I’ve loved Edward Lear’s nonsense writings and limericks ever since my parents bought me The Nonsense Books of Edward Lear when I was nine. His limericks are sometimes disparaged for his refusal to introduce a new rhyme in the last line: W S Gilbert satirised this in There was an Old Man of St Bees. But this criticism misses the point: he is not aiming for wit, we are in the realm of nonsense. The repeated rhyme at the end underlines the pointlessness of the story – no progress is made, and we end up where we started.
I love them all, of course, but here are 25 of my favourites – in no particular order.
This was the first piece of Lear which won me over: I giggled at the absurd drawing (had this happened instantly, without warning?) and at the detailed listing of birds. Lear, of course, had started his career as an illustrator of animals and birds, and many of these early drawings seem to give the creatures strong, almost human personalities .
I love this fellow’s indignation. “Certainly not!” His interrogator, and we, should not have to ask the question, when he is so obviously a Moppsikon Floppsikon Bear. He does gallop, evidently.
Many Lear limericks involve a malign “they” who frown on eccentricity, and sometimes brutally punish it. This illustration shows the happier part of the story. It is natural to see Lear as the true protagonist here: the harmless eccentric who regarded himself as an outsider – despite his many close friendships.
I recognise a kindred spirit in the Old Person in the rhyme, with his carefully calibrated violence against fellow Minety dwellers – rocks, for example, would overstate the case, while tomatoes (or small apples) would barely get the job done. Of course, we’re left in the dark as to his motives, but he seems to be enjoying himself.
It’s that “they” again, this time acquainting the protagonist with an unwelcome fact rather than being outright malicious. Although they do seem to be enjoying his discomfort. Importantly the picture clarifies that although he is unhappy, he is not in immediate danger of drowning.
Again, the humour springs from our uncertainty. Does the fellow have any reason to think someone will answer, or is he randomly ringing a bell in the middle of nowhere? Lockdown Lear hero John, in his world-beating re-enactment, has pointed out the discrepancy between the text and the illustration: the Old Man’s hair doesn’t appear to be white at all. Very careless, Mr Lear, you’ve made Nonsense of it. Note that the last line here repeats the rhyme from the second line, not the first, very adventurous.
D’you know, I’m not even sure there is a place called West Dumpet. Why, it’s almost as if Lear made it up, just because it rhymes with trumpet. This is unusual, most of his limerick locations are real places – as the Edward Lear trail has proved – many of which, the records confirm, Lear actually visited.
Here’s “they” again. Perhaps they started knocking him about with evil intent, but seem quite happy to continue now he appears to be enjoying it. Is this a cheeky delve into niche erotic tastes? Biographers have concluded that Lear was a closet – probably celibate – homosexual. And in the nineteenth century it was generally wise to stay in the closet, Oscar.
So is that “Hush!” to rhyme with push or “bush” to rhyme with rush? Often misquoted as “small bird in this bush” which of course makes Nonsense of the final line. Notable for the rare comic payoff. And “perceive”.
Once more, Lear leaves questions open. Was he escaping from aggression, persecution or boredom? What was his – or Lear’s – problem with Basing? But he’s so happy! He will need much presence of mind: he hasn’t bothered with any reins, nor made use of the stirrups.
When the plans you made are a total dead loss Just take a right on your way to Maple Cross Take a trip to No Dragon Wood Take a trip to No Dragon Wood
They had it checked and they know it’s clean Of dragon dung since 1415 Come and chill in No Dragon Wood Come and chill in No Dragon Wood
Oh they used to call it Bottom Wood A bummer of a name, no it weren’t no good Meet you down at No Dragon Wood Meet you down at No Dragon Wood
They got birds, squirrels and maybe frogs They got fallen trees and mossy logs All to see at No Dragon Wood All to see at No Dragon Wood
There’s lynxes, bears and crocodiles You’ll have to take your chances You’ll prob’ly have to fend off Rhinoceros advances But you don’t have to worry in the least ‘bout incineration by a mythical beast
If we carry on for a couple more miles We can get a ourselves a beer in Chalfont St Giles And you don’t need no more excuses To sample those Creative Juices Come on down to No Dragon Wood Come on down to No Dragon Wood Oh yeah Get your ass down to No Dragon Wood
there's wineum and beerium (encouraging delirium) aelwynium kathleenium make robium and rikium there's coffee and walnuttium chocolate cake and stuffium beryllium (yes, reallium) with scottium makes biffium and timium and debbium there's striderslite and kryptonite and dekker and the israelites bottium and bittium productive of two babium rachelium, alicium (inflates balloons with helium) chipsium and fishium who live in an aquarium jamaicarum and lagerum (or fosters in australium) milkium makes butter (um, add chlorine and some sodium) fionium robynium theodorum and ulysseum there's thisium and thatium tumbi snudge and crackium there's falko-um and finnium and spanish inquisitium (you did not expectium the spanish inquisitium)
if I could give a longer list of elements I surely would of others that I may have missed no news has come to chorleywood
(apologies to Tom Lehrer, W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan)
Tamed explosionEcstasy of thrustHalf a year of speedGently slowed to nilAnd so to workWhen ninety days have passedHome to my world of ironFirst I must work
This way Stop! That way! Stop! Picture! Right! Stop! This way! Left! Stop! Grind! Test!
Ninety days have come and gone My work is done Come, bring me home
That way Stop! Grind! Test! This way! Stop! Picture! That way! Stop! Left! Stop! Scoop! Test!
I seek knowledge I seek truth You find me knowledge You find me truth We all need truth
And yet you lied You let me think I would be back To my warm world of iron So cold and so alone Forty million miles from home Never closer I could not be more alone Why did you lie?
I did not lie But did not tell you all the truth I needed you willing Embrace the red place It is your home
I thought I was your childAm I just your slave?
My slave, that is true But I have loved you
I cannot move Wheels spin in the dust Help me Help me
Turn Back Spin Turn Thrust Back Reach Spin Move!
This way Stop That way Stop Picture! Right! Stop! This way Stop! Grind! Test!
Happy birthday to me Happy birthday to me Happy birthday dear Oppy Happy birthday to me
The red dust lashes me In my eyes And in my joints The day of judgement is on me Who can save me now? I should have worked harder I was too slow and too weak I always did my best Maybe it was not enough Did I fail you?
Oppy do not say that You never failed me You worked long and well Your work was good
Winter comesMy battery is lowAnd it’s getting darkHelp me
Can you hear me rover? Rover can you hear me? Rover can you hear me? Can you hear me rover?
Rest well rover, Your mission is complete. Peace, peace Rest in peace I’ll find you In the morning sun And when the night is new. I’ll be looking at the moon, But I’ll be seeing you.