What is Nonsense?

What is Nonsense?

Nonsense as a genre is very hard to define and a great many views have been offered as to its definition. Is it the language of the playground articulated through adult expression, or the imagination of dreams captured in prose?[1] Is it a game using words as its pieces so we find ourselves ‘ faced with the finished product and we have to discover the field of the game and the rules by which it is played?’ (E.Sewell pg 26). Other sources have seen it as an elaborate code and sought to decipher its inherent hidden message using trial and error and reading words backwards in a mirror[2], by this method it is possible for ‘the reader to learn that ‘Jabberwocky’ is the code name for the Baal Shem Tov of Medzhbish, in the province of Kamenetz Podolsk in the Ukraine’! (J.Lecerle pg 8). Some authors will use the term ‘pure’ or ‘true’ nonsense to separate works by the Victorian masters Lewis and Carroll from other examples that follow their rules in a less satisfactory manner, whereas  the author Stephen Booth would have us believe that The Gettysburg Address and Shakespeares Twelfth night [3]should be also be considered as nonsense literature.

I would define Nonsense , then, as a genre of narrative literature which balances a multiplicity of meaning with a simultaneous absence of meaning. This balance is effected by playing with the rules of language, logic, prosody and representation, or a combination of these.(Tim Wigges, pg 27)

For me, Tim Wigges definition comes close to capturing the essence of nonsense. Like Elizabeth Sewell he recognises that  a game is being played with words.  The rules that rescue nonsense from pure gibberish can be very strict and formal such as rhyming verse or less obvious such as nonsense in the form of a letter to a friend or nonsense as a cooking recipe. It is equally important that nonsense has no meaning and that it conforms to rules that we understand. Wigges is convincing in his argument that other word games or ‘literary curiosities’ lack the tension inherent in nonsense and strive to make the most coherence possible in difficult circumstances. His example being this word game where each word must be one letter longer than the word before.

I do not know where family doctors acquired illegibly perplexing handwriting; nevertheless, extraordinary pharmaceutical intellectuality, counterbalancing indecipherability, transcendentalizes intercommunications’ incomprehensibleness  ! (T.Wigges pg 31)

In trying to separate nonsense from light verse Wigges suggests that nonsense does not rely on wit, whereas light verse relies on it. I find this argument less satisfying and certainly would not suggest that nonsense cannot use wit to great effect and that you will find some wonderful examples of nonsense in works which Wigges may consider light verse. But I think here we find ourselves battling with notions of ‘pure’ or ‘true nonsense’. Quentin Blake, when compiling a collection of his favourite nonsense poems wrote ‘I can’t guarantee that every poem I’ve included is pure nonsense. Some have an element of nonsense without being absolutely nonsensical; and there are a few that are just sort of crazy in a way I couldn’t resist.’(Q.Blake pg15), and wit is certainly consistently found in his choices. He defines nonsense for a younger audience and puts it into categories such as ‘world~turned~upside down’  or ‘invented words’ and  seems happy for nonsense to really mean things that don’t make sense but at first glance appear to be serious.

However you define nonsense, its essence seems to have spread far and wide in modern times, its influence can be seen dramatically in modern comedy and children’s literature. In the next section I shall look at the possible roots of nonsense and how its role and the way it is perceived may have changed in society.

Nonsense has a habit of occupying – and sometimes usurping – other forms of literature: notably among them, folk literature, nursery rhyme, fantasy and absurdism (K.Pendlebury pg 4).

















[1] Emile Cammaerts. The poetry of Nonsense.

[2] Jean Jacques Lecerle. The Intuitions of nonsense.

[3] Stephen Booth. Precious nonsense.


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