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The Spike or Victoria University College Review 1931

A Sword for the Clown

page 11

A Sword for the Clown

"A devotion to nonsense is one of the striking weaknesses and greatest happinesses of our nature."


There has always been in our college literature much of the serious, and much—one is tempted to say, more—of the satirical. The arrival of "Spike's" gay young confederate, "Smad," has very adequately fostered the eloquence of the critics and cynics among us, and at the same time has left "Spike" free for the mere enduring of our essays in both prose and verse. This development is in itself a matter wholly beyond cavil; yet it gives such marked emphasis to these extremes of literary production that it may not be unreasonable to anticipate an unfavourable reaction as regards a minor, yet interesting, form of literary expression.

We refer to the apparent neglect of the field of fantasy. Imaginative thought finds occasional expression in our verse, and from time to time in our prose. But the most intriguing possibilities of the whimsical, the bizarre, the fanciful and the merely meaningless, appear to be quite unappreciated. Glancing through "Spike" for the last few years, one comes across scattered pieces such as "Polperro," "A Dream," "Night Fancies," "Caprice," and "A Sussex Fairy." But one finds scarcely two such pieces a year—the merest gleam of star-lit wonderlands. One observes at the same time in the experience of the Dramatic Club, with such writers as Barrie and Milne, that the whimsical and the quaint, even in their most frivolous form, still have a strong and fairly general appeal. Yet from the point of view of original creative effort this field seems either shunned or forgotten.

In particular one may be permitted to stress the regrettable absence of what is both commonly and technically known as "sheer nonsense." 'One may search far back into old numbers of "Spike" without finding one example of this sublime art. It is scarcely to be wondered at that shortly after the War this should have been the case; but now that some of the white heat has gone from the intense earnestness of debate of those ensuing years, it may not be improper to suggest that this neglect of less serious writing might be remedied. The present position is the more regrettable since the effective production of such composition requires the union of clear wit with technical skill (especially in verse)—two qualities both of which are found at their best from time to time in the work of our contributors.

It is clearly implied in what has been said that mere nonsense has its justification, and we may be asked to substantiate this. But the subject is so wide, and has already been so fully and favourably discussed in the course of literary criticism that one need but comment briefly. The writing of nonsense is, one might say, a half-way house between the serious and the satiric; but its chief aspect is undoubtedly towards satire. However, in its finer forms, as found more especially in Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, it is freed from any suggestion of the satiric tone. Yet nonsense is not mere incoherence, but incoherence made brilliant by wit. Whatever it be, it is something essentially subtle in its comprehension of values and the incoherence of its ideas

As regards the form of its expression, nonsense is perhaps most easily crystallised in the limerick; but the facility with which this vehicle may be used certainly tends to lower its standard. In 1927 "Spike" displayed a clever but satiric set of nonsense limericks under the title of "Fairy Tales." Since then there have been no further efforts until their revival in the first "Smad" of 1931, in a series of feeble and unmetrical animosities. The cause for regret lies in the fact that the most mediocre intellect could perpetrate such nonsense as:

A chappi from chilli Karori
Was telling a rather bright stori,
But a laddi from Auck
Came up at the wauck
With a stori that blew it to glori.

However, notwithstanding these unfortunate symptoms of premature senility, one ventures to think that some really effective nonsense might page 12 well be forthcoming occasionally. It is true that Victoria has not its peer for unconscious and unintentional stupidity; but it would bring to at least a few of us a touch of brightness in the day's dull round to come upon some nonsense aforethought, such as:

The mist lies low
Upon the snow-

Encrusted summits of the mountains;

While the slow,
Sleek katipo

Is popped in tins (erstwhile Van Houten's!)

Amid the stress of student life it is surely a welcome relief to turn to a little faint frivolity. As was once said, there are many bright spots in the South Salamanca Free Kindergarten; and besides, there is ample scope for "Further Foolishness," as Leacock would have it. Life for many of us seems to be just one blank thing after the last preceding; and there is every excuse for the student who, heedless for the moment of the claims of sober commonsense and reason, turns to seek the tinkle-jangle of Life's cap and bells.

There is not one of our contributors but could occasionally pen some playful pleasantry. A casual couplet, though simplicity itself, may be well worth recording, as witness the lines telling of the sad fate of a wasp that strayed into an Arab's tent:

He seized his ancient scimitar,
And gave that wasp the au revoir.

Again there are those valuable words of advice urging the young poet not to write late at night:

He tried to find a word to rhyme with Lancer,
But fell asleep before he found the answer.

You may, of course, venture on a triplet, if you feel equal to it, thus:

What time the student pales in anxious swat,
His brain becomes an ever darker blot,
And totters hotter than the Hottentot.

There are also the ever-ready fields of parody and imitation; and prose, too, is an adequate vehicle for nonsense of the broader type, as is shown in that masterpiece, "Ashes and Sackcloth, or, Should Cinderella Wear Kilts?" But space, we imagine, is limited.

To be quite candid, one's real fear is, of course, that our young authors suffer from too great a regard for convention and commonsense. They appear to be quite overburdened with the conviction that one must ever be balanced and rational. It is unbecoming, it seems, to descend to such childishness, such inanities. Indeed, there is too much respect for the approval of the sane and sober majority for these lighter arts of wit and nonsense to flourish. But, d'apres Marc Antony, one might say: "We come to bury mediocrity, not to praise it." And lest the import of this Antonian dictum be vague, let it be added, in plain words:

Let's Have More Nonsense.