Literature

A Short Analysis of Edward Lear’s ‘The Dong with a Luminous Nose’

‘The Dong with a Luminous Nose’ is one of the greatest nonsense poems by the Victorian poet and artist Edward Lear (1812-88). Among other things, Lear is known for popularising the limerick among Victorian readers, and for being, along with Lewis Carroll, probably the chief exponent of nonsense verse in English. (We have gathered together our pick of the best nonsense poems in a separate post.)

‘The Dong with a Luminous Nose’, like Lear’s most famous poem, ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ (which we have analysed here), perhaps requires few words of analysis, given its status as self-confessed ‘nonsense’. But the story, language, and imagery of Lear’s poem, with its enchanting and sorrowful fantastical landscape, cries out for some commentary. First, though, here is the poem itself.

The Dong with a Luminous Nose

When awful darkness and silence reign
Over the great Gromboolian plain,
Through the long, long wintry nights; —
When the angry breakers roar
As they beat on the rocky shore; —
When Storm-clouds brood on the towering heights
Of the Hills of the Chankly Bore: —

Then, through the vast and gloomy dark,
There moves what seems a fiery spark,
A lonely spark with silvery rays
Piercing the coal-black night, —
A Meteor strange and bright: —
Hither and thither the vision strays,
A single lurid light.

Slowly it wander, — pauses, — creeps, —
Anon it sparkles, — flashes and leaps;
And ever as onward it gleaming goes
A light on the Bong-tree stems it throws.
And those who watch at that midnight hour
From Hall or Terrace, or lofty Tower,
Cry, as the wild light passes along, —
‘The Dong! — the Dong!
‘The wandering Dong through the forest goes!
‘The Dong! the Dong!
‘The Dong with a luminous Nose!’

Long years ago
The Dong was happy and gay,
Till he fell in love with a Jumbly Girl
Who came to those shores one day.
For the Jumblies came in a sieve, they did, —
Landing at eve near the Zemmery Fidd
Where the Oblong Oysters grow,
And the rocks are smooth and gray.
And all the woods and the valleys rang
With the Chorus they daily and nightly sang, —
‘Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and the hands are blue
And they went to sea in a sieve.’

Happily, happily passed those days!
While the cheerful Jumblies staid;
They danced in circlets all night long,
To the plaintive pipe of the lively Dong,
In moonlight, shine, or shade.
For day and night he was always there
By the side of the Jumbly Girl so fair,
With her sky-blue hands, and her sea-green hair.
Till the morning came of that hateful day
When the Jumblies sailed in their sieve away,
And the Dong was left on the cruel shore
Gazing — gazing for evermore, —
Ever keeping his weary eyes on
That pea-green sail on the far horizon, —
Singing the Jumbly Chorus still
As he sate all day on the grassy hill, —
‘Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and the hands are blue
And they went to sea in a sieve.’

But when the sun was low in the West,
The Dong arose and said;
— ‘What little sense I once possessed
Has quite gone out of my head!’ —
And since that day he wanders still
By lake and forest, marsh and hills,
Singing — ‘O somewhere, in valley or plain
‘Might I find my Jumbly Girl again!
‘For ever I’ll seek by lake and shore
‘Till I find my Jumbly Girl once more!’

Playing a pipe with silvery squeaks,
Since then his Jumbly Girl he seeks,
And because by night he could not see,
He gathered the bark of the Twangum Tree
On the flowery plain that grows.
And he wove him a wondrous Nose, —
A Nose as strange as a Nose could be!
Of vast proportions and painted red,
And tied with cords to the back of his head.
— In a hollow rounded space it ended
With a luminous Lamp within suspended,
All fenced about
With a bandage stout
To prevent the wind from blowing it out; —
And with holes all round to send the light,
In gleaming rays on the dismal night.

And now each night, and all night long,
Over those plains still roams the Dong;
And above the wail of the Chimp and Snipe
You may hear the squeak of his plaintive pipe
While ever he seeks, but seeks in vain
To meet with his Jumbly Girl again;
Lonely and wild — all night he goes, —
The Dong with a luminous Nose!
And all who watch at the midnight hour,
From Hall or Terrace, or lofty Tower,
Cry, as they trace the Meteor bright,
Moving along through the dreary night, —
‘This is the hour when forth he goes,
‘The Dong with a luminous Nose!
‘Yonder — over the plain he goes;
‘He goes!
‘He goes;
‘The Dong with a luminous Nose!’

Edward Lear’s ‘The Dong with a Luminous Nose’ is a tragic love poem about a mysterious figure – the fictional Dong – who falls in love with a girl from a foreign land (she is one of the Jumblies, who feature in another poem by Lear). She leaves, and he is heartbroken. He was happy before he knew her, but when he fell in love with the Jumbly Girl, his life was changed forever. Such is love.

The Jumblies arrived in the Dong’s land from foreign shores, having travelled across the sea in a sieve (warning: this is not an advisable mode of marine transportation, owing to holes). The Jumblies have green heads and blue hands, but we don’t know much else about their appearance. Lear peppers the verses of ‘The Dong with a Luminous Nose’ with plenty of fantastical details: the Bong-tree, the Zemmery Field, the Chankly Bore.

The Jumblies do a lot of dancing, with the Dong providing the music on his pipe. But then one day, the Jumblies all get back in their sieve and go home – the Jumbly Girl going with them, leaving the Dong behind to mourn her departure. He cannot accept that she is gone, and keeps his eyes fixed on the horizon, hoping for a sight of the sieve returning with the love of his life in it.

Towards the end of the poem, Lear tells us that the Dong constructed his famous luminous nose in response to this loss: he gathered bark from the Twangum tree and wove a nose for himself, painted red, and tied to the back of his head with cords. He then hung a glow-in-the-dark lamp in the nose and bandaged it so that the wind wouldn’t blow the flame of the lamp out (this was before electric lighting, of course!). And the Dong, using his luminous nose as a sort of searchlight, wanders the land all night every night, in search of his Jumbly Girl.

Edward Lear was good friends with Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92), and it’s tempting to approach ‘The Dong with a Luminous Nose’ as a sort of response to, and nonsense rendering of, Tennyson’s early tragic love stories, but in particular, Tennyson’s great poem ‘The Lady of Shalott’ (which we have analysed here).

Between ‘The Lady of Shalott’ and ‘The Dong with a Luminous Nose’, there are some pervasive general points of comparison, which strengthen the case for a close connection between the two poems.

In Lear’s poem the male ‘Dong’ falls in love with the ‘Jumbly Girl’; this is a reversal of the Lady of Shalott’s love for, or awareness of, the manly Lancelot. Both poems are about love yearned for, followed by the realisation that this love is untenable: Lancelot will only notice the Lady after her death, while the Jumblies – and the Jumbly Girl – are destined to leave the Dong and sail away again.

But Lear’s poem has its pathos too, which means that ‘parody’ strikes us as an inadequate word for what he is doing. Unlike Carroll, he is not seeking to mock a ridiculous sentiment expressed by Tennyson; rather, Lear’s poem is in sympathy with Tennyson’s, drawing upon the former work and refashioning it in a fantastical, fairy-tale setting.

Numerous other points of comparison can be identified between the two poems. On a slightly more local level, both poems feature boats and sailing, reference to meteors, and characters who sing; both poems are also concerned with a contrast between day and night, and they both focus on a drastic change that overcomes the central character, principally involving a loss of innocence.

Of course, these similarities are by no means peculiar to these two poems, so the matter needs to be examined a little further. The similarity should become clearer with a few examples, and perhaps the best place to begin, paradoxically, is with the endings of the two poems. From Tennyson:

Out upon the wharfs they came,
Knight and burgher, lord and dame,
And round the prow they read her name,
The Lady of Shalott.

Who is this? and what is here?
And in the lighted palace near
Died the sound of royal cheer;
And they crossed themselves for fear,
All the knights at Camelot;
But Lancelot mused a little space;
He said, ‘She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott.’

And from Lear:

And all who watch at the midnight hour,
From Hall or Terrace, or lofty Tower,
Cry, as they trace the Meteor bright,
Moving along through the dreary night, –
‘This is the hour when forth he goes,
‘The Dong with a luminous Nose!
‘Yonder – over the plain he goes;
‘He goes!
‘He goes;
‘The Dong with a luminous Nose!’

It is important in both poems that the townspeople witness the respective outcome of each poem’s narrative: the Lady’s untimely death and the Dong’s new Nose. To an extent this depersonalises the events of the poems. The loss may be personal to the main protagonist of the poem, but the event implicates everyone. Society, and not just the individual, is affected. The last line of each poem is also its subject, which in turn echoes the poem’s title; but by the end of the poem the event has had repercussions beyond the individual.

In casting the male Dong in the Tennysonian feminine role of the forlorn lover, Lear had to rework the master-poem. Again, comparison of specific passages will illuminate the similarities. Tennyson:

As often through the purple night,
Below the starry clusters bright,
Some bearded meteor, trailing light,
Moves over still Shalott.

And Lear:

And all who watch at the midnight hour,
From Hall or Terrace, or lofty Tower,
Cry, as they trace the Meteor bright,
Moving along through the dreary night …

The masculine omen that heralds the arrival of the manly Lancelot, the ‘bearded meteor’, becomes ‘the Meteor bright’ in Lear’s poem; earlier in the poem it had been ‘A meteor strange and bright’. Not only this, but Tennyson’s ‘Moves’ becomes Lear’s ‘Moving’, both poems rhyme ‘bright’ with ‘night’ to emphasise the contrast between the meteor and its surroundings, and – perhaps most suggestively – Tennyson’s ‘through the purple night’ morphs into Lear’s ‘through the dreary night’. If it is deliberate allusion, it is of a skewed sort – ‘purpledicular’, we might say, to adopt Lear’s own coinage or portmanteau – since it refuses to present itself as straight or straightforward debt or influence.

For there are also smaller parallels, words and phrases both usual and not so usual, which are found in both poems. Cumulatively, they are quite persuasive. Tennyson has ‘through the purple night’, while Lear has ‘through the dreary night’; there’s ‘by night and day’ (Tennyson) and ‘day and night’ (Lear); ‘by night’ (both); gleaming, flashing and sparkling (both); storms, woods, and meteors (both); ‘coal-black curls’ (Tennyson) and ‘Coal-black night’ (Lear).

In summary, then, we might view Lear’s poem as a nonsense rewriting of the great Victorian Laureate’s early poem, but with the gender roles reversed and the Arthurian setting of Tennyson’s poem swapped for the equally mythical, but more surreal, landscape of Lear’s nonsense verse.

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