Delightful Nonsense (1890)

On January 29, 1888, Edward Lear, a genial humorist , to whom millions of Anglo-Saxon boys and girls and “children of a larger growth” are indebted for an inexhaustible source of happy, innocent laughter, died at San Remo in his pretty villa, upon which he had bestowed the name of the doyen of living English poets. The “comic faculty” with which the deceased gentleman had been so lavishly endowed by nature found expression in drawings of unrivalled absurdity, as well as in the no less quaintly ridiculous verses illustrated by those graphic drolleries. Like Mr. W.S. Gilbert, the gifted apostle of Topsyturvydom, Edward Lear wielded pen and pencil with equal facility and verve; the grotesque ideas with which his fancy teemed took form as readily in drawings of an irresistible ludicrousness as in lines that no one but a born dullard could read without being moved by them to outbursts of joyous merriment. Many years have elapsed since the immortal “Book of Nonsense,” professedly written for the amusement of the youthful generation, took the English public by storm, ran through an extraordinary number of editions, and became a household word in every laughter-loving family throughout the three kingdoms; but its charm is as potent at the present day as it was when Great Britain first held its sides over the domestic colloquies of Mr. and Mrs. Spicky Sparrow and the surprising adventures of the Jumblies, “who went to sea in a sieve.”

The “Book of Nonsense,” though perhaps not strictly a “thing of beauty,” is undeniably a “joy for ever.” It exemplifies, no less forcibly than do the inimitable “Bab Ballads,” or the delightfully ludicrous “Alice in Wonderland,” the truth of Sydney Smith’s axiom, that incongruity is the soul of humour. Our language contains no piece of versification more genuinely funny than the ballad of “The Duck and the Kangaroo,” or than Mr. Floppy Fly’s lamentations, addressed to his sympathetic friend, Mr. Daddy Longlegs, in respect to his physical disqualifications from attending the Court of his Sovereign. Nor were Edward Lear’s Nursery Rhymes one whit less exquisitely humorous than his metrical narratives setting forth the impossible achievements of impossible persons and things. The “Old Man with a Beard” of such luxuriance that it afforded accomodation to “three larks and a wren, two cocks and a hen” — I quote from memory — who “all made their nests” in that redundant hirsute appendage, was one of many comical figures, the offspring of Lear’s prolific imagination, suggesting hilarity that “custom cannot stale.” So was another memorable Old Man — he of Tobago — whose change of diet from “rice, curry, and sago” to more substantial vivers when, relaxing former restrictions, “his doctor one day Unto him did say, ‘To a roast leg of mutton you may go,'” is languidly alluded to by Eugene Wrayburn in “Our Mutual Friend,” whilst discussing the mysterious story of the “Man from Somewhere.”

For oddity as well as genuine fun, Mr. Lear’s conceptions of comic animals, preternatural insects, and preposterous vegetable have never been surpassed by the creations of any anonymous draughtsman, ancient or modern. His two Nonsense Alphabets know no mirth-provoking equal in the English tongue, though run hard in the matter of sheer rollicking buffoonery by Wilhelm Busch’s delightful illustrations to the German alphabet, occupying two sheets of the inestimable “Muenchener Bilderbogen,” which abound in ingenious “word-plays,” pictorially interpreted with excruciating comicality of detail. How many Englishmen, as well as Germans, I wonder, have laughed themselves sore over Busch’s amazing expositions of his couplet on the letter “L” — “Die Lerche hoch im Ether steigt, Der Loewe bruellt, wenn er nicht schweigt” — in which we see a lark laboriously climbing skywards up an interminable ladder, and a portly two-headed lion, one of its faces distorted by a spasm of stupendous roaring, whilst the other is bland with the calm of contented silence?

To a great many happily yconstituted human being nonsense, paradoxical as the assertion may seem, is the most enjoyable of all intellectual entertainments. It is rife with the pleasurable element of surprise, and gaily sets at defiance all the hard-and-fast rules and cut-and-dry precedents by which literary and artistic taste is apt to be guided in its consideration and relish of graver productions. Of course, to be amusing to intelligent persons, nonsense must be supremely clever. It must be rich in ludicrous contrast, such as is afforded by the juxtaposition of incongruous objects, actions, or thought; among its salient characteristics must be subtlety of idea and felicity of expression. Brilliant nonsense, such as that which has flowed so freely, within the last quarter of a century, from the pens of Edward Lear, William Schwenck Gilbert, Henry S. Leigh, Jeffrey Prowse, “Artemus Ward,” “Marl Twain,” and “Max Adeler,” belongs to the realm of humour, rather than the domain of wit. Hence it is to be found in greater abundance and a higher stage of development amongst peoples of Anglo-Saxon origin than amongst the Latin and Slav races. Few Englishmen are witty, or even what our vivacious neighbours term “spirituel”; but a large majority of them are either actively or receptively humorous. England and America can justly lay claim to a more copious productiveness, in respect to writers of thoroughly delectable nonsense, than France, Italy, and Spain combined. Of European Continental countries, indeed, Scandinavia alone has generated an absolute master of this slight but graceful branch of literary art, in the person of Hans Christian Andersen, whose “Resolute Leaden Soldier” and “Shadow” are as spontaneously and deliciously nonsensical as Captain Reece, “commanding of the Mantelpiece,” or even the genially terpsichorean “Bishop of Rum-ti-foo” himself. To French, Spanish, and Italian playwrights the stage is indebted for funny plots and comic “situations” without number; but all the waggery of Continental prose and verse writers has never hitherto created anything so wildly ridiculous, because su utterly nonsensical, as Thackeray’s and Harte’s “Novel by Eminent Hands,” or as the former author’s “Tremendous Adventures of Major O’Geoghegan.” In bygone days, when we still possessed Henry Byron, Tom Robertson, William Brough, Tom Hood the younger, Andrew Halliday, Jeff Prowse, Henry S. Leigh, and William Brunton — all now gathered to their rest — a series of “upside-down” biographies divided public favour with the impayable “Bab Ballads.” Throughout those admirable papers, unknown to the present generation of laughter-lovers, the nonsense-sprite — Edward Lear’s familiar — frolicked with lightsome tread and inexhaustible spirits, gibing at history and romance alike, and profuse of the “nods and becks and wreathed smiles” which unlock the gates of glad and refreshing merriment.

In days like these, when life is perhaps a thought too stern and strenuous, and the bread-earning struggle is far more eager and absorbing then it was of yore, one cannot be too grateful to writers of charming nonsense, like the amiable jester who shuffled off his mortal coil in the sunny South, far away from his native land. Theirs is the fanciful spell that transports the mind for a brief space from this workaday world, with all its petty troubles and ever-threatening cares, to visionary realms, no denizen of which is under the compulsion of duty or subject to the vexatious constrants of conventionality. To men oppressed by the weight of political responsibilities or business anxieties it is true relaxation to be brought into contact, within theatrical precincts or even in print, with beings who may be counted upon not to say or do anything which might be reasonably expected from them in accordance with canons of conduct or with the unwritten law of social etiquette. The extravagant nonsense that such fictitious creatures talk and enact is non the less welcome to the overwrought brain, suscptible to the appeals of humour, because it frequently conceals within a glittering shell of frivolity or folly the germs of the truest and keenest kind of sense.

Through the peculiar variety of nonsense which has of late years been identified with the name of Mr. Gilbert runs a vein of pungent satire which tickles the public palate very shrewdly, and imparts a biting zest to the dialogue and verses of his operatic libretti, having little in common with the delicate flavour of Planché’s extravaganzas or the robust absurdity of Byron’s and Burnand’s burlesques. It is the province of Gilbertian humour, like that of certain Oriental condiments, to sting as well as to stimulate — to give a little pain as well as a great deal of pleasure. Such was not the case with the unadulterated fun of the kindly humorist whose loss many Englishmen deplore. Edward Lear’s jokes, side-splitting though they were, displayed an extraordinary harmlessness, lack of irony, and freedom from ill-natured allusions to the blemishes or weaknesses of “poor human nature.” They were the outcome of a mirthful, jovial dispositions, an eccentric originality of thought, and a highly artistic temperament, singularly perceptive of the comic aspect of things in general. During his life they afforded boundless delight, of a sort that never palled upon eye and ear, to unnumbered hosts of his fellow-countrymen in every part of the habitable globe; and doubtless they will long survive him to furnish joyous entertainment to many a generation yet unborn.

Beatty-Kingston, W. A Journalist’s Jottings. London: Chapman and Hall, 1890. Vol. 2, pp. 242-8.

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