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And For Many A Summer Sighs the Dong


When my sons were much younger (far back when they were not yet taller than their mother nor yet gaining fast on me), I read aloud to them regularly. Thanks to that opportunity (which every parent should take early and often) I became reacquainted with Edward Lear's poem, The Dong with a Luminous Nose.

(Our copy of the poem was contained in a small English edition of three of Lear's longer poems -- including also "The Pobble Who Has No Toes" and the inevitable "Owl and the Pussycat" -- with illustrations by Quentin Blake, best known in this country for illustrating most of Roald Dahl's oeuvre. The book is no longer available, so far as I can determine.)

Lear is of course still frequently read, mostly by young people and mostly as a disposable poet of nonsense, a childish thing later to be put aside. Reading the sad story of the Dong over and over (and over and over), I was impressed with what a well-written and affecting poem it is. Because Mr. Lear's poetry has joined the public domain (as he has joined the choir invisible), I can quote the entire poem as I comment.

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 on 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 wanders - pauses - creeps -
Anon it sparkles - flashes and leaps;
And ever as onward it gleaming goes
A light on the Bong-tree stem 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!'

Those first three stanzas do such a fine, cinematic job of setting the scene that I could not bring my self to interrupt them. Lear's varying line lengths and Tennysonian verbs (breakers roar and beat, as storm clouds brood) and adjectives (awful, great, angry, towering) build a dramatic vista in the first stanza (reinforced by the vast gloom of the second stanza and our wideframe view from the hall, terrace and lofty tower of the third) before moving in for a tighter focus on the mysterious, will o' the wisp-like light that moves through the landscape. In its "piercing" loneliness, the light's hesitant and changeable movements are reflected by the stuttering rhythms of the first two lines of the third stanza, followed by the swift rush of the next two. By the end of that stanza, the reader or listener is anxious to learn who or what the Dong may be, and why he/she/it glows in the dark. Lear offers up the explanation in flashback:
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 their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.'
Twas ever thus: the path of true love ne'er ran smooth, particularly between Dongs and Jumblies it seems, and Lear foreshadows that the Dong's happiness will end just when thinks he has achieved it (by falling in love). The Jumblies themselves had been the subject of another poem -- of which their italicized song here was the chorus -- chronicling their epic 20-year sieve-bound voyage, from which they return taller (like certain hobbits). The epic form requires that the Dong and his beloved Jumbly girl, like Dido and Aeneas (albeit with their genders exchanged), must be parted so that the Jumblies' explorations may continue:
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 sat all day on the grass hill -
'Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.'
The sadness is palpable, helped along by the moaning "far and few" -- an effect also seen in the sorrowing "oo" sounds in the Mock Turtle's paean to "beautiful soup" in Alice in Wonderland. The loss of his beloved is more than the Dong can bear, of course, and he transforms himself in proper Romantic style into the very embodiment of incurable melancholy:
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 hill,
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.

More concrete visualization here, first of the Dong's distracted wanderings then, in a verbal close-up rounded out by the unexpected triplet toward the end of the stanza, the construction of the "wondrous Nose." The Dong's practicality even in his derangement is amusingly highlighted by the mid-stanza (and mid-sentence) shift in tone of "Since then his Jumbly Girl he seeks,/And because by night he could not see . . ." Beginning his final stanza with a brisk mid-line double-repetition of the word on which he has just paused ("night" -- you can count for yourself how often that word appears in the poem), Lear strides toward his conclusion:
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 the luminous Nose!
Yonder - over the plain he goes;
He goes;
He goes!
The Dong with a luminous Nose!'
And with that lingering echo, we've circled back to our starting point, as the Dong glimmers away into the distance and there's not a dry eye in the house. The Dong's remains a fundamentally silly story, of course, but one must be impressed by the craftsmanship and depth of feeling Lear brought to bear in composing it. He was utterly serious about his nonsense, so his nonsense continues to give serious pleasure.

[This post's title concocted with apologies to Tennyson and Huxley.]
[Post re-edited 9/6/03 to correct some freakish coding of quotation marks.]

Comments

Maurice

Any man who could write The Dong With A Luminous Nose was the Antichrist. The whole universe is poisoned and tortured just by knowing Lear ever existed. What sort of sick mind are you to find such loss and misery amusing? Everyone capable of saying one good word for Dong With A Luminous Nose bears personally on their hands the blood of every life lost to bullying and war atrocities throughout history, just as culpably as the actual killers. How? Simply by making savage emotional harshness the cultural norm.

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