I. Different definitions of nonsense are found by students in
various kinds of
Nonsense is an utterance or written text in what appears to be a
or other symbolic system, that does not in fact carry any identifiable
Nonsense – ideas, statements or beliefs that you think are ridiculous
or not true.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica nonsense is defined as
‘humour that abandons
all attempts at intellectual justification’ and ‘folly for folly’s
The two masters of nonsense verse were Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear
II. There are two types of nonsense verse, depending on the
Compare them and try to notice the difference.
a) Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’ from Through the Looking-Glass
Twas brilig, and the slithy toves
Dig gyre and gimble in the wabe,
All mimsy were the borogroves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
b) Edward Lear’s verse:
The Owl and the Pussy-Cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat.
They took some honey and plenty of money.
Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
(The first is an ideal example of how a poet invents his own
words; the second
author uses ordinary words to express delightfully absurd ideas.)
III. Lear and his Limericks
Probably the best known type of nonsense verse is the limerick.
Popular form of short, humorous verse, often nonsensical and
Edward Lear is best known for popularizing the limerick.
1. The life of Lear, rather not ordinary, is unknown to most
look through his biography.
Are there any amazing facts? Have they found reflection in his
graphic products and in
Reading some of Lear’s early limericks aloud, note the distinctive
rhythm and tap or
clap it out.
There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, "It is just as I feared! –
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!”
There was an Old Man who said "Hush!
I perceive a young bird in this bush!”
When they said, "Is it small?”
He replied, "Not at all!
It is four times as big as the bush!”
There was a young lady from Norway,
Who casually sat in a doorway,
When the door squeezed her flat,
She exclaimed, "What of that?”
This courageous young lady from Norway.
Working with a partner, compare the limericks in order to
find the way the
verses have been composed. Can you notice any similarities in wording,
ideas, etc. in all three examples? 
(The first line traditionally introduces a person and a
location, and usually ends with
the name of the location, though sometimes with that of the person. A
true limerick is
supposed to have a kind of twist to it. This may lie in the final line,
or it may lie in
the way the rhymes are often intentionally tortured, or in both. Though
not a strict
requirement, many limericks are usually those that additionally show
some form of internal
rhyme, often alliteration, sometimes assonance or
another form of rhyme.
In Lear's limericks, the first and last lines usually end with the
same word, rather
than rhyming. For the most part, they are truly nonsensical and devoid
of any punch line
or point; there is nothing in them to "get". They are completely free of
humour with which the verse form is now associated. A typical
thematic element is the
presence of a callous and critical "they".)
Limericks are invariably typeset as five lines today, but Edward
Lear's limericks were
published in a variety of formats. It appears that Lear wrote them in
in as many lines as there was room for beneath the picture. In the first
most are typeset as, respectively, three, five, and three lines. The
cover of one edition
bears an entire limerick typeset in only two lines, thus:
There was an Old Derry down Derry, who loved to see little folks
So he made them a book, and with laughter they shook at the fun of
Derry down Derry
IV. Limericks and Anti-limericks
An example of a typical Lear limerick:
There was an Old Man of Asta,
Who possessed a large Cow, but he lost her;
But they said, 'Don't you see,
she has rushed up a tree?
You invidious Old Man of Aosta!'
But according to Douglas R. Hofstadter, the crowning achievement in a
There once was a man of St Bees
Who was stung in the hand by a wasp;
When asked, "Does it hurt?”
He replied, "Yes, it does,
I’m so glad it wasn’t a hornet.”
A "limerick” that does not rhyme and is not funny, which makes it
funny. The above
limerick was actually a parody of Lear’s limericks by W. S. Gilbert.
There is a
sub-genre of poems that take the twist of the Limerick and apply it to
itself. These are sometimes called anti-limericks.
V. Limericks in other languages than English
Although limericks have been written in a great number of different
languages, many of
these suffer from the fact that the meter of the limerick does not adapt
well to such
languages as, for example, French or Latin. Immortal Lear’s "nonsense
is hardly translated into other languages. There is a centenary
tradition of Lear‘s
translation in Russia. Depth and charm of Lear’s miniatures attract new
interpreters. At the same time Russian rather strongly differs from
particular. One of the reasons is that the English words, on the
average, are much shorter
than Russian and contain less syllables. So innumerous translation into
generally none other than free retelling or imitation with different
degree of talent,
considering thus justified change of the size, places of action, some
the working persons and details of a narration serving the purposes of
preservation of a
Let’s look how Lear is treated by modern Russian interpreters.
VI. In small groups try to write your own limericks.
Don’t forget that it is a five-lined stanza, rhyming AABBA, the third
lines being a foot shorter than the others. All the devices are there
(e.g. long and
unusual names and place names, and unusual rhymes) with the sole aim of
adding to the
First, decide on the topic/person. Then follow the style and
structure of the genre and
take unusual adjectives.
You can also choose one of Lear’s limericks and try to translate it
Compare your versions.