Edward Lear: Destruction

Edward Lear & The Vic­to­ri­an Nurs­ery

A rev­o­lu­tion­ary fig­ure in the his­to­ry of Eng­lish lan­guage chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture, Edward Lear explod­ed the con­ven­tions of the Vic­to­ri­an nurs­ery and replaced the relent­less didac­ti­cism of Isaac Watts and Charles and Mary Lamb with what George Orwell has termed a “pol­ter­geist inter­fer­ence with com­mon sense.” [1] In his life­time, Lear attract­ed the atten­tion of Ten­nyson, Ruskin, Wilkie Collins and Queen Vic­to­ria. Dur­ing the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tu­ry, 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

Ref­er­ences

[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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