Nonsense Poetry: Edward Lear’s contribution to Historical Children’s Literature

Nonsense Poetry

This post, intended to delight and entertain, will focus on nonsense poetry, mostly the limericks of Edward Lear. Lear was a British poet well known for his humorous poems, such as The Owl and the Pussycat, and as the creator of the form and meter of the modern limerick.

Nonsense poetry is a “form of light, often rhythmical verse, usually for children, depicting peculiar characters in amusing and fantastical situations. It is whimsical and humorous in tone and tends to employ fanciful phrases and meaningless made-up words.” (dictionary.com via Wikipedia)

One famous example of one of Lear’s made-up words can be read here, in the last lines of The Owl and the Pussycat:

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.

The “runcible spoon”, which Lear invented, is now found in many dictionaries.  I believe it refers to a spoon used to eat fruit.

Wikipedia states, “In Lear’s limericks the first and last lines usually end with the same word, rather than rhyming. For the most part, they are truly nonsensical and devoid of any punch line or point; there is nothing in them to “get”. They are completely free of the off-colour humour with which the verse form is now associated.”

Spots of Greece

Papa once went to Greece,
And there I understand
He saw no end of lovely spots
About that lovely land.
He talks about these spots of Greece
To both Mama and me
Yet spots of Greece upon my dress
They can’t abear to see!
I cannot make it out at all—
If ever on my Frock
They see the smallest Spot of Greece

It gives them quite a shock!
Henceforth, therefore—to please them both

These spots of Greece no more

Shall be upon my frock at all—

Nor on my Pinafore.

Fun fact: Some people think he may be inventor of the term “snail mail.”

About Lear

Some critics think Lear spent his life writing silly poems to counter the rigidity and oppressive formality of Victorian England. Whether that is true we’ll never know; what we do know is that Lear, despite the humor he added to the world, was a sickly and lonely man.  Lear is said to have been  the youngest of twenty children. He began his career as an artist at 15, after his father was sent to debtor’s prison and he was forced to work.

He was hired by the London Zoological Society to make pictures of birds, shown here. His Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots was published in in 1830. (poets.org)

Despite Lear’s talent as a poet, natural history and landscape painter, he suffered from bronchitis, epilepsy and asthma for most of his life. According to Wikipedia, “In Lear’s time epilepsy was believed to be associated with demonic possession, which contributed to his feelings of guilt and loneliness.”
Lear was never married but twice proposed to the same woman, 46 years his junior. You can read more about his personal life (specifically his sexuality, of which there is much written)  at Victorian Trickster: A Jungian Consideration of Edward Lear’s Nonsense Verse.

Lear loved to travel and settled at a villa in San Remo, Italy.  He died there of heart disease  in 1888.  Lear’s books were quite popular during his life and he was beloved by his friends.

Below find a poem to Lear, written by W.H. Auden

Left by his friend to breakfast alone on the white
Italian shore, his Terrible Demon arose
Over his shoulder; he wept to himself in the night,
A dirty landscape-painter who hated his nose.

The legions of cruel inquisitive They
Were so many and big like dogs: he was upset
By Germans and boats; affection was miles away:
But guided by tears he successfully reached his Regret.

How prodigiuous the welcome was. Flowers took his hat
And bore him off to introduce him to the tongs;
The demon’s false nose made the table laugh; a cat
Soon had him waltzing madly, let him squeeze her hand;
Words pushed him to the piano to sing comic songs;

And children swarmed to him like settlers. He became a land.

[from W.H. Auden, Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957,
London, Faber and Faber, 1966, p. 127.]

Lear’s peers: Who else wrote nonsense poetry?

Lewis Carroll, Lear’s much younger contemporary.

T.S. Eliot,  The Old Possum Book of Practical Cats

Wilhelm Bush, who some credit with inventing the comic strip, is also a contemporary of Lear’s and their writings have much in common. His Hans Huckebein and Max und Moritz are available, both in German and English.

Check out the books in TC’s collection on Lear and Nonsense Poetry!

Edward Lear’s Nonsense Book (several versions)
Owl and the Pussycat
The jumblies and other nonsense verses by Edward Lear
Inventing wonderland : the lives and fantasies of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, J.M. Barrie, Kenneth G
Edward Lear; the life of a wanderer