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Nonsense as a
Fine Art


WHAT is sense? What is nonsense? Sense is the recognition, adjustment, and maintenance of the proper and fitting relations of the affairs of ordinary life. It is a constitutional tact, a keeping touch with all around it, rather than a conscious and deliberate action of the intellect. It almost seems the mental outcome and expression of our five senses; and perhaps it is for this reason, as well as because the sense of the individual always aims at keeping itself on the average level of his fellows, that we usually talk of sense as common sense. If we call it good sense, it is to remind ourselves that there is a right and a wrong in this as in everything human. But it is not bad sense, but nonsense, which is the proper contrary of sense. In contradiction to the relations and harmonies of life, nonsense sets itself to discover and bring forward the incongruities of all things within and without us. Pope couples nonsense with dulness; yet long before Pope, the thing, if not the name, nonsense had been recognized as of infinite worth. Cowper and Hogarth shared in the humors of the Nonsense Club; and now the name has been made classical by the writer whose books of nonsense are enumerated at the head of this article. For while sense is, and must remain essentially prosaic and commonplace, nonsense has proved not to be an equally prosaic and commonplace negative of sense, not a mere putting forward of incongruities and absurdities, but the bringing out a new and deeper harmony of life in and through its contradictions. Nonsense, in fact, in this use of the word, has shown itself to be a true work of the imagination, a child of genius, and its writing one of the fine arts.

This discomfiture of sense by nonsense, this bringing confusion into order by setting things upside down, bringing them into all sorts of unnatural, impossible, and absurd, but not painful or dangerous, combinations, is a source of universal delight; and the laughter which it gives rise to is, as Aristotle says, the expression of our surprise at seeing things so out of place, yet not threatening danger. And the range of this delight extends from the poorest practical joke to the creations of the greatest dramatic poets. Nonsense, being what it is, may be further described as the flower and fruit of wit and humor, when these have reached the final stage of their growth to perfection. But how shall we hope to define wit and humor, and to distinguish one from the other? We may repeat the arguments or rest on the authority of Aristotle, Ben Jonson, Hobbes, Coleridge, and a host of minor philosophers, and we may produce our proofs and illustrations from Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Rabelais, or Cervantes; but, after all, we only find ourselves in the predicament of the Court of Chancery in Lord Eldon's days, as Sir George Rose described it in his law song of that time:—

Mr. Parker made matters darker,
  Which were dark enough without:
Mr. Cook quoted his book,
  And the Chancellor said, "I doubt."

We too, like the chancellor, can only say "We doubt," if we are asked what is the real distinction between wit and humor. At best we can perhaps say, as St. Augustine, said when asked "What is time?" "I know when you do not ask me." We all of us use the words with a feeling that they are not synonymous, but with a feeling also that they have hitherto defied all the attempts to reduce them to exact analysis, even when the task was undertaken by such a master of metaphysical investigation as Coleridge ; and that only at extreme points is it perhaps possible to distinguish and define. We sometimes use the name of wit merely to describe some clear statement in well-chosen words, or some collocation of conflicting thoughts and arguments, which are brought together not to promote laughter, but to elucidate the subject under discussion. And, on the other hand, we often accord the title of humor to any genial expression of sentiments not specially characterized by fun. Of wit, in its more usual and proper sense, the pun, which merely brings words into laughable apposition, is the lowest form, while of the higher kinds the epigram, bringing incongruous thoughts and images together in terse and balanced phrases, is at once an instance and the summary. And then the ridiculous position and aspect into which men, and the affairs of men, are thus brought, gives opportunity for the expression of that intellectual contempt and scorn which so usually forms a characteristic part of what we call wit, that it has been held by some great authorities to be the very wit itself. Humor shows no such scorn, for it feels none. It looks with kindly and playful forgiveness on all those frailties, incongruities, and absurd contradictions of mortal life, which wit sternly condemns with the harsh severity of an overweening pride of superiority. A comparison between Butler's "Hudibras" and the "Don Quixote" of Cervantes (which Dr. Johnson has already made with another motive than ours) brings into clear contrast the difference between wit and humor, when we thus take them where they stand widest apart. We doubt whether Butler is now so highly appreciated as in the days of Dr. Johnson; or even as he was fifty or sixty years ago, when Coleridge in his "Aids to Reflection in the Building up of a Manly Character," recommends the study of "Hudibras" as a help to the formation of sound religious convictions. But while we grant with Johnson "that if inexhaustible wit could give perpetual pleasure, no eye would leave half read the work of Butler," how utterly cold, heartless, dreary, does Butler's work remain! It is all wit, wit as it is in its glacial period, where granite may exist with the ice, but no trace of life is to be found; and not even the master hand of Hogarth can enable us to feel that Hudibras and his rascal crew are real men and women. The contrast is complete when we turn to the work of Cervantes. Here all is sunshine, warmth, and genial life. Not only the noble-hearted knight who has lost his wits, and the friendly squire who is no less absurd than his master in the possession of what that master has lost, — not only these, so good in their absurdity, but the rascally innkeeper, the galley-slaves, and all the personages, good and bad, who fill the stage in motley succession, are so genial, so human, that the reader feels relationship with them all, and is ready to say with the Roman dramatist: "I am a man; such kinship is nothing strange to me."

We have not quoted any of the "sententious distichs" of Butler, for they are known far and wide to those who have never looked into "Hudibras," and who, if they did so, would be agreeably surprised to find the poem as "full of quotations" as did the man who went to see "Hamlet" acted, when he had never read the play. But from "Don Quixote" we will give one quotation, which may be called nonsense, while it is a true instance of the deep and genial pathos of humor which pervades the whole book:—

"I do not understand that," replied Sancho. "I only know that while I am asleep I feel neither fear nor hope, nor trouble nor glory. Good betide him who invented sleep, the cloak that covers up all a man's thoughts, the food that satisfies hunger, the water that drives away thirst, the fire that warms the cold, the cold that tempers the heat; and, in a word, the current money with which all things are bought, the scales and weight which even the shepherd shares with the king, and the simple with the sage."

"What nonsense!" says common sense. "How could a man invent sleep?" If we reply, "How could Macbeth murder sleep?" perhaps common sense might mutter with George III., "Shakespeare! Shakespeare! horrid stupid stuff; but we must not say so." But we grant that it is nonsense; and yet we say that in those nonsensical words of poor blundering Sancho lie all the meaning, all the depth of human life and pathos, though not the poetical beauty, which we have in Shakespeare's own description of sleep:—

                                  The innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleave of care,
The death of each day's life, sore labor's bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course,
Chief nourisher in life's feast.

Such a contrast as we have here drawn between Butler and Cervantes may give a practical illustration, though not a scientific definition, of the difference between wit and humor, at their extreme points of opposition. But we do not pretend that it helps us to distinguish their currents where they mingle at a hundred points. We will not undertake to say whether Sydney Smith was a wit or a humorist, or in what proportions he was both. Was it wit or humor to say, on the question of paving St. Paul's Churchyard with wood, "If the dean and chapter would lay their heads together the thing would be done?" The polished, epigrammatic terseness, the clearly suggested though unuttered thought that these dignitaries were blockheads, the intellectual scorn, the covert play on words which in themselves form merely a commonplace observation — all these show true wit. All are the proper marks of wit. Yet they are not the less bathed in an atmosphere of genuine humor. The witty canon was himself one of the chapter which lie mocked, and his scorn included himself in his genial play. So, too, are wit and humor inextricably mingled in his reply to the friend who asked him if it was true that he had been sitting to Landseer for his portrait: "Is thy servant a dog, that he should do this thing?"* Here are all the marks of wit, as we have just enumerated them; but they become no less marks of humor, as they all fuse themselves into the funny, humorous image of the portly divine sitting up like one of Landseer's dogs, and "quoting Scripture like a very learned clerk." Again, in what class shall we put that tour de force when to the challenge to find rhymes to "cassowary" and "Timbuctoo" the impromptu reply was made: "When I was in Africa, I one day heard a native singing to a hymn-tune, —

If I were a cassowary,
  In the plains of Timbuctoo,
I'd eat up a missionary,
  Hat, and bands, and hymn-book, too.

The distinction in question is, however, of the less practical importance to us here, because, as we have said, we are treating, not of wit or humor, but of that ripe outcome of either or both which we call nonsense; nonsense as a work of art. Except for bringing in an occasional sidelight we shall confine ourselves to English nonsense ; and still further limit ourselves to tracing the outlines of a few of the many great and perennial branches of that mighty secular tree, without being able to take much heed of the countless leaves and blossoms to which it gives fresh life year by year. Even so, we shall have to divide our subject into as many heads as those in the repertory of Hamlet's players, or in a sermon preached before the Long Parliament at Westminster. There is the nonsense of the story-teller, of the moralist and even the theologian, and of the dramatist; there is the nonsense, of poetry, of satire, of parody, of caricature, of the comic journal; there is nonsense with a "tendency," as the Germans say; and there is nonsense "pure and absolute," such as Mr. Lear tells us has been his aim throughout his books.

First, then, of the story. We do not here speak of the great nonsense romances of Pulci, Rabelais, Cervantes, Swift, Sterne, and the creator of the "Arabian Nights;" but of the stories which somehow and somewhere took root and grew before the earliest Aryan or Indo-Germanic migration begun, which have travelled into every land, and have found their way into every nursery, and are everywhere with us in their old or in new forms. Some people find themselves wiser and better, or at least more self-respected by calling these stories "solar myths;" we are content to talk with our children of Puss in Boots, Tom Thumb, or Jack the Giant-killer, who still keep their rightful places among the new and not unworthy aspirants, introduced to us by Mrs. Ewing or Mr. Kingsley, Mr. Lear or Lewis Carroll. All these stories are in their own way works of art — of the fine art of nonsense. But one of them has been raised to the rank of a masterpiece by the creating hand of a great poet. We mean the "Nonnes Preestes Tale" of Chaucer.

Let us then examine critically this masterpiece in the art.

Charles Lamb's landlord found "much indifferent spelling in Chaucer," and Attemus Ward says of him : "Mr. C. had talent, but he could not spell; he is the worst speller I ever knew." And it is more by the antiquated spelling than by the obsole words or grammatical forms of Chaucer that so many are deterred from the enjoyment of his exuberant fun and humor, as well as fine poetry. A lady once told us that she knew "Morte d'Arthur" by reading it in Caxton's original black letter;* but we doubt whether many persons could be found who have even read it in the Southey-Upcott reprint with the old spelling in modern type. And, notwithstanding a recent attempt to prove the contrary by the publication of an edition of Shakespeare with the old spelling of the quartos and folios, we venture to say that even his plays would have remained a sealed book to almost all of us, if his editors had till now retained that spelling, instead of substituting that of their own day. And as to Chaucer, let any one who has hitherto been so deterred, look into Mr. Cowden Clarke's admirable "Riches of Chaucer," and the scales will fall from his eyes. Dryden modernized Chaucer in another fashion. It is bad work enough, yet not so bad (for how could it be?) as when he helped Davenant to re-write Shakespeare's "Tempest."

The "Nun's Priest's Tale" was probably an old and familiar nursery story. Its concluding incident forms the substance of the little fable. " Dou Coc et dou Werpil," in the "Book of Fables" which the Anglo-Norman poetess Marie de France, writing in the thirteenth century, tells us "was turned by Ysopez front Greek into Latin, by King Henry (one MS. reads Alured, i.e., Alfred), who loved it well, into English, and by herself from English into French."* Chaucer tells us how Chaunteclere the cock dreamed that he saw a beast of a color "between white and red," who would have made arrest upon his body; but having been persuaded by Pertelote the hen to disregard the warning was actually seized by a fox, and hardly escaped with life. But what a cock and hen they are! They are not the mere talk fowls of Pilpay, Æsop, or Gay; they are not creatures of undistinguishable form like the Quangle-Wangle, the Dong, or the Snark; nor impossible couples like the Owl and the Pussy Cat, or the Walrus and the Carpenter. They are an actual cock and hen, in the yard of an actual widow, though, as the poet's manner is, the actual is always raised to its ideal perfection, so that we say of the whole picture what the poet himself says of Chaunteclere's crowing — "It might not be amended." And then Chaucer endows the cock and hen with all the characteristics of a true gentleman and matronly dame, according to his own ideals of both. The human qualities are not merely added mechanically to those of the fowls, as in the ordinary fables, but so interfused into them that the whole becomes a new creation, in which each is a real part of the other. And thus that incongruousness in which the humor consists is raised to its highest pitch, so that it too "cannot be amended." Chaunteclere, perfect in his plumage and his crowing, who sits among his hens on their perch, or leads them into the yard to find the grains of corn, speaks familiarly of his shirt, as his wife does of his beard; and his talk is that of a courteous and learned Christian gentleman, while Dame Pertelote is, in like manner, an ideal matron:—

Courteous she was, discreet, and debonair,
And compenable and bare herself so fair,
Sithen the day that she was seven night old,
That truely she hath the heart in hold
Of Chaunteclere, locken in every lith:
He loved her so that well was him therewith.
But such a joy it was to hear them sing,
When that the brighte sun began to spring,
I in sweet accord — "My love is far in land."

[528 fine]

* This, which we take to be the true story, is no way discredited by Landseer's statement to Mr. Frith, that he (Landseer) did not ask Sidney Smith to sit to him, and consequently did not receive the supposed refusal.

* It is sad to think that the one perfect copy of this, the original edition of our old national epic, went to America after the recent sale of the Osterley Library.

* Poésies de Marie de France, par B. de Roquefort, ii. 240, 401.

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Edward Lear's Nonsense Poetry and Art

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