- Edward Lear's Limericks:The Function of Children's Nonsense Poetry
Readers who seek to make sense of Edward Lear's nonsense limericks are in danger of putting themselves into the frustrating position of the people who question Lear's man of Sestri:
There was an old person of Sestri,Who sate himself down in the vestry,When they said "You are wrong!"—he merely said "Bong!"That repulsive old person of Sestri.(192)
But if Lear's limericks defy critical interrogation, they do so with a good deal more charm than the repulsive old person of Sestri, because their resistance, unlike his, does not put an end to conversation. On the contrary, their inscrutability instead raises the crucial question of the difference between the meaning of Lear's nonsense and its function. The question I wish to raise here, then, is not what Lear's nonsense means but rather what it does.1
This important distinction appears, for instance, in a comment Lear made in 1871 regarding some of the reviews of his second volume of nonsense writings: "The critics are very silly to see politics in such bosh: not but that bosh requires a good deal of care, for it is a sine quâ non in writing for children to keep what they have to read perfectly clear & bright, & incapable of any meaning but one of sheer nonsense" (Selected Letters 228). Lear's point is that his nonsense's irrationality is the result of a painstaking, rational process. To attempt to see past the surface of such verse is to ignore precisely what is most important about it, so that such seeing is a way of being blind to its real artistic merit. Indeed, the tension produced by offering multiple invitations to interpretation within a piece of art that at the same time deliberately resists any attempt to make sense of it has been called the essential feature of literary or artistic nonsense in general (Tigges 27).
Yet Lear's emphasis here is not on the general character of nonsense so much as on its appropriateness to a certain audience. "Writing [End Page 47] for children," he says, requires one to keep things "perfectly clear & bright." What purpose does this clarity and brilliance serve, and how is it specific to writing for children? One of the "clear & bright" things about Lear's limericks is his highly predictable handling of the form.2 The first line usually uses the formula "There was an [old / young] [man / lady / person] of [place name]." Lear frequently echoes this formula in the final line: "That [adjective] old man of [place name]." The middle lines usually describe some sort of eccentric behavior on the part of the subject, often accompanied by a response to it by the people around him or her, as in the oft-repeated formula beginning the third line: "When they said." The "old man of Sestri" limerick is a good example of this basic structure. Sometimes the interaction between the eccentric and "the people" extends into the final line, yielding variations on the basic formula: "They [verb] that old man of [place name]" (e.g., "So they smashed that old man of Whitehaven" ) or "Which [verb] the people of [place name]" (e.g., "Which distressed all the people of Chertsey" ). Thus the rather chaotic interplay between Lear's eccentrics and "them" is tightly contained within the repetitive form, providing a combination of novelty and familiarity that, like much nonsense verse for children, provides the child with a strictly rule-bound, reliable, and therefore reassuring set of boundaries within which to experience the fantastically extravagant and sometimes threatening contents of the poems (Ede 58-60; Kennedy).
The most distinctive feature of Lear's poetic craft in the limericks is his handling of the final line. Here one often finds whatever frightening or violent material the limericks contain, such as the eccentric protagonist being smashed or killed or drowned or choked. The need to control such threatening possibilities may help to explain the curious restraint of Lear's formal handling of the final rhyme. Unlike most later composers of limericks, and in distinction even from the "sick...