A Load of Old Nonsense

A Load of Old Nonsense

3 July 2020: Poet’s Day 14

This week’s theme is nonsense poetry.

We open with Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” with its spectacular array of nonsense words, then move on to “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat” by Edward Lear, another popular nonsense author, and we end with James Whitcomb Riley’s “The Craqueodoom”.

Poem 40. Jabberwocky

“Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun the frumious Bandersnatch!”

Lewis Carroll (1832—1898)

‘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 a while 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!
Oh frabjous day! Callooh! 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.

This poem is a feast of imaginative words that have just enough context that you almost get their meaning without knowing the word. There are some fantastic inventions here: “slithy”, “frumious”, “manxome”, and “uffish” are such great-sounding words that they ought to have a definition.

The words “galumph” and “chortle” have passed into the English language from this poem and the word “vorpal” is used in the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game to indicate a blade that has a greater chance of decapitating its target on a successful attack. Carroll’s biographer Alexander L. Taylor has pointed out that “vorpal” can be constructed by taking alternate letters from the words “verbal” and “gospel”.

The word “burble” isn’t a creation of Lewis Carroll, however—it derives from Middle English and is an onomatopoeic word imitative of a bubbling sound.

Lewis Carroll was the pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, an ingenious writer who encompassed children’s fiction, mathematics, photography, invention and philosophy. His talents for word play, logic and fantasy are best displayed in his books “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass”. He was born in Daresbury, Cheshire, and spent much of his life at Christ Church, Oxford as a scholar and teacher. He was friendly with John Ruskin, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and knew a number of artists including William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais.

He was a well-known photographer, taking around 3,000 images of men, women, boys, and young girls (which led to imputations of paedophilia by late twentieth-century biographers on rather doubtful grounds). He photographed landscapes and objects as well as celebrities such as Millais, Ellen Terry, Michael Faraday and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

His pseudonym is derived from his own name: Carroll comes from Carolus, the Latin equivalent of Charles, and Lewis is the Anglicised version of Ludovicus, which derives from Lutwidge.

He had whooping cough as a teenager and it’s thought that this weakened his chest; his last illness was influenza which developed into pneumonia, and he died aged 65 at his sister’s house in Guildford.

Poem 41. The Owl and the Pussy-Cat

“And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood, with a ring at the end of his nose”

Edward Lear (1812—1888)

I.

The Owl and the Pussy-Cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat:
They took some honey, and plenty of money
Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
“O lovely Pussy, O Pussy, my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
You are,
You are!
What a beautiful Pussy you are!”

II.

Pussy said to the Owl, “You elegant fowl,
How charmingly sweet you sing!
Oh! let us be married; too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?”
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the bong-tree grows;
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood,
With a ring at the end of his nose,
His nose,
His nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.

III.

“Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?” Said the Piggy, “I will.”
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

This is probably Edward Lear’s best-known creation after his limericks: the story of the owl and the pussy-cat who fall in love and get married catches at the imagination. The poem seems like alternate bands of sense and nonsense and, like Lewis Carroll, Lear enjoyed coining new words: the bong-tree and the runcible spoon (which has passed into the English language) are conspicuous in this poem. It seems to me that the nonsense lies more in the imagery than in the words. The illustrations are Lear’s own drawings.

Edward Lear was an English artist, musician and writer who illustrated birds and animals; he also drew illustrations for some of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poems, but he is chiefly known for his nonsense poems—something like 200 limericks as well as longer verses like this one, “The Akond of Swat” and “The Jumblies”. He was one of 21 children and was raised by his sister Ann who acted as a mother to him until she died. Lear was himself sickly and subject to epileptic fits, asthma and increasing blindness as he grew older. He also suffered from depression, which he called “the Morbids”, from an early age.

He was employed by the Zoological Society from his late teens and was subsequently engaged by the Earl of Derby to produce illustrations of the birds at Knowsley Hall in Merseyside. Lear became the one of the foremost bird illustrators of his age. He used live birds as his subjects, the first major artist to do so. He taught Elizabeth Gould who went on to produce lithographs and illustrations for many ornithological works, including Darwin’s “Zoology of the Voyage of HMS Beagle” and “The Birds of Australia”, produced in partnership with her husband, John Gould.

After his eyesight began to deteriorate, Lear was unable to produce the fine work needed for detailed illustrations and turned to painting landscapes of the lands where he began to travel.

He never married, though he proposed twice to the same woman—she was 46 years younger than he was, and did not accept either proposal. He was infatuated with the young barrister Franklin Lushington, and they were friends for nearly forty years but Lushington did not reciprocate Lear’s affections.

Lear died at his villa in San Remo following a long period of heart disease and lies in the cemetery there—none of his lifelong friends were able to attend his funeral which was described as sad and lonely by the wife of Lear’s doctor.

Poem 42. Craqueodoom

“The ghost of the Zhack flitted by in a trance, and the Squidjum hid under a tub”

James Whitcomb Riley (1849—1916)

The Crankadox leaned o’er the edge of the moon
And wistfully gazed on the sea
Where the Gryxabodill madly whistled a tune
To the air of “Ti-fol-de-ding-dee.”
The quavering shriek of the Fly-up-the-creek
Was fitfully wafted afar
To the Queen of the Wunks as she powdered her cheek
With the pulverized rays of a star.

The Gool closed his ear on the voice of the Grig,
And his heart it grew heavy as lead
As he marked the Baldekin adjusting his wing
On the opposite side of his head,
And the air it grew chill as the Gryxabodill
Raised his dank, dripping fins to the skies,
And plead with the Plunk for the use of her bill
To pick the tears out of his eyes.

The ghost of the Zhack flitted by in a trance,
And the Squidjum hid under a tub
As he heard the loud hooves of the Hooken advance
With a rub-a-dub – dub-a-dub – dub!
And the Crankadox cried, as he lay down and died,
“My fate there is none to bewail,”
While the Queen of the Wunks drifted over the tide
With a long piece of crape to her tail.

I discovered this poem while looking for nonsense, as you might say, and it fits the bill perfectly—it almost seems like another vignette from the world of Jabberwocky. There is the same inventive use of new words that almost make sense in context, and I love it. The poem is also known as Spirk Troll-Derisive (obviously!)

James Whitcomb Riley was a best-selling American author who wrote poetry and prose in the dialect of the Midwestern United States. Though he struggled to gain his initial foothold and suffered from a life-long addiction to alcohol, he was much loved for his writing style (though critics were less persuaded of his capabilities than the general public) and eventually wrote over fifty books of poetry and short stories, selling millions of copies. His popular children’s poems generally had a moral that the less fortunate members of society should be pitied and supported through charity. In the last years of his life, he suffered a stroke that impaired his ability to write, and he died after a second stroke in 1916. His death made front-page headlines in many newspapers, the president wrote a letter of condolence to his family, and he lay in state at the Indiana Statehouse before his burial. He has been commemorated in the names of several schools, and the US Postal Service issued a stamp in his honour in 1940. The town of Greenfield holds an annual festival honouring him in October.

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