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Books: The don with voluminous prose

Robert Hanks finds little sense in an erudite history of silly verse
The Origins of English Nonsense by Noel Malcolm, HarperCollins, pounds 18

Noel Malcolm has a sly line in controversial titles. Bosnia: A Short History, for example, sounds innocent enough, but it implies the possibility of a long history of Bosnia - an idea that is anathema to Serb nationalists. Something similar is going on in The Origins of English Nonsense. In attributing origins to nonsense, Malcolm is attacking the assumption that it is "not so much a cultural-historical product as a timeless, universal category, which therefore has only instances rather than origins". His darker purpose is to give nonsense a history of influence and imitation, to cut "folk culture" down to size and elevate "literary culture" in its place.

A little over half the book is an anthology of nonsense poetry of the 17th century. Much of the verse has never been reprinted (though some of the best instances have, notably in Hugh Haughton's 1988 Chatto Book of Nonsense Poetry). Several of the poems are too long to be very enjoyable, nonsense being most effective in brief bursts; but there are some real finds - such as the poem "Upon the Gurmundizing Quagmires, and most Adiaphanous Bogs, of the Author's obnubilated Roundelayes" by "TC".

Malcolm's main achievement, however, is in gathering disparate material and arguing, in a dense and imposingly erudite introduction, that nonsense was a flourishing genre 200 years before Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. Where he errs is in trying to give nonsense a genealogy. For one thing, he fails to trace any connection between 17th-century nonsense and its more celebrated successors. He does claim to find one significant echo of the 17th century in an early-19th-century poem, but that could easily be coincidence.

His other failure is in trying to impose a far too particular history on English nonsense - specifically, his unequivocal declaration that it was invented by John Hoskyns in 1611, in "Cabbalistical verses" beginning "Even as the waves of brainlesse butter'd fish,/With bugle home writ in the Hebrew tongue,/Fuming up flounders like a chafing-dish,/That looks asquint upon a Three-man's song". To pinpoint this as the origin of English nonsense, Malcolm has to exclude a great deal of near-nonsense: mere inconsequence, poems in gibberish languages, bedlam speech, lists of "impossibilia" (the most famous instance in English is probably Donne's "Go, and catch a falling star"), and a native tradition of fustian, bombast and taffeta prose. In these sub-genres, Malcolm finds the preconditions necessary for nonsense, but he won't allow that they are nonsense proper.

The trouble is, if our criteria are tight enough to exclude all this near-nonsense, we end up excluding an awful lot of the core curriculum of nonsense. There's nothing really nonsensical about Lear's "The Dong with a Luminous Nose", for example - it's a perfectly coherent tale of unrequited love which achieves comic effects through imaginary creatures (the Jumblies), inconsequential actions (of the blighted Dong) and gibberish words (he roams the Gromboolian plain).

In trying to show that nonsense does not spring up spontaneously, Malcolm ends up denying what nonsense is. The truth is surely that nonsense is reason's shadow. Wherever logic is, nonsense lurks. The Boolean nestles close by the Gromboolian, and to assert otherwise is - well, let's say mistaken.