No one seems quite sure of the reason, but there has been a thriving tradition of nonsense writing in England which long pre-dates the more well-known poets of the 19th Century, such as Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. Historians of the genre, in fact, generally cite Cabalistical Verses by the 17th Century wit John Hoskyns as the earliest identifiable example of what might specifically be called English nonsense verse. This Researcher, therefore, takes great pleasure in ignoring the blatherings of the Victorian poets and concentrating instead on these earlier, now largely forgotten, delirious heroes of the English canon.
Defining Nonsense and Telling it Apart from Gibberish
Nonsense can best be defined as an extreme form of parody, rather than as a separate genre in its own right. It can be distinguished from its near-neighbour, gibberish, in that while the latter aims for a complete breakdown in meaning, nonsense tends to remain more or less within the established boundaries regarding literary form and structure. However, nonsense delights in satirising the ridiculous by making it still more ridiculous, to the point of irretrievability. There follow below two examples to illustrate these differences.
First, we should examine in more detail the above-mentioned poem, Cabalistical Verses (dated circa 1611). One can see that in this poem Hoskyns, while using words and imagery which are plainly absurd, and putting these together in a refreshingly ridiculous way, has all the same chosen to express these within the formal constraints of a conventional 12 line English poem. He has furthermore, for the most part, stayed true to that great staple of English poetry, the iambic pentameter1. As a background to the poem, the reader may care to note that it was originally written as a rather sardonic 'tribute' (In Laudem Authoris) to a friend of Hoskyns called Thomas Coryate, for inclusion in a book of travel anecdotes that the latter was preparing for publication at the time. Coryate's response, unfortunately, has disappeared from the record.
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 Gymnosophist2,
Whom no delight of travels toyle dismaies,
Shall sympathize (thinke reader what thou list)
Crownd with a quinsill tipt with marble praise.
This can be contrasted with the following example of a piece of gibberish from the same period, called Poem in the Utopian Tongue (1613), written by a near contemporary of Hoskyns, John Taylor (aka 'The Water Poet') :
Thoytom Asse Coria Tushrump codsheadirustie,
Mungrellimo whish whap ragge dicete tottrie,
Mangelusquem verminets nipsem barelybittimsore,
Culliandolt travellerebumque, graiphone trutchmore.
Pusse per mew (Odcomb) gul abelgik foppery shig shag
Cock a peps Comb sottishamp, Idioshte momulus tag rag.
Not all of Taylor's poems are like this, by the way, thankfully. Most of them are fairly readable, more along the relatively conventional lines of the above poem by Hoskyns. Initially, perhaps, gibberish may appear rather more radical in its effect than nonsense, in that it seems to jettison altogether any attempt at 'meaning,' opting instead for a series of unintelligible sounds with neither recognisable form nor content. A closer look, however, reveals gibberish to be something of a self-defeating genre. As Noel Malcolm points out, in a fine recently published collection of English 17th Century nonsense poetry (from which the above examples were taken), ultimately a writer of gibberish can only really perform one 'trick,' which is, in effect, to make funny noises. After this, if the joke is to be taken any further, even the most formless gibberish must see the beginnings of a re-establishment of some kind of pattern, some form of meaning3. In the above poem, for example, one can see traces of real words and phrases - 'nipsem barely bittimsore', 'pusse per mew,' 'foppery' - emerging amid the dog-Latin and whatever else it is. Furthermore, it is also apparent that, for all its absurdity, there is a more or less conventional rhyming scheme here, and the poem follows the general requirements of standard English metre.
Nonsense in an Historical Context
Naturally, any writer is drawing references from their own period and attempting - in whatever way, whether nonsensical or otherwise - to find some way of making 'sense' of the world around them. This is no less true for writers of nonsense than for any other writers. For example, the above-cited John Taylor poem, with its exotic mutterings and primal noises, can be better appreciated in light of the fact that the 17th Century was a time of great curiosity about exploration, with new information appearing all the time about exotic far-off places around the globe. It is understandable that much of this fascination would have been reflected in the writing of the time and of course, it is understandable that many would have felt the urge to satirise such exploration.
The influence of Shakespeare and other key English writers of the period would also have been of some relevance here. These nonsense writers obviously betray, in their self-consciously florid tone, some awareness of the Great Bard. Note that Hoskyns' poem was first published in 1611, when Shakespeare - although drawing to the end of his life - was still creatively very much alive. In fact, as Noel Malcolm points out, the general decline of nonsense poetry in the latter half of the 17th Century can be related to a parallel decline in the very poetic forms of the earlier part of this century - Shakespearean word play, the drama of Christopher Marlowe, the bizarre metaphysical conceits of John Donne, and so forth - that writers such as Hoskyns and Taylor were feeding off.
To illustrate the relationship between the writer and the world around him, one might briefly refer again to Taylor. As well as being a poet, he was also a 'traveller' in nonsense, so to speak. In his time, he made a modest name for himself for a series of ridiculous journeys that he made which, in effect, were absurdist versions of the more serious exploration that was taking place at the time. The most striking example was his attempt to scull down the Thames estuary from London to the sea in a brown paper boat with oars made out of salted dried fish! One wonders how he may have fared. Fate would appear to have been against him - brown paper boats are notoriously difficult to navigate, especially in the sort of tides to which the Thames is often prone. But one never knows, for it is said that the heavens look kindly upon fools...
Noel Malcom The Origins of English Nonsense (1997, Harper Collins)
Michael Dobson There's a porpoise close behind us pp.28-30 from 'London Review of Books', 13th November 1997
B Capp The World of John Taylor the Water Poet 1578 - 1653 (1994, Oxford University Press)