Saturday, May 3, 2008

Marvelous Nonsense

Here is one of my favorite pieces of nonsense. It was allegedly written by English humorist and playwright Samuel Foote in 1754, to test the memory of an actor (Charles Macklin) who claimed to be able to recite anything he had read once. There are variants of this story, however, as there are variants of the text itself, and as no version has any support in the memoirs of the persons supposedly involved, we can safely consign it to the realm of folklore. Nevertheless, it is important nonsense. It introduced the word "Panjandrum" to the world, it was popularized a century later in a children's book illustrated by Randolph Caldecott, and within living memory it has continued to be passed down by parents and teachers as a whimsical exercise in rote recitation. It provokes thought and discussion about the relationship between imagery and memory, and between grammar and meaning. It is part of a tradition that includes Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" and Noam Chomsky's famous sentence "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously." It is neither a poem nor a story, but merely a brilliant piece of nonsense that has become part of the literary treasure of the English language. I give you

The Great Panjandrum
So she went into the garden to cut a cabbage-leaf to make an apple-pie; and at the same time a great she-bear, coming up the street, pops its head into the shop. "What! No soap?" So he died, and she very imprudently married the barber; and there were present the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the Garyulies, and the great Panjandrum himself, with the little round button at top, and they all fell to playing the game of catch-as-catch-can till the gunpowder ran out at the heels of their boots.

No comments: