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Carolyn Wells
Introduction to
A Nonsense Anthology


ON a topographical map of Literature Nonsense would be represented by a small and sparsely settled country, neglected by the average tourist, but affording keen delight to the few enlightened travellers who sojourn within its borders. It is a field which has been neglected by anthologists and essayists; one of its few serious recognitions being in a certain "Treatise of Figurative Language," which says: "Nonsense; shall we dignify that with a place on our list? Assuredly will vote for doing so every one who hath at all duly noticed what admirable and wise uses it can be, and often is, put to, though never before in rhetoric has it been so highly honored. How deeply does clever or quaint nonsense abide in the memory, and for how many a decade from earliest youth to age's most venerable years."

And yet Hazlitt's "Studies in Jocular Literature" mentions six divisions of the jest, and omits Nonsense!

Perhaps, partly because of such neglect, the work of the best nonsense writers is less widely known than it might be.


But a more probable reason is that the majority of the reading world does not appreciate or enjoy real nonsense, and this, again, is consequent upon their inability to discriminate between nonsense of integral merit and simple chaff.

A jest's prosperity lies in the ear
Of him that hears it. Never in the tongue
Of him that makes it,

and a sense of nonsense is as distinct a part of our mentality as a sense of humor, being by no means identical therewith.

It is a fad at present for a man to relate a nonsensical story, and then, if his hearer does not laugh, say gravely: "You have no sense of humor. That is a test story, and only a true humorist laughs at it." Now, the hearer may have an exquisite sense of humor, but he may be lacking in a sense of nonsense, and so the story gives him no pleasure. De Quincey said, "None but a man of extraordinary talent can write first-rate nonsense." Only a short study of the subject is required to convince us that De Quincey was right; and he might have added, none but a man of extraordinary taste can appreciate first-rate nonsense. As an instance of this, we may remember that Edward Lear, "the parent of modern nonsense-writers," was a talented author and artist, and a prime favorite of such men as Tennyson and the Earls of [XX] Derby; and John Ruskin placed Lear's name at the head of his list of the best hundred authors.

"Don't tell me," said William Pitt," of a man's being able to talk sense; every one can talk sense. Can he talk nonsense?"

The sense of nonsense enables us not only to discern pure nonsense, but to consider intelligently nonsense of various degrees of purity. Absence of sense is not necessarily nonsense, any more than absence of justice is injustice.

Etymologically speaking, nonsense may be either words without meaning, or words conveying absurd or ridiculous ideas. It is the second definition which expresses the great mass of nonsense literature, but there is a small proportion of written nonsense which comes under the head of language without meaning.

Again, there are verses composed entirely of meaningless words, which are not nonsense literature, because they are written with some other intent.

The nursery rhyme, of which there are almost as many versions as there are nurseries,

Eena, meena, mona, mi,
Bassalona, bona, stri,
Hare, ware, frown, whack,
Halico balico, we, wi, wo, wack,

is not strictly a nonsense verse, because it was in-[xxi]vented and used for "counting out," and the arbitrary words simply take the place of the numbers 1, 2, 3, etc.

Also, the nonsense verses with which students of Latin composition are sometimes taught to begin their efforts, where words are used with no relative meaning, simply to familiarize the pupil with the mechanical values of quantity and metre, are not nonsense. It is only nonsense for nonsense' sake that is now under our consideration.

Doubtless the best and best-known example of versified words without meaning is "Jabberwocky." Although (notwithstanding Lewis Carroll's explanations) the coined words are absolutely without meaning, the rhythm is perfect and the poetic quality decidedly apparent, and the poem appeals to the nonsense lover as a work of pure genius. Bayard Taylor is said to have recited "Jabberwocky " aloud for his own delectation until he was forced to stop by uncontrollable laughter. To us who know our Alice it would seem unnecessary to quote this poem, but it is a fact that among the general reading community the appreciators of Lewis Carroll are surprisingly few. An editor of a leading literary review, when asked recently if he had read "Alice in Wonderland," replied, "No, but I mean to. It is by the author of 'As in a Looking-Glass,' is it not?"


But of far greater interest and merit than nonsense of words, is nonsense of ideas. Here, again, we distinguish between nonsense and no sense. Ideas conveying no sense are often intensely funny, and this type is seen in some of the best of our nonsense literature.

A perfect specimen is the bit of evidence read by the White Rabbit at the Trial of the Knave of Hearts.[1] One charm of these verses is the serious air of legal directness which pervades their ambiguity, and another is the precision with which the metrical accent coincides exactly with the natural emphasis. They are marked, too, by the liquid euphony that always distinguishes Lewis Carroll's poetry.

A different type is found in verses that refer to objects in terms the opposite of true, thereby suggesting ludicrous incongruity, and there is also the nonsense verse that uses word effects which have been confiscated by the poets and tacitly given over to them.

A refrain of nonsense words is a favorite diversion of many otherwise serious poets.

With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,

is one of Shakespeare's many musical nonsense refrains.


Burns gives us:

Ken ye aught o' Captain Grose?
        Igo and ago,
If he 's 'mang his freens or foes?
        Iram, coram, dago.
Is he slain by Highlan' bodies?
        Igo and ago;
And eaten like a weather haggis?
        Iram, coram, dago.

Another very old refrain runs thus

Rorum, corum, sunt di-vorum,
        Harum, scarum, divo;
Tag-rag, merry-derry, periwig and hat-band,
        Hic, hoc, horum, genitivo.

An old ballad written before the Reformation has for a refrain:

        Sing go tax,
        Trim go trix,
Under the greenwood tree.

While a celebrated political ballad is known by its nonsense chorus,

Lilliburlero bullin a-la.

Mother Goose rhymes abound in these nonsense refrains, and they are often fine examples of onomatopœia.

By far the most meritorious and most interesting kind of nonsense is that which embodies an absurd [xxiv] or ridiculous idea, and treats it with elaborate seriousness. The greatest masters of this art are un doubtedly Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. These Englishmen were men of genius, deep thinkers, and hard workers.

Lear was an artist draughtsman, his subjects being mainly ornithological and zoological. Lewis Carroll (Charles L. Dodgson) was an expert in mathematics and a lecturer on that science in Christ Church, Oxford.

Both these men numbered among their friends many of the greatest Englishmen of the day. Tennyson was a warm friend and admirer of each, as was also John Ruskin.

Lear's first nonsense verses, published in 1846, are written in the form of the well-known stanza beginning:

There was an old man of Tobago.

This type of stanza, known as the "Limerick," is said by a gentleman who speaks with authority to have flourished in the reign of William IV. This is one of several he remembers as current at his public school in 1834:

There was a young man at St. Kitts
Who was very much troubled with fits;
        The eclipse of the moon
        Threw him into a swoon,
When he tumbled and broke into bits.


Lear distinctly asserts that this form of verse was not invented by him, but was suggested by a friend as a useful model for amusing rhymes. It proved so in his case, for he published no less than two hundred and twelve of these "Limericks."

In regard to his verses, Lear asserted that "nonsense, pure and absolute," was his aim throughout; and remarked, further, that to have been the means of administering innocent mirth to thousands was surely a just excuse for satisfaction. He pursued his aim with scrupulous consistency, and his absurd conceits are fantastic and ridiculous, but never cheaply or vulgarly funny.

Twenty-five years after his book came out, Lear published other books of nonsense verse and prose, with pictures which are irresistibly mirthprovoking. Lear's nonsense songs, while retaining all the ludicrous merriment of his Limericks, have an added quality of poetic harmony. They are distinctly singable, and many of them have been set to music by talented composers. Perhaps the best-known songs are "The Owl and the Pussy-Cat" and "The Daddy-Long-Legs and the Fly."

Lear himself composed airs for "The Pelican Chorus" and "The Yonghy- Bonghy Bo," which were arranged for the piano by Professor Pomè, of San Remo, Italy.


Although like Lear's in some respects, Lewis Carroll's nonsense is perhaps of a more refined type. There is less of the grotesque and more poetic imagery. But though Carroll was more of a poet than Lear, both had the true sense of nonsense. Both assumed the most absurd conditions, and proceeded to detail their consequences with a simple seriousness that convulses appreciative readers, and we find ourselves uncertain whether it is the manner or the matter that is more amusing.

Lewis Carroll was a man of intellect and education; his funniest sayings are often based on profound knowledge or deep thought. Like Lear, he never spoiled his quaint fancies by over-exaggerating their quaintness or their fancifulness, and his ridiculous plots are as carefully conceived, constructed, and elaborated as though they embodied the soundest facts. No funny detail is ever allowed to become too funny; and it is in this judicious economy of extravagance that his genius is shown. As he remarks in one of his own poems

Then, fourthly, there are epithets
        That suit with any word
As well as Harvey's Reading Sauce
        With fish, or flesh, or bird.
. . . . . . . .


Such epithets, like pepper,
        Give zest to what you write;
And, if you strew them sparely,
        They whet the appetite;
But if you lay them on too thick,
        You spoil the matter quite!

Both Lear and Carroll suffered from the undiscerning critics who persisted in seeing in their nonsense a hidden meaning, a cynical, political, or other intent, veiled under the apparent foolery. Lear takes occasion to deny this in the preface to one of his books, and asserts not only that his rhymes and pictures have no symbolical meaning, but that he "took more care than might be supposed to make the subjects incapable of such misinterpretation."

Likewise, " Jabberwocky " was declared by one critic to be a translation from the German, and by others its originality was doubted. The truth is, that it was written by Lewis Carroll at an evening party; it was quite impromptu, and no ulterior meaning was intended. "The Hunting of the Snark" was also regarded by some as an allegory, or, perhaps, a burlesque on a celebrated case, in which the Snark was used as a personification of popularity, but Lewis Carroll protested that the poem had no meaning at all.

A favorite trick of the Nonsensists is the coining [xxviii] of words to suit their needs, and Lear and Carroll are especially happy in their inventions of this kind. Lear gives us such gems as scroobious, meloobious, ombliferous, borascible, slobaciously, himmeltanious, flumpetty, and mumbian; while the best of Lewis Carroll's coined words are those found in "Jabberwocky."

Another of the great Nonsensists is W. S. Gilbert. Unlike Lear or Carroll, his work is not characterized by absurd words or phrases; he prefers a still wider scope, and invents a ridiculous plot. The "Bab Ballads," as well as Mr. Gilbert's comic opera librettos, hinge upon schemes of ludicrous impossibility, which are treated as the most natural proceedings in the world. The best known of the "Bab Ballads" is no doubt "The Yarn of the 'Nancy Bell,'" which was long since set to music and is still a popular song. In addition to his talent for nonsense, Mr. Gilbert possesses a wonderful rhyming facility, and juggles cleverly with difficult and unusual metres.

In regard to his "Bab Ballads," Mr. Gilbert gravely says that "they are not, as a rule, founded on fact," and, remembering their gory and often cannibalistic tendencies, we are grateful for this assurance. An instance of Gilbert's appreciation of other people's nonsense is his parody of Lear's verse:


There was an old man in a tree
Who was horribly bored by a bee;
        When they said, "Does it buzz?"
        He replied, "Yes, it does!
It's a regular brute of a bee!"

The parody attributed to Gilbert is called "A Nonsense Rhyme in Blank Verse":

There was an old man of St. Bees,
Who was stung in the arm by a wasp;
        When they asked, "Does it hurt?"
        He replied, "No, it does n't,
But I thought all the while 't was a Hornet!"

Thackeray wrote spirited nonsense, but much of it had an under- meaning, political or otherwise, which bars it from the field of sheer nonsense.

The sense of nonsense is no respecter of persons; even staid old Dr. Johnson possessed it, though his nonsense verses are marked by credible fact and irrefutable logic. Witness these two examples:

As with my hat upon my head
        I walked along the Strand,
I there did meet another man
        With his hat in his hand.
The tender infant, meek and mild,
        Fell down upon the stone;
The nurse took up the squealing child,
        But still the child squealed on.


The Doctor is also responsible for

If a man who turnips cries,
Cry not when his father dies,
'Tis a proof that he would rather
Have a turnip than a father

And indeed, among our best writers there are few who have not dropped into nonsense or semi-nonsense at one time or another.

A familiar bit of nonsense prose is by S. Foote, and it is said that Charles Macklin used to recite it with great gusto:

"She went into the garden to cut a cabbage-leaf to make an apple-pie, and at the same time a great she-bear coming up the street, pops its head into the shop. 'What, no soap?' so he died. She imprudently married the barber, and there were present the Pickaninnies, the Joblilies, the Gayrulies, and the Grand Panjandrum himself with the little round button on top, and they all fell to playing catch-as-catch-can till the gunpowder ran out at the heels of their boots."

An old nonsense verse attributed to an Oxford student, is the well known

A centipede was happy quite,
        Until a frog in fun
Said, "Pray, which leg comes after which?"
This raised her mind to such a pitch,
She lay distracted in the ditch
        Considering how to run.

So far as we know, Kipling has never printed [xxxi] anything which can be called nonsense verse, but it is doubtless only a question of time when that branch shall be added to his versatility. His "Just So" stories are capital nonsense prose, and the following rhyme proves him guilty of at least one Limerick:

There was a small boy of Quebec,
Who was buried in snow to his neck;
        When they said, "Are you friz?"
        He replied, " Yes, I is
But we don't call this cold in Quebec."

Among living authors, one who has written a great amount of good nonsense is Mr. Gelett Burgess, late editor of The Lark.

According to Mr. Burgess' own statement, the test of nonsense is its quotability, and his work stands this test admirably, for what absurd rhyme ever attained such popularity as his "Purple Cow"? This was first printed in The Lark, a paper published in San Francisco for two years, the only periodical of any merit that has ever made intelligent nonsense its special feature.

Another of the most talented nonsense writers of to-day is Mr. Oliver Herford. It is a pity, however, to reproduce his verse without his illustrations, for as nonsense these are as admirable as the text. But the greater part of Mr. Herford's work belongs to the realm of pure fancy, and though of a whimsical [xxxii] delicacy often equal to Lewis Carroll's, it is rarely sheer nonsense.


s a proof that good nonsense is by no means an easy achievement, attention is called to a recent competition inaugurated by the London Academy.

Nonsense rhymes similar to those quoted from The Lark were asked for, and though many were received, it is stated that no brilliant results were among them.

The prize was awarded to this weak and uninteresting specimen:

"If half the road was made of jam,
        The other half of bread,
How very nice my walks would be,"
        The greedy infant said.

These two were also offered by competitors:

I love to stand upon my head
        And think of things sublime
Until my mother interrupts
        And says it's dinner-time.
A lobster wooed a lady crab,
        And kissed her lovely face.
"Upon my sole," the crabbess cried,
        "I wish you'd mind your plaice!"

Let us, then, give Nonsense its place among the divisions of Humor, and though we cannot reduce it to an exact science, let us acknowledge it as a fine art.


"Introduction", in A Nonsense Anthology, Collected by Carolyn Wells, New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1903, pp. xix-xxxiii.

[1] "She's all my Fancy painted him," page 20.


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