In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle explores the eighteenth-century origins of nonsense literature
When did the tradition of English nonsense literature arise? Who invented nonsense literature? Although Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear are the names that immediately spring to mind, several eighteenth-century writers should get a mention in the history of nonsense writing. One is Henry Carey, who among other things coined the phrase ‘namby-pamby’ in his lambasting of the infantile verses of his contemporary, Ambrose Philips; another is the playwright Samuel Foote, known as the ‘English Aristophanes’, who lost one of his legs in an accident but took it good-humouredly, and often made jokes about it.
It was Samuel Foote who gave us ‘The Great Panjandrum’, a piece of writing whose influence arguably stretches to Carroll and Lear in the nineteenth century, and Spike Milligan in the twentieth. In the eighteenth century, Foote penned the following piece of nonsense:
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 grand 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.
Those ‘Joblillies’ seem to be the ancestors of Lear’s Jumblies, and Picninnies is dangerously close to (and was probably inspired by) a derogatory racial term in common use at the time. What inspired Foote to write it? The Oxford English Dictionary notes of the word ‘panjandrum’: ‘The word is supposed to have been coined in 1754 or 1755 as part of a farrago of nonsense composed by Samuel Foote (1720–77), actor and dramatist, to test the memory of his fellow actor Charles Macklin, who had asserted that he could repeat anything after hearing it once.’ Macklin, an Irish actor, lived a remarkably long life – he died at the ripe old age of 106, in 1797 – and was a well-known figure on the stage at the famed Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Foote was the younger man by thirty years, and Macklin took the young British actor and playwright under his wing. Later in their careers, in the 1750s, Macklin opened a school of oratory where he taught young men how to speak properly (I picture it as being much like that scene from Blackadder the Third, pictured right). Foote would attend Macklin’s lectures and heckle, and it was on one such occasion that he put his friend’s boast to the test that he could memorise and recite a piece of writing having only heard it spoken once. Whether Macklin triumphed has not, it appears, been recorded.
‘Panjandrum’, then, became a word in its own right. Before Lewis Carroll’s coinages ‘chortle’ and ‘galumph’ (both invented for his poem ‘Jabberwocky’) entered more mainstream usage, ‘panjandrum’ was spreading from the realms of nonsense writing and becoming a household word. Here’s how the Oxford English Dictionary defines it: ‘(A mock title for) a mysterious (frequently imaginary) personage of great power or authority; a pompous or pretentious official; a self-important person in authority. Also Grand Panjandrum, Great Panjandrum.’ The word then grew to have a secondary meaning: ‘Ceremonial fuss or formality; rigmarole, affair.’ This meaning is now rare, although it gives a sense of how widespread the term may once have been. In the twentieth century, the term The Great Panjandrum was used to describe a large experimental rocket-propelled, explosive-laden cart designed by the British military during the Second World War, introducing the phrase, and the word, to a whole new generation. Fittingly, it was a novelist, Nevil Shute, who chose the term ‘The Great Panjandrum’ for the explosive device.
Then, in 1885, Foote’s piece of nonsense was published in a picture book by Randolph Caldecott, with the words rearranged so they read as verse:
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 down 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
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.
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Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.