Over the weekend, Turner Classic Movies ran the 1954 A Star Is Born as part of its Month of Oscars: the single greatest page of the TV-watching calendar. Anyway, by the end—between the tragic irony of Judy Garland starring in a film about addiction and the vulnerable dignity James Mason brought to his role—I was, maybe not surprisingly, in tears. And I thought, in turn, not just of James Mason the matinee idol, but of James Mason the cat fancier. Read More
We’ve received word that the poet Christopher Middleton has passed away at eighty-nine. Guy Davenport called him “an incomparable stylist, a wry ironist, a philosopher of words. The only category in which he fits justly,” he added, “is that of poet.” The Review published Middleton throughout his career, beginning in our Summer–Fall 1960 issue, from which the poem below, “Edward Lear in February,” is taken. Read More
You’d think it would be easy to invent nonsense words. After all, the real lexical bummer usually rests in the burden of definition: your average neologism has to mean something. Nonsense words, on the other hand, are not merely devoid of but entirely divorced from meaning—creating them should just be a matter of aesthetics. Throw a couple consonants together, make sure there’s a vowel in there someplace: voilà. And yet—
Hlerkjer—not a very good nonsense word.
Grimblurp—better, but still aesthetically lacking…
Runcible—now, that’s quality nonsense.
Runcible is a creation of Edward Lear’s, arguably his pièce de résistance—though it faces stiff competition from the likes of tilly-loo, Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò, tiniskoop, cheerious, meloobious, gromboolian, mumbian, bruffled, dolomphious, borascible, fizzgiggious, himmeltanious, tumble-dum-down, spongetaneous, and blatter-platter. Lear, born today in 1812, was a prolific painter and illustrator, but the poem—especially the limerick—is where he really left his mark. In such volumes as The Book of Nonsense; More Nonsense Songs, Pictures, Etc.; Nonsense Botany; The Quangle-Wangle’s Hat; and Scroobious Pip, he cultivated an ear for twaddle, malarkey, and piffle that remains largely unrivaled in letters to this day. His nonsense words have a certain authority to them, so much so that one feels compelled to define them—and on the tongue they have an inimitable springiness, an Anglo-Saxon lilt. When Lear’s characters aren’t named after nonsense or spouting it, they tend to be pursuing it in some form or another, as they do here, in the first stanza of “The Jumblies”: Read More
He has many friends, lay men and clerical,
Old Foss is the name of his cat;
His body is perfectly spherical,
He weareth a runcible hat.
Two thousand twelve marks Edward Lear’s bicentenary year. The author is known for many things: his nonsense verse, his nature art, his letters. If you’ve spent any time with the letters—and if you have, you know they’re utterly delightful—you are familiar with Lear’s faithful feline companion, Foss. A regular presence, both in word and sketch, Foss, who was adopted by the Lear family as a tabby kitten in 1873, was one of the constants in the author’s life.
As we know from Lear’s numerous illustrations, Foss had only half a tail: legend has it, a servant chopped it off, in the superstitious belief that this would keep him from straying. Read More
Edward Lear was born two hundred years ago this month. His reputation, which has outlived many others, rests largely on a book of limericks published when he was thirty-four and a single poem, appearing twenty-one years later, that begins (as you all know, or should):
The Owl and the Pussycat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat
They took some honey, and plenty of money
Wrapped up in a five-pound note