For the sky is dark, and the voyage is long,
And happen what may, it’s extremely wrong
In a Sieve to sail so fast!
The Jumblies: Edward Lear (1812 – 1888)
You could, if determined to be literal, say that Lear’s poem is about an unusual race of creatures whose heads happen to be green and whose hands happen to be blue. They live, presumably on this planet, but in lands ‘far and few’, and one or two of them have adventuresome habits. These foolish/intrepid individuals set sail in the worst of winter weather, in a vessel made from a sieve. For a mast, of course, they had a small tobacco-pipe, and
… a beautiful pea-green veil,
Tied with a riband by way of a sail.
When the sieve begins to leak the Jumblies wrap their feet in ‘pinky paper’ and climb into a crockery-jar for the night.
Fine as far as it goes, but what is The Jumblies about?
Well, you might say it’s about the English language, which the English – the Irish, the Welsh and the Scots equally, if not more so – love above all things. Yes, they love it. They mangle and contort it; they joyfully and continually enrich it (the French would no doubt say pollute it) with borrowings from other languages. They conjure up the most stupendously wonderful poems out of it:
The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on melons as I pass,
Ensnar’d with flow’rs, I fall on grass.
The Garden: Andrew Marvell (1621 – 1678)
Death is all metaphors, shape in one history;
The child that sucketh long is shooting up,
The planet-ducted pelican of circles
Weans on an artery the genders strip;
Child of the short spark in a shapeless country
Soon sets alight a long stick from the cradle…
Altarwise by Owl-Light: Dylan Thomas (1914 – 1953)
They curse in it at football matches and when ignorantly pushing black French people out of metro trains. They mourn in it:
Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust
from the funeral service in the Book of Common Prayer
and use it as a vehicle for their unusual sense of humour:
This parrot is no more. It has ceased to be. It’s expired and gone to meet its maker. This is a late parrot. It’s a stiff. Bereft of life, it rests in peace. If you hadn’t nailed it to the perch, it would be pushing up the daisies. It’s rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an ex-parrot.
John Cleese: Monty Python’s Flying Circus
The English take their rich, eccentric language for granted, and it means more to them than they can say.
Lear was having fun with English and also celebrating it. He was also saying, I think, that things don’t necessarily have to make sense, and re-asserting the main tenet of fantasy – that things don’t have to be sensible. Anything can be said to exist, if we simply will it to be so. There are Jumblies, because he tells us there are, just as there was once a place called Middle Earth full of wizards and Hobbits because Tolkien wrote a whole fat book on that assumption.
Of course trains are held up by the wrong kind of leaves, or occasionally the wrong kind of cows, on the line (British Rail).
Of course Henry I died of a surfeit of palfreys (1066 And All That: Sellar and Yeatman (1930) as opposed to the more traditional surfeit of lampreys. The fact that a lamprey is a kind of eel whereas a palfrey is a docile riding horse suitable for ladies only makes it more likely.
Lear was also hinting, perhaps, that sometimes the impossible plan works. Sometimes the foolish are proved right after all, and then everybody rushes to copy them:
And everyone said, ‘If only we live,
We too will go to sea in a Sieve,-
But mostly he was doing a little kind of jig in his mind, just dancing:
And they bought an Owl, and a useful Cart,
And a pound of Rice, and a Cranberry Tart,
And a hive of Silvery Bees.
And they bought a Pig, and some green Jack-daws,
And a lovely Monkey with lollipop paws,
And forty bottles of Ring-Bo-Ree,
And no end of Stilton Cheese…
You can sort of hear where Wallace and Gromit came from, can’t you?
Believe it or not, this post was meant to be about something else entirely, something serious. And it will be, but first of all I’m going to take a breath and make myself a well-earned cup of tea.