Literary nonsense

Literary nonsense (or nonsense literature) is a broad categorization of literature that balances elements that make sense with some that do not, with the effect of subverting language conventions or logical reasoning.[1] Even though the most well-known form of literary nonsense is nonsense verse, the genre is present in many forms of literature.

The effect of nonsense is often caused by an excess of meaning, rather than a lack of it. Its humor is derived from its nonsensical nature, rather than wit or the "joke" of a punchline.[2]


John Tenniel's depiction of the nonsense creatures in Carroll's Jabberwocky.

Literary nonsense, as recognized since the nineteenth century, comes from a combination of two broad artistic sources. The first and older source is the oral folk tradition, including games, songs, dramas, and rhymes, such as the nursery rhyme Hey Diddle Diddle.[3] The literary figure Mother Goose represents common incarnations of this style of writing.

The second, newer source of literary nonsense is in the intellectual absurdities of court poets, scholars, and intellectuals of various kinds. These writers often created sophisticated nonsense forms of Latin parodies, religious travesties, and political satire, though these texts are distinguished from more pure satire and parody by their exaggerated nonsensical effects.[4]

Today's literary nonsense comes from a combination of both sources.[5] Though not the first to write this hybrid kind of nonsense, Edward Lear developed and popularized it in his many limericks (starting with A Book of Nonsense, 1846) and other famous texts such as The Owl and the Pussycat, The Dong with a Luminous Nose, The Jumblies and The Story of the Four Little Children Who Went Around the World. Lewis Carroll continued this trend, making literary nonsense a worldwide phenomenon with Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871). Carroll's poem "Jabberwocky", which appears in the latter book, is often considered quintessential nonsense literature.[6]