On nonsense

There is nothing that needs more fastidious care than our choice of nonsense. Sense is like daylight or daily air, and may come from any quarter or in any quantity. But nonsense is an art. Like an art, it is rarely successful, and yet entirely simple when it is successful. Like an art, it depends on the smallest word, and a misprint can spoil it. And like an art, when it is not in the service of heaven it is almost always in the service of hell. Numberless imitators of Lewis Carroll or of Edward Lear have tried to write nonsense and failed; falling back (one may hope) upon writing sense. But certainly, as the great Gilbert said, wherever there has been nonsense it has been precious nonsense…

I have suffered as much as any man from the public insult of the misprint. I have seen my love of books described as a love of boots. I have seen the word ‘cosmic’ invariably printed as ‘comic’; and have merely reflected that the two are much the same. As to Nationalists and Rationalists, I have come to the conclusion that no human handwriting or typewriting can clearly distinguish them; and I now placidly permit them to be interchanged, though the first represents everything I love and the second everything I loathe. But there is one kind of misprint I should still find it hard to forgive. I could not pardon a blunder in the printing of ‘Jabberwock’. I insist on absolute literalism in that really fine poem of Lear, ‘The Dong with the Luminous Nose’. To spoil these new nonsense words would be like shooting a great musician improvising at the piano. The sounds could never be recovered again. ‘And as in uffish thought he stood’. If the printer had printed it ‘affish’ I doubt if the first edition would have sold. ‘Over the Great Gromboolian Plain’. Suppose I had seen it printed ‘Gromhoolian’. Perhaps I should never have known, as I know now, that Edward Lear was a yet greater man than Lewis Carroll.

The first principle, then, may be considered clear. Let mistakes be made in ordinary books — that is, in scientific works, established biographies, histories, and so on. Do not let us be hard on misprints when they occur merely in time-tables or atlases or works of science. In works like those of Professor Haeckel, for example, it is sometimes quite difficult to discover which are the misprints and which are the intentional assertions. But in anything artistic, anything which avowedly strays beyond reason, there we must demand the exactitude of art. If a thing is admittedly not possible, then the next best thing it can do is to be beautiful. If a thing is nonsensical, it ought to be perfectly nonsensical.

The Illustrated London News, 11 March 1911.

Published in: on July 27, 2011 at 6:57 am  Comments (1)  

On hot weather

The chief gift of hot weather to me is the somewhat unpopular benefit called a conviction of sin. All the rest of the year I am untidy, lazy, awkward, and futile. But in hot weather I feel untidy, lazy, awkward, and futile. Sitting in a garden-chair in a fresh breeze under a brisk grey and silver sky, I feel a frightfully strenuous fellow: sitting on the same garden-chair in strong sunshine, it begins slowly to dawn on me that I am doing nothing. In neither case, of course, do I get out of the chair. But I resent that noontide glare of photographic detail by the ruthless light of which I can quite clearly see myself sitting in the chair. I prefer a more grey and gracious haze, something more in the Celtic-twilight style, through which I can only faintly trace my own contours, vast but vague in the dusk and distance.

The Illustrated London News, 11 June 1910.

Published in: on July 20, 2011 at 9:34 am  Comments (4)  


The other day, a British magistrate placidly proposed, apparently in so many words, that not only beggars should be punished, but also anyone who gives to beggars. Legally, this may be stated in the following two judgments: (1) that every poor man may be presumed to be deceiving; (2) that every rich man may be presumed to be wilfully deceived. The first opinion, if not quite logically clear, is quite legally established. The second is new, and seems even slightly improbable. Does he mean that it is a crime to give help where it is needed? Or does he mean that it is a crime to make a mistake about where it is needed? On either line of thought, I should enjoy watching him draft the Act of Parliament.

This is a moral matter, on which we must get our ideas clear; and I propose to clear my own ideas and yours, whether you like it or not. What is a beggar? A beggar is a man who asks help from another man solely in the name of something extraneous but common — as kinship or charity, the Fatherhood of God, or the brotherhood of man. He does not ask for the bread because he can at once give you the money, as in commerce. He does not ask for the bread because he will soon be able to pass you the mustard, as in Society. He asks you for the bread because you are supposed to be under an ancient law of pity, by which (as it is written) if a man asks you for bread you will not give him a stone. That is what a beggar is. He is a man who begs — that is, he is a man who asks without any clear power of return, except the opportunity he offers you to fulfill your own ideals.

The Illustrated London News, 25 February 1911.

Published in: on July 13, 2011 at 10:47 am  Comments (1)  

“The supreme adventure”

The supreme adventure is being born. There we do walk suddenly into a splendid and startling trap. There we do see something of which we have not dreamed before. Our father and mother do lie in wait for us and leap out on us, like brigands from a bush. Our uncle is a surprise. Our aunt is, in the beautiful common expression, a bolt from the blue. When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we do step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws, into a world which could do without us, into a world that we have not made. In other words, when we step into the family we step into a fairy-tale.

Heretics (1905).

Published in: on July 6, 2011 at 9:47 am  Comments (3)