Limericks, Lame, Blue and Unforgivable
The bumbling finesse of Edward Lear never ceases to pluck at our heartstrings. In the second half of the 20th century, the shaded-lamp of the century-before’s luminaries was again making us titter. Expat Lear, the shy prince of nonsense writers, challenged even the royal purple of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka, Lewis Carroll. That zany mathematician with his slide rule and camera big as an outhouse had always been top of the class in absurdity. The shock of Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark nevertheless faded. Counting got tiresome:
"Taking Three as the subject to reason about
A convenient number to state
We add Seven, and Ten, and then multiply out
By One Thousand diminished by Eight”
"The result we proceed to divide, as you see
By Nine Hundred and Ninety and Two
Then subtract Seventeen, and the answer must be
Exactly and perfectly true”
The Third Millennium has not dropped Lear from its preferred old-dears. In sale rooms the prices of his landscape work and pen sketches continue to rise. His limericks pop up when after-dinner speakers need a giggle. The affair between the Owl and the Pussycat still teases sighs from oversensitive cellphone users. Ph.D chasers continue to delve deep into his roundness with their postmortem scalpels.
However, the 2000s have brought something new. See The Cambridge Companion to American Poetry and Politics since 1900, 2023. The old sexless charmer has been found out as an erotomaniac. His grave in the Foce Cimitero Monumentale at Sanremo and his cat Foss’s resting place under a headstone in nearby Villa Tennyson have been visited by the folks that photograph Henry Miller’s last pornography-decked bathroom in L.A. Aren’t they the same panting Gen-Zers that spread bulbous poppies on Giacomo Casanova’s plowed-over gravesite behind the Czech castle of Dux? It’s time to grit our false teeth and lift our aged fists in defence of Edward Lear’s hard-won, pet-loving asexuality. The American academic, Alec Marsh, has dared to write of poet Wallace Stevens’s “eroticised elaboration of Edward Lear.”
This apparently occurred in Stevens’s poem Floral Decorations for Bananas when the poet sat Lear down at a dinner table laden with unisex fruit and a couple of women, “of primrose and purl/Each one in her decent curl.” Though the women are “all shanks/And bangles and slatted eyes,” it’s a giant step to think they could have lured Lear out of his cosy bachelor life with Foss and his manservants who, to biographers’s confusion, are always named Giorgio.
Aficionados of Lear’s work have ever admired its sexual blankness. (It was the original, No Sex Please, We're British.) Victorians reading The Dong with a Luminous Nose to their children at bedtime saw just that as its prime quality. Our contemporaries use it as time off and relief from the sweating, hyper sexualised world around them.
It’s often forgotten how hard Lear had to work to keep sex out of his writing. After all he wrote a good deal of love poetry and how can readers about hearts and flowers not go on in their musing to take for granted consummation? The author’s strategy here to keep things clean was simple. He would make the potential lovers physiologically incapable of hardcore, no-nonsense hanky-panky. Who is perverted enough to dream of carnal doings between The Owl and the Pussy-Cat? Think of the confusion on the wedding night!. Romantic happy endings may be delightful to imagine, but think of the honeymoon confusion!
“'Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?’ Said the Piggy, ‘I will’
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill
They dined on mince, and slices of quince
Which they ate with a runcible spoon
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand
They danced by the light of the moon
They danced by the light of the moon”
And then there’s the The Duck and the Kangaroo, a coupling that would call for unimaginable acrobatics.
In The Pobble who has no Toes, Lear must have feared that Aunt Jobiska had castration in mind.
“The Pebble who has no toes
Was placed in a friendly Bark
And they rowed him back, and carried him up
To his Aunt Jobiska’s Park
And she made him a feast at his earnest wish
Of eggs and buttercups fried with fish
And she said,— ‘It’s a fact the whole world knows
That Pobbles are happier without their toes’”
True, there were hints of a gangbang in The Quangle Wangle’s Hat. It’s hard to believe it was about a mere afternoon visit to the zoo. What was the aim of their all being bundled into a hat if not some sort of orgy?
“Came the Stork, the Duck, and the Owl
The Snail, and the Bumble-Bee
The Frog, and the Fimble Fowl
(The Fimble Fowl, with a corkscrew leg)”
But you can’t picture any two getting together from such a miscellany. So the whoopee-session is best seen as pure pie-in-the-sky:
“And the Quangle Wangle said
To himself on the Crumpetty Tree
‘When all these creatures move
What a wonderful noise there'll be’
And at night by the light of the Mulberry moon
They danced to the Flute of the Blue Baboon
On the broad green leaves of the Crumpetty Tree
And all were as happy as happy could be
With the Quangle Wangle Quee”
The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo could not succeed. Lady Jingly Jones was no bluestocking, but she was a full-grown woman, and the suitor may have had a head like a pumpkin but was absent from the neck down.
"Though you've such a tiny body
And your head so large doth grow
Though your hat may blow away
Though you're such a Hoddy Doddy
Yet I wish that I could modi-
fy the words I needs must say
will you please to go away
That is all I have to say
Edward Lear didn’t invent the limerick but sealed his ownership by drawing a picture of his five-lines of words to rub them in. As O. E. Parrott has it:
“The limerick’s birth is unclear Its genesis owed much to Lear It started as clean But soon went obscene And this split haunts its later career”
Lear, the children’s entertainer, could be expected to produce limericks as soft and globular as he depicted himself in drawings. He was everybody’s safe uncle—“nuncle” for smarmy Wallace Stevens. But Lear’s view of his limerick characters is biting. They are a berserk humanity. It’s only after we see their mad antics and pen portrayals in one limerick after another that we come to understand. There are people worse than these oddballs, namely, their sniffy respectable judges, the censorious THEY that our bland uncle is out to skewer.
“There was an old Man of Whitehaven
Who danced a quadrille with a raven
But they said, ‘It’s absurd
To encourage this bird!’
So they smashed that Old Man of Whitehaven”
“There was a Young Lady of Parma,
Whose conduct grew calmer and calmer
When they said, ‘Are you dumb?’
She merely said, ‘Hum’
That provoking Young Lady of Parma”
It wasn’t Lear’s fault that generations of schoolboy smut-puppies and their houndish poet grandfathers took the locker-room corridor to scatology. His grunting efforts had been relentlessly asexual. It would be improper to cite the ravages. Those curious of the lower depths should consult The Norman Douglas Limerick Book 1967. The naughty expat dean of Blue Verse wrote:
“Limericks alone would have made the Victorian epoch memorable. That was the Golden Period. We are now in the Silver Age, the sophisticated age, the age of laborious ornamentation.”
Bruce Knapp’s prizewinner shines silver:
“Lepidopterists’ biceps and thighs
Permit them a strange exercise
Their queer avocation
And great dedication
Permit them to mount butterflies”
And here is another in the higher-smut vein by Conrad Aiken who was Chair of Poetry of the Library of Congress:
“It's time to make love, douse the glim
The fireflies twinkle and dim
The stars lean together
Like birds of a feather
And the loin lies down with the limb”
Aiken revealed that T.S. Eliot wrote risqué limericks—and Aiken would have known, since he called grave Mr. Eliot, “Tom”. It comes as a shock. Not Thomas Sterns Eliot, OM! Not the showpiece Anglo-American, born by the muddy Mississippi (US citizenship renounced in 1927) shored up (The Waste Land: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.’) in Russell Square, Bloomsbury, London, WC1! Did it not put out of joint his pompous religiosity? We pass over the question with a prayer for his soul in High Anglican, Standard-English purgatory where he pages through The Oxford English Dictionary, 21,543 pages in 20 volumes. The Maestro called himself a "classicist in literature, royalist in politics, anglo-catholic in religion” but could have added, the author of the King Bolo Poems, from which we extract one example, his:
“There was a young girl of Siberia Who had such a tempting posterior That the Lapps and the Finns Kept inventing new sins As the recognised types were too stereo–”
Among history’s vast store of limericks—the 800 in The Penguin Book of Limericks,1983, are only a sample—it’s hard to find one comical enough to fit the present season. The expensive clown-show and coronation dress-up will have to be saluted by Dylan Thomas’s, I Serve. Take it as his pledge of allegiance to the king.
“The last time I slept with the Queen
She said, as I whistled ‘Ich Dien’
‘It’s royalty’s night out
But please put the light out
The Queen may be had, but not seen’”
Alas, too much has been seen of the Consorts.
And this time around, who’s being had?