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Literary nonsense

Literary nonsense (or nonsense literature) is a broad categorization of literature that balances elements that make sense with some that do not, with the effect of subverting language conventions or logical reasoning. Even though the most well-known form of literary nonsense is nonsense verse, the genre is present in many forms of literature.

The effect of nonsense is often caused by an excess of meaning, rather than a lack of it. Its humor is derived from its nonsensical nature, rather than wit or the "joke" of a punchline.

Literary nonsense, as recognized since the nineteenth century, comes from a combination of two broad artistic sources. The first and older source is the oral folk tradition, including games, songs, dramas, and rhymes, such as the nursery rhyme Hey Diddle Diddle. The literary figure Mother Goose represents common incarnations of this style of writing.

The second, newer source of literary nonsense is in the intellectual absurdities of court poets, scholars, and intellectuals of various kinds. These writers often created sophisticated nonsense forms of Latin parodies, religious travesties and political satire, though these texts are distinguished from more pure satire and parody by their exaggerated nonsensical effects.

Today's literary nonsense comes from a combination of both sources. 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, and The Story of the Four Little Children Who Went Around the World. Lewis Carroll continued this trend, making literary nonsense a worldwide phenomenon with Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871). Carroll's poem Jabberwocky, which appears in the latter book, is often considered quintessential nonsense literature.

  • Allen, Woody, Without Feathers. New York, Random House, 1972.
  • Carroll, Lewis (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), Alice in Wonderland (1865). ed. Donald J. Gray, 2nd edition. London: Norton, 1992.
  • Daly, Nicholas. A Wanderer in Og. Cape Town: Double Storey Books, 2005.
  • [Eggers, Dave and his brother Christopher] aka Dr. and Mr. Doris Haggis-on-Whey'. Giraffes? Giraffes!, The Haggis-On-Whey World of Unbelievable Brilliance, Volume 1., Earth: McSweeney's, 2003.
  • Gordon, Mike. Mike's Corner: Daunting Literary Snippets from Phish's Bassist. Boston: Bulfinch Press, 1997.
  • Gorey, Edward. Amphigorey. New York: Perigee, 1972.
  • Kipling, Rudyard, Just So Stories.New York: Signet, 1912.
  • Lawson, JonArno. Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box. Erin: The Porcupine's Quill, 2012.
  • Lear, Edward, The Complete Verse and Other Nonsense. Ed. Vivian Noakes. London: Penguin, 2001.
  • Lee, Dennis, Alligator Pie. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975.
  • Lennon, John, Skywriting by Word of Mouth and other writings, including The Ballad of John and Yoko. New York: Perennial, 1986.
  • 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.
  • Rasmussen, Halfdan. Hocus Pocus: Nonsense Rhymes, adapted from Danish by Peter Wesley-Smith, Illus. IB Spang Olsen. London: Angus & Robertson, 1973.
  • Ravishankar, Anushka, Excuse Me Is This India? illus. by Anita Leutwiler, Chennai: Tara Publishing, 2001.
  • Richards, Laura E., I Have a Song to Sing You: Still More Rhymes, illus. Reginald Birch. New York, London: D. Appleton—Century Company, 1938.
  • Roethke, Theodore, I Am! Says the Lamb: a joyous book of sense and nonsense verse, illus. Robert Leydenfrost. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1961.
  • 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.
  • 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 Book of Nonsense, edited by Paul Jennings. London: Raven Books, 1977.
  • 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.
  • The Nonsensibus, Compiled by D.B.Wyndham Lewis. London: Methuen, 1936
  • 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.
  • Pumpkin Grumpkin: Nonsense Poems from Around the World, Collected by John Agard and Grace Nichols. London: Walker Books, 2011.
  • 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: [1]
  • This Book Makes No Sense, ed. Michael Heyman. New Delhi: Scholastic, 2012. A slim volume for all ages that includes a piece on how to write nonsense.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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, Roderick, "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.
  • 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 Johns Hopkins UP, 1979.
  • Swifty, Tom, Perplexicon: Your Pea-Green Guide to Nonsense Literature. Rotterdam: Brave New Books, 2016. An earlier edition was published in 2015 as A Course in Nonsense.
  • Tigges, Wim, An Anatomy of Literary Nonsense. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1988.
  • 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.


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