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.

Apart from placing the word ‘lady’s’ at the same point in a line, these snatches seem to me to have very little in common. Knight’s lines might more plausibly be seen as fusing a cadence from Romeo and Juliet (‘O, she doth hang upon the cheek of night/Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear’) with some of the props and concerns of the near-nonsensical Cave of Spleen episode in The Rape of the Lock. The fact that Robert Southey wrote enthusiastically about Taylor in his Lives and Works of the Uneducated Poets (1831) doesn’t do much to establish the Water-Poet as an unacknowledged influence either; although he does briefly quote from Sir Gregory Nonsence, Southey is mainly interested in Taylor’s more orthodox poems, which he valued, as would any good friend of Sir Walter Scott, as a source of quaint details about everyday life in Jacobean London. Malcolm’s proposal of an unbroken, overarching historical trajectory of nonsense stretching from the Renaissance to the Victorians looks equally shaky in the other direction, when he tries to suggest that Hoskyns must have been influenced in his turn by the 15th-century Italian mock-Petrarchan nonsense write Il Burchiello – a contention for which Malcolm has to admit that he has no evidence at all.

But if Carroll and Lear didn’t get it from Taylor the Water-Poet via Henry Coggswell Knight, and if Hoskyns who passed it on to Taylor hadn’t himself got it from Il Burchiello, then what are the origins of English nonsense? Or does the category refuse this kind of lineal account? In explicating the poetry of Hoskyns, Taylor and their babbling contemporaries, Malcolm is much more convincing – indeed, often brilliantly so – when exploring the relation of this extraordinary outburst of nonsense neither to its supposed English heirs nor to its presumed European antecedents but to the contemporary literary forms off which it so extravagantly bounces.

Nonsense proves to make far more sense considered as a particularly extreme subset of parody and burlesque rather than as a genre with its own independent tradition, and one of the most fascinating aspects of this collection is the vivid way in which it records some of the odder and wilder reverberations of Elizabethan dramatic poetry. If Taylor loved one text more than Coryats Crudities, it was ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’, the play performed by Bottom, Quince and Co. in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (‘If we offend, it is with our good will,’ quotes the dedication ‘To Nobody’ of Sir Gregory Nonsence), and dramatic burlesque is close to the heart of much of his best nonsense verse. What Wordsworth and all those inanely pious Victorian schoolroom poems were for Carroll in the 1860s – the foundation for parodies which steal their forms and twist their affects by robbing them of their logical referents – Marlowe and Kyd prove to have been for the Water-Poet in the 1630s, his wilder flights the outpourings of a bathetic Tamburlaine maddened that he can no longer be taken seriously:

This was no sooner knowne at Amsterdam,
But with an Ethiopian Argosey,
Man’d with Flap-dragons, drinking upsifreeze,
They past the purple gulfe of Basingstoke

Elsewhere he neatly and irrelevantly summarises Dr Faustus in one doggerel couplet:

Those that do live a Commicke life by Magicke,
Their Sceanes in their Catastrophes are tragick.

The reliance of 17th-century nonsense on a clamorous foundation of mock-Marlowe becomes especially clear in Malcolm’s chapter on ‘Fustian, Bombast and Satire: The Stylistic Preconditions of English 17th-Century Nonsense Poetry’, which offers a splendidly lucid account of how the ‘fustian’ mock-learned, mock-euphuistic oratory spouted by Hoskyns and his ilk at the Inns of Court merged in the 1590s with parodic variants on Marlowe’s mighty line to produce a generic ‘bombast’. (Malcolm is particularly good on the derivation of these terms, and others like them, from types of fabric: fustian was a velour-like fake velvet, spuriously elegant; bombast a cotton-wool padding, speciously aggrandising – stuff and nonsense indeed.) Malcolm traces the comic uses of Marlowe’s style by writers from Shakespeare to Thomas Nashe, whose insanely eloquent, near-Joycean tribute to the Yarmouth herring-smoking industry, Lenten Stuff, only just escapes being classified as nonsense, but the crucial mediating figure between Marlowe and the sheer nonsense of the Water-Poet proves to be the poet and playwright John Marston, whose verse satires had intermingled Marlowe’s glamorously classical proper nouns and vaunting adjectives with virulently prosaic glimpses of London low-life. Malcolm’s favourite is a seafood close-up from The Scourge of Villainy, ‘A Crab’s bak’d guts, a Lobster’s butter’d thigh’. As Malcolm puts it, ‘the combination of Marston and Marlowe made possible a radical destabilising of poetic diction; and of that resulting instability, Taylor’s nonsense poetry was both a parody and an even more radical expression.’

This is serious and convincing talk, and not entirely characteristic of the book as a whole, for The Origins of English Nonsense is highly unusual as a piece of literary criticism, in that it could stand a little more of such earnestness rather than a little less. One of the attractions of nonsense poetry both as reading matter and as a subject for critical prose is that it appears to offer a holiday from all that dreary business of worrying about what the poet might be trying to say: centuries before the French Symbolists started going on about it, some English comic verse had already learned to be rather than to mean. Despite his vigorous engagement with the historical and social contexts of this sort of poetry, Malcolm is sufficiently charmed by the notion of nonsense for nonsense’s sake to be willing to play down the darker sides of the genre. Although he admits that Taylor himself explicitly politicised his favourite mode with the onset of the Civil War – attacking his former friend George Wither for joining the Parliamentarians, for example, with the couplet ‘For Nonsence is Rebellion, and thy writing/Is nothing but Rebellious Warres inciting’ – Malcolm is so vehemently opposed to the ideas of Mikhail Bakhtin, for whom nonsense writings such as those of Rabelais enacted an uprising of the low against the restraints of high culture (a view with which Taylor himself seems in the instance above to have concurred), that he is inclined to overlook the many traces of serious discontent which surface in the poems he anthologises.

An honourable exception is his note to ‘If all the world were paper’, printed in 1641, now remembered as a nursery rhyme but clearly derived from a political satire. Malcolm provides a convincing refutation of the more sentimental, William Morris-like take on Bakhtin, which is determined to find the triumphant wisdom of the collective folk-body in the pedantic undergraduate humour of a monkish élite, offering instead what might be called a trickle-down theory of nonsense, but his account remains slightly on the cosy side. His genealogy of English nonsense poetry and its closest cousins before Hoskyns, for instance, although mentioning and representing the tradition of explicitly satirical nonsense-prophecy into which many of Lear’s Fool’s more gnomic utterances fall, surprisingly leaves out John Skelton (still widely read in Hoskyns’s day). His account of the unschooled Taylor – able endlessly to parrot the courtly in-jokes of Hoskyns’s circle but hopelessly excluded from it – is wholly deaf to the note of frustration and self-disgust which often underlies his desperate rhetorical clowning.

Nonsense, though, can offer a nightmare vision of a senseless universe just as readily as an idyllic escape into pure play (at its best it may do both at once: The Goon Show was both a shattered, deranged response to the aftermath of World War Two and a hilarious antidote to it), and it is particularly surprising that Malcolm should fail to point out the presence and seriousness of nonsense in some of the texts about whose impact on Taylor and his contemporaries he is otherwise so observant. Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, to cite only the most obvious example, as well as offering plenty of the Marlovian rhetoric on which Taylor’s poetry depends (Don Andrea’s ‘To pass the flowing stream of Acheron’ isn’t so very far from Gregory Nonsence’s ‘They past the purple gulfe of Basingstoke’), gives us Hieronimo, who, unable to make sense of his damaged world, runs into a madness of heightened speech, and finally avenges his son during the staging of his wonderfully nonsensical verse-play, Solyman and Perseda, in which each character speaks in a wholly different language.

Stage lunatics in general often came a lot closer to speaking or singing the language of 17th-century nonsense poetry than Malcolm’s rather cursory dismissal of them would suggest. They were much inclined to juxtapose impeccably classical visions of the underworld with bathetic remarks about banal trades: Hamlet, for example, idly faking the discourse which Ophelia will later fully inhabit, accuses Polonius of being a fishmonger. This generic kinship might have enabled Malcolm to propose some missing intermediate stages between Taylor and Carroll rather more plausible than Knight’s pendant teapot. While fustian jokes went out of fashion at the Inns by the later 17th century and Tamburlaine itself was forgotten, various Besses of Bedlam continued to warble exquisitely unhinged non-sequiturs in popular song long after the nonsense boom of the 1630s and 1640s was over. Purcell, for example, set several lyrics in this mode which wouldn’t have disgraced Taylor himself. Meanwhile, on the Restoration stage the post-Marlovian excesses of heroic tragedy gave rise to an illustrious and enduring tradition of theatrical burlesque equally rich in high literary nonsense of just the sort Malcolm cherishes. The two strands even overlap at certain memorable moments: think of Sheridan’s parodied Ophelia, Tilburina, in the play within the play of The Critic: ‘An oyster may be cross’d in love! – Who says/A whale’s a bird?’ Among the Water-Poet’s successors unacknowledged by Malcolm was Henry Carey, whose Chrononhotonthologos (1734), still remembered and even performed in the 19th century, is as rich in ludicrous names as anything in Edward Lear (from its metrically perfect opening question onwards: ‘Aldiborontiphoscophornio!/Where left you Chrononhotonthologos?’). And if we wanted an indication that Carroll’s vein of nonsense, like Taylor’s, owes something of its resonance to distorted echoes of Elizabethan verse drama, we need only look, a little further down the line of dramatic burlesque, at the version of the interview between Hamlet and Ophelia supplied by Francis Talfourd’s Hamlet Travestie (1834):

Hamlet (aside): (But soft! hold hard! I’m growing spoony, so must try the mad dodge!) To a Nunnery go! ...

         (Hamlet sings wildly)
She wore a sky-blue walrus in her pewter chemisette;
Her wooden leg was smiling at a sum in tare and tret;
Her bantams play’d the Jew’s harp; the Pope
                       cried Hip, Hip, Hip;
And she herself was knitting a seventy-four-gun ship.

    I saw her in the gardin,
    Where Yarmouth bloaters grew,
    Selling Tom-tits five a fardin
    To unhappy young Leboo!

No one, however, would actually want to claim that this provocatively sported walrus was a direct source for the better-known specimen that consorts with the Carpenter. One of the curious phenomena which we can be grateful to Malcolm’s book for making visible are recurring tropes or images which appear to embody English writing’s sense of the absurd, regardless of whether the authors deploying them are aware that they have been used in such contexts before – the walrus is one of them. From Talfourd Carroll to Lennon and McCartney, people seem to think alike about this sublimely irrelevant creature: today the proprietors of Sea World in California even make a walrus perform a role in a mock-gothic playlet (complete with a paternal ghost out of Hamlet), the most bizarre specimen of nonsensical burlesque drama I have ever witnessed.

Sea creatures, especially edible ones, seem to be a transhistorical hallmark by which English readers have always been able to recognise the nonsensical, a whole realm of creation transformed for the purposes of comic verse into a seemingly unstoppable running gag. Beginning, according to Malcolm, with Hoskyns’s brainless buttered fish (bred out of Nashe’s kippers and Marston’s crab’s baked guts, with Polonius nominated as fishmonger-cum-midwife), English nonsense poetry reaches its early peak in the work of the Water-Poet, a man whose most characteristic publicity stunt was a rowing expedition from London to the Isle of Sheppey using salted fish as oars. For two decades it burgeons into cod eloquence of all kinds (the number of gratuitous references to fruits de mer in Malcolm’s anthology is prodigious). The mainstream then goes underground (via Tilburina’s oysters and whales and the travestied Hamlet’s Yarmouth bloaters) before bursting forth into the golden age of the Walrus and the Carpenter, the voice of the Lobster, the Mock-Turtle (‘There’s a porpoise close behind us, and he’s treading on my tail’), Humpty Dumpty’s little fishes who would not listen to advice and the White Knight’s old man who hunts for haddocks’ eyes among the heather bright, and sets limed twigs for crabs. Can the English genius for nonsense really be explained simply by the fact that this is an island, set in what was until quite recently a disconcertingly populous sea?

It is true that fish and molluscs are remarkably hard to make anthropomorphic sense of, compared to other animals (hence the relatively small hue and cry after anglers and whelk-gatherers compared to that after fox-hunters), and while P.G. Wodehouse’s Psmith did concede that there was money in fish, he was probably wise to decline a commission to write a children’s book called Herbert the Turbot. Or is the association between edible marine life and surreal comedy triggered because there is something dubiously suggestive about seafood – those glutinous textures, those rumoured aphrodisiac qualities? As Malcolm’s anthology repeatedly demonstrates, part of the pleasure of nonsense verse has always been its ability to sound thoroughly indecent without being definitely obscene (the Dong with the Luminous Nose is only the most prominent example): but this is an area of speculation which Malcolm, probably wisely, leaves well alone.

One more arbitrary generic signal, which Malcolm’s anthology conclusively proves to have been associated with nonsense since at least the early 1600s, demands to be commented on: Basingstoke. Quite apart from its appearance as the purple gulf passed by Sir Gregory’s Ethiopian argosies (manned with flap-dragons drinking upsifreeze – the latter, disappointingly, an adverb meaning ‘to alcoholic excess, in the Frisian fashion’ rather than some topsy-turvy precursor of antifreeze), the town features, independently and irrelevantly, in the anonymous mock-history poem Newes (1660):

When Basingstoke did swim upon the Thames,
And swore all thieves to be just and true,
The Sumnors and Bailiffs were honest men,
And Pease and Bacon that year it snew.

Two centuries later, W.S. Gilbert searched for ‘some word that teems with hidden meaning’ as a charm to summon Ruddigore’s classic burlesqued stage lunatic Mad Margaret back into her right wits, and inevitably seized on ‘Basingstoke’ as the mot juste. Mad Margaret is a send-up of Elvira, the heroine who alternates between sense and bel canto insanity in Bellini’s I Puritani. In Bellini’s opera – allegedly based, at what must be several removes, on Scott’s Woodstock – her madness is produced by her emotional entanglement in the English Civil War, the conflict which Taylor had identified as the culmination of all nonsense a few years after he sent Sir Gregory Nonsence across the purple gulf of Basingstoke. Was Gilbert somehow aware, however unconsciously, of the work of John Taylor? Nonsense! The overwhelming impression one gets from reading this collection is that there is an uncanny kinship between the nonsense writing of different periods that defies, almost deliberately, the usual logic of literary pedigree. However persuasive Malcolm may be about the dynamic equilibrium between the sublime and the ridiculous in Jacobean and Caroline literary culture, and about its echoes or lack of echoes in the sophisticated and unsophisticated poetic gibberings of late medieval Europe, nonsense poetry as a category resists his quest for an origin.