Nonsense literature

Literary nonsense

Literary nonsense refers to a genre of literature, whether poetry or prose, that plays with conventions of language and logic through a careful balance of sense and non-sense elements. Its strict adherence to structure is balanced by semantic chaos and play with logic. Usually formal diction and tone are balanced with an inherent topsy-turvyness and absurdity. The effect of nonsense is often caused by an excess of meaning, rather than a lack of it. The genre is most easily recognizable by the various techniques it uses to create nonsensical effects, such as neologism and faulty cause and effect. The forms of nonsense writing can vary widely; it usually lives like a parasite within the host of another genre or type of literature, and, as such, can appear as romantic verse, travel writing, short story, lyric poetry, natural history, journalism, alphabet, and recipes, to name a few. For a text to be considered within the literary nonsense genre, it must have an abundance of nonsense techniques that tend to overshadow the host genre. If the text employs only occasional nonsense techniques, then it may not classify as literary nonsense, though it may have a nonsensical effect. Often (though not necessarily) humorous, nonsense has a kind of humor derived from a different source than a joke: nonsense is funny because it does not make sense, as opposed to most humor which is funny because it does. Sometimes this kind of writing is inaccurately referred to as "nonsense verse", which is inaccurate not because nonsense verse does not exist, but because nonsense can appear in non-verse forms.


While much nonsense from the nineteenth century onward has been written for children, the genre has a much longer history in adult forms. Noel Malcolm, in his book The Origins of English Nonsense, gives a good history of the genre in its adult form, starting with figures such as John Hoskyns, Henry Peacham, John Sanford, and John Taylor (all early seventeenth century). It has also appeared as an important element in the works of figures such as James Joyce, Flann O'Brien, and Eugene Ionesco. Literary nonsense, as opposed to folk forms of nonsense that have always existed, was first written for children in the early nineteenth century. It was popularized by Edward Lear, and later by Lewis Carroll. Regardless of the intended audience, it is usually enjoyed by both adults and children for its careful artistry, absurd logic, adherence to form, delight in sound, sense of play, and subversive tendencies.


Literary nonsense as a genre has its roots in two major branches. Its older branch hearkens back to the folk tradition, through folktales, drama, rhymes, songs, and games, such as "Hey Diddle Diddle". Schoolyard rhymes and Mother Goose are modern incarnations of this ancient art. Its role in the folk tradition varies from mnemonic device and subversive alteration of iconic text to simply joyous play with the sound of language.

The other root of literary nonsense is from the intellectual absurdities of court poets, scholars, and intellectuals of various kinds. These writers were often creating sophisticated nonsense forms of Latin parodies, religious travesties, or political satire.

Today, what we commonly consider to be the genre of literary nonsense comes from a combination of the folk and the "intellectual." Though not the first to write this hybrid kind of nonsense, Edward Lear developed and popularized it in his many limericks (starting with A Book of Nonsense, 1846) and other famous texts such as "The Owl and the Pussycat", "The Dong with a Luminous Nose," "The Jumblies," and "The Story of the Four Little Children Who Went Around the World." Lewis Carroll continued this trend, making literary nonsense a world-wide phenomenon with Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871). Carroll's "Jabberwocky" which appears in Through the Looking-Glass is often considered quintessential nonsense.


The sentence "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" was coined by Noam Chomsky as an example of nonsense. The individual words make sense, and are arranged according to proper grammar, yet the result is still nonsense. The inspiration for this attempt at creating verbal nonsense came from the idea of contradiction and irrelevant or immaterial characteristics (an idea may have a dimension of color, yet it is first specified to be without hue), both of which would be sure to make a phrase meaningless. The phrase "the square root of Tuesday" operates on the latter principle. This principle is behind the inscrutability of the koan "What is the sound of one hand clapping?", as one hand would supposedly require another hand to complete the definition of clapping.

Still, the human will to find meaning is strong; green ideas might be ideas associated with a Green party in politics, and colorless green ideas criticises some of them as uninspiring. For some, the human impulse to find meaning in what is actually random or nonsensical is what makes people find luck in coincidence, or believe in omens and divination.

What nonsense is not

Pure gibberish, such as "Sluggahbooh chinftifg gahgahgah axxyt ipipi" may qualify as nonsense in the dictionary definition, but in terms of nonsense art, it is low on the scale. This is so mainly because such a statement does not exhibit the kind of balance needed to make good nonsense that challenges us to play with meanings. This statement has very little semantic, syntactic, phonetic or contextual meaning (though of course no statement can be completely without meaning). In other words, there is not enough sense here for it to be nonsense. Gibberish can, however, be used occasionally as a device within a nonsense text, such as "Hey Diddle Diddle."

Nonsense is distinct from fantasy, though there are sometimes resemblances between them. While nonsense may employ the strange creatures, other worldly situations, magic, and talking animals of a fantasy, these elements in themselves are not nonsensical. Supernatural phenomena do not create nonsense as long as they have a discernible logic supporting their existence. The distinction lies primarily in the presence of coherence within fantasy. Everything makes sense within the rules of the fantasy world; the nonsense world, on the other hand, has no such coherent system, although it may imply the existence of an inscrutable one, just beyond our grasp. The nature of magic within an imaginary world can serve as an example of this distinction. Fantasy worlds use magic to make everything make sense. Magic is rare in nonsense worlds, but when it does occur, it is a nonsense kind of magic; that is, its magic only adds to the mystery rather than solving anything. This occurs in Carl Sandburg's Rootabaga Tales, for instance, when Jason Squiff, in possession of a magical "gold buckskin whincher", has his hat, mittens, and shoes turn into popcorn because, according to the "rules" of the magic, "You have a letter Q in your name and because you have the pleasure and happiness of having a Q in your name you must have a popcorn hat, popcorn mittens and popcorn shoes" Nonsense logic determines the magic here, and we are no closer to understanding this world.

No form of composition is, in itself, nonsensical. Limericks, for instance, in their modern incarnation are usually a kind of joke rather than nonsense. Their humor hinges on the unexpected resolution found in the rhyme of the last line, the "punch line". Edward Lear's limericks (or "nonsenses," as he called them, the modern term not having been coined yet) have no such punch line. They are nonsensical because of their circularity, their absurdity, their misappropriations and neologisms, and their parody of logic, but not because of the form itself. His use of the same word for the ends of the first and last lines, for instance, creates the circularity and lack of resolution absent in modern limericks. Light verse, another form often used for nonsense, is also not necessarily so. Silliness, humor, and inconsequentiality may sometimes be by-products of nonsense but do not constitute it.

Riddles only appear to be nonsense until the answer is found. The most famous nonsense riddle is only so because it originally had no answer. In Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, the Mad Hatter asks Alice "Why is a raven like a writing-desk? When Alice gives up, the Hatter replies that he does not know either, creating an answer-less riddle, a nonsense. Of course, clever answers have since been invented to fit the original, such as "Poe wrote on both."

There are also some texts which appear to be nonsense verse, but actually are not, such as the popular 40's song "Mairzy Doats".


Wim Tigges gives a number of nonsense techniques/devices that characterize the genre, including faulty cause and effect, portmanteau, neologism, reversals and inversions, imprecision, simultaneity, picture/text incongruity, arbitrariness, infinite repetition, negativity or mirroring, and misappropriation. Michael Heyman has added to this list nonsense tautology, reduplication, and absurd precision.

Nonsense artists

The two most celebrated nonsense writers in English are Edward Lear (1812-1888) and Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) (1832-1898), although nonsense existed in English long before the nineteenth century.

Some of the most talented writers in English who have contributed to the genre are: Mervyn Peake, Spike Milligan, Ivor Cutler, Edward Gorey, Flann O'Brien, Alan Watts, Dr. Seuss, Carl Sandburg, Laura E. Richards, Jack Prelutsky, Shel Silverstein, John Lennon, Michael Rosen, Anushka Ravishankar, Fran Ross, Mike Gordon, Nicholas Daly, James Thurber, and, most recently, Dr. and Mr. Doris Haggis-on-Whey (Dave Eggers and his brother Bill).

Writers of nonsense from other languages include Christian Morgenstern (German), Sukumar Ray (Bengali), Alfred Jarry and Erik Satie (French), and Lennart Hellsing (Swedish).

Other media

In the field of art, the Dada movement resembles nonsense in certain ways, but is also quite distinct from it. As a genre, nonsense has no particular agenda, though it may imply a kind of subversion in various ways. Dada was more directed, creating an expression of disaffection with art and a society that seemed unavoidably addicted to the insanity of war.

David Byrne, front man of the art rock group Talking Heads, employs a similar technique in songwriting. With Talking Heads, Byrne often combined coherent yet unrelated phrases to make up nonsensical lyrics in songs such as: "Burning Down the House", "Making Flippy Floppy" and "Girlfriend Is Better".

While films sometimes naturally fall into the realms of surrealism and dada, one of the most nonsensical, in terms of our definition here, is Steven Soderbergh's Schizopolis.

In comic strips, Glen Baxter's work is often nonsensical, relying on the baffling interplay between word and image.


Works cited

Carroll, Lewis. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. ed. Donald J. Gray (New York: Norton, 1992)
Heyman, Michael, "An Indian Nonsense Naissance" in The Tenth Rasa: An Anthology of Indian Nonsense, edited by Michael Heyman, with Sumanyu Satpathy and Anushka Ravishankar. New Delhi: Penguin, 2007.
Sandburg, Carl. Rootabaga Stories (London: George G. Harrap, 1924.
Tigges, Wim. ”An Anatomy of Nonsense” in Dutch Quarterly Review 16: 162-85, 1986, pp. 166-7. ____________. "The Limerick: The Sonnet of Nonsense?" in Dutch Quarterly Review, Vol. 16, 1986/3, p. 220-236.

Further reading

Primary sources

Carroll, Lewis (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), Alice in Wonderland, 1865, ed. Donald J. Gray, 2nd edition (London: Norton, 1992)
_________. The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll (London: Nonesuch Press, 1940)
Daly, Nicholas. A Wanderer in Og. (Cape Town: Double Storey Books, 2005)
[Eggers, Dave and his brother Bill] aka Dr. and Mr. Doris Haggis-on-Whey'. Giraffes? Giraffes!, The Haggis-On-Whey World of Unbelievable Brilliance, Volume 1., Earth: McSweeney's, 2003.
_________. ''Your Disgusting Head: The Darkest, Most Offensive--and Moist--Secrets of Your Ears, Mouth and Nose, Volume 2., 2004.
_________. Animals of the Ocean, In particular the giant squid, Volume 3, 2006
Gordon, Mike. Mike's Corner: Daunting Literary Snippets from Phish's Bassist. Boston: Bulfinch Press, 1997.
Gorey, Edward. Amphigorey, (New York: Perigee, 1972)
_________. Amphigorey too, (New York: Perigee, 1975)
_________. Amphigorey Also, (Harvest, 1983)
_________. Amphigorey Again, (Barnes & Noble, 2002)
Kipling, Rudyard, Just So Stories (New York: Signet, 1912)
Lear, Edward, The Complete Verse and Other Nonsense. Ed. Vivian Noakes (London: Penguin, 2001)
Lennon, John, Skywriting by Word of Mouth and other writings, including The Ballad of John and Yoko (New York: Perennial, 1986.
_________. The Writings of John Lennon: In His Own Write, A Spaniard in the Works (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964, 1965)
Milligan, Spike, Silly Verse for Kinds (London: Puffin, 1968)
Morgenstern, Christian, The Gallows Songs: Christian Morgenstern's "Galgenlieder", trans. Max Knight. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963)
Peake, Mervyn, A Book of Nonsense (London: Picador, 1972)
_________. Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (London: Country Life Book, 1939)
_________. Titus Groan (London: Methuen, 1946)
Ravishankar, Anushka, Excuse Me Is This India? illus. by Anita Leutwiler, Chennai: Tara Publishing, 2001.
_________. Wish You Were Here, Chennai: Tara Publishing, 2003.
_________. Today is My Day, illus. Piet Grobler, Chennai: Tara Publishing, 2003.
Richards, Laura E., I Have a Song to Sing You: Still More Rhymes, illus. Reginald Birch (New York, London: D. Appleton--Century Company, 1938)
_________. Tirra Lirra: Rhymes Old and New, illus. Marguerite Davis (London: George G. Harrap, 1933)
Rosen, Michael, Michael Rosen’s Book of Nonsense, illus. Claire Mackie (Hove: Macdonald Young Books, 1997)
Sandburg, Carl, Rootabaga Stories (London: George G. Harrap, 1924)
_________. More Rootabaga Stories
Seuss, Dr. On Beyond Zebra!New York: Random House, 1955.
Thurber, James, The 13 Clocks, 1950, (New York: Dell, 1990)
Watts, Alan, Nonsense (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1975; originally Stolen Paper Review Editions, 1967)


A Book of Nonsense Verse, collected by Langford Reed, Illus. H.M. Bateman (New York & London: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1926)
The Chatto Book of Nonsense Poetry, ed. Hugh Haughton (London: Chatto & Windus, 1988)
The Everyman Book of Nonsense Verse, ed. Louise Guinness (New York: Everyman, 2004)
The Faber Book of Nonsense Verse, ed. Geoffrey Grigson (London: Faber, 1979)
A Nonsense Anthology, collected by Carolyn Wells (New York: Charles Schribner's Sons, 1902)
O, What Nonsense!, selected by William Cole, illus. Tomi Ungerer. (London: Methuen & Co., 1966)
The Puffin Book of Nonsense Verse, selected and illus. Quentin Blake (London: Puffin, 1994)
The Tenth Rasa: An Anthology of Indian Nonsense, ed. Michael Heyman, with Sumanyu Satpathy and Anushka Ravishankar (New Delhi: Penguin, 2007). The blog for this book and Indian nonsense:

Secondary sources

Andersen, Jorgen, “Edward Lear and the Origin of Nonsense,” English Studies, 31 (1950), 161-166
Baker, William, “T.S. Eliot on Edward Lear: An Unnoted Attribution,” English Studies, 64 (1983), 564-566
Bouissac, Paul, “Decoding Limericks: A Structuralist Approach,” Semiotica, 19 (1977), 1-12
Byrom, Thomas, Nonsense and Wonder: The Poems and Cartoons of Edward Lear (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1977)
Cammaerts, Emile, The Poetry of Nonsense (London: Routledge, 1925)
Chesterton, G.K., “A Defence of Nonsense,” in The Defendant (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1914), pp. 42-50
Chitty, Susan, That Singular Person Called Lear (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1988)
Colley, Ann C., Edward Lear and the Critics (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1993)
_________. “Edward Lear’s Limericks and the Reversals of Nonsense,” Victorian Poetry, 29 (1988), 285-299
_________. “The Limerick and the Space of Metaphor,” Genre, 21 (Spring 1988), 65-91.
Cuddon, J.A., ed., revised by C.E. Preston, “Nonsense,” in A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, 4th edition (Oxford: Blackwell, 1976, 1998), pp. 551-58
Davidson, Angus, Edward Lear: Landscape Painter and Nonsense Poet (London: John Murray, 1938)
Deleuze, Gilles, The Logic of Sense, trans. Mark Lester with Charles Stivale, ed. Constantin V. Boundas (London: The Athlone Press, (French version 1969), 1990)
Dilworth, Thomas, “Edward Lear’s Suicide Limerick,” The Review of English Studies, 184 (1995), 535-38
_________. “Society and the Self in the Limericks of Lear,” The Review of English Studies, 177 (1994), 42-62
Dolitsky, Marlene, Under the Tumtum Tree: From Nonsense to Sense (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1984)
Ede, Lisa S., “The Nonsense Literature of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll” (unpublished PhD dissertation, Ohio State University, 1975)
_________. “Edward Lear’s Limericks and Their Illustrations” in Explorations in the Field of Nonsense, ed. Wim Tigges (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1987), pp. 101-116
_________. “An Introduction to the Nonsense Literature of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll” in Explorations in the Field of Nonsense, ed. Wim Tigges (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1987), pp. 47-60
Flescher, Jacqueline, “The language of nonsense in Alice,” Yale French Studies, 43 (1969-70) 128-44
Graziosi, Marco, “The Limerick” on Edward Lear Home Page (
Guiliano, Edward, “A Time for Humor: Lewis Carroll, Laughter and Despair, and The Hunting of the Snark” in Lewis Carroll: A Celebration, ed. Edward Guiliano (New York, 1982), pp. 123-131
Haight, M.R., “Nonsense,” British Journal of Aesthetics, 11 (1971), 247-56
Hark, Ina Rae, Edward Lear (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982)
_________. “Edward Lear: Eccentricity and Victorian Angst,” Victorian Poetry, 16 (1978),112-122
Heyman, Michael, Isles of Boshen: Edward Lear in Context. PhD dissertation, University of Glasgow, 1999.
_________. "A New Defense of Nonsense; or, 'Where is his phallus?' and other questions not to ask" in Children's Literature Association Quarterly, Winter 1999-2000. Volume 24, Number 4 (186-194)
_________. "An Indian Nonsense Naissance" in The Tenth Rasa: An Anthology of Indian Nonsense, edited by Michael Heyman, with Sumanyu Satpathy and Anushka Ravishankar. New Delhi: Penguin, 2007.
Hilbert, Richard A., “Approaching Reason’s Edge: ‘Nonsense’ as the Final Solution to the Problem of Meaning,” Sociological Inquiry, 47.1 (1977), 25-31
Huxley, Aldous, “Edward Lear,” in On the Margin (London: Chatto & Windus, 1923), pp. 167-172
Lecercle, Jean-Jacques, Philosophy of Nonsense: The Intuitions of Victorian Nonsense Literature (London, New York: Routledge, 1994)
Lehmann, John, Edward Lear and his World (Norwich: Thames and Hudson, 1977)
Malcolm, Noel, The Origins of English Nonsense (London: Fontana/HarperCollins, 1997)
McGillis, Rod, "Nonsense," A Companion to Victorian poetry, ed. by Richard Cronin, Alison Chapman, and Anthony Harrison. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002. 155-170.
Noakes, Vivien, Edward Lear: The Life of a Wanderer, 1968 (Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, revised edition 1979)
_________. Edward Lear, 1812-1888 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1985)
Nock, S. A., “Lacrimae Nugarum: Edward Lear of the Nonsense Verses,” Sewanee Review, 49 (1941), 68-81
Orwell, George, “Nonsense Poetry” in Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays (London: Secker and Warburg, 1950), pp. 179-184
Osgood Field, William B., Edward Lear on my Shelves (New York: Privately Printed, 1933)
Partridge, E., “The Nonsense Words of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll,” in Here, There and Everywhere: Essays Upon Language, 2nd revised edition (London: Hamilton, 1978)
Prickett, Stephen, Victorian Fantasy (Hassocks: The Harvester Press, 1979)
Reike, Alison, The Senses of Nonsense (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992)
Robinson, Fred Miller, “Nonsense and Sadness in Donald Barthelme and Edward Lear,” South Atlantic Quarterly, 80 (1981), 164-76
Sewell, Elizabeth, The Field of Nonsense (London: Chatto and Windus, 1952)
Stewart, Susan, Nonsense: Aspects of Intertextuality in Folklore and Literature (Baltimore: The John’s Hopkins UP, 1979)
Tigges, Wim, An Anatomy of Literary Nonsense (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1988)
_________. “The Limerick: The Sonnet of Nonsense?” Dutch Quarterly Review, 16 (1986), 220-236
_________. ed., Explorations in the Field of Nonsense (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1987)
van Leeuwen, Hendrik, “The Liaison of Visual and Written Nonsense,” in Explorations in the Field of Nonsense, ed. Wim Tigges (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1987), pp. 61-95
Wells, Carolyn, “The Sense of Nonsense,” Scribner’s Magazine, 29 (1901), 239-48
Willis, Gary, “Two Different Kettles of Talking Fish: The Nonsense of Lear and Carroll,” Jabberwocky, 9 (1980), 87-94
Wullschläger, Jackie, Inventing Wonderland, The Lives and Fantasies of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, J.M. Barrie, Kenneth Grahame, and A.A. Milne (London: Methuen, 1995)

External links

Edward Lear homepage

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