Invented in 1611 by writer John Hoskyns and then used more prolifically by his successor John Taylor, English nonsense verse dwindled in popularity until its revival in the nineteenth century Victorian era. While the rest of Britain was obsessed with emphasizing law, order, discipline and structure with regard to the emerging sciences in the wake of the Age of Enlightenment, writers like Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear carved out a separate niche for themselves dealing with pure fantasy, imagination and perversion of logic. There is a clear juxtaposition of the obsessively controlled metre and rhyme of other poets around this time like Tennyson and Browning and the relatively simple, free-flowing verse of Carroll and Lear.

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Typically targeted at young children, nonsense poetry employed both redundancy and semantic-syntactic deviancy, which are constitutive of child-language. As critic Diane Ponterotto points out in her essay Rule-Breaking and Meaning-Making in Edward Lear (1993), playing with language structure is the child’s way of learning how language works. She explains that “redundancy is a child language strategy which compensates for the immature acquisition of rules,” and “deviancy is simply the process by which children gradually reconstruct rules for the speech they hear.”

For example, in his poem The Jabberwocky (1871) from his book Through the Looking Glass (1871), Carroll uses phrases like “vorpal sword”, “manxome foe”, and “uffish thought” which in the sense of the poem, fit perfectly. The combination of sounds may be unfamiliar, but the reader is able to make sense out of them within both a poetic framework and a phonological one:

’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 awhile 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!

O 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.

Ponterotto further explains that readers of nonsensical verse are drawn into a world where the natural order has been distorted, and that they begin to “question the meaning of known words while looking for meaning in words they do not recognize.” This tension between the real and the unreal causes nonsense poetry to flourish.

The Jabberwocky is appears in a book that Alice stumbles upon in the odd land of the looking glass. It may be seen as an epic fairytale set in a “wonderland” filled with beasts, the most menacing one being the Jabberwock, and other magical creatures. It follows the story of a boy who sets off on a quest to rid his land of the Jabberwock – seemingly inspired by the typical “knight-in-shining-armour slays the dragon and saves the townspeople” sort of Arthurian legend. He is successful in his quest and returns home to his father bearing the head of the beast. In Through the Looking Glass, when upon reading The Jabberwocky Alice herself exclaims that, “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas-only I don’t exactly know what they are”, she mirrors the response of the reader who is pulled into a bizarre world of nonsense. The Jabberwocky is also typed backwards in the book, increasing the effect of wonderment.

Critic A. Imholtz, in his article Latin and Greek Versions of “Jabberwocky”: Exercises in Laughing and Grief (1987) says that the nonsensical words used are still pronounceable and that it is important for them to fit the pattern of sounds relative to the language in which they occur. Making an apt comparison from Through the Looking Glass, he explains that the writer must maintain a “Humpty-Dumpty-like balance upon the narrow wall of language between sense and nonsense.” It may be noted that the nonsense words used by Carroll are particularly amusing to the reader because of their short-sounding vowels and stressed consonants which are pleasing both orally and aurally. Words like “burbled”, “galumphing”, and “borogrove” imitate the rhythmical sound of deep-toned brass instruments, while “bandersnatch”, “snicker-snack” and “jubjub” are words that roll across ones tongue in a remarkably ‘fun’ way. This technique of inventing pleasant-sounding words was also largely employed later by the children’s author Roald Dahl who often combined various words to describe certain feelings and visuals. For instance, words like “gloriumptious”, “bonecrunching” and “whoppsy-whiffling” used in his novel The BFG (1982) are nonsensical, but the reader is able to assign meaning to them.

It is the belief of many critics that Carroll intended his nonsense poems as a harmless escape from life while still tackling larger issues. He also cleverly criticized the English school system with his character Alice as she constantly misapplies her rote-learned classroom teachings. This would have been impossible to accomplish within the bounds of more serious writing. The nonsensical fantastical elements in his stories and poems allow him to offer full-fledged criticism without being considered offensive.

Edward Lear’s poetry, which also deals in pure fantasy, with imaginary countries and made-up words, seems to have an underlying feeling of sadness and bitterness. His limericks express a kind of amiable lunacy, a natural sympathy with whatever is weak and absurd. Take, for instance, the following poems from his Book of Nonsense (1870):

There was an Old Man of Peru,

Who never knew what he should do;

So he tore off his hair,

And behaved like a bear,

That intrinsic Old Man of Peru.

 

There was an Old Person of Ischia,

Whose conduct grew friskier and friskier;

He dance hornpipes and jigs,

And ate thousands of figs,

That lively Old Person of Ischia.

The intent of Lear’s poetry has been highly debated. Critic Ina Rae Hark, in her article Eccentricity and the Victorian Angst (1978), claims that his work reflects a “deep-seated Victorian Angst about the capacity for irrationality and violence in the individual, his society and his universe”. The apparent madness and delirium in his limericks could possibly stem from his own bitter experiences as a child. He had a nervous temperament further complicated by epilepsy – “The Demon”, and also suffered acute depressions – “The Morbids” – from age seven. Lear’s diary entry dated 24 March 1877 recounts a childhood memory of watching a twilit performance by clowns in Highgate, and of “crying half the night after all the small gaiety broke up – and also suffering for days at the memory of the past scene.” The mix of carnival energy and melancholy and the snatching for happiness as it fades most likely inspired his comic, melancholy characters.

Others like Carolyn Wells are of the belief that his aim was “nonsense, pure and absolute” for the mere pleasure of “administering innocent mirth to thousands”. T. S. Eliot is also reported to have noted in an unpublished lecture given in 1933 at Scripps College, Claremont, that “Lear does not mean to mean anything”.

However, this does not mean that the text amounts to a meaninglessness. The nonsense seems to break all rules of semantic-syntactic compatibility and yet, in the terms of Roland Barthes, as we “surrender to the text”, it somehow manages to construct a discourse.

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