Главная страница «Первого сентября»Главная страница журнала «Английский язык»Содержание №15/2007

Great Sense of English Nonsense

Nonsense as a method has always lived in English folk songs.

“There was an old lady who swallowed a fly,
I don’t know why she swallowed a fly,
Perhaps she’ll die.

There was an old lady who swallowed a spider,
That wiggled and jiggled inside her.
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly,
I don’t know why she swallowed the fly,
Perhaps she’ll die.

There was an old lady who swallowed a bird,
How absurd, to swallow a bird!
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider…”

K. Tchukovsky believed that Nonsense is an ancient way in which all the children of the planet used to understand the world in all its relationships. Historians think rhymes like “Humpty Dumpty” keep the elements of the dialects people had spoken on the British Isles before the Romans.
Folk-consciousness used the grotesque, nonsense reflecting social injustice. Professional literature follows this tradition having different targets. It is commonly known how important the part of a fool was in plays by Shakespeare.
The poetry of Nonsense actually began with the Book of Nonsense (1846) by Edward Lear. He introduced limericks into English literature. Characters of these short funny rhymes live in their own eccentric world breaking common rules of behaviour.

“There was an Old Man of Peru,
Who dreamt he was eating his shoe.
He awoke in the night
In a terrible fright
And found it was perfectly true!”

Another English poet Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875–1956) invented clerihews: short funny poems having four lines which do not have to be of the same length. The first two lines have to rhyme – so do the last two (AABB). The first line has to contain the name of a person. They can be about people you know, people you don’t know, or even about animals, rock groups, or anyone else you can think of. Bentley is said to have designed the form during a boring chemistry lesson.

“Sir Christopher Wren
Said, ‘I’m going to dine with some men.
If anybody calls
Say I’m designing St. Paul’s”
E. C. Bentley

“E. C. Bentley
Mused while he ought to have studied intently.
It was this muse
That inspired clerihews.”
M. Curl

And the most famous writer who attracts readers of all ages with the witty paradoxicality of plot is Lewis Carroll (a pen-name of Charles Dodgson, mathematician). The author laughs at different kinds of nonsense in real life (starting from the manner of greeting: “How are you? Goodbye!”) as nobody is interested in the other’s affairs.
For example, Carroll shows the English daily routine as a never ending tea-time, and British litigiousness in the case of the stolen tarts. Carroll’s characters keep psychological accuracy of their behaviour whatever happens to them, and real details and reality of mind make the situation even funnier (sentence first – verdict afterwards).
Carroll plays with words like children do: “They were in the well…well in.” He uses two meanings of the word “well” – a noun and an adverb. There is one more example: “I am digging for apples.” Literally “to dig for” means “to search”, but it’s impossible to dig apples like potatoes. The author also uses the principal of topsy-turvy rhymes. “You should say what you mean…I mean what I say.”
We can trace the similar game of words in Winnie-the-Pooh’s story by A.A. Milne. “What does ‘under the name’ mean? It means he had the name over the door in gold letters, and lived under it.”
And Winnie’s rhymes sound like English folk rhymes:

“Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie,
A fish can’t whistle
And neither can I.
Ask me a riddle and I reply:
Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie.”

The English tradition of Nonsense in literature for children was picked up by other authors all over the world. The book by Janet and Allan Ahlberg The Jolly Postman or Other People’s Letters is a bright example of it. It starts with “Once upon a bicycle” and shows different styles of writing used in the letters written by the characters of popular fairy-tales and rhymes.

For instance:
There is a counting game to play with fingers and a rhyme to entertain a child.

Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo.
Catch a tiger by his toe.
If he hollers, let him go.
Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo.

And there is a business letter in the book written by Harold Meeny, an attorney at law, in care of Grandma’s cottage on behalf of his client.

As the postage stamp says, this book is “first-class” fun for children everywhere.

In 1956 an American writer, Dr. Seuss, took 220 words, rhymed them, and turned out The Cat In The Hat, a little volume of absurdity that worked like a karate chop on the weary, little world of children worldwide. He wrote and illustrated 44 world-famous books for children and their lucky parents encouraging them to find the success that lies within them.

“And will you succeed?
Yes, You will, indeed!
(98 and ¾ percent guaranteed.)
Kid, you’ll move mountains!
Your mountain is waiting.
So…get on your way!”

The perfect send-off for children starting out in the maze of life, be they nursery school grades or medical school achievers.
So the great sense of English Nonsense became its gift to the world.

I would recommend to all teachers, especially beginners, to use the principles of English Nonsense to play with words and enjoy teaching.

By Svetlana Usoltseva