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Higher-cynths, lower-cynths, and Seeze Pyders: why Lear’s ‘nonsense’ language is more than just fun

You’ve heard of a writer called Lear?
His two hundredth birthday’s this year.
They called him absurd
But he wrote undeterred,
That remarkable writer called Lear.

If there were no other reason to remember Edward Lear with fondness (and there are, in fact, very many), his popularization of the limerick would be enough. Like so many children, I was always delighted to come across limericks. My favourite was about the young man of Nepal, who went to a fancy dress ball. He thought he would risk it and go as a biscuit – but a dog ate him up in the hall. Although the really good ones may take an awful lot of skill, just about anyone can write a limerick, and they can be adapted to just about any purpose, from the playful and innocent, to the downright obscene, to the pseudo-intellectual. (Winning a bottle of wine with a limerick about St. Neot designed to amuse a roomful of medievalists was probably my greatest success.)

Unlike more modern versions of the form (such as the tale of the Nepalese biscuit-man), Lear’s limericks weren’t usually jokes, in the sense of ending with an obvious punchline. Indeed, the last line of most of his limericks was often a simple near-repetition of the first:

There was an old man of Apulia,
Whose conduct was very peculiar;
For he fed twenty sons, upon nothing but buns,
That whimsical man of Apulia.

This says a lot about Lear’s sense of humour. It was nonsensical in the purest way: there was no especially clever purpose behind most of what he wrote, no knowing moments of “Aha!” as the reader realizes why a joke is amusing. Lear’s stories and verse are much more inclusive than that. The what of his stories, their simple content, is enough, without a why. You don’t need any special knowledge to find a pudding-shaped flea or a turkey performing wedding ceremonies funny.

That isn’t to say that Lear wasn’t clever with words, though. He was quite clearly an incurable word-player and punner. ‘Why must I suffer’, he exclaimed in one verse, ‘Roomattics in a vile cold attic room?’ The rheumatics and their cause are beautifully combined with nothing more than an inventive spelling. He also wrote about ‘higher-cynths’ and their companion flowers ‘lower-cynths’, and the ‘Seeze Pyder, an aquatic and ferocious creature truly dreadful to behold.’ I challenge anyone to think about hyacinths or sea spiders again without Lear’s versions popping unbidden into their minds.

 There once was an author called Edward,
Who looked disappointed, and said “Could
We please have better words
Than the ones that I’ve heard?”
So he made up his own – and they’re dead good.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that Lear isn’t one of the largest contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary’s bank of illustrative quotations. He may have coined piggy-wig, and runcible spoon (which now refers to a fork shaped like a spoon with a cutting edge), but apart from that, Lear’s input into the standard language appears to have been almost negligible. Generally speaking, nonsense words are, by their nature, not the kind of thing that a dictionary deals with. They are often undefinable, used by an individual writer as part of his or her linguistic repertoire, and don’t necessarily gain any wider currency. Still, I’m surely not alone in wishing that ‘scroobious’ or ‘plumdomphious’ could become part of our everyday language? I’m interested to know what these words bring to mind for other readers. To me, ‘plumdomphious’ has a definite feel of pomposity; when Lear describes how a Cauliflower ‘suddenly arose, and, in a somewhat plumdomphious manner, hurried off towards the setting sun’, I can clearly envisage a top-heavy and bumptious vegetable with somewhere most important to be. ‘Scroobious’, meanwhile, is perhaps best defined by Lear’s assertion that ‘it is impossible to imagine a more scroobious and unpleasant sound than that caused by the simultaneous sneezing of many millions of angry Mice.’ I would certainly appeal to any writers out there to reintroduce these words to the public consciousness.

Lear also had an excellent eye for real words that should, by any appropriate measure, be nonsense. A caption to one of his illustrations of his time in Crete, for example, describes how ‘the Landscape painter escapes (with difficulty) from an enraged Moufflon.’ ‘A Moufflon!’, I thought when I first read this. “Ha! That’s a good one.” But it turns out that the moufflon is one of those marvellous creatures which, like the duck-billed platypus, exists against all the odds of reason or suitability. And consider Lear’s description of some bottles which are ‘to be labelled with parchment or any other anti-congenial succedaneum.’ We can look up the (slightly archaic) dictionary meaning of these last words and find out that Lear probably means “any other different substitute”. But he manages to make these real words sound as strange and playful as ‘Ploffskin, Pluffskin, Pelican jee!’, while a ‘globular foolish Topographer’ seems just as delightfully nonsensical as ‘the Pobble without any toes.’

The Pobble, incidentally, has been a source of some discussion in my house. My Friend the Doctor was quite convinced that ‘pobbling’ was the correct technical term for the amputation of toes. When I showed her the Lear verses about the Pobble, and also pointed out that ‘pobbling’ doesn’t seem to appear in any medical textbook, she had to consider the possibility that this meaning might just be a little joke by one of her colleagues. But I’d be really interested to know whether any other doctors refer to toe-amputation in this way. (Luckily, My Friend the Doctor is not an orthopaedic surgeon, so her haziness in this particular area of knowledge shouldn’t cause any serious accidents…)

Edward Lear’s prose and poetry never
Made very much sense whatsoever;
Yet critics deliriously
take it quite seriously,
Which proves that they’re not very clever.

While researching this article, I realised that writing about Edward Lear’s nonsense is something of a dangerous task. Having been well-trained, during my years as an English student, in the dark art of making Femino-Marxist post-deconstructivist readings of children’s stories, I’m wary of joining the ranks of the ‘pretentious people’ ridiculed by an Amazon.co.uk reviewer, who ‘can’t read too far’ into Lear’s poems. ‘They are just fun!’ the reviewer exclaims; you can hear the mocking, pitying laugh that accompanies these words. Nonetheless, I’m going to put my head just slightly above the parapet (luckily, I’m not parapetless, another of Lear’s rare word coinages in the OED) and say that, even at his most nonsensical, Lear can tell us something about the preoccupations of Victorian society.

Foreignness and the countries of the Empire feature quite prominently, for example. Take these lines:

She sits upon her Bulbul
Through the long long hours of night -
And o’er the dark horizon gleams
The Yashmack’s fitful light.

Or these, from his poem The Cummerbund:

Around her bower, with quivering leaves,
The tall Kamsamahs grew,
And Kitmutagars in wild festoons
Hung down from Tchokis blue.

A bulbul is a tropical songbird; a yashmack is a veil worn by Muslim women. Kamsamahs and kitmutagars are Indian domestic staff, and a tchoki is an Indian police station. Lear treats these non-English words as though they are nonsense, showing a delight in the exoticism that contact with other countries brought to British consciousness. A post-colonialist reading might, however, also identify a chauvinist tendency to objectify and belittle aspects of other cultures.

If we’re going to take the ‘pretentious’ approach to Lear’s nonsense, the old chestnut of gender relations must surely rear its head (a mixed metaphor, I know, but amidst all this Leariana, a chestnut with a head seems like the least of our worries.) His talking animals and objects, when female, are certainly often occupied in feeding their children and looking after their husbands, but it would seem churlish to read too much into this when we consider some of the feisty young ladies of the limericks. One, from Smyrna, ‘whose grandmother threatened to burn her’, responds with gusto: ‘she seized on the cat, and said, ‘Granny, burn that!’ A child of his times he may have been, but Lear never seems to derive anything other than enjoyment from the antics of either his male or female characters, however outrageous. When he describes a timid Soup-ladle, who ‘peeped through a heap of veal-patties, And squeaked with a ladle-like scream of surprise’, the pun on ‘lady-like’ seems more like a gentle mockery of traditional gender concepts than an attempt to enforce them (on either ladies or ladles).

While we can agree that Lear’s nonsense is fun, I think it would be a mistake to see it as ‘just fun’ and nothing else. It is fun with a gentle cleverness, fun with some of the prejudices of its age, fun that pushes the boundaries of an already-varied language in order to inspire and amuse. Two hundred years to the day after Lear’s birth, it’s no surprise that he’s still a favourite amongst people of all ages, a man whose modest influence on the language is more than made up for by his influence on the British sense of humour. As an epitaph, nobody could do better than W. H. Auden’s conclusion to his poem Edward Lear: ‘children swarmed to him like settlers. He became a land.’