Wednesday, February 8, 2012

All That Nonsense

There was an old man of Coblenz, the length of whose legs was immense;
He went with one prance from Turkey to France,
That surprising old man of Coblenz.

Edward Lear's Book of Nonsense was published anonymously in 1846 with 72 limericks, or, as Lear called them, "Nonsenses" (Noakes p. 167). A third edition of the book, published in 1861 and finally attributed to Lear, was expanded to include 112 limericks, though three from the first edition were removed. The limericks were originally written for children and were a form of "Nonsense writing." Indeed, the genre takes its name from the title of Lear's book (Noakes p. 165). In a similar vein to Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Nonsense writing is perfectly correct grammatically but leaves the reader knowing not much more about the story, its characters, or their motivations than when he or she started reading. The story is not as important as the frivolity depicted by the words themselves.

In a time when children grew up too quickly and lived according to the rigid constraints of Victorian society, "Lear offered children the liberation of unaffected high spirits" (Noakes p. 13). This is apparent from the title page of The Book of Nonsense, which reads:

There was an old Derry down Derry [Lear himself],
Who loved to see little folks merry;
So he made them a Book,
And with laughter they shook,
At the fun of that Derry down Derry!

The verse is accompanied by one of Lear's drawings, which shows a grown man dancing, surrounded by excited children, one of whom is even standing on his head. From the start, it is clear that this book is different from the didactic or moralizing books prominent at the time.

There was an old man with a beard, who said "It is just as I feared!
Two owls and a hen, four larks and a wren
Have all build their nests in my beard!"
The Book of Nonsense, and limericks as a form of verse, became popular after the publication of the third edition in 1861. It is around this time that a fan of the book skillfully copied Lear's illustrations and verses in a sketchbook using pencil overlaid with pen and ink. Of the 112 limericks, the fan reproduced fourteen, in three lines each, on one side of each page of the book. The identity of the fan is unclear, but he or she imitated Lear's style to the last detail, after some correction based on the faint remnants of previous penciled attempts at the drawings. The end result is as frivolous and diverting as the original and a fitting tribute to Lear's hilarious nonsense.

There was an old man of the Cape, who possessed a large Barbary ape;
Till the ape one dark night, set the house on a light,
Which burned that old man of the Cape.

I hope you enjoyed this brief "liberation of unaffected high spirits" as much as I did. For more information about this sketchbook, go to our website. To view all of Lear's illustrations for The Book of Nonsense, see here. Additional information found in Edward Lear, 1812-1888, by Vivien Noakes, published 1985 in New York by Harry N. Abrams.

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