British and Irish Literature Nonsense Literature
Anna Barton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 July 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0099


In the preface to his 1872 collection, More Nonsense, Edward Lear describes his work as “nonsense, pure and absolute” (p. 12 in Carolyn Wells’s A Nonsense Anthology). This appealing description attributes to the genre a kind of simplicity that is, in fact, rare. “Nonsense” is a literary genre that is difficult to define in absolute terms, and examples of literary nonsense are frequently found in other kinds of text. It is, on the one hand, a fairly recent invention. The Oxford English Dictionary describes Edward Lear as “the parent of modern nonsense writers,” and it is certainly the case that “modern nonsense” originates with Lear and Lewis Carroll in the mid-19th century. However, it is equally true that the work of Lear and Carroll also belongs to a much-older literary tradition that might be traced back to 11th-century England or even further, to the literature of classical Antiquity. This broader definition understands nonsense as a kind of literature that is inseparable from the literature of sense, so that, as its name suggests, “non-sense” always exists in relation to, and as a comment on, “sense.” T. S. Eliot, whose poetry learns from that of Lear and Carroll, meant something similar to this when he wrote that Lear’s nonsense “is not a vacuity of sense; it is a parody of sense, and that is the sense of it” (“The Music of Poetry”). Eliot suggests that nonsense is latent in all kinds of literature, so that nonsense might best be described as a kind of writing that draws attention to and takes advantage of the arbitrary nature of language. Nonsense is, therefore, literature that complicates or obstructs the relationship between word and world, or word and meaning, rather than using words as a conduit to the world they describe. Nonsense might do this by drawing attention to language as a thing in itself, with its own sonic and visual qualities, or it might use puns, which demonstrate how easily meaning can be turned upside-down by a slip of the tongue. This makes nonsense a near neighbor of poetry, which is also literature that creates meaning out of sound and form. But, as Eliot suggests, it also lends nonsense a kind of anarchic potential because, by making fun of language, nonsense presents a significant challenge to the power language has to name, know, and own the world. For these reasons, nonsense has attracted attention not just from readers of children’s literature and Victorian literature, but also from linguists, theorists, and philosophers. This article attempts to give readers a feel for the broad appeal of nonsense, while at the same time maintaining a focus on nonsense as a particular kind of literature.

General Overviews

Sewell 1952 is the earliest scholarly attempt to define the genre that has stood the test of time. Alongside this, Stewart 1979, which considers nonsense from the perspective of language and literature, and Malcolm 1997, which takes a literary-historical approach to the genre, are the two most important studies of literary nonsense, both understanding nonsense in fairly broad terms that open it up to a wide range of critical possibilities. Tigges 1988 is narrower in its approach, but the author’s attempts at defining the different features of literary nonsense are, nevertheless, instructive. Readers with a particular interest in Victorian nonsense should begin with McGillis 2002, whereas those interested in more-abstract theories of nonsense might consult Charlton 1977 and Haight 1971. Colley 1988 takes a different approach, focusing on the poetic form most associated with nonsense: the limerick.

  • Charlton, William. “Nonsense.” British Journal of Aesthetics 17.4 (1977): 346–360.

    DOI: 10.1093/bjaesthetics/17.4.346

    Sets out a theory of nonsense that divides the genre into three kinds—“grammatical,” “logical” and “factual”—and distinguishes between “intentional” and “unintentional” nonsense. Opens up the relationship between nonsense and poetry and also includes a helpful account of nonsense in relation to a Kantian aesthetic.

  • Colley, Ann C. “The Limerick and the Space of Metaphor.” Genre 21.1 (1988): 65–91.

    The limerick is an important form for the history of nonsense verse, and Colley’s article, which focuses on the limericks of Lear, demonstrates the teasing complexity of this deceptively slight form.

  • Haight, M. R. “Nonsense.” British Journal of Aesthetics 11.3 (1971): 247–256.

    DOI: 10.1093/bjaesthetics/11.3.247

    Seeks a definition of nonsense by using examples from Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, Jorge Luis Borges, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, Eugène Ionesco, François Rabelais, and Aristophanes. Argues that nonsense is produced by the deliberate distortion of language, and comes to the interesting conclusion that, although “its intellectual range may be as wide as the language itself will allow . . . , certain emotions are beyond it” (p. 255).

  • Malcolm, Noel. The Origins of English Nonsense. London: HarperCollins, 1997.

    This important work of scholarship rewrites the history of English nonsense by locating its origins at the beginning of the 17th century, with the work of poets such as Sir John Hoskins and John Taylor. Malcolm anthologizes work by these early nonsense poets and provides an astute, engaging account of medieval and Renaissance nonsense traditions.

  • McGillis, Roderick. “Nonsense.” In A Companion to Victorian Poetry. Edited by Richard Cronin, Alison Chapman, and Antony H. Harrison, 155–170. Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture 15. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.

    A good, accessible account of Victorian nonsense that introduces Lear and Carroll alongside poets and authors less frequently associated with the genre, such as Christina Rossetti and A. C. Swinburne.

  • Sewell, Elizabeth. The Field of Nonsense. London: Chatto & Windus, 1952.

    Sewell’s study remains a readable and worthwhile introduction to the genre. It aims at a definition of nonsense, using a “logical approach” (p. 5) that compares nonsense to a game that is played according to its own rules. Republished as recently as 1981 (Folcroft, PA: Folcroft Library Editions).

  • Stewart, Susan. Nonsense: Aspects of Intertextuality in Folklore and Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.

    Stewart’s influential work is the most important monograph study of nonsense literature. Her thesis, that nonsense reveals the contingent nature of common sense, touches on a wider range of literary examples and cultural references, making a strong claim for the relevance of nonsense beyond the field of Victorian children’s literature.

  • Tigges, Wim. An Anatomy of Literary Nonsense. Costerus, n.s. 67. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1988.

    As its title suggests, this book takes a systematic approach to defining and describing literary nonsense. Taking the work of Lear and Carroll as exemplars of the genre, Tigges includes chapters on different features of nonsense (puns, portmanteaux, neologism, etc.). His book also considers kinds of literature that are near neighbors of nonsense, which do not class as nonsense proper according to his own definition (nursery rhymes, surrealism, fantasy, etc.).

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