nose as strange as a Nose could be!

Of vast proportions and painted red,

And tied with cords to the back of his head.

– In a hollow rounded space it ended

With a luminous Lamp within suspended

Guided by the light of his nose, “ever he seeks, but seeks in vain / To meet with his Jumbly Girl again.” Wullschlager likens him to a nonsense Byron, [192] trapped by Romantic delusion, and Noakes to Demeter. [193] And yet, even in his sadness, the Dong’s strange protuberance transforms him from something base and ruined, into something transcendent and celestial, “a fiery spark,” likened by those who watch from the tower to a “meteor bright / Moving along through the dreary night.” Like Lear, whose only hope of marriage had finally failed by then, [194] the Dong carries his moment of lost happiness within him evermore, like a poem written for a child, or the light at the end of a glorious nose. Even as the sun finally sets on the Gromboolian plain, with the Daddy long-legs and Fly, like Dell, the Crane and Jumblies, gone away, the Dong’s light shines in the darkness. It is a potent symbol of Lear’s enduring genius.

God is Nonsense

Little has been written about Edward Lear, and much that is written is out of print, or of modest value. Yet his poetry is extraordinary, and has justly attracted the interest of writers as diverse as Tennyson, Ruskin, Chesterton, Burgess, Auden, Orwell and Huxley, gathered together in sympathy and song like the motley crew atop the Quangle Wangle’s hat. And millions of children have joined them there.

If A Book of Nonsense and More Nonsense used limericks to expose and condemn the destructive forces in Victorian Britain, then Lear’s nonsense songs transcended them. Anthony Burgess, reflecting upon “The Owl and the Pussy-cat,” encapsulated the triumph of the Learean escape thus:

“[Its] joy is unqualified … the grace of a great light in the sky and an eternal ocean – on whose verge the bridal pair dare to dance – sanctifies all impossibilities. Life is bigger than Victorian England. Nonsense means what we cannot understand. God is nonsense.” [195]

Lear’s greatest triumph was to take two dangerous ideas – that society can be cruel, destructive and unjust, and that, given enough imagination, compassion, love and courage, the individual may yet find happiness – and make them both ridiculously funny. English language children’s literature would never be the same again.


[150] Mill, On Liberty, p.139.

[151] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.238.

[152] St. Matthew 8:20.

[153] Burgess, Homage, p.303.

[154] Levi, Edward Lear, p.31.

[155] Wullschlager, Inventing Wonderland, p.81.

[156] Ibid, p.83.

[157] James Eli Adams, “Victorian Sexualities,” in Herbert F. Tucker, ed. A Companion to Victorian Literature & Culture, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999) p.135.

[158] Iona & Peter Opie (eds.), The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, 2nd Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), p.240-242.

[159] Isaiah 11:9.

[160] Isaiah 11:6.

[161] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.392.

[162] Rousseau, Emile, Book Two, p.87.

[163] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.272-273.

[164] Bailey, “The Victorian Middle Class & The Problem of Leisure”, p.16.

[165] Ibid, p.20-21.

[166] Carroll, Annotated Alice, p.180.

[167] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.328.

[168] It may well be that this is another suicide limerick, and timely too. Anderson writes that: “the early Victorian years … were not the first age of railway suicide … trains were hardly ever used as a means of self-destruction until 1868. In that year a total of 20 men threw themselves under trains … suddenly this became the fashionable method.” Anderson, Suicide in Victorian and Edwardian England, p.371-2.

[169] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.273.

[170] Bailey, “The Victorian Middle Class & The Problem of Leisure”, p.21.

[171] Noakes (ed.), Selected Letters, p.204-5.

[172] Rousseau, Emile, Book One, p.59.

[173] Edward Lear, quoted in Noakes, Life of a Wanderer, p.92.

[174] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.193

[175] Ibid, p.423

[176] Ibid, p.207.

[177] Ibid, p.248.

[178] Ibid, p.255.

[179] Rousseau, Emile, Book Five, p.455.

[180] James Buzard, “Then on the Shore of the Wide World: The Victorian Nation and its Others”, in Herbert F. Tucker, ed. A Companion to Victorian Literature & Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), p.446.

[181] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.398.

[182] Ibid, p.253-6.

[183] Ibid, p.273

[184] Noakes, Life of a Wanderer, p.86.

[185] See Chloe Chard for an excellent introduction to Victorian conceptions of “the tourist.” Chloe Chard, Pleasure and Guilt on the Grand Tour (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), p.11.

[186] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.500.

[187] Ibid, p.207-9.

[188] Montaigne, Michel de, The Essays of Montaigne, Volume One, trans. E.J. Trenchman (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1927), p.548

[189] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.413-4.

[190] Ibid, p.422.

[191] Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Major Works, Zachary Leader & Michael O’Neill, eds. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p.213.

[192] Wullschlager, Inventing Wonderland, p.88.

[193] Noakes, Life of a Wanderer, p.227

[194] Ibid, p.219.

[195] Burgess, Homage, p.303.

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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, W.H. Auden, 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 strange 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 as “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 perceived 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 authors, Lear’s writing displays 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.

Bees historically were deemed benevolent in folklore, yet 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] even when lovable, Lear finds no moral comfort in the company of beasts. Like Lear’s humans, their behaviour is random, absurd and often 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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