It’s All Nonsense: Tennyson, Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear

When I found out about Tennyson’s friendships with Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear through my visit to Farringford, it surprised but didn’t shock me.

Hanging on the wall of the schoolroom is a nonsense alphabet written for the two Tennyson boys and given to them for Christmas in 1855 by the famous nonsense poet, Edward Lear. 

A was an ant

Who seldom stood still,

And who made a nice house

In the side of a hill.



Nice little ant!

For me, Lear’s nonsense rhymes recalled another author who was also a frequent visitor to Farringford, Lewis Carroll. 

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves 

      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: 

All mimsy were the borogoves, 

      And the mome raths outgrabe. 

Carroll’s The Jabberwocky was published in the same year (1871) as another of Edward Lear’s poems, The Owl and the Pussycat, and both poems, though at first glance seeming far removed from the grander and more serious poetry of Tennyson, painfully reminded me of some of Tennyson’s verse. They fill our ears with satisfying sounds rather than meaning. For me, these poems brought to mind Tennyson’s opening lines to Mariana, where the sounds of the words seem infinitely more important than the objects Tennyson describes.

‘With blackest moss the flower-pots

            Were thickly crusted, one and all’

So when I found out about Tennyson’s friendships with Carroll and Lear through my visit to Farringford, it surprised but didn’t shock me.

There is a further connection between these poems and one of my favourite works of Tennyson, The Idylls of the King, which was the first poetry of his that I read. All come from similar sources, and each is interested in Middle English Verse.

‘Then, ere that last weird battle in the west,

There came on Arthur sleeping, Gawain kill'd

In Lancelot's war, the ghost of Gawain blown

Along a wandering wind, and past his ear

Went shrilling, "Hollow, hollow all delight!

Hail, King! to-morrow thou shalt pass away.’

 The Jabberwocky is a comic replica of the guttural sounds and seeming gobbledygook of Middle English poetry when it is read aloud, and, having just finished my own attempt to sit the Medieval Paper as part of studying English Literature, this is something I can fully sympathise with. Lear’s The Owl and The Pussy Cat can be read as having been influenced by another early source, Aesop’s Fables, which have been popular since their original Ancient Greek, and were first translated into English during the Medieval Period, a copy of which is recorded as having been in Tennyson’s library. They were also amongst the earliest pieces of fiction to be printed, and I was able to see them a few years ago in a British Library Exhibition on the history of printing.

( - A link to the British Library Collection Guide on Early Printed Books)

‘The Idylls of the King’ is also partially inspired by a series of other Early and Late Medieval Texts, Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, the anonymous Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and other Medieval French renditions of Arthurian legends, such as the works of Chrétien de Troyes. However, unlike Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear, Tennyson doesn’t mock his sources, and the tone of The Idylls of the King is particularly reverential. However, I didn’t realise quite how far Tennyson’s craze with all things Medieval went until I had visited Farringford. Tennyson is said to have chosen to buy the house because of his love for its Neo-Gothic architecture, a phase of building that replicated and was inspired by the buildings of Medieval Europe. 

Altogether, the visual extremity of the house made me begin to wonder if it was Tennyson’s almost ridiculous love for anything Medieval which provoked his guests to write such nonsense poems, and if these enduring children’s favourites were in fact a savage response to an adult obsession.

 The Edward Lear Society website has more information on his illustrations and poetry.

Links to the Poetry Foundation full copies of the poems:

The John Tenniel Illustration was the original illustration for the poem, and he was said to have been instructed by Carroll on how to make it look, here’s a link to a blog on Tenniel’s illustrations for Alice in Wonderland

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