Edward Lear and nonsense poetry: a new writing challenge

We’re teaming up with Little Angel Theatre to challenge you to get inspired by Edward Lear and Little Angel Theatre’s production of ‘The Dong with a Luminous Nose’ and write nonsense poetry.

The challenge: write a nonsense poem (or poems) and enter by 10 November!

Younger poets, teachers and parents can use this activity sheet to inspire entries.

Who is Edward Lear?

Born in 1812, Edward Lear is one of the most famous nonsense poets in the English language. He grew up in North London in a big family: his parents had twenty-one children, and Lear was the twentieth, though not all of his siblings survived infancy. Because of the family’s difficulties with money, after the age of four, Lear was raised by his eldest sister when they had to move out of their family home.

Throughout his life, Lear was a misfit. Although he had many close, lifelong friends, biographers say that Lear’s intense love for his friends and family was never returned in quite the same way. Unlike his famous Owl and Pussy-cat, Lear never married. Some of his biographers think he may have been in love with his friend Franklin Lushington; but Lushington didn’t feel the same way, and this tormented Lear for years.

Lear also lived with lots of chronic illnesses, including epilepsy, bronchitis, asthma and depression (which he called ‘the Morbids’). Because of the stigma of these illnesses, he felt ashamed all his life – especially because of his epilepsy, which wasn’t really understood by doctors at the time.

But none of this stopped Lear from living a full life, travelling round the world and becoming a much-loved classic of the poetry canon, as well as a brilliant artist and musician.

Above all, Lear saw himself as an artist. He saw and drew so many different, magnificent landscapes across his life (see his Masada on the Dead Sea) which probably influenced the nonsense landscapes in his poems.

Travel and migration are themes in many of Lear’s most famous poems, like ‘The Jumblies’, ‘The Owl and the Pussy-cat’ and ‘The Dong with a Luminous Nose’. Aged 43, he decided he’d never live permanently in Britain again. He roamed the Mediterranean, eventually settling in San Remo in Italy, where he would die of heart disease in 1888, aged 75.

sketch of Lear and his cat

Nonsense verse and ‘The Dong with a Luminous Nose’

What is nonsense verse? Well, despite its name, nonsense poetry makes sense most of the time, just not always. You can understand what happens in one of Lear’s poems. But the conclusions or events are often so bizarre and unexpected that we think it’s ‘nonsense’. Here’s a classic Learian limerick:

There was an old man of Thermopylæ,
Who never did anything properly;
But they said, “If you choose
To boil eggs in your shoes,
You shall never remain in Thermopylæ.”

The first two lines make total sense. And then… what?!

The creatures and landscapes in nonsense poems are often totally made-up, such as in Lear’s ‘The Dong with a Luminous Nose’. Read the poem in full here. Here’s an excerpt:

Long years ago
The Dong was happy and gay,
Till he fell in love with a Jumbly Girl
Who came to those shores one day.
For the Jumblies came in a sieve, they did, —
Landing at eve near the Zemmery Fidd
Where the Oblong Oysters grow,
And the rocks are smooth and gray.
And all the woods and the valleys rang
With the Chorus they daily and nightly sang, —
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and the hands are blue
And they went to sea in a sieve.

Happily, happily passed those days!
While the cheerful Jumblies staid;
They danced in circlets all night long,
To the plaintive pipe of the lively Dong,
In moonlight, shine, or shade.
For day and night he was always there
By the side of the Jumbly Girl so fair,
With her sky-blue hands, and her sea-green hair.
Till the morning came of that hateful day
When the Jumblies sailed in their sieve away,
And the Dong was left on the cruel shore
Gazing — gazing for evermore, —
Ever keeping his weary eyes on
That pea-green sail on the far horizon, —
Singing the Jumbly Chorus still
As he sate all day on the grassy hill, —
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and the hands are blue
And they went to sea in a sieve.”

In the poem, the ‘Dong’ falls in love with a ‘Jumbly Girl’. When the Jumbly leaves, the Dong is very sad and roams the forest forevermore, seeking his love. Every now and then people spot his luminous nose in the forest and remember his tale.

This all makes sense – as long as you’re able to imagine what Dongs and Jumblies are, and visualise the ‘great Gromboolian plain’ where the poem takes place. (Side-note: Lear fans might spot that the Jumblies referenced in this poem are from a different poem of his, called ‘The Jumblies’.)

Because Lear’s poems are set in made-up places with made-up creatures, the characters can represent anyone. Lear doesn’t write ‘I was happy’ or ‘John was happy’, but ‘the Dong was happy’, distancing the Dong from any real-life people or events.

This means that every reader can read their own meanings into the poem. For instance, the Jumblies could be compared to migrants or even refugees – and suddenly going to sea in a sieve is much more poignant.

Some readers suggest ‘The Dong with a Luminous Nose’ could be read as a queer love story: the Dong and Jumbly love one another, but they are destined never to be with another. The Dong is doomed to solitude – he doesn’t love anyone else, and he’s the only Dong in the poem.

One reader says that ‘only by creating such unreal beings and settings’ could Lear write ‘with unrepressed emotion about his own unhappiness and sense of isolation’. Nonsense poems could be a way for you to speak about something which affects you, without putting yourself in the poem.

A final note: nonsense verse can be as fun and random as you want it to be – but equally, it can be really philosophical. Nonsense poetry influenced 20th century movements like surrealism and the Theatre of the Absurd, and in some ways reject ‘sense’, or what society thinks makes sense. It’s totally up to you how you’d like to write your nonsense poems.

sketch of an owl playing guitar with a pyss-cat eating from a jar of honey, in a boat

The challenge

Write a nonsense poem, about anything at all!

Here are some suggested steps (but if you have a different idea, you can go your own way!):

  1. Make up some nonsense creatures and landscapes. You could mix up several different real animals or landscapes to invent a new one. If you’re stuck, try using this activity sheet.
  2. Invent your story. It doesn’t have to be complicated at all – remember, nonsense verse delights in sound over sense. Will your characters travel somewhere? Will they fall in love? Perhaps they have an argument… or they’re running away from something… or towards something. You could take parts of your life and make them into nonsense verse too.
  3. Decide how you’ll structure your poem. Will you use four line verses, or longer? Will it be a series of limericks? What will the rhyme scheme be? Most nonsense poems rhyme and have an iambic rhythm (de-DUM-de-DUM-de-DUM…) so you might want to incorporate that into the verse.

If you’d like to find out more about the tradition of nonsense verse (which dates back to the 14th century) check out this feature. And if you’re in London, get inspired by the Little Angel Theatre puppeteer production of ‘The Dong with a Luminous Nose’, which is on from Saturday 14 September to Sunday 10 November 2019.

The Dong puppet from the Little Angel Theatre production. Peter O’Rourke

Tips

  • Play with sound: in nonsense verse, sound is just as important as the story, so make up some new words! What does ‘runcible’ mean? We don’t know but it adds to the nonsense!
  • Rhyme: sometimes the first word that pops into your head is a rhyme that you’ve heard in other poems, such as ‘love’ and ‘dove’ and ‘above’. Keep thinking – surprise us!
  • Rhyme: before you write the first line of each verse, make sure that the last line makes sense. For example, in a four-line verse, write Line Four so that it has a strong meaning and then go back to Line Two and make it rhyme with Line Four.
  • Repetition can help with rhythm and rhyme, for instance: ‘They sailed away in a Sieve, they did, / In a Sieve they sailed so fast’.
  • Lists can be helpful too! They can give more detail about a scene, and also add to the humour:

They sailed to the Western Sea, they did,
   To a land all covered with trees,
And they bought an Owl, and a useful Cart,
And a pound of Rice, and a Cranberry Tart,
   And a hive of silvery Bees.
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.

  • Make sense: ensure your reader can follow your storyline (even if it’s silly!). Lear’s writing does make sense – it’s just full of preposterous, surreal, silly or just plain odd words and ideas.

Prizes

Selected poets will be published on Young Poets Network and sent an exclusive Young Poets Network notebook, poetry books and goodies from Little Angel Theatre. This challenge will be judged by Sarah Schofield, Head of Creative Learning at Little Angel Theatre and Young Poets Network.

How to enter

This challenge is for writers aged up to 25 based anywhere in the world. The deadline is midnight, Sunday 10 November 2019. You can send a poem written down, or a recording as a video or as an audio file. If you are sending a written version of your poem, please type it into the body of your email. If you are sending a video or audio file, please attach it to the email (making sure it’s no bigger than 4MB or it won’t come through) or send us a link to where we can see/hear it.

Send your poem(s) to educationadmin@poetrysociety.org.uk with your name, date of birth/age, gender, and the county (or, if you’re not from the UK, the country) you live in and the subject line ‘Nonsense challenge’. If you are aged 12 or younger on Sunday 10 November 2019, you will need to ask a parent/guardian to complete this permission form; otherwise, unfortunately we cannot consider your entry due to data protection laws.

We welcome entries from schools and youth groups. Use this entry form to enter students from your class or group.

If you would like us to add you to the Young Poets Network mailing list, include ‘add me to the mailing list’ in the subject line of the email. If you would like us to confirm that we’ve received your entry, include ‘confirm receipt’ in the subject line. You may refuse to provide information about yourself.

sketch of Lear and his catBy entering, you give permission for Young Poets Network, The Poetry Society and Little Angel Theatre to reproduce your poem in print and online in perpetuity, though copyright remains with you. Please do be sure to check through the general Terms and Conditions for YPN challenges as well.

If you require this information in an alternative format (such as Easy Read, Braille, Large Print or screenreader friendly formats), or need any assistance with your entry, please contact us at educationadmin@poetrysociety.org.uk.

4 thoughts on “Edward Lear and nonsense poetry: a new writing challenge

    1. Hi Kamaljit,

      Thanks for your comment – we’ve just added you to our Young Poets Network mailing list. Welcome!

      Best wishes,

      Helen

  1. Armm well am15 yrs student in one the schools in Africa specially Kenya and am really interested in joining in coze I write poems and I want to go far for my poems I want to be considered and I promise I will prove my worth

    1. Hi Asia,

      Thanks for your comment. It’s great to hear that you’d like to get involved! Do enter our Edward Lear poetry challenge, and look around other parts of the Young Poets Network website. I can add you to our mailing list too, if you like. That’ll send emails with updates about everything we do for young writers worldwide.

      Best wishes,

      Helen at Young Poets Network

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