By Sir Edward Strachey, Bart.
What is Nonsense? I know when you do not ask me. I know that in infancy it is as the very air we breathe; that it cheers and strengthens us in the long weary working ways of manhood; and brightens and gladdens our old age. But how can I bring it within the words of a definition? If the question is pressed, I must answer it with another. What is Sense? Sense is the recognition, adjustment, and maintenance of the proper and fitting relations of the affairs of ordinary life. It is a constitutional tact, a keeping touch with all around it, rather than a conscious and deliberate action of the intellect. It almost seems the mental outcome and expression of our five senses; and perhaps it is for this reason, as well as because the sense of the individual always aims at keeping itself on the average level of his fellows, that we usually talk of sense as Common Sense. If we call it Good Sense, it is to remind ourselves that there is a right and a wrong in it as in everything human. But it is not Bad Sense, but Nonsense which is the proper contrary of Sense. In contradiction to the relations and harmonies of life, Nonsense sets itself to discover and bring forward the incongruities of all things within and without us. For while Sense is, and must remain, essentially prosaic and commonplace, Nonsense has proved not to be an equally prosaic and commonplace negative of Sense, not a mere putting forward of incongruities and absurdities, but a bringing out a new and deeper harmony of life in and through its contradictions. Nonsense in fact, in this use of the word, has shown itself to be a true work of the imagination, a child of genius, and its writing one of the Fine Arts.
From the days when Aristotle investigated the philosophy of laughter, and Aristophanes gave laughter its fullest - I might say its maddest - expression on the stage at Athens, down to this week's issue of "Punch," Nonsense has asserted and made good its claim to a place among the Arts. It has indeed pressed each of them in turn into its service. Nonsense has found the highest expression of itself in music, painting, sculpture, and every form of poetry and prose. The so-called Nonsense Club, which could count Hogarth and Cowper among its members, must have been worthy of the name, for so we have the "March to Finchley" and "John Giplin" to testify; but as far as I know, Edward Lear first openly gave Nonsense its due place and honour when he called what he wrote pure and absolute Nonsense, and gave the affix of "Nonsense" to every kind of subject; and while we may say, as Johnson did of Goldsmith, that there was hardly a subject that he did not handle, we may add with Johnson, that there was none that he did not adorn by his handling. His pen and pencil vied with each other in pouring forth new kinds of Nonsense Songs, Nonsense Stories, Nonsense Alphabets, and Nonsense Botany. His visit to India supplied him with matter for what I might call Nonsense Philology and Nonsense Politics; and ever since his death I have been able to add two new forms of his Nonsense, an Eclogue with the true classical ring, or the Heraldic Blazon of his Cat Foss; the music to which he set the "Pelican Chorus" and the "Yonghy Bonghy Bo" is worthy of the words to which it is wedded; and those who remember the humorous melancholy with which the old man sat down at the piano to play and sing those songs, will give his Nonsense Music a place too.
But "pure and absolute" as Edward Lear declared his Nonsense to be, he was no mere buffoon. His own sketch of his life, given in another part of this volume, and fully confirmed by all that he has left behind him, shows him to have been a conscientious lover of hard work, from the time when, at the age of fifteen, he began to earn "bread and cheese" by selling his "queer songs and sketches," at prices from ninepence to four shillings. This love of hard work is so characteristic of genius, that a great man has (no doubt with some exaggeration) made the capacity for taking infinite pains a definition of genius itself, while the individual humour which is shown in Lear's pictures is itself the sufficient proof of his genius. He was a landscape painter of individual power. The mere list of the books of Natural History which he illustrated; of the many and distant lands which, poor and weak in health, he visited; and his journals and records of these places, "with such a pencil, such a pen," is enormous; and all this while he was carefully cultivating and training himself in the proper work of an artist, which was the real business of his life. And while it is true that, without all this preparation, the Books of Nonsense could not have been written, it is true also that they are only the outcome and overflow of a life which was no less serious and noble than genial and loving. Like Shakespeare, he understood that all merriment should be held "within the limit of becoming mirth," and this limit he found for himself in his fondness for children, - "he loved to see little folks merry," - and in that habit of doing conscientious and finished work which characterises the true artist. He gives an account for the beginning and growth of this work in the Introduction to his "More Nonsense," to which I refer the reader. I have myself said more elsewhere on a subject which has for me a never-ending interest. I will rather give here an account of a visit paid by my son Henry to our old friend:-
"When staying at Cannes at Christmas 1882, I was invited by Mr. Lear to go over to San Remo to spend a few days with him. Mr. Lear's villa was large, and the second he had built; the first became unbearable to him from a large hotel having been planted in front of it. So he put his new house in a place by the sea, where, as he said, nothing could interrupt his light until the fishes built. The second house was exactly like the first. This, Mr. Lear explained to me, was necessary, or else Foss, his cat, might not have approved of the new villa. At breakfast the morning after I arrived, this much-thought-of, though semitailed, cat jumped in at the window and ate a piece of toast from my hand. This, I found, was considered an event; when visitors stayed at Villa Tennyson, Foss generally hid himself in the back regions; but his recognition of me was a sort of 'guinea stamp,' which seemed to please Mr. Lear greatly, and assure him of my fitness to receive the constant acts of kindness he was showing me. Being an art student, my interest in Mr. Lear's paintings was as great as in his Nonsense, and I can vividly recall the morning spent in his studio, a large room upstairs. He was then at work on a series of water-colours, and his method seemed to be to dip a brush into a large wide-necked bottle of water-colour, and when he had made one or two touches on the drawing, to carry it to the end of the room and put it on the floor, the performance being repeated until quite a row was arranged across the room. Downstairs he had a gallery lighted from the top, which had many beautiful water-colours along the walls, and one great canvas of Mount Athos, which seemed finished, but which he was always making experiments upon in white chalk. At the end of the gallery stood a huge canvas, I think it was 18 feet long, covered over with lines in squares, but no drawing on it. This, he told me, was to be a picture of Enoch Arden on the desert island. My remark that this would be a great undertaking roused Mr. Lear to declare warmly that an old man must never relax his efforts or fail to attempt great things because he was seventy. I could not, however, but feel that there was some inconsistency between this and his habitually saying he was going to live two years longer, and no more. Mr. Lear as an artist was by sympathy a pre-Raphaelite; he was not one of the original brotherhood, but considered himself a nephew of the originators of the movement, and he told me he had written to his friend, Sir John Millais, 'My dear aunt, I send you a drawing of my cat to show you how I am getting on.'
"Mr. Lear told me that, as a boy, his voice being a good one, he used to be taken to sing at artists' parties, and he was very proud of once having heard Turner (whose art he worshipped) sing a song. Apparently there was no great matter in the ditty, and the note was very untuneable, for Turner had neither voice nor ear. The refrain Mr. Lear remembered, and used to hum, chuckling to himself, 'And the world goes round a-bound, a-bound.' Mr. Lear told me that he approved of the saying of some one, 'Study the works of the Almighty first, and Turner next.' Once meeting a friend who had stayed in a house where Turner was painting, Mr. Lear anxiously asked, 'Cannot you tell me something the great man said?' 'He never said anything,' was the reply.
"Mr. Lear's household arrangements were peculiar. Three brothers, young Albanians, - sons of his old servant Giorgio, - did all the housework and cooking, and the youngest, a youth of seventeen, he looked after with fatherly care. He had taught him to say the Lord's Prayer with him every evening, telling me how he felt it his duty to prevent the young man growing up without religion, and expressing his horror of a godless world.
"Mr. Lear was by temperament melancholy; it was not the grave air assumed by a humourist to give his jokes more point, but a gentle sadness through which is humour shone. He felt keenly the neglect of the world for his pictures, but he seemed anxious to prevent all but the nearest friends seeing them. When I was staying with him, it happened to be the afternoon on which he was supposed to be at home to show his pictures to possible buyers. Early in the afternoon he told me that he sent his servants out, and was going to open the door himself. He explained that if any one came he did not like he could send them away, and also keep out Germans. He seemed to have a great horror and fear that a German might be let in by accident. What caused this fear I was not able to discover. As the afternoon advanced a ring at the door-bell was heard, and Mr. Lear went to open the door. Sitting in the gallery, I heard the voice of a lady inquiring if she could see the pictures, and I could hear Mr. Lear, in a voice of the most melancholy kind, telling her that he never showed his pictures now, he was much too ill; and from his voice and words I have no doubt the lady went away with the idea that a most unhappy man lived here. Mr. Lear came back to the gallery with much satisfaction at the working of his plan, which was so far superior to the servant's 'Not at home,' as by his method he could send away bored and let in people he liked. Later on, some friends he wanted to see came, and the melancholy old man, too ill to show his pictures, changed into the most genial host. In the evenings he often sang; the 'Yonghy Bonghy Bo' was inimitable. His voice had gone, but the refinement and expression was remarkable. His touch, too, was finished and smooth; unfortunately his playing was by ear, so that many of the really beautiful songs he composed were lost. One such still haunts me; the words, Tennyson's 'In the Garden at Swainston,' were set to most touching and appropriate music. I think he felt the words very strongly; they echoed his own feelings; he had outlived many friends, and many dead men 'walked in the walks' with him. He showed me a long frame with photographs of his friends in it; it hung in the drawing-room, but there were several blank places. He told me when a friend died his picture was taken out and put into a frame hanging in his bedroom. This melancholy never soured his mind nor stopped his matchless flow of humour and bad puns; but it coloured them all. My visit to Villa Tennyson coming to an end, on the last evening after dinner he wrote a letter for me to take back to my father, sending him the then unpublished conclusion to Mr. and Mrs. Discobbolos; and when this was done he took from a place in his bureau a number of carefully cut-out backs of old envelopes, and on these he drew, to send to my sister, then eight years old, the delightful series of heraldic pictures of his cat. After he had done seven he said it was a great shame to caricature Foss, and laid aside the pen.
"The next day ended my visit - one which I shall ever remember. The touching kindness which marked all his actions towards me I shall never forget; and I still see the tall, melancholy form, with loose clothes and round spectacles, leaning over the railings of the San Remo railway station, though happily I did not then know that I was looking on that kindly figure for the lasy time. H. S. "
In conclusion, and as counterpart to this account of the good old man and his household, let me commend to the reader the autobiographical sketches, to one of which I have already referred. They were published "By Way Of Preface" to a former edition of the present volume and are here reprinted.
Edward Strachey. Sutton Court, September 1894.