The Origins of English Nonsense by Noel Malcolm - review by Peter Levi

Peter Levi

Neglected Importance of the Clown’s Pedigree

The Origins of English Nonsense


HarperCollins 319pp £18

Noel Malcolm is a Cambridge scholar, but intelligent to a degree which is inevitably aggressive. I first encountered this remarkable and welcome quality in his furious book about Bosnia, and although at first I doubted his case, he was clearly unanswerable, and has been proved more or less right. But he has also edited two volumes of the letters of Thomas Hobbes, no easy task. He is not just a journalist but a man with a mind sharp as a lawyer turning to a new brief. Here, he has turned aside to investigate the queerest and most unexplained strand in English poetry: the formally exact nonsense verse, or one might call it surrealist claptrap, that flourished in the seventeenth century with John Taylor, the ‘Water-Poet’.

In fact, when you begin to be conscious of what it is, you find it in Shakespeare and John Marston, in prose as well as verse. Malcolm associates it with the mockery of Thomas Coryate’s travel verse by a club of his cronies, and to one of these, who was a Welsh Wykehamist, lawyer and MP called John Hoskyns, he attributes the invention of the genre. I fear I must dispute this view, because I have found a piece of nonsense verse from an anthology of 1550, which leaves the awful Hoskyns of Hereford pipped at the post, and not yet born. The piece of nonsense, which I quoted in the introduction to Edward Lear, had a significant relationship to children’s nonsense rhymes. Although Malcolm rejects this line of transmission, it seems to me that on a closer inspection of the work of the Opies, which he at least notices, the true line goes back to the fifteenth century.

It also has an early entanglement with German nonsense poetry and, for all I know, other European instances of an equally early date. Having given his prize to the Herefordshire MP as originator, Malcolm goes on to discuss earlier and foreign examples unblushingly. The trouble between us is that I favour transmission of nonsense through Mummers’ plays, of which we have no early text at all, because the Mummers were illiterate rustic comics. But at least the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò can be traced word for word to Abraham Cowley’s Cutter of Coleman Street under Cromwell. This is to be found in my recent life of Milton. I am sorry to cite my own works, but the subject has interested me greatly for ten or twenty years.

There really was an English school of poetry that scarcely deviated into sense, though more often into poetry. John Taylor is at the bottom of it and I am sorry. Drunken Barnaby has not yet found his place there. Nonsense jokes were about, even jokes of an educated kind, before people think. There is a ridiculous speech in ‘Barbarian’s language’, amusing only to an Englishman, in a Latin tragedy written by Edmund Campion for Bohemia. If this school of poetry is not strictly defined, it spreads in every direction both in time and space, but if it is accurately defined as Malcolm defines it, then his collection gives at least the invaluable core of the matter. For that, many lost and wandering scholars ought to be grateful. We are dealing with Inns of Court wits, who would include Donne and who employed Shakespeare. Taylor at his best is a remarkable poet and has been known for many years.

When flounder-flapping Termagant was slaine,
The smug-fac’d Cerberus did howle and yell,
And Polyphemus rid in Charles his Waine,
Whilst Gorgons head rung great Alcides knell
The rip-rap-riffe-raffe, thwick thwack stout Baboon
Gripes in his downy clutch the spongy Oake…

It is certainly nonsense, for the better as well as the worse, and most readers will find it as hard as I do to say wherein its attraction consists. It is better than the idiot Cleveland on a girl’s hand (‘So soft , ’tis air but once removed,/ Tender as ’twere a jelly gloved’) or her kisses (‘Love prints his signets in her smacks,/ Those ruddy drops of squeezing wax’). This is quoted in the introduction, and will become a familiar quotation. Much of the strength of this collection is in Taylor and in poems published later but written earlier or as early, and rescued from manuscript. How long did poems and jokes circulate if they were not printed? It is hard to say, but the tradition went on until it was an influence on the wilder jokes of Swift and Pope.

The text of this book is a handsome compendium, the introduction, which is lengthy, is an intellectual adventure of which I know no other scholar capable, the notes are the least interesting part, yet they are dutiful and learned. Yet I deduced the author was not a classicist, because it seemed to escape him that the Pero Groullo of the Profecías was a pig – the name occurs in Plutarch as that of the pig under Circe’s influence who refuses to be restored to human form. He did not seem to know about the anti-Petrarchan sonnet either, which influences Wyatt as well as Shakespeare, but, really, who cares? I am sure he knows as much Latin as was known in the Inns of Court.

Among the works he quotes is a discussion (1990) of a Spanish romancero that survived among the Jews of Sarajevo, and I could not help wondering if it was in pursuit of that he first found himself in Bosnia. There is no path so tortuous one would not believe he had followed it. This is a masterly piece of research, by a historian surely, in an area totally neglected by the English dons, who are a sad lot. I do hope this monumental publication will be applauded. People get chairs for less.

What I think of as a kind of surrealism in Tom o’Bedlam’s song, which he notices, and in the other poetry of the time has never until now been collected in a volume, and the result of this extremely useful work will reverberate a long way in the studies of the future: it will have an influence on the so-called metaphysical poets, for example, and on prose comedy.

What would life have been like without this school of poetry? Without this precision bombing of sense by nonsense, just the same. Without the wider reservoirs and multiple rivers of nonsense in the lives of fools that Armin Shakespeare’s clown records and every nursery knows, a poorer, sadder world no doubt. As for the pedantic application of the rules of Elizabethan nonsense, it looks as if in the speeches of Pistol, which surely parody real lowlife, nonsense can stray teasingly into poetry. Later and elsewhere it strays into political or church propaganda, or any other Wykehamist bee in the bonnet. But poetry is malleable, it is not a respectable art. Noel Malcolm has been a little misled by the arse-flies of the Renaissance.

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