Lear’s Nonsense Perfect for Children

Edward Lear, "The Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo"

Edward Lear, “The Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo”

Last Friday Julia and I traveled to Silver Spring, Maryland to celebrate the second birthday of our grandson. His parents reported that, according to his two-year check-up, Alban is 50th percent in height, 50th percent in weight, and 90th percent in head size. Which made me think of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.

“Though you’ve such a tiny body and your head so large doth grow,” says Lady Jingly Jones as she rejects the marriage proposal and breaks the heart of Edward Lear’s poignant creation. Of course, Alban is much cuter than the Yonghy Bonghy Bo. But given my fondness for this poem, it’s nice having the association.

My father read Lear’s poetry to my brothers and me as we were growing up so that, between Lear and Lewis Carroll, we were thoroughly immersed in Victorian nonsense. Nonsense had been a word of opprobrium in the centuries before, with John Dryden describing his rival Richard Shadwell as “through all the realms of nonsense, absolute,” and Alexander Pope writing of his own rival Collie Cibber, “Nonsense precipitate, like running lead,/ That slipped through cracks and zigzags of the head.” But by the 19th century, readers were looking for some refuge from the functional utilitarianism of industrial middle class society and found a breath of fresh air in rationality turned upside down.

Of course, nonsense poetry also appeals to children of all times. Intent on exploring the many possibilities that the world offers and not prepared to accept its limitations, they find in nonsense poetry a reflection of their own venturesome minds. I considered as personal friends the owl and the pussycat, the Jumblies, and the man who discovered “two owls and a hen, three larks and a wren” all nesting in his beard.

But the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo was always my favorite. Maybe that’s because I was short like he was (although unlike Alban, my head size was average). Maybe I recognized in his longing for Lady Jingly my own childhood crush (unrequited) on Barbara Reid. The mixture of pathos and nonsense captured a child’s emotional state. Maybe the very randomness of his worldly possessions—“two old chairs and half a candle, one old jug without a handle”—is the way a child sees the world, with one’s collection of things not seeming to have any particular logic. In any event, I had the poem memorized early on.

This later proved to be useful because, when Julia was going through protracted labor with our first son, I recited the poem for hours as I rubbed lotion into her skin. (There were other poems I recited as well but this is the one we both remember.) There is something incantatory about Lear’s poetry that helped Julia focus on something beside the pain.

So here’s the poem. Dedicated to you, Alban:

 The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo

By Edward Lear

On the Coast of Coromandel    
Where the early pumpkins blow,       
In the middle of the woods    
Lived the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo. 
Two old chairs, and half a candle, 
One old jug without a handle--       
These were all his worldly goods,       
In the middle of the woods,       
These were all his worldly goods,    
Of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo,    
Of the Yonghy-Bonghy Bo.  

Once, among the Bong-trees walking    
Where the early pumpkins blow,       
To a little heap of stones    
Came the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo. 
There he heard a Lady talking, 
To some milk-white Hens of Dorking--       
"'Tis the Lady Jingly Jones!       
On that little heap of stones       
Sits the Lady Jingly Jones!"    
Said the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo,    
Said the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.  

"Lady Jingly! Lady Jingly!    
Sitting where the pumpkins blow,       
Will you come and be my wife?"    
Said the Yongby-Bonghy-Bo. 
"I am tired of living singly-- 
On this coast so wild and shingly--       
I'm a-weary of my life;       
If you'll come and be my wife,       
Quite serene would be my life!"    
Said the Yonghy-Bongby-Bo,    
Said the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.  

"On this Coast of Coromandel    
Shrimps and watercresses grow,       
Prawns are plentiful and cheap," 
Said the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo. 
"You shall have my chairs and candle, 
And my jug without a handle!       
Gaze upon the rolling deep       
(Fish is plentiful and cheap);       
As the sea, my love is deep!"    
Said the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo,    
Said the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.  

Lady Jingly answered sadly,    
And her tears began to flow--       
"Your proposal comes too late,    
Mr. Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo! 
I would be your wife most gladly!" 
(Here she twirled her fingers madly)       
"But in England I've a mate!       
Yes! you've asked me far too late,       
For in England I've a mate,    
Mr. Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo!    
Mr. Yongby-Bonghy-Bo!  

"Mr. Jones (his name is Handel--    
Handel Jones, Esquire, & Co.)       
Dorking fowls delights to send    
Mr. Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo! 
Keep, oh, keep your chairs and candle, 
And your jug without a handle--       
I can merely be your friend!       
Should my Jones more Dorkings send,       
I will give you three, my friend!    
Mr. Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo!    
Mr. Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo!  

"Though you've such a tiny body,    
And your head so large doth grow--       
Though your hat may blow away    
Mr. Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo! 
Though you're such a Hoddy Doddy, 
Yet I wish that I could modi-       
Fy the words I needs must say!       
Will you please to go away       
That is all I have to say,    
Mr. Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo!    
Mr. Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo!"  

Down the slippery slopes of Myrtle,    
Where the early pumpkins blow,       
To the calm and silent sea    
Fled the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo. 
There, beyond the Bay of Gurtle, 
Lay a large and lively Turtle.       
"You're the Cove," he said, "for me;       
On your back beyond the sea,       
Turtle, you shall carry me!"    
Said the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo,    
Said the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.  

Through the silent-roaring ocean    
Did the Turtle swiftly go;       
Holding fast upon his shell    
Rode the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo. 
With a sad primeval motion 
Towards the sunset isles of Boshen       
Still the Turtle bore him well.       
Holding fast upon his shell,       
"Lady Jingly Jones, farewell!"    
Sang the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo,    
Sang the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.  

From the Coast of Coromandel    
Did that Lady never go;       
On that heap of stones she mourns    
For the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo. 
On that Coast of Coromandel, 
In his jug without a handle       
Still she weeps, and daily moans;       
On that little heap of stones       
To her Dorking Hens she moans,    
For the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo,    
For the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.
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