Nonsense Books

By Edward Lear.


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“How Pleasant to Know Mr. Lear!”

The following lines by Mr. Lear were written for a young lady of his acquaintance, who had quoted to him the words of a young lady not of his acquaintance, “How pleasant to know Mr. Lear!”

“How pleasant to know Mr. Lear!”
Who has written such volumes of stuff!
Some think him ill-tempered and queer,
But a few think him pleasant enough.

His mind is concrete and fastidious,
His nose is remarkably big;
His visage is more or less hideous,
His beard it resembles a wig.

He has ears, and two eyes, and ten fingers,
Leastways if you reckon two thumbs;
Long ago he was one of the singers,
But now he is one of the dumbs.

He sits in a beautiful parlor,
With hundreds of books on the wall;
He drinks a great deal of Marsala,
But never gets tipsy at all.

He has many friends, lay men and clerical,
Old Foss is the name of his cat;
His body is perfectly spherical,
He weareth a runcible hat.

When he walks in waterproof white,
The children run after him so!
Calling out, “He’s come out in his night⁠—
Gown, that crazy old Englishman, oh!”

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.

He reads, but he cannot speak, Spanish,
He cannot abide ginger beer:
Ere the days of his pilgrimage vanish,
How pleasant to know Mr. Lear!


Edward Lear, the artist, author of Journals of a Landscape Painter in various out-of-the-way countries, and of the delightful Books of Nonsense, which have amused successive generations of children, died on Sunday, January 29, 1888, at San Remo, Italy, where he had lived for twenty years. Few names could evoke a wider expression of passing regret at their appearance in the obituary column; for until his health began to fail he was known to an immense and almost a cosmopolitan circle of acquaintance, and popular wherever he was known. Fewer still could call up in the minds of intimate friends a deeper and more enduring feeling of sorrow for personal loss, mingled with the pleasantest of memories; for it was impossible to know him thoroughly and not to love him. London, Rome, the Mediterranean countries generally, Ceylon and India, are still all dotted with survivors among his generation who will mourn for him affectionately, although his latter years were spent in comparatively close retirement. He was a man of striking nobility of nature, fearless, independent, energetic, given to forming for himself strong opinions, often hastily, sometimes bitterly; not always strong or sound in judgment, but always seeking after truth in every matter, and following it as he understood it in scorn of consequence; utterly unselfish, devoted to his friends, generous even to extravagance towards anyone who had ever been connected with his fortunes or his travels; playful, lighthearted, witty, and humorous, but not without those occasional fits of black depression and nervous irritability to which such temperaments are liable.

Great and varied as the merits of his pictures are, Lear hardly succeeded in achieving any great popularity as a landscape-painter. His work was frequently done on private commission, and he rarely sent in pictures for the Academy or other exhibitions. His larger and more highly finished landscapes were unequal in technical perfection⁠—sometimes harsh or cold in color, or stiff in composition; sometimes full of imagination, at others literal and prosaic⁠—but always impressive reproductions of interesting or peculiar scenery. In later years he used in conversation to qualify himself as a “topographical artist;” and the definition was true, though not exhaustive. He had an intuitive and a perfectly trained eye for the character and beauty of distant mountain lines, the solemnity of rocky gorges, the majesty of a single mountain rising from a base of plain or sea; and he was equally exact in rendering the true forms of the middle distances and the specialties of foreground detail belonging to the various lands through which he had wandered as a sketcher. Some of his pictures show a mastery which has rarely been equalled over the difficulties of painting an immense plain as seen from a height, reaching straight away from the eye of the spectator until it is lost in a dim horizon. Sir Roderick Murchison used to say that he always understood the geological peculiarities of a country he had only studied in Lear’s sketches. The compliment was thoroughly justified; and it is not every landscape-painter to whom it could honestly be paid.

The history of Lear’s choice of a career was a curious one. He was the youngest of twenty-one children, and, through a family mischance, was thrown entirely on the limited resources of an elderly sister at a very early age. As a boy he had always dabbled in colors for his own amusement, and had been given to poring over the ordinary boys’ books upon natural history. It occurred to him to try to turn his infant talents to account; and he painted upon cardboard a couple of birds in the style which the older among us remember as having been called Oriental tinting, took them to a small shop, and sold them for fourpence. The kindness of friends, to whom he was ever grateful, gave him the opportunity of more serious and more remunerative study, and he became a patient and accurate zoölogical draughtsman. Many of the birds in the earlier volumes of Gould’s magnificent folios were drawn for him by Lear. A few years back there were eagles alive in the Zoölogical Gardens in Regent’s Park to which Lear could point as old familiar friends that he had drawn laboriously from claw to beak fifty years before. He united with this kind of work the more unpleasant occupation of drawing the curiosities of disease or deformity in hospitals. One day, as he was busily intent on the portrait of a bird in the Zoölogical Gardens, an old gentleman came and looked over his shoulder, entered into conversation, and finally said to him, “You must come and draw my birds at Knowsley.” Lear did not know where Knowsley was, or what it meant; but the old gentleman was the thirteenth Earl of Derby. The successive Earls of Derby have been among Lear’s kindest and most generous patrons. He went to Knowsley, and the drawings in the Knowsley Menagerie (now a rare and highly-prized work among book collectors) are by Lear’s hand. At Knowsley he became a permanent favorite; and it was there that he composed in prolific succession his charming and wonderful series of utterly nonsensical rhymes and drawings. Lear had already begun seriously to study landscape. When English winters began to threaten his health, Lord Derby started a subscription which enabled him to go to Rome as a student and artist, and no doubt gave him recommendations among Anglo-Roman society which laid the foundations of a numerous clientele. It was in the Roman summers that Lear first began to exercise the taste for pictorial wandering which grew into a habit and a passion, to fill vivid and copious notebooks as he went, and to illustrate them by spirited and accurate drawings; and his first volume of Illustrated Excursions in Italy, published in 1846, is gratefully dedicated to his Knowsley patron.

Only those who have travelled with him could know what a delightful comrade he was to men whose tastes ran more or less parallel to his own. It was not everybody who could travel with him; for he was so irrepressibly anxious not to lose a moment of the time at his disposal for gathering into his garners the beauty and interest of the lands over which he journeyed, that he was careless of comfort and health. Calabria, Sicily, the Desert of Sinai, Egypt and Nubia, Greece and Albania, Palestine, Syria, Athos, Candia, Montenegro, Zagóri (who knows now where Zagóri is, or was?), were as thoroughly explored and sketched by him as the more civilized localities of Malta, Corsica, and Corfu. He read insatiably before starting all the recognized guidebooks and histories of the country he intended to draw; and his published itineraries are marked by great strength and literary interest quite irrespectively of the illustrations. And he had his reward. It is not any ordinary journalist and sketcher who could have compelled from Tennyson such a tribute as lines “To E. L. on his Travels in Greece”:⁠—

“Illyrian woodlands, echoing falls
Of water, sheets of summer glass,
The long divine Peneïan pass,
The vast Akrokeraunian walls,

“Tomohrit, Athos, all things fair,
With such a pencil, such a pen,
You shadow forth to distant men,
I read and felt that I was there.”

Lear was a man to whom, as to Tennyson’s Ulysses,

“All experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world.”

After settling at San Remo, and when he was nearly sixty years old, he determined to visit India and Ceylon. He started once and failed, being taken so ill at Suez that he was obliged to return. The next year he succeeded, and brought away some thousands of drawings of the most striking views from all three Presidencies and from the tropical island. His appetite for travel continued to grow with what it fed upon; and although he hated a long sea-voyage, he used seriously to contemplate as possible a visit to relations in New Zealand. It may safely, however, be averred that no considerations would have tempted him to visit the Arctic regions.

A hardworking life, checkered by the odd adventures which happen to the odd and the adventurous and pass over the commonplace; a career brightened by the high appreciation of unimpeachable critics; lightened, till of late, by the pleasant society and good wishes of innumerable friends; saddened by the growing pressure of ill health and solitude; cheered by his constant trust in the love and sympathy of those who knew him best, however far away⁠—such was the life of Edward Lear.⁠—The London Saturday Review, Feb. 4, 1888.

Among the writers who have striven with varying success during the last thirty or forty years to awaken the merriment of the “rising generation” of the time being, Mr. Edward Lear occupies the first place in seniority, if not in merit. The parent of modern nonsense-writers, he is distinguished from all his followers and imitators by the superior consistency with which he has adhered to his aim⁠—that of amusing his readers by fantastic absurdities, as void of vulgarity or cynicism as they are incapable of being made to harbor any symbolical meaning. He “never deviates into sense;” but those who appreciate him never feel the need of such deviation. He has a genius for coining absurd names and words, which, even when they are suggested by the exigencies of his metre, have a ludicrous appropriateness to the matter in hand. His verse is, with the exception of a certain number of cockney rhymes, wonderfully flowing and even melodious⁠—or, as he would say, meloobious⁠—while to all these qualifications for his task must finally be added the happy gift of pictorial expression, enabling him to double, nay, often to quadruple, the laughable effect of his text by an inexhaustible profusion of the quaintest designs. Generally speaking, these designs are, as it were, an idealization of the efforts of a clever child; but now and then⁠—as in the case of the nonsense-botany⁠—Mr. Lear reminds us what a genuine and graceful artist he really is. The advantage to a humorist of being able to illustrate his own text has been shown in the case of Thackeray and Mr. W. S. Gilbert, to mention two familiar examples; but in no other instance of such a combination have we discovered such geniality as is to be found in the nonsense-pictures of Mr. Lear. We have spoken above of the melodiousness of Mr. Lear’s verses, a quality which renders them excellently suitable for musical setting, and which has not escaped the notice of the author himself. We have also heard effective arrangements, presumably by other composers, of the adventures of the Table and the Chair, and of the cruise of the Owl and the Pussycat⁠—the latter introduced into the “drawing-room entertainment” of one of the followers of John Parry. Indeed, in these days of adaptations, it is to be wondered at that no enterprising librettist has attempted to build a children’s comic opera out of the materials supplied in the four books with which we are now concerned. The first of these, originally published in 1846, and brought out in an enlarged form in 1863, is exclusively devoted to nonsense-verses of one type. Mr. Lear is careful to disclaim the credit of having created this type, for he tells us in the preface to his third book that “the lines beginning, ‘There was an old man of Tobago,’ were suggested to me by a valued friend, as a form of verse leading itself to limitless variety for Rhymes and Pictures.” Dismissing the further question of the authorship of “There was an old man of Tobago,” we propose to give a few specimens of Mr. Lear’s Protean powers as exhibited in the variation of this simple type. Here, to begin with, is a favorite verse, which we are very glad to have an opportunity of giving, as it is often incorrectly quoted, “cocks” being substituted for “owls” in the third line:

“There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, ‘It is just as I feared!
Two Owls and a Hen, four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!’ ”

With the kindly fatalism which is the distinctive note of the foregoing stanza, the sentiment of our next extract is in vivid contrast:⁠—

“There was an Old Man in a tree,
Who was terribly bored by a bee;
When they said, ‘Does it buzz?’ he replied, ‘Yes, it does!
It’s a regular brute of a Bee.’ ”

To the foregoing verse an historic interest attaches, if, that is, we are right in supposing it to have inspired Mr. Gilbert with his famous “Nonsense-Rhyme in Blank Verse.” We quote from memory:⁠—

“There was an Old Man of St. Bees,
Who was stung in the arm by a wasp.
When they asked, ‘Does it hurt?’ he replied, ‘No, it doesn’t,
But I thought all the while ’twas a Hornet!’ ”

Passing over the lines referring to the “Young Person” of Crete to whom the epithet “ombliferous” is applied, we may be pardoned⁠—on the ground of the geographical proximity of the two countries named⁠—for quoting together two stanzas which in reality are separated by a good many pages:⁠—

“There was a Young Lady of Norway,
Who casually sat in a doorway;
When the doors queezed her flat, she exclaimed, ‘What of that?’
This courageous young person of Norway.”

“There was a Young Lady of Sweden,
Who went by the slow train to Weedon;
When they cried, ‘Weedon Station!’ she made no observation,
But thought she should go back to Sweden.”

A noticeable feature about this first book, and one which we think is peculiar to it, is the harsh treatment which the eccentricities of the inhabitants of certain towns appear to have met with at the hands of their fellow-residents. No less than three people are “smashed,”⁠—the Old Man of Whitehaven “who danced a quadrille with a Raven;” the Old Person of Buda; and the Old Man with a gong “who bumped at it all the day long,” though in the last-named case we admit that there was considerable provocation. Before quitting the first “Nonsense-Book,” we would point out that it contains one or two forms that are interesting; for instance, “scroobious,” which we take to be a Portmanteau word, and “spickle-speckled,” a favorite form of reduplication with Mr. Lear, and of which the best specimen occurs in his last book, “He tinkledy-binkledy-winkled the bell.” The second book, published in 1871, shows Mr. Lear in the maturity of sweet desipience, and will perhaps remain the favorite volume of the four to grownup readers. The nonsense-songs are all good, and “The Story of the Four little Children who went Round the World” is the most exquisite piece of imaginative absurdity that the present writer is acquainted with. But before coming to that, let us quote a few lines from “The Jumblies,” who, as all the world knows, went to sea in a sieve:⁠—

“They sailed to the Western Sea, they did,
To a land all covered with trees.
And they bought an Owl, and a useful Cart,
And a pound of Rice, and a Cranberry Tart,
And a hive of silvery Bees.
And they bought a Pig, and some green Jackdaws,
And a lovely Monkey with lollipop paws,
And forty bottles of Ring-Bo-Ree,
And no end of Stilton Cheese.
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live.
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a sieve.
And in twenty years they all came back,
In twenty years or more,
And everyone said, ‘How tall they’ve grown!
For they’ve been to the Lakes, and the Torrible Zone,
And the hills of the Chankly Bore.’ ”

From the pedestrian excursion of the “Table and the Chair,” we cannot resist making a brief quotation, though in this, as in every case, the inability to quote the drawings also is a sad drawback:⁠—

“So they both went slowly down,
And walked about the town,
With a cheerful bumpy sound,
As they toddled round and round.
And everybody cried,
As they hastened to their side,
‘See, the Table and the Chair
Have come out to take the air!’

“But in going down an alley
To a castle in a valley,
They completely lost their way,
And wandered all the day,
Till, to see them safely back,
They paid a Ducky-Quack,
And a Beetle and a Mouse,
Who took them to their house.

“Then they whispered to each other,
‘O delightful little brother,
What a lovely walk we’ve taken!
Let us dine on Beans and Bacon!’
So the Ducky and the leetle
Browny-Mousy, and the Beetle
Dined, and danced upon their heads,
Till they toddled to their beds.”

“The Story of the Four little Children who went Round the World” follows next, and the account of the manner in which they occupied themselves while on shipboard may be transcribed for the benefit of those unfortunate persons who have not perused the original: “During the daytime Violet chiefly occupied herself in putting saltwater into a churn, while her three brothers churned it violently in the hope it would turn into butter, which it seldom if ever did.” After journeying for a time, they saw some land at a distance, “and when they came to it they found it was an island made of water quite surrounded by earth. Besides that it was bordered by evanescent isthmuses with a great Gulf-Stream running about all over it, so that it was perfectly beautiful, and contained only a single tree, five hundred and three feet high.” In a later passage, we read how “by-and-by the children came to a country where there were no houses, but only an incredibly innumerable number of large bottles without corks, and of a dazzling and sweetly susceptible blue color. Each of these blue bottles contained a bluebottlefly, and all these interesting animals live continually together in the most copious and rural harmony, nor perhaps in many parts of the world is such perfect and abject happiness to be found.” Our last quotation from this inimitable recital shall be from the description of their adventure on a great plain where they espied an object which “on a nearer approach and on an accurately cutaneous inspection, seemed to be somebody in a large white wig sitting on an armchair made of sponge-cake and oyster-shells.” This turned out to be the “Cooperative Cauliflower,” who, “while the whole party from the boat was gazing at him with mingled affection and disgust⁠ ⁠… suddenly arose, and in a somewhat plumdomphious manner hurried off towards the setting sun, his steps supported by two superincumbent confidential cucumbers⁠ ⁠… till he finally disappeared on the brink of the western sky in a crystal cloud of sudorific sand. So remarkable a sight of course impressed the four children very deeply; and they returned immediately to their boat with a strong sense of undeveloped asthma and a great appetite.”

In his third book, Mr. Lear takes occasion in an entertaining preface to repudiate the charge of harboring any ulterior motive beyond that of “Nonsense pure and absolute” in any of his verses or pictures, and tells a delightful anecdote illustrative of the “persistently absurd report” that the Earl of Derby was the author of the first book of “Nonsense.” In this volume he reverts once more to the familiar form adopted in his original efforts, and with little falling off. It is to be remarked that the third division is styled “Twenty-Six Nonsense Rhymes and Pictures,” although there is no more rhyme than reason in any of the set. Our favorite illustrations are those of the “Scroobious Snake who always wore a Hat on his Head, for fear he should bite anybody,” and the “Visibly Vicious Vulture who wrote some Verses to a Veal-cutlet in a Volume bound in Vellum.” In the fourth and last of Mr. Lear’s books, we meet not only with familiar words, but personages and places⁠—old friends like the Jumblies, the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo, the Quangle Wangle, the hills of the Chankly Bore, and the great Gromboolian plain, as well as new creations, such as the Dong with a luminous Nose, whose story is a sort of nonsense version of the love of Nausicaa for Ulysses, only that the sexes are inverted. In these verses, graceful fancy is so subtly interwoven with nonsense as almost to beguile us into feeling a real interest in Mr. Lear’s absurd creations. So again in the “Pelican Chorus” there are some charming lines:⁠—

“By day we fish, and at eve we stand
On long bare islands of yellow sand.
And when the sun sinks slowly down,
And the great rock-walls grow dark and brown,
When the purple river rolls fast and dim,
And the ivory Ibis starlike skim,
Wing to wing we dance around,” etc.

The other nonsense-poems are all good, but we have no space for further quotation, and will take leave of our subject by propounding the following set of examination questions which a friend who is deeply versed in Mr. Lear’s books has drawn up for us:⁠—

  1. What do you gather from a study of Mr. Lear’s works to have been the prevalent characteristics of the inhabitants of Gretna, Prague, Thermopylae, Wick, and Hong Kong?

  2. State briefly what historical events are connected with Ischia, Chertsey, Whitehaven, Boulak, and Jellibolee.

  3. Comment, with illustrations, upon Mr. Lear’s use of the following words: Runcible, propitious, dolomphious, borascible, fizzgiggious, himmeltanious, tumble-dum-down, spongetaneous.

  4. Enumerate accurately all the animals who lived on the Quangle Wangle’s Hat, and explain how the Quangle Wangle was enabled at once to enlighten his five travelling companions as to the true nature of the Cooperative Cauliflower.

  5. What were the names of the five daughters of the Old Person of China, and what was the purpose for which the Old Man of the Dargle purchased six barrels of Gargle?

  6. Collect notices of King Xerxes in Mr. Lear’s works, and state your theory, if you have any, as to the character and appearance of Nupiter Piffkin.

  7. Draw pictures of the Plum-pudding flea, and the Moppsikon Floppsikon Bear, and state by whom waterproof tubs were first used.

  8. “There was an old man at a station
    Who made a promiscuous oration.”

What bearing may we assume the foregoing couplet to have upon Mr. Lear’s political views?

The London Spectator.

Nonsense Books

A Book of Nonsense

A man is showing a crowd of children a book titled A Book of Nonsense.

There was an Old Derry down Derry, who loved to see little folks merry;
So he made them a Book, and with laughter they shook
At the fun of that Derry down Derry.


To the
great-grandchildren, grandnephews, and grandnieces
of Edward, 13th Earl of Derby,
this book of drawings and verses
(The greater part of which were originally made and composed for their parents,)
As dedicated by the author,
Edward Lear.

London, 1862.

Nonsense Rhymes and Pictures

There is an old man with a nose like an elphant trunk.

There was an Old Man with a nose,
Who said, “If you choose to suppose
That my nose is too long, you are certainly wrong!”
That remarkable Man with a nose.

The young person of Smyrna is holding a cat by its tail while arguing with her grandmother.

There was a Young Person of Smyrna,
Whose Grandmother threatened to burn her;
But she seized on the Cat, and said, “Granny, burn that!
You incongruous Old Woman of Smyrna!”

An old man on a hill is running while wearing his grandmother’s gown and a top hat.

There was an Old Man on a hill,
Who seldom, if ever, stood still;
He ran up and down in his Grandmother’s gown,
Which adorned that Old Man on a hill.