BOOK REVIEW: Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear

A Book of NonsenseA Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of over one-hundred limericks by Edward Lear published in 1846. Limericks are a popular five-line poetic form with an A – A – B – B – A rhyme scheme, and in which the B-lines are shorter than the A-lines. Two types of material leap to mind when one thinks of limericks: humor and bawdiness. I mention this because neither of these subjects feature prominently in Lear’s limericks. While a number of the poems could be described as amusing, I can’t say I found any of them laugh-out-loud funny. I suspect that the number that are found amusing would be larger for a reader from the early 19th century due to insider knowledge that escapes the present-day reader (i.e. the activities and the perception of people from various locales have changed considerably over the years.)

As the book’s title suggests, what is on display in these limericks is nonsense. While that reads like an insult, Lear is considered to be one of the founders of the genre of literary nonsense. It’s not nonsense in the sense of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” in which fictitious words are blended with real words to create a synthesis that is grammatically logical but relies on the reader’s imagination to create any meaning. Rather, the events and reactions on display in the poems range from absurd to impossible, but the meaning can be interpreted. As with the poems of a later nonsense poet of renown, Ogden Nash, some of the whimsy of these poems derives from contortionistic acts of mispronunciation needed to square the rhyme (though I may be overstating this as I don’t know how much Lear’s British accent from almost 200 years ago would differ from the way I read with my 2020 American accent.)

Needless, to say this is a really quick read. Most editions are between 30 and 60 pages long, with all the white-space one would expect of a book of five-line poems. If you are interested in Limericks or poetic forms in general, it’s worthwhile to see how Lear writes them. It’s a big help in developing an ear for the flow of the limerick. I found the book to be a pleasant read, though some of the limericks are cleverer than others. Some left me thinking that Lear could have done much more with the poems. Often the last line is a minor variation of the first line, and, thus, neither serves as a punchline nor as a source of new information. That sometimes felt like a missed opportunity. Still, it’s a nice collection of nonsense limericks.

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