He had bought a large map representing the sea,
Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
A map they could all understand.
“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
“They are merely conventional signs!
“Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we’ve got out brave captain to thank”
(So the crew would protest) “That he’s bought us the best –
A perfect and absolute blank!” (Lewis Carroll, “The Hunting of the Snark,” Fit the Second)
The nonsense poems I have been reading are not so far, looked at kind of cockeyed, from the early modern descendants of Petrarch I was writing about last week. Elizabethan sonneteers were working under narrow constraints, rewarded for ingenuity as much as, or more than, meaning. It was at times hard to see the difference between dozens of tiny variations on an entirely conventional idea and the absence of any idea at all. “They are merely conventional signs!”
The two orders of poetry also share a common ancestor in the classical pastoral poetry tradition. Thus ends today’s sermon in literary history.
It is not that nonsense and its cousins are not meaningful. The Alice novels are as deep as I want them to be, rare examples of fiction with something to say about metaphysics. But there is a side of nonsense that directly addresses the possibility of meaning, that tries to see how close it can get to the blank map.
I have been paging through The Faber Book of Nonsense Verse (1979), ed. Geoffrey Grigson, where I came upon a cluster of Christian Morgenstern poems including “The Great Lalulā,” of which I present the final stanza:
Simarar kos malzpempu
Marjomar dos: Quempu Lempu
Siri Suri Sei [ ]!
Lalu lalu lalu lalu la!
Well said. All punctuation in the original. Morgenstern is often described as untranslatable for some reason.
The poem is selective in its chaos, keeping rhyme, meter, sound and, what else, alphabetical characters, although I bet it was originally published in Gothic script.
Algernon Swinburne achieves a similar effect with English words and grammar in “Nephelida”:
From the depth of the dreamy decline of the dawn
through a notable nimbus of nebulous noonshine,
Pallid and pink as the palm of the flag-flower that
flickers with fear of the flies as they float,
A page and a half of this, frankly very hard to read for more than a few lines at a time. It constantly seems to approach meaning, but that is hardly the point. Wonderful stuff, and just a smidge over from the way Swinburne often sounds in his serious – I hate to call them serious – poems.
Little children seem to figure all of this out without any help, the fun of turning everything, including language, upside down. In a comment to yesterday’s Carroll post, Jenny from Reading the End praised the sheer joyfulness of Carroll’s nonsense. He shares that sense of play with all of the nonsense and light verse writers, the delight created by the discovery that an unrelated jumble of words, placed together in a particular order, have turned into something marvelous even without meaning a thing, which is itself meaningful. And thus I have invented aesthetics. A little late.