Summer 2017

The Luminosity of the Nose

Edward Lear’s Dong and the limits of critical rationality

D. Graham Burnett

“The Dong with a Luminous Nose” is a verse ballad of one hundred and three lines authored by the eccentric Victorian illustrator, lyricist, and polymorphous sufferer Edward Lear (1812–1888). The poem dates to the mid-1870s. The tone is madcap-moody—a griffin of twee hijinks and misshapen anguish, the sort of odd-words-in-the-mouth sing-song surrealism that gets called “nursery rhyme” or “nonsense verse.” Lear and Lewis Carroll are often discussed together in this respect, as roughly contemporary progenitors of something like a veritable genre of English poetry for children that is perhaps not wholly appropriate for children (though children certainly seem to like it). Of the two authors, Lear is the more sentimentally lurid and the more inclined to write of distended or damaged body parts. All in good fun. The kind of good fun that emerges like a gleeful berserker out of a miasmatic swamp of pain 
and sorrow.

Paradigmatically, “The Dong with a Luminous Nose” recounts the ill-fated love of the eponymous “Dong” for a “Jumbly” girl who visits the Dong’s land with others of her kind in a sieve-like vessel. Jumblies have green heads and blue hands and come from far away. The Jumbly sojourn is a whirl of joy:

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 …

But this idyll is soon clipped:


…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, …

Within hours, hopeless pining has divested the Dong of right reason (“What little sense I once possessed / Has quite gone out of my head!”). Flushed out onto the infinite wastes of futility, the mad Dong wanders the coastal cliffs and black forests (the “great Gromboolian plain” and the “Hills of the Chankly Bore”) piping plaintive dirges:

…“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!”

And it is here that the poem offers its immortal stroke. The gibbering Dong—exiled by desperation, haunting the nocturnal bluffs—sets to an addled stratagem: he fashions himself a large lighthouse-lantern which he ties on his face as a prosthetic nose. The idea is that he will use this awkward contraption as a searchlight in his doomed pursuit. The passage should be cited in its entirety:

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