Monday, September 8, 2008

Edward Lear - He purchases pancakes and lotion

There was an Old Man of Quebec,
A beetle ran over his neck;
But he cried, 'With a needle,
I'll slay you, O beadle!'
That angry Old Man of Quebec.

This poem is from Edward Lear's A Book of Nonsense (1846/1861). I pilfered the image from the remarkable, where all of Lear's nonsense is easily available.

What's a person to make of a poem like this? There's hardly anything there. Context might help. The Penguin Book of English Verse contains three bits of nonsense (e.g., "There was an old man with a beard") stuffed between Robert Browning and Emily Brontë. No, that's not much help.

Reading A Book of Nonsense as a whole increases the strangeness of the limericks. There are 112 of them, two to a page (so one sees four at a time), all with identical meter and rhymes, most, as we see here, repeating a place name for two of the three rhyme words. Each is accompanied by a cartoon, quality ranging from crude to pretty crude.

Some readers might find this monotonous. In Lear's later nonsense books he includes more varied fare - for example "The Owl and the Pussycat" or the nonsense alphabets - as well as more limericks. But in A Book of Nonsense they just come at you. There's no relief.

There was an Old Person of Bangor,
Whose face was distorted with anger!
He tore off his boots, and subsisted on roots,
That irascible Person of Bangor.

So what I mean is, it's a wonderful book. There is no "understand" here. Just delight, or shock, or misfiring synapses. Or something else, who knows?

The title tag is from the "Self-Portrait of the Laureate of Nonsense," something more like a recognizably great poem:

He weeps by the side of the ocean,
He weeps on the top of the hill;
He purchases pancakes and lotion,
And chocolate shrimps from the mill.

This is hardly even the best stanza. I could really go for a chocolate shrimp right now. Off to the mill!


  1. I recorded all of the limericks that were not completely not-for-kids onto a CD for my nephew. He's two and a half. I thought he might like the rhythm of them. My sister glares at me a lot now when I mention this gift. I think she was not pleased. Or, at least, she was far more pleased with the recordings I did of "Cat in the Hat" and "Green Eggs and Ham" and "Put Me In the Zoo." Wait 'til I record the U.S.A Trilogy for the little guy -- she won't know which end is up.

  2. Lear is all about collisions of atoms that should never meet, isn't he? A strange and fascinating man, whose best moments were his throwaway ones. I know people make a case for Lear as a serious artist, but really his watercolours are competent but uninspired. The nonsense drawings, on the other hand, are stunningly brilliant. Not as good as the words - but what could be? The limericks are the least successful, especially as he never moved beyond the repetition in the last line. But the poems are so full of quark, strangeness, and charm. Is there a sadder poem in the English language than Calico Pie?

    Calico Pie,
    The little Birds fly
    Down to the calico tree,
    Their wings were blue
    And they sang 'Tilly-loo!'
    Till away they flew,-
    And they never came back to me!
    They never came back!
    They never came back!
    They never came back to me!

  3. The surprise to me about the early book was really how the repetition - and the limericks are very repetitive - becomes incantatory. And how details in the cartoons and specific combinations of words leapt out at me, made me laugh.

    That U.S.A. Trilogy recording - I definitely want to hear the Camera Eye parts.