Nonsense through the ages..

Nonsense through the ages,

 In the 18C there was always the danger that anyone uttering or writing Nonsense would be declared mad.- Anthony Burgess, Nonsense. pg 20

The birth of nonsense as a literary genre of note happened in the 19th Century due to the works of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. These two authors produced their work independently of each other and there is no suggestion that either was a direct influence on the other. Nonsense is to be found earlier, certainly in the writing of William Shakespeare (Spike Milligans ‘On the Ning Nang Nong’ much surely owe more than a little of its inspiration to Shakespeares ‘It was a lover and his lass’) and most obviously in Nursey Ryhmes such as ‘Hey diddle diddle’. The Jungian achetype of the Trickster can be found represented in much folklore from around the world and according to the Hungarian scholar Károly Kerényi  the role of the trickster “is to add disorder to order and so make a whole, to render possible, within the fixed bounds of what is permitted, an experience of what is not permitted,”(C.Snider) which as Clifton Snider points out in his essay ‘Victorian Trickster’[1] could easily apply to the genre of nonsense. Why then did these two writers of nonsense emerge at this time and become so revered?

Culture is distinguished by its codes of propriety and ritual, and these, as we have seen, may provide a basis for the ridicule that occurs in nonsense: human beings are irrational and absurd, and literary nonsense has a knack for pinning down social nonsensicality(k.Pendlebury pg 132)


The Victorian Era is seen as a time of scientific and cultural momentum, Websters dictionary (1828) and the Oxford Dictionary (1884) saw words increasingly organised and their roles defined. Darwins ‘On the Origin of the species’ was published in 1859, and the scientific mood of the time was to catalogue, contain and make sense of. So perhaps this ‘Victorian Zeitgeist’ can explain the popularity of nonsense and its apparent lack of rules, a way of laughing or highlighting the absurdity of humanity and nature being put into categories or little boxes. Lears nonsense Botany is a good example and perhaps Carrolls jabberwocky could be seen as a relative of the dinosaurs ?At the same time the affluent classes in Britain found themselves with more leisure time and this led to an increase in the popularity of parlour games which were often based around wordplay. The dramatic advances in learning and knowledge could possibly mirror the conditions of an adolescent child and whereas the child will find release through play perhaps nonsense allowed the Victorians a release of their own. Edward Lear is believed to have written and illustrated many of his limericks by way of improvisation in the company of children, this enhances the parlour game association.

Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll both produced work with children in mind but have proved to be equally if not more appreciated by adults. Emile Cammaerts suggest that the intimate association of poet and child is essential for the creation of fine nonsense prose[2]. That nonsense embodies the imagination of a child with an adults power of expression. Only that a child can find as much entertainment  by themselves and it is in fact the ‘sensible’ man ‘who urgently requires the comforts and blessings of nonsense and it is generally he who enjoys them most.’(E.cammaerts pg 35).



[2] E.Cammaerts. the Poetry of Nonsense.


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