And things like that
May look like nonsense
But there is
I know, I know… it’s not formal verse, but it’s one of my favourite pieces.
When awful darkness and silence reign
Over the great Gromboolian plain,
Through the long, long wintry nights; —
When the angry breakers roar
As they beat on the rocky shore; —
When Storm-clouds brood on the towering heights
Of the Hills of the Chankly Bore: —
Then, through the vast and gloomy dark,
There moves what seems a fiery spark,
A lonely spark with silvery rays
Piercing the coal-black night, —
A Meteor strange and bright: —
Hither and thither the vision strays,
A single lurid light.
It is, of course, the Dong With a Luminous Nose, wandering crazed through the forests seeking the Jumblie Girl he fell in love with. Edward Lear’s verse is known for its frivolous characters, actions and names, and his scribbly little drawings. But ignore the drawing and note the skill and control, the emotional pull, of the two stanzas above (even if he does sabotage them with words like “Gromboolian”). Similarly he was a remarkable artist when he wanted to be: one of the world’s great ornithological painters, a wonderful landscape artist, and well-enough respected to have given Queen Victoria a dozen lessons in drawing and watercolours in 1846.
Nonsense poetry in itself is a wonderful way to introduce children to literature, if it is handled as skilfully and, yes, emotionally as Lear does with his nonsense poems of travel, romance, heartbreak, and finding (or failing to find) lasting happiness.
Jumbled in the common box
Of their dark stupidity,
Orchid, swan, and Caesar lie;
Time that tires of everyone
Has corroded all the locks,
Thrown away the key for fun.
In its cleft the torrent mocks
Prophets who in days gone by
Made a profit on each cry,
Persona grata now with none;
And a jackass language shocks
Poets who can only pun.
Silence settles on the clocks;
Nursing mothers point a sly
Index finger at the sky,
Crimson with the setting sun;
In the valley of the fox
Gleams the barrel of a gun.
Once we could have made the docks,
Now it is too late to fly;
Once too often you and I
Did what we should not have done;
Round the rampant rugged rocks
Rude and ragged rascals run.
In January 1941, W.H. Auden had been living in New York for nearly two years. The Second World War had started, but not yet in the US. Auden had fallen in love with Chester Kallman who was now turning 20 and was too young to want to be sexually faithful; Auden had also returned from atheism to the existential Christianity that is common in the Anglican/Episcopalian church. It was a period of change, backgrounded by the widening war.
Regarding the poem from this time, I choose to imagine Auden rambling, reminiscing, muttering to himself: “Around the rugged rocks the ragged rascal ran… Nice metre as well as alliteration and, for people with difficulty pronouncing their Rs, a twuly tewwible tongue-twister. Rhythmic, memorable. Nonsense; not meaningful, but not meaningless; nonsense and nursery rhymes are right on the border. And it splits in two, you could easily rhyme it: rocks, box, blocks, brocks, cocks, cox, clocks, crocks… ran, Ann, ban, bran, can, clan, cran… or easy to change to run, or runs. A lot of rhymes, anyway. Run them out, see what transpires.
“Once we could have made the docks, / Now it is too late to fly; that adds another rhyme, not a problem, maybe a 6-line stanza. Once too often you and I / Did what we should not have done; and into the last two lines, have to fill them out a bit to maintain the metre, keep the alliteration of course: Round the rampant rugged rocks / Rude and ragged rascals run… So that’s all right, that would make an ending.
“Then of course we can have more stanzas leading up to it. Flick a bit of paint at the canvas, see what sort of patterns we can find to elaborate on. Time, decay, trepidation, warnings… out come the words and images around the rhymes, and suddenly it’s all as evocative and semi-coherent as a reading of tarot or yarrow or horoscope. Hm, tarot or yarrow, I hadn’t noticed that before, wonder if I can use that somewhere else…”
(Remember, this is a fantasy analysis, presupposing the poem to have been written with full skill to capture both rhymes and a mood, but without any serious intent beyond that. For a completely different intellectual analysis, you can always try this…)
Alan Watts had a rich intellectual life. His formal education largely stopped at high school in his native England, but he explored his interests in mystical Christianity and Zen Buddhism so thoroughly, including attending an American seminary, getting a Masters and becoming a priest for a few years, that he was associated thereafter with various universities including Harvard and San Jose State University.
His poetry book “Nonsense” is interesting for its fresh perspective over Watts’ writing, and enjoyable enough for the ten nonsense poems it holds. As you would expect from the author of “The Art of Zen” and “The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are”, it contains both pointless happiness
Hum, hum the Humbledrum!
Rumbling bumbling dumbledrum,
Mumbling dumbly, rumbling humbly…
and comparatively clear philosophy:
The stars in their courses have no destination;
The train of events will arrive at no station;
The inmost and ultimate Self of us all
Is dancing on nothing and having a ball.
So with chat for chit and with tat for tit,
This will be that, and that will be It!
The main poem falls somewhere between the two previous quotes. One hundred lines long, written as 20 limericks, it tells the story of The Lovelorn Loon:
A certain umstumptulat loon
Fell vastly in love with the moon;
With shimular turve
And binlimular gurve
He caroozed to the gorble bassoon.
The Loon builds an enormous tower that successfully reaches the heavens, but when he calls the moon, her arrival destroys the tower.
The whole book is appropriately illustrated in 1960s psychedelic style (think Yellow Submarine and Monty Python) by Michel Dattel. And the book contains other short pieces by Watts, an Introduction that starts reasonably and slyly slides into gibberish; and short prose pieces on Nonsense, on Goofing, and on Drudgery.
A very odd but entertaining little book.