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Excerpts from Utter Nonsense: Selected poems of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll

Edward Lear

Born in London in 1812, Edward Lear became famous as an artist and writer, though he did not always find it easy to support himself by his ventures. His first noted success came when he was commissioned to illustrate The Family of the Psittacidae (1832): his paintings of parrots were some of the first colour plates of animals produced in Britain and drew comparisons with the great Audubon.

It was on the back of this work that Lear was invited to Knowsley Hall in Cheshire to record for posterity the animals in the Earl of Derby’s menagerie. Here, he discovered a gift for entertainment, and spent hours amusing the children of the house with his comic drawings and rhymes. In 1846 these verses, in what would become known as ‘Limerick’ form, found a wider audience as A Book of Nonsense .

Lear continued to write, to draw and to travel, though in later life deteriorating eyesight prevented him from pursuing the natural history illustration he so loved. He published several travel books, including Sketches of Rome (1842) and Illustrated Excursions in Italy (1846), embellished with his own paintings and drawings, but he also continued to tap the rich vein of fantastical imagination with which he was blessed.

As well as further short verses and drawings, Lear produced several longer works that have delighted children (and their parents) for generations to follow. The Owl and the Pussy-cat , The Jumblies , The Dong with the Luminous Nose and The Quangle Wangle’s Hat are classics of children’s literature, and Lear’s absurdist, extravagant yet melancholy-tinged vision has inspired countless imitators.


Lewis Carroll

Like Edward Lear, the pseudonymous Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) was a man of many talents. His entire career was spent at the University of Oxford as an academic studying pure mathematics and logic, and he published a number of worthwhile – though not groundbreaking – treatises on the subjects. Like Lear, he had an instinct towards illustration, though in his case he quickly realised that he lacked the natural aptitude necessary for any great success. He turned instead to the new science of photography: before he was an author he was well known as Britain’s leading photographer of children.

It was his natural rapport with children that led to Dodgson’s most celebrated works, the fantastical prose and poems which were published in Alice in Wonderland , Through the Looking Glass , Phantasmagoria and The Hunting of the Snark , among others. These he published under the name Lewis Carroll (based on a transposition of his first two initials) in order to keep them distinct from his own scholarly writings.

The foundations of Lewis Carroll’s vision were laid early. Born in 1832 in Cheshire, he was a precocious child and was soon regaling his brothers and sisters with humorous poems and stories, producing his first collection, Useful and Instructive Poetry , at the age of 13. In this, as in other early writings, can be seen the first glimmers of poems and characters that would be fully fleshed out in the pages of Alice in Wonderland and its sequel.

Carroll’s broad education and his love of games and puzzles are evident throughout his work. The classic nonsense-rhyme ‘Jabberwocky’ was based on a parody of Anglo-Saxon epic poetry, and many of his verses derive from distortions of poems he would have learnt in the schoolroom. Others, such as ‘A Boat Beneath a Sunny Sky’ are acrostics (in this case the first letters of each line spell out the name of Alice Liddell, Carroll’s youthful muse). Famously, Through the Looking Glass constitutes, in story form, a chess puzzle which Carroll set out at the start of the work – ‘White Pawn (Alice) to play, and win in eleven moves’. Alice’s journey through the looking-glass world, and the characters she meets, correspond precisely to her piece’s passage across the board.

Carroll’s last great nonsense creation, The Hunting of the Snark (1876), represents the longest, most fully-rounded nonsense work in the English language. Borrowing much of its detail from ‘Jabberwocky’, it bears comparison with Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as well as Homer’s Odyssey . In the years around and following its publication, Carroll spend two decades drawing together the strands of the rambling, disappointing Sylvie and Bruno (1889–93). Even here, there were nuggets of genius to be found, and in ‘The Mad Gardener’s Song’, Carroll created both a truly memorable poem and an original verse form (since christened the ‘Waterford’ as an alternative to the ‘Limerick’).

Carroll’s legacy is the enduring world of Alice and the volume of words and phrases he has contributed to the English vocabulary. From his original coinings of ‘chortle’ and ‘galumph’ to the White Queen’s maxim of ‘Jam tomorrow and jam yesterday – but never jam today’, Carroll has achieved that rare status achieved by the Bible or Shakespeare: he is quoted on a daily basis, often without people realising they are doing so.