A Brief Foray into Nonsense by Way of Robert Graves’s The Penny Fiddle: Poems for Children
Abstract: Inflected by the theoretical insights of Wim Tigges, this essay explores the nonsensical elements of Robert Graves’s The Penny Fiddle: Poems for Children, focusing primarily on ‘Dicky’, 'Vain and Careless’, and ‘The Six Badgers’.
Keywords: literary nonsense; children’s poetry; children’s literature; nursery rhyme; Wim Tigges
When the word nonsense burst onto the linguistic scene in the seventeenth century, it tended to refer either to ‘meaningless words or ideas’ or to ‘a trivial or worthless thing’, only slowly coming to denote that peculiar literary mode we have come to call ‘literary nonsense’.
For those outside the poetry world, poetry is famously disliked (‘I too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle’, Marianne Moore agrees), yet poetry written for children (often belittled as ‘children’s verse’)
In The Penny Fiddle, Graves employs a purposely archaic poetic idiom – via diction and a self-consciously modulated ‘rough’ and ‘sketchy’ meter – that speaks to its child readers of topics that might alarm even twenty-first-century audiences. Among these topics, we find hopelessness (in the poem ‘Love without Hope’), heartbreak (in ‘The Hills of May’ and ‘One Hard Look’), death and drunkenness (‘How and Why’), fabulous monsters (‘In the Wilderness’ and ‘The Bedpost’), and even class conflict (‘Lift-boy’). ‘Lift-boy’ is an especially interesting case when it comes to this topic, much more in line with traditional nursery rhyme than with the majority of the sweetly arcadian children’s poems published in the mid-century. ‘Lift-boy’ is ultimately a darkly comic meditation on murder/suicide, a dramatization of a youth’s response to the revelation that he lives in a world where ‘[n]ot a soul shall be savéd’ (to rhyme with ‘David’), for ‘[t]he whole First Creation shall forfeit salvation’. (Spoiler alert: the poem’s protagonist responds to this fact by killing himself and the gentleman who laid the unhappy news on him. Yes, in a children’s poem.)
Graves also offers his young readers an eerie ghost poem, ‘Dicky’, which takes the form of a dialogue between mother and son. Despite its unassuming title, ‘Dicky’ is something of a grotesquery. At the heart of the rudely crafted phantasmagoria moulders an eldritch revenant with a ‘lean, lolling jaw[…] | garments old and musty’, and a ‘spreading beard’ of ‘cobwebs’. ‘Dicky’ begins with our eponymous young hero singing ‘old country songs’ when, while ‘passing | The Churchyard gate’, he’s ‘stopped’ by ‘[a]n old man’ who censures him for ‘walking late’. Dicky reports:
I did not know the man,
At his lean, lolling jaw,
His garments old and musty,
His body very lean and bony,
Oh, even to tell it now
His face was clay, Mother,
In that long horrid pause
Entered and clicked the gate:
The grotesque imagery is as apparent as its archaic tone – both reminiscent of the folk tale and nursery rhyme. These qualities are found throughout Penny Fiddle, and they are resonant with literary nonsense.
Literary nonsense had existed well before we arrived at a tidy term for it; as Michael Heyman and Kevin Shortsleeve remind us, we can find literary nonsense within the medieval carnivalesque tradition Mikhail Bakhtin explores in Rabelais and His World: ‘a “grotesque” genre of “absurd compositions” that revel in “linguistic freedom”, illogical sequences, and the “inside out”’.
Other varieties of the grotesque – those playfully absurd and illogically topsy-turvy compositions gestured to above – are also prominent in The Penny Fiddle. Take ‘Vain and Careless’, for instance, a piece that brings us closer to our contemporary understanding of literary nonsense. Like ‘Dicky’, ‘Vain and Careless’ also recalls the nursery rhyme, both in form and content. Initially, it struck me as belonging to the same poetic species as the well-known nursery rhyme, ‘Jack Sprat’:
Jack Sprat could eat no fat.
His wife could eat no lean.
But, together both,
They licked the platter clean.
Of course, both poems concern ‘ill-matched pairs’ (one of the many subjects Wim Tigges argues that nursery rhymes share with nonsense).
This gentle-born couple
Lived and died apart –
Water will not mix with oil,
Nor vain with careless heart.
But there is more to the poem than that. Where the poem succeeds is where the nonsense lies. It may not be ‘pure’ nonsense as characterised by Tigges, but it is nonsense. Before I explore it – along with ‘The Six Badgers’, the purest nonsense in the book – allow me a few moments on Tigges.
Although one finds in The Penny Fiddle very few examples of what Tigges would call ‘pure’ literary nonsense, one does chance upon the kind of folksy, antique verse that typifies ‘Dicky’ and ‘Vain and Careless’: verse suggestive of the nursery. While Tigges tends to distance nursery rhyme from ‘pure’ nonsense, he grants that it ‘seems to represent an early stage of nonsense writing’,
So, back to ‘Vain and Careless’. Its title initially reads as a double descriptor of one person, both vain and careless. However, the title actually describes the ‘gentle-born couple’ of the final stanza, one of Tigges’s ‘ill-matched pairs’ that, besides being called ‘a couple’ is decidedly not a couple, at least not in the amorous sense, as we discover they ‘[l]ived and died apart’. Their neighbours, however, believe they should be a couple: they ‘saw it plain’, ‘[a] splendid match surely’. Why, exactly? Who knows? Here sense butts against non-sense; here we see meaning counterpoised by the lack of meaning.
Graves casts the poem as a loose ballad: rustic and unpolished in its meter almost to the point of transforming into accentual verse. Each quatrain rhymes ABCB, the lines tending to four, three, four, and then three stresses. Graves has a predilection for these loose, almost accentual folk rhythms in his children’s rhymes: the meter rugged, unpolished, and irregular, even as the subject wrought in that meter is fantastically extravagant and bizarre. In his forward to The Less Familiar Nursery Rhymes, Graves testifies to his affection for the accentual, folk rhythms of the nursery rhyme, explaining that ‘[c]hildren unlearned in the social uses of poetry’ have not had their ‘natural sense of rhythm […] destroyed by the metronome of school-room prosody’ (and the meter in ‘Vain and Careless’, free from the clockwork regularity of the metronome, clearly evinces Graves’s own ‘natural sense of rhythm’). He continues, insisting that ‘the best of the older [nursery rhymes] are nearer to poetry than the greater part of The Oxford Book of English Verse’,
Counter-intuitively (for Tigges’s pure nonsense tends to be metrically exact), the looser meter of ‘Vain and Careless’ adds to its nonsense, giving it that lived-in aura of common-sense, that sure, comfortably teleological feel necessary for nonsense. It seems like sense, but push only a bit, and the sense crumbles. Mr Vain is so vainglorious that he ‘walk[s] on stilts | To be seen by the crowd’. Yet the crowd loves him: ‘all the people ran about | Shouting till he passed’. Any didactic poem worth its salt would condemn the man for his vanity. And, sure, while the universe punishes him by vexing his ‘splendid match’ (just as Careless is evidently doomed to live her life ‘play[ing] bobcherry’ without ‘the vain man [who] went by her, | Aloft in the air’), we are forced to wonder at the poem’s nonsensical moral: both seem happy; neither pursues a mate; only the neighbours seem to want them together; so again we are forced to wonder: who cares? The poem, then, works as a poem by virtue of its music, its absurd images and illogical sequences, its summoning of didacticism only to wave it away. The poem begins with Careless giving away her baby. (Where did she get a baby? Surely, our vain, stilt-wearing hero is not the father. And if not, are we meant to believe he would find a single mother his ideal mate?):
Lady, lovely lady,
Careless and gay!
Once, when a beggar called,
She gave her child away. (p. 37)
As one does, the ‘[b]eggar took the baby, | Wrapped it in a shawl’. But our ostensibly careless heroine is perhaps not so careless after all, for she admonishes him: ‘Bring him back […] | Next time you call!’ Here we have something akin to what Tigges calls ‘the popular type of irrational nonsense found in nursery rhymes, topsy-turvy tales and similar ancient samples of inconsequentiality’ (p. 85), and it is in images like this – the sight of our careless and gay heroine happily giving away her baby as blithely as she would give directions to the town’s millinery – that we find the poem’s nonsense, and in such images lies the poem’s considerable charm.
As I explain in a recent essay,
However, Graves’s interest in writing for children suggests that he is also interested in working ‘the language, rhythms, objects and situations characteristic of the nursery’ towards ends appropriate for a more mysterious construction of childhood than that held by many of his contemporaries, than that held by many of our contemporaries. And one of the ways he achieves this end involves nonsense, that peculiar mode of writing involving the equipoise of sense and nonsense, the rational and the irrational, meaning and non-meaning, poetic reason and unreason. As Carter writes:
In one fundamental sense Graves is a poet of reason: the compact between him and his readers […] is soundly based upon the principles of logical discourse and the formalities of an accepted syntax. In another sense, however, equally fundamental, he is a poet of ‘unreason’: his subjects are nightmares, terrors, hauntings, pathological states of mind, fugitive areas of consciousness, quite as often as they pertain to matters more normative, within the law. (p. 117)
What Carter describes in this passage is a kind of conceptual nonsense, very much in the vein of Wim Tigges. And this conceptual frame explains Graves’s deep love of literary nonsense, which he articulates in Poetic Unreason, not only where he remarks that nonsense has found its way to children likely because ‘the nursery is the one place where there is an audience not too sophisticated to appreciate ancient myths and so-called nonsense rhymes of greater or lesser antiquity’ (p. 126), but also in his generous appraisal of Edward Lear, particularly his ‘The Dong with a Luminous Nose’. Graves insists that ‘though there may not be found a Classical Scholar to admit it’, Lear’s famous Dong is ‘essentially as tragic a figure as Cadmus of the Greek legend seeking his lost Europa, even a more painful one’. Continuing, he notes that it is ‘strange that Lear is treated less seriously’ than other great poets. In a startling gesture as provocative as it is sincere, Graves places Lear beside Shakespeare in the poetic firmament, asking ‘who will say that the foolery in Edward Lear is less worthy of our tragic imagination than the terrible foolery at the crisis of King Lear?’ (p. 24). Of course, the purposely tensionless agon at the heart of ‘Vain and Careless’ fails to approach the tragedy of either Shakespeare’s King Lear or Lear’s ‘The Dong with the Luminous Nose’ – as it should – for the nonsensical effects of ‘Vain and Careless’ pullulate about this very illusion of conflict. The crisis of the terrible foolery set up by the poem exists only in the minds of its protagonists’ neighbours; again, both Careless and Vain seem perfectly happy living and dying apart. And are likely better for it.
With ‘The Six Badgers’, Graves offers us a taste of pure nonsense, albeit a rather retired example. It concerns the eponymous sextet of badgers, who walk up to one Farmer George (busy at work hoeing his ‘lands’), encircle him, bow, and adjure him to ‘[h]urry home’ to dinner. Despite the purported need for haste, the badgers don’t run up to him. All told, they seem rather staid, our white-wand-wielding badgers. And, while Farmer George obeys the badgers (who can blame him?), there is no evidence that he drops his hoe and races home. Rather, he simply reports (the poem is a first-person account), ‘[s]o homeward I went’. However, the farmer is left (again, blamelessly) unable to understand why this unusual crew of talking, bewanded badgers sought him out simply to inform him that his dinner is ready. A fair bit of nonsense, the whole proceeding. Let’s hear the story again, this time in verse:
As I was a-hoeing, a-hoeing my lands,
Six badgers walked up, with white wands in their hands.
They formed a ring round me and, bowing, they said:
‘Hurry home, Farmer George, for the table is spread!
There’s pie in the oven, there’s beef on the plate:
Hurry home, Farmer George, if you would not be late!’
So homeward went I, but could not understand
Why six fine dog-badgers with white wands in hand
Should seek me out hoeing, and bow in a ring,
And all to inform me so common a thing!
This queer, singular example of pure nonsense is cast in ten lines, oddly broken and asymmetrical.
However, the poem’s concluding question (why would six dog-badgers seek me out to tell me that dinner’s served?) is only implied, embedded as it is within a statement. More overt is a decisive articulation of indeterminacy, our narrator insisting that he ‘could not understand’ why these badgers, armed with white wands, would gather about him ‘to inform [him] so common a thing’. We’re encouraged to accept the conclusion’s indeterminacy even as the final exclamation mark (as opposed to an eroteme) deters us from venturing an answer to the implied query by way of some extravagant literary critical interpretation. Michael Heyman understands this impulse to interpret, but, in ‘A New Defense of Nonsense; or, Where Then Is His Phallus? and Other Questions Not to Ask’, he warns us to resist it when reading literary nonsense, a warning with which the poem’s syntax is in accord. Heyman reminds us that literary nonsense ‘offer[s] endless loops of meaning, constantly making and breaking sense-relations between words themselves and between the word and the world’. Therefore, he adds, to ‘experience the full effect of nonsense’ one must learn to enjoy ‘endlessly juggling a meaning and its absence’, learn to resist fixing the meaning of any example of literary nonsense.
Joseph T. Thomas, Jr. is a poet and scholar of American poetry and children’s literature. He directs the National Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at San Diego State University, where he is a Professor of English and Comparative Literature. In addition to co-editing Prizing Children’s Literature: The Cultural Politics of Children’s Book Awards (Routledge, 2016) and All of a Kind: Remembering June Cummins (Cats in the Basement, 2020), Thomas has published numerous essays, a handful of poems, and two books, Poetry’s Playground: The Culture of Contemporary American Children’s Poetry (Wayne State UP, 2007), the first book-length study of American children’s poetry, and Strong Measures (Make Now, 2007), a collection of procedural and constraint-based poems. He can be found on Twitter @josephsdsu. ORCID: 0000-0003-2493-2462.