By Noreen Masud, 2018–2019 Houghton Library Visiting Fellow/Eleanor M. Garvey Fellow in Printing and Graphic Arts, and a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Durham University. She works on topics including aphorisms, culinary leftovers, flatness, and hymns in nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature.
Owls and Pussycats going to sea, Old Men with beards full of birds, Pobbles with no toes: Edward Lear’s landmark nonsense writing overflows with things surprising to his readers. But, for his characters, things are sudden more often than they are surprising.
At night if he suddenly screams and wakes,
Do they bring him only a few small cakes or a LOT,
For the Akond of Swat? (“The Akond of Swat,” 1873)
“Sudden” and “surprising” both describe events one didn’t expect. But “surprising” is preachy: it tells you how you should feel (astounded, startled, confused). Something “sudden,” meanwhile, omits emotional cues: it also happens quickly, but does not dictate how you should respond. Describing something as sudden only tells you that it happened faster or sooner than you might have expected. In a letter to Hubert Congreve, Lear uses the word idiosyncratically, to mean something like “immediately”: “If you want to buy the Corsican Series for £1100—let me know suddenly” (2 May 1883, [MS Eng 797]).
By casting mere promptness as suddenness, Lear gives us a clue that his world—both personal and nonsensical—might feel full of abrupt, jarring bumps. In his diaries, seizures from his lifelong epilepsy erupt unexpectedly; unwanted guests barge in; fleas pop up and make his life a misery. Usually these are occasions for grief and frustration. However, when Lear is able to exclude emotion from them, these accounts become funny and moving. His description of a difficult evening, in a diary entry from 1873, reads like one of his nonsense-worlds. Household objects and creatures interrupt with rapid calamities:The text in the image above reads:
Home to dine – but everything – from unknown causes – was later than usual […] Also Foss the cat suddenly ate up the new cream cheese. Also later the Lamp abruptly extincted himself. I meant to have written to [Lear’s beloved friend] Frank, – from whom I have not heard for an age – but it is getting “too late, too late.”
The Lamp comes inexplicably to life and puts “himself” out; the cat “suddenly” eats up a cream cheese, with a rapidity quite unexpected for a meal so large and rich. It is reminiscent of the sudden fate of the tiny Old Man of Leghorn in another Lear limerick: “quickly snapt up he, was once by a puppy.” Life comes at you fast in Lear: the Old Man, like the cream cheese, is eaten up almost before we have a chance to feel surprise.Nonsense depends on things being sudden but not acknowledged as surprising. The reader may gasp and puzzle, but within the nonsense world, life goes on as usual, through the most unexpected events. Surprise is a privilege restricted to those who expect the world to behave reasonably: in other words, the disapproving “They” of Lear’s limericks, shocked at the protagonists’ antics (who, in one limerick, “[start] away in surprise” at the size of a Young Lady’s eyes), as well as the readers of nonsense. In contrast, nonsense characters (and perhaps nonsense writers) learn to accept things in all their absurdity. A drawing captioned “Discovery of a large moth,” in Houghton Library’s Edward Lear collection, captures this tug-of-war:
It shows a huge —human-sized, human-faced—moth emerging from a chest. Surprising? Not, apparently, to the woman who stands in front, a key falling to the ground from hands flung behind her. Her posture suggests astonishment, but—like the moth—she is smiling. She seems to find the appearance of the impossible, half-human moth sudden (she has dropped her key, unheeding) but not surprising. Her backflung hands may instead imply that she is about to embrace the insect (perhaps they are long lost friends?). Or else elation, like the Old Person of Basing who “escaped from the people of Basing” with a similar gesture:The people of Basing run behind the horse, their arms also raised up behind them: they look patient but unsurprised (perhaps they would not have expected anything better from this Old Person). In all these cases, the posture signifies a body not quite in rhythm with itself: the front part moving so fast the arms can’t keep up. Jerking itself suddenly forward, perhaps.
So if Lear’s protagonists are denied surprise as a response to the unexpected, where does it fit in his universe? When Lear uses the word, it often pops up (suddenly) in strange places. In his diaries, for instance, to describe the meals his servant cooks:
5 December 1870
Dinner, Maccaroni, grilled fowl, & surprising turnips.
6 December 1870
[…] dinner, Maccaroni, & a surprising roast leg of mutton & cabbage.
7 December 1870
Dinner, Barley broth, surprising cold mutton & mashed potatoes. (Edward Lear diaries, 1858-1888, [MS Eng 797.3])
Three days of dinners, surprising each time, even though on the 7th he is eating the same mutton that he ate on the 6th. Is “surprising” a euphemism, or a term of praise? Another letter to Hubert Congreve offers a clue:
We have got 2 blackbirds as sing surprising, & as Foss went out & sate looking up at the cage for 2 hours every morning, we hoped she would learn to sing too… (12 May 1882, Edward Lear misc. correspondence, [MS Eng 797])
“Surprising,” here, seems to mean “beautifully.” The “surprising cold mutton” emerges, in this light, as an unexpectedly joyful experience: as delicious, to Lear’s amazement, as it was the previous day. Perhaps what is most surprising, in Lear’s world, is when things—despite all the obstacles—proceed happily and harmoniously.