‘Nonsense was almost a byproduct of natural history’


Drawings by Edward Lear

From Strange Behaviours:

It never occurred to me that there might be a direct connection between the two worlds of nonsense verse and biology. Then one day I picked up an old print of a tropical pigeon species and noticed the “E. Lear” in the bottom corner. Though he is celebrated today mainly as the author of such works as “The Owl and the Pussycat,” Lear had started out as a naturalist. His first book, Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots, drew favorable comparisons with Audubon when he published it in 1832, at age 19.

Like many naturalists, Lear described the natural world not just in literal-minded scientific detail, but also in fanciful doodles and verse. And when this blossomed into books for children, he often dispatched his characters, like naturalists, on wild explorations to the back of beyond. He also had them devote considerable energy to collecting the oddities of the country:

And they bought a Pig, and some green Jack-daws,
And a lovely Monkey with lollipop paws,
And forty bottles of Ring-Bo-Ree,
And no end of Stilton Cheese.

Nonsense was almost a byproduct of natural history. The twin themes of exploration and taxonomy, were “present in the genre as a whole, even in Lewis Carroll, who had no special interest in the subject,” according to the French scholar Jean-Jacques Lecercle, in his 1994 book Philosophy of Nonsense: “The reader of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ is in the position of an explorer: the landscape is strikingly new … and a new species is encountered at every turn, each more exotic than the one before. Nonsense is full of fabulous beasts, mock turtles and garrulous eggs.”

Such fanciful creatures sometimes turned up even in serious scientific work. In his “History of British Star-fishes, and other animals of the class Echinodermata,” for instance, the naturalist Edward Forbes began one chapter with an illustration of Cupid in a sea-going chariot drawn by a pair of sea creatures with bodies like snakes and heads like sea urchins (they were Ophiuridae). Another chapter ends with Puck playing his pipe for a couple of dancing brittle-stars, one of which actually rests the back of a “hand” against out-thrust “hip.” Elsewhere, he drew a stingray smoking a pipe and winking.

“On The Origin of Slithy Toves”, Richard Conniff, Strange Behaviours