Quangle Wangle Quee to You Too
There's been a blog-fight recently over which is funnier, left-wing or right-wing humour. And it's unbelievably stupid - being based on the notion that humour is 'political'. Actually, only some humour is political, and most of the humour that is political isn't very humorous. Although I wouldn't go so far as to say that they're mutually contradictory, they're very nearly so.
So in light of this blog-fight, it's salutary to go back to one of the best humour writers and see the real stuff. Not that he thought of himself as a 'writer'; actually, he was first and foremost a painter. The man I'm thinking of is Edward Lear. He gave to the world the genre of 'nonsense', at least in its modern form; and also invented the terms 'bong-tree', 'Great Gromboolian Plain', 'Pobble', and 'Yonghy-Bonghy Bo', amongst other things.
It's striking how simple Lear's writing is. It's true that there were a lot of light-verse writers and comic writers at the time, but poems were full of classical allusions. Compare Lear's poetry to that of his more serious contemporary, Tennyson. Tennyson gave the world the long and complicated Idylls of the King. (These poems now moulder on the shelves of university libraries the world over; hell, my brains beginning to moulder over just thinking of them.) Lear, on the other hand, popularised the Limerick.
There was an Old Man in a boat
Who said, "I'm afloat! I'm afloat!"
When they said, "No, you ain't!"
He was ready to faint,
That unhappy Old Man in a boat.
That make seem to make no sense to you, and you're right. It's nonsense. Australian comedian John Clarke once wrote a whole book of poems satirising Lear and his Limericks:
There was an old person from Bong
And he hailed in the first place from Bong;
From Bong did he come,
With Bongolian rum:
That humorous old fellow from Bong.
But in fact parodies of Lear began much earlier than that. W.S. Gilbert - of Gilbert and Sullivan fame - once wrote this:
There was an Old Man in a Tree,
Who was stung in his arm by a Wasp:
When asked, 'Does it buzz?'
He replied, 'No it doesn't!
I'm so glad it wasn't a hornet!'
Isn't that wonderful? Well, I thought so.
Lear wrote simple lyrics very well; think of 'The Owl and the Pussycat' or 'The Quangle Wangle's Hat':
On the top o the Crumpetty Tree
The Quangle-Wangle sat,
But his face you could not see,
On account of his Beaver Hat.
For his Hat was a hundred and two feet wide,
With ribbons and bibbons on every side,
And bells, and buttons, and loops, and lace,
So that nobody ever could see the face
Of the Quangle Wangle Quee.
This is the first stanza of 'The Quangle Wangle's Hat'. Lear sticks to this stanza form, quite strictly, for the rest of the poem (it's six stanzas long). Do you notice how the first four-lines of the poem are fairly short (containing only three stresses); and the second four lines are longer (containing four stresses to every line)? Doesn't that add a lovely, musical variety to the whole stanza? Hmmmn? You, up there, at the back of the class - sit up and pay attention!
Anyway, it's interesting that in some places, Lear's verse is in danger of slacking off, he is able to throw in a word like 'bibbons':
With ribbons and bibbons on every side ...
Now, Lear could just as easily have written 'with ribbons on every side', but this would not have fitted in with his metrical scheme. And at first, it might seem a bit pointless to you to through in a silly word like 'bibbons', but really! Lear couldn't help it if the Quangle Wangle wore bibbons on his hat, could he? And the poem is called 'The Quangle Wangle's Hat'. Do you think that Lear could write about what the Quangle Wangle wears on his head without mentioning the bibbons? Shame on you!
Even better, of course, is the way with which Lear terminates this first stanza (and every subsequent stanza) - 'Quangle Wangle Quee'! 'Quangle Wangle', of course is a given. But that 'Quee!' Does that not express the utmost in exuberance and high-spirits to you?
Ah, Quangle Wangle Quee to you to.
One striking aspect of Lear's nonsense poetry is how places and creatures appear again and again in different poems. Non-existent places and creatures they may be, but they are persistently non-existent. 'The Bong Tree' which the owl and the pussycat meet, for instance, is also seen by the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo. The Great Gromboolian Plain - over which roams the Dong with the Luminous Nose - is also visited by 'Mr Daddy Long-legs and Mr Floppy Fly'.
The final poems in my Edward Lear book are three nonsense alphabets. Poetic alphabets are always amusing to read; you never know what surprises the alphabet has in store for you. What is the author going to do with the letter L? Or Q, for instance - that always makes for some interesting responses. And 'X' is the true test of any writers ingenuity.
Which makes Lear's attempts a little dissapointing: 'U' twice becomes an 'Urn', and 'X' twice becomes 'King Xerxes'. 'E', however, becomes a little Eel:
Now I can hardly think of a better description of an eel than 'twirly tweely', can you? The syllables seem to mimic the action of the eel in water.
'N' is a 'needly/tweedly/threedly/needly/wisky-wheedly/Little Needle!', as well as a 'Nice little nut'. And Z becomes 'a piece of zinc', a 'pretty striped zebra', and again, 'a box of zinc.'
On the whole, I think Mr Lear's poetic ouevre is postively grobullacious.