Sunday, October 19, 2008

Nonsense Verse

What is nonsense verse? It is easier perhaps to say who were its creators or earliest practitioners: Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. English has always had a form of nonsense verse in the extensive portfolio of tales, jingles, and rhymes that form our Mother Goose (see Pigeon Post essay of July 6, 2008). There are many jingles that remain current in our language and cultural vocabulary about which there is little or no agreement as to what the rhymes actually mean, ipso facto, nonsense poetry.


A pocket full of posies;

ashes! ashes!

we all fall down.

Is this some folk recollection of the 14th century experience of the Bubonic Plague, a vestige of some ancient Druidic rite, or something else entirely? Even though we have lost the original context, this and other currently unfathomable Mother Goose rhymes, likely at one time did make sense - we have simply forgotten what the context was and how to understand it.

Nonsense verse is verse deliberately created to puzzle, amuse and bewilder and the earliest or certainly most prominent practitioner was the estimable Edward Lear. Much of what he created was written to entertain his charges as tutor to the children of the 13th Earl of Derby. Lear published his first collection of nonsense verse in 1846, A Book of Nonsense, which was basically a collection of limericks which he wrote and illustrated. Despite the apparent amateurishness of his sketched illustrations, Lear was actually a lifelong and talented artist and painter. His ornithological paintings were held to be in the same class as Audubon.

The poetic form of limericks existed before Lear but he made it his own in a way rarely seen. Perhaps only Shakespeare is as closely associated with a specific form of poetry, sonnets, as is Lear with his limericks. These limericks in his first publication have the core attribute of nonsense verse - the individual lines are comprehensible but the whole verse is incomprehensible, puzzling, or uses words in an ambiguous way which a child still mastering the language can experience as a light-bulb moment.

There was an Old Man of Peru,

Who never knew what he should do;

So he tore off his hair, and behaved like as bear,

That intrinsic Old Man of Peru.

The mental image of some distinguished old gentleman behaving like a bear is likely to get a laugh from most children. Thrown in is the bonus of trying to figure out how an Old Man of Peru can be intrinsic. Then there are the ones where Lear just makes an improbable situation seem normal.

There was an old person of Ewell,

Who chiefly subsisted on gruel;

But to make it more nice, he inserted some Mice,

Which refreshed that Old Person of Ewell.

Mouse gruel - Mmmhh! A dish likely to appeal to all those of the snips and snails and puppy dog tails persuasion.

Lear's limericks are rich in unusual words which are likely to catch the attention of children still mastering the language and collecting words like shiny pebbles on the shore. Invidious, ombliferous, dolorous, umbrageous, incipient, intrinsic, oracular, mendacious, borascible, ecstatic, whimsical, amiable, globular, incongruous - Lear's people are all uncommonly adjectively enhanced. With ombliferous and borascible, you see what was later to become one of the frequently distinctive marks of nonsense verse - the made up word. Lewis Carroll was particularly prone to this technique of which his Jabberwocky is probably the most well known example and, as incomprehensible as it is, remains ever popular among young children today. Perhaps there is a feeling of relief that the adult is at an equal disadvantage as the child in understanding the poem.


By Lewis Carroll

'TWAS brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the jubjub bird, and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch!"

He took his vorpal sword in hand:

Long time the manxome foe he sought --

So rested he by the Tumtum tree,

And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,

The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,

Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,

And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through

The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!

He left it dead, and with its head

He went galumphing back.

"And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?

Come to my arms, my beamish boy!

O frabjous day! Calloh! Callay!"

He chortled in his joy.

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

Lear often exploited the wonderful malleability and multiple meanings of the English language in such a way as to make a child think about things in a way differently than they are accustomed to. These forms are known as Wellerisms; for example, '"I see" said the blind man as he picked up his hammer and saw.' An example from Lear would be his The Table and the Chair who go walking about on their four legs.

Both Lear and Carroll later, expanded on the simple limerick and began writing extended poems that told some form of tale but incorporated made up words, logical incongruities, puns and multiple meanings. Some of the more famous include Father William, Jabberwocky, The Walrus and the Carpenter, The Crocodile, and The Lobster Quadrille by Lewis Carroll. Lear had Calico Pie, The Owl and the Pussy Cat, The Pobble Who Has No Toes, The Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo, The Quangle Wangle's Hat, and The Akond of Swat.

More contemporary practitioners of nonsense poetry who appeal to children include Ogden Nash, Spike Milligan, Kenneth Grahame, John Ciardi, or Earl L. Newton.

The gap between good and bad books can be pretty wide. The gulf between good and bad poetry can be larger still. The chasm between good and bad nonsense verse is of a Grand Canyon magnitude.

It is uncommon, outside the works of Edward Lear, to find collections of nonsense verse. More practically, individual poems are often released illustrated by contemporary illustrators. For example, Jan Brett has illustrated Edward Lear's The Owl and the Pussy Cat, which serves as a wonderful introduction for young children to the pleasures of nonsense verse.

Nonsense verse serves as a great bridge from the rhymes of Mother Goose to fuller poetry later on, while at the same time continuing to cultivate a love of language and the artistic manipulation of words. It also, I think, instills a respect for the fact that not everything, least of all in poetry, is necessarily comprehensible. I am thinking of Longfellow's Excelsior. Another example might be that thrilling final verse of Browning's Childe Roland:

There they stood, ranged along the hill-sides, met

To view the last of me, a living frame

For one more picture! In a sheet of flame

I saw them and knew them all. And yet

Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set,

And blew. "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came."

I love it, but I don't yet understand it and perhaps being comfortable with both states is a product of an early exposure to nonsense verse.

Attached is a list of stand alone illustrated versions of some nonsense poems, nonsense verse collections as well as some poetry anthologies which include some good nonsense poems. Let us know which nonsense poems your children enjoy.

Picture Books

The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear and illustrated by Jan Brett
Highly Recommended

"A" Was Once an Apple Pie by Edward Lear and illustrated by Suse MacDonald Recommended

Poetry for Young People by Robert Browning and illustrated by Joel Spector Suggested

The Doubtful Guest written and illustrated by Edward Gorey Suggested

The Object-Lesson written and illustrated by Edward Gorey Suggested

The Gashlycrumb Tinies written and illustrated by Edward Gorey Suggested

The Seals on the Bus by Lenny Hort and illustrated by G. Brian Karas Suggested

The Quangle Wangle's Hat by Edward Lear and illustrated by Louise Voce Suggested

The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear and illlustrated by Anne Mortimer Suggested

Poetry for Young People by Edward Lear and illustrated by Laura Huliska-Beith Suggested

The Adventures of Isabel by Ogden Nash and illustrated by Bridget Starr Taylor Suggested

Ride a Purple Pelican by Jack Prelutsky and illustrated by Garth Williams Suggested

Scranimals by Jack Prelutsky and illustrated by Peter Sis Suggested

Independent Reader

A Book of Nonsense written and illustrated by Edward Lear Highly Recommended

Custard the Dragon and the Wicked Night by Ogden Nash and illustrated by Lynn Munsinger Highly Recommended

Nonsense Verse by Lewis Carroll and illustrated by Lorna Hussey Recommended

Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll and illustrated by Stephane Jorisch Recommended

Amphigorey written and illustrated by Edward Gorey Recommended

Amphigorey Again written and illustrated by Edward Gorey Recommended

Amphigorey Also written and illustrated by Edward Gorey Recommended

Amphigorey Too written and illustrated by Edward Gorey Recommended

Edward Lear by Edward Lear and edited by Vivien Noakes Recommended

The Best of Ogden Nash by Ogden Nash and edited by Linell Nash Smith Recommended

The Annotated Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll, illustrated by Henry Holiday and edited by Martin Gardner Suggested

Humorous Verse of Lewis Carroll by Lewis Carroll Suggested

The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear and illustrated by Stephane Jorisch Suggested

So Much Nonsense by Edward Lear Suggested

No comments:

Post a Comment