Concerning Nonsense (1889)

PERHAPS it may be thought by some an absurdity to speak of nonsense as a Fine Art ; but then we have it on high authority that

A little nonsense now and then
Is relished by the wisest men.

And we must remember that nonsense is not necessarily language which has no meaning. In fact, the essence of nonsense is that it should bear the appearance of sense. We altogether take exception to Webster’s definition of “nonsense verses,” for instance. He says : “Nonsense verses are lines made by taking any words which occur, but especially certain words which it is desired to recollect, and arranging them without reference to anything but the measure, so that the rhythm of the lines may assist in remembering the words of which they are composed.”

Let the reader take up any of the verses of Edward Lear — lately extolled by the “Quarterly Review” as the most accomplished writer of nonsense of our time — and note how far they are from realising this definition. There must be method in the madness, or nonsense becomes merely irritating instead of amusing. For nonsense, in its literary relations, is really a Fine Art. It must be written by a genius, or it is intolerable. It must, in fact, be capable of being analysed, classified, and reduced to sense. Not that we want to do it — as the “Quarterly Review,” for instance, does. That spoils the charm. All we want to feel is, that the art is there, and then to enjoy it. We cannot do that always, if the nonsense is only of the fun analogous to that provoked in the crowd at the sight of an elderly man chasing his hat down the street.

That which excites the laughter of the vulgar is not nonsense exhibited as a Fine Art. There is a difference between vulgar ridicule and genuine mirth, just as there is a difference between wit and humour. Many persons have attempted to define the difference, but few with <115> success. The essence of humour often merely lies in the sudden interpolation of the unexpected — as, for instance, in Charles Lamb’s hare-and-wig story.

Erasmus, we know, esteemed the wisest of men, once penned a work in praise of Folly. It is, in truth, a laboured and ponderous, and not very laughter-provoking book, but it is characterised by a certain grim humour. A lesser light, Taylor, the Water-Poet, once wrote about “Nonsence upon Sence; the Essence, Qaintescence, Insence, Innocence, Difference, and Magnificence of Nonsence,” which has some merit. Albeit, Taylor, as may be gathered from his title, relied rather much upon
punning and playing with words. As thus:

The impartialest satyre that ever was seen,
That speaks truth without fear, or flattery, or spleen,
Read as you list, commend it, or come mend it;
The man that pen’d it did with Finis end it.

It has been said of Sir Richard Blackmore’s “Satire upon Wit,” that if not witty itself, it was the cause of wit in others.

Thomas D’Urfey’s “Pills to Purge Melancholy,” were supposed to be composed of Wit and Mirth, and were prescribed with the advice to “laugh and be fat.”

Addison, who could not sufficiently admire the facetious title of D’Urfey’s work, was of opinion that “the above pills would be extremely proper to be taken with asses’ milk, and might contribute towards the renewing and restoring of decayed things.”

But does any one take the dose now? The nonsense of the past seems dull enough to most of us in these days, which is why, perhaps, we do not recognise the spirit of caricature which some learned persons imagine infused the Egyptian artists of thousands of years ago, whose works we now solemnly regard as of almost sacred significance.

Yet why should we think that nonsense was not so much the property of the prehistoric world as of the present? Primeval man, in the dim forest-swamps of old, which now form our coal-beds, doubtless enjoyed his joke when the troublesome sabre-tooth would allow him. Patriarchal Noah could, for a time, forget the cares of his flocks and herds, and sons and daughters, in lighter diversions; and Solomon has told us that there is a time to laugh as well as a time to weep. Homer could find a theme, worthy of even his mighty pen, in a frolicsome war between frogs and mice. Virgil could sing of a gnat and a cake; Ovid of a nut; and Chaucer of a cock and hen.

It is true that Artemus Ward thought of Chaucer that “Mr. C. had talent, but he could not spell; he is the worst speller I ever knew.” But he had plenty of fun. So also had Artemus himself, whose spelliug was even more eccentric; and perhaps those who come to consider the subject of nonsense as a Fine Art, will be more disposed to select Artemus Ward as an illustration than Dan Chaucer. Yet Shakespeare was master of the art, as he was of all arts. The serious Milton could picture

Sport that wrinkled care derides,
And laughter holding both her sides;

the “melancholy Cowper” could write the diverting story of “John Gilpin;” and the ponderous Samuel Johnson is said by his biographer to have been incomparable at buffoonery.

In truth, some of the spirit of childhood remains with every man who is not either a Casaubon or a scoundrel, and the larger the infusion of that spirit the happier the man.

Perhaps one might urge that nonsense is more an art than a natural gift, as Uncle Tulliver thought of politics. “Every man,” said Addison, “would be a wit if he could;” and the properties which the essayist considered essential to wit are — delight and surprise. He differentiated, however, between “true wit,” which is “the resemblance of ideas,” and “false wit,” which is “the resemblance of words” — from which one may conclude that what Addision meant by wit is not the same thing as the nonsense which we are now told to regard as a Fine Art. In truth, the professional wits of the eighteenth century would probably be regarded as intolerable bores in nineteenth century society.

Instead of the old satires, we have that which is called “persiflage,” for want of a better English name. We can still enjoy Lucían, and Gulliver, and Corporal Trim, but we cannot swallow Pope’s “Rape of the Lock.” In our nonsense-writers we want a combination of the two kinds of wit that Addison indicated. We want a play of words as well as of fancy; an exuberance of imagination, as well as a frothy sparkling of language. As with our wine, so with our nonsense; it must be clear, light, sparkling, and dry.

But there are various brands. There is humorous literature, and nonsense literature.<115> The comic writers are not of the same category as the nonsense-writers. We would not class Mr. Burnand with Edward Lear — although the “Quarterly Review ” is inclined to do so, while proclaiming Edward Lear to be the creator of “a new and important kind of that nonsense for which the pen and pencil contend.”

Now Lear’s verses are very funny, when you take them in small doses.

His Owl and Pussy-cat who went out to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat; his Jumblies who went to sea in a sieve; his Dong with the Luminous Nose; his Quangle-Wangle ; and all the other strange creatures he discovered and immortalised, are all irresistible, when you don’t have too much of them. Nonsense is certainly made both charming and melodious by Edward Lear; yet it can hardly be said that he was the creator of this brand. Our old friend who went into the garden to pluck a cabbage-leaf wherewith to make an apple-pie, might have something to say on the subject, if it came to a trial for patent-rights.

But, after all Lear’s nonsense has not the subtle and enduring quality of that of Calverley and Lewis Carroll. The nonsense which Alice found herself compelled to talk and to listen to in Wonderland, and behind the Looking-glass, has far more of the true quality of wit than one finds among the Quangle-Wangles, and Jonghy-Bonghy Bos. The weird tale of the Snark arrests one more than the curious story of the Dong. However, Lear was more nonsensical than Lewis Carroll, perhaps, but if there is to be immortality in nonsense-writing, we must expect it where it is animated by the most art. And thus the Hatter, and Humpty-Dumpty, and the Queen of Hearts may all be remembered when the Dong and the Jumblies are forgotten. The Quangle-Wangle may die, but the Snark will live, for it is the misfortune of many people in hunting for a Snark to find only a Boojum.

From All the Year Round. February 2, 1889, pp. 115-7.

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