There’s a porpoise close behind us

Michael Dobson

  • The Origins of English Nonsense by Noel Malcolm
    HarperCollins, 329 pp, £18.00, May 1997, ISBN 0 00 255827 0

How far could, or even should, a history of nonsense make sense? This is one of the questions raised by Noel Malcolm’s study of English nonsense verse – a book which is itself, appropriately, an apparent sport in a career otherwise devoted to Hobbes’s letters and the geopolitics of the Balkans. Perhaps only an author raised on Leviathan and hardened by the experience of publishing something as contentious as Bosnia: A Short History would have the nerve to attempt the task of trying to write cogently about the battiest literary treasures of the English Renaissance. This is an anthology of 17th-century poems which were specifically designed to frustrate and render ludicrous all the normal procedures of reading. That Malcolm’s introductory essay manages to be intelligent about these exhilaratingly daft texts without sounding solemn, pedantic or twee is itself an achievement.

Erudite and highly developed as this essay is (it fills about half the book), Malcolm’s central argument is simple enough. Long before the acknowledged masterpieces of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, long before the English reached their nonsensical apogee in the reign of Victoria, a few privileged Elizabethans were already developing a surreal and proto-Carrollean sense of humour, cultivated most often in the elaborately flippant literary games associated with revelry at the universities and the Inns of Court. According to Malcolm, the great tradition of English nonsense poetry, which literary historians have erroneously considered a solely 19th-century phenomenon, can be traced directly to this milieu, in fact directly to a single poem, published by Sir John Hoskyns (a former terrae filius at Oxford and author of mock-orations at the Middle Temple, where he was ‘Clerk of the Council to the Prince d’Amour’ for Christmas 1597). This is the set of ‘Cabalistical Verses’ prefaced to Thomas Coryate’s eccentric account of a European tour, Coryats Crudities Hastily gobled up in five Moneths of travell (1611), a book which, mock-patronised by Prince Henry, is introduced by laboriously facetious mock-encomiums from 56 poets, Donne and Jonson among them. None of the other tributes, however, is so distinctively and explicitly nonsensical as that by Hoskyns:

Cabalistical Verses, which by transposition of words, syllables, and letters make excellent sense, otherwise none

In laudem Authoris

Even as the waves of brainless butter’d fish,
With bugle horne writ in the Hebrew tongue,
Fuming up flounders like a chafing-dish,
That looks asquint upon a Three-mans song:
Or as your equinoctiall pasticrust
Projecting out a purple chariot wheele,
Doth squeeze the spheares, and intimate the dust,
The dust which force of argument doth feele:
Even so this Author, this Gymnosophist,*
Whom no delight of travels toyle dismaies,
Shall sympathize (thinke reader what thou list)
Crownd with a quinsill tipt with marble praise.

*This word gymnosophist is derived from two Greeke words ... wch signifie a naked sophister. And he therefor cals the Author so, because one day he went without a shirt at Basil, while it was washing.

If you find this merely irritating, you should avoid Malcolm’s book, as there is plenty more where it came from. This poem in particular, along with the game of sending up Coryate, was imitated with enthusiasm by the most prolific of the poets reprinted by Malcolm: the celebrated scribbling wherryman John Taylor, known as the Water-Poet, enough of whose publications are in this vein to earn him the distinction of being England’s first professional manufacturer of nonsense. Taylor’s subsequent work includes, along with mock-eulogies and mock-epitaphs on both Hoskyns and Coryate, the epic Sir Gregory Nonsence His Newes from No Place, the more comprehensibly satirical Mercurius Nonsensicus and the virtually endless The Essence of Nonsence upon Sence (included here with only the comparatively lucid interpolated elegy on a diseased horse omitted), and it is vital to Malcolm’s argument that this latter poem was still being quoted and imitated after Taylor’s death in 1653.

For Malcolm, it is this text, or at least a posthumously anthologised extract from it in a volume called Wit and Drollery (1656), which provides the hitherto missing link between the 17th-century nonsense collected here and the better-known pifflings of the Victorians:

O that my wings could bleat like butter’d pease,
But bleating and my Lungs have caught the itch,
Which are as musty as the Irish Seas,
Which in their left side now have both the Stich.
I grant indeed, that rainbows layd to sleep,
Snort like a Woodknife in a Ladies eyes,
Which makes her bark to see a Pudding creep,
For creeping puddings alwayes please the Wise.

Malcolm writes that

a poem published in 1815 by the minor American author Henry Coggswell Knight, entitled ‘Lunar Stanzas’, has long been recognised as one of the path-breaking works of 19th-century nonsense ... Two lines in this poem,

Yet, ’twere profuse to see for pendant light,
A tea-pot dangle in a lady’s ear;

are so directly reminiscent of one of the most striking conceits in Taylor’s poem,

I grant indeed, that Rainbows layd to sleep,
Snort like a Woodknife in a Ladies eyes,

that it is surely necessary to conclude that Knight had read either Taylor’s original text or the version of these lines published in the later anthology.

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