Ode to the Nose

WHY certain things are more inextricably, comically absurd than others is one of the deeper mysteries - among fruit, for instance, why is it that people roll about laughing at the very thought of the banana? Tomatoes, too, are great food for amusement: G.K. Chesterton extended all his literary wit to an exegesis on the Tomato in Literature which is, in fact, remarkably funny. But who finds apples or oranges humorous? When it comes to facial features, mouths and eyes are as solemn as you like, while ears can be pretty amusing, but it is noses that are unavoidably hilarious. At their very mildest, noses rarely escape a chuckle.

Somebody with Chesterton's skill in the mock-serious ought to make a study of noses in art and literature. All I can do is make a few pointers.... Indeed, Chesterton himself does make some definitive points about noses in his ``Song of Quoodle,'' a dog's-nose view of the world. The opening verse states:

They haven't got no noses,

The fallen sons of Eve;

Even the smell of roses

Is not what they supposes;

And more than mind discloses

And more than men believe.

This five-stanza poem, a favorite in compilations of nonsense poetry, offers a wonderful appreciation of the ``brilliant smell of water'' and the ``smell of dew and thunder,/ The old bones buried under,'' even ``the smell of Sunday morning.'' Quoodle's final comment epitomizes the essential difference between the canine and the human realms: ``Goodness only knowses/ The noselessness of Man.''

Cyrano de Bergerac, comic-sad hero of Rostand's play, had a nose so noticeable that he was forced into a pose of pride in it - and scorn for others with smaller olfactory appendages. What could he do but boast?

Others might snigger, but Cyrano took his nose seriously: ``My nose is huge! Vile snub-nose, flat-nosed ass, flat-head, let me inform you that I am proud of such an appendage, since a big nose is the proper sign of a friendly, good, courteous, witty, liberal and brave man, such as I am.''

But it was Edward Lear, grand master of the Victorian vogue for authentic nonsense, who was the great exponent of the nose as silliness itself. He was - unnecessarily - self-conscious about his own good nose. No later than the sixth line of his Self-Portrait in verse, ``How Pleasant to know Mr. Lear!,'' does he remark: ``His nose is remarkably big.''

And then throughout his prolific output of lovable nonsense, noses simply abound. ``O My ag`ed Uncle Arly!,'' he sings, in one of his bitter-sweetest lyrics,

O My ag`ed Uncle Arly

Sitting on a heap of Barley

Thro' the silent hours of night, -

Close beside a leafy thicket: -

On his nose there was a Cricket, -

In his hat a Railway-Ticket; -

(But his shoes were far too tight.)

True nonsense, which this is, nevertheless implies - by inversion - SENSE, and Lear's poems have sensical undercurrents, make of them what you will. Surely he is himself his ``Uncle Arly,'' and it is he himself who (as the later verses explain) fantasizes that he had a ``pea-green Cricket'' settle on his nose as he stooped to pick up a first-class railway ticket off the ground.

Never - never more - oh! never

Did that Cricket leave him ever,

Dawn or evening, day or night;

Clinging as a constant treasure,

Chirping with a cheerious measure,

Wholly to my uncle's pleasure,

(But his shoes were far too tight.)

Lear is of course the author of ``The Owl and the Pussy-Cat,'' that children's favorite, and even in this delicate love ditty, his imagery does not fail to include a nose:

And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood

With a ring at the end of his nose,

His nose,

His nose,

With a ring at the end of his nose.

And his limericks! Lear was not the inventor of the limerick, but he was certainly one of its definitive exponents. Some people find his limericks disappointing. This is because their humor is genuinely nonsensical. He treated the last line usually as an opportunity for enigmatic bathos - often it is almost a repetition of the first line but with a single, significantly insignificant change, catching you by surprise. For this reason I believe Lear's limericks are much subtler, and stand the test of time better, than those of some more self-consciously brilliant limerickers. His nonsense is deftly witless, not deliberately witty.

For instance:

There was an Old Man, on whose nose,

Most birds of the air could repose;

But they all flew away,

at the closing of day,

Which relieved that Old Man

and his nose.


There was an Old Person of Tring,

Who embellished his nose with a ring;

He gazed at the moon,

every evening in June,

That ecstatic Old Person of Tring.

That's ecstasy, yes.

The limericks of Lear are as full of extraordinary fantasy about noses as anything else he wrote (and we shouldn't overlook the chap whose nose ended in a tassel - he came, naturally, from Cassel) and in his glorious line drawings to illustrate them he wildly makes visible the noses his wordplay proposes. (Lear was, in fact, a serious, fastidious landscape painter. But in his nonsense drawings, as in his nonsense writing, he let his hair down with careless imaginativeness.)

His drawing of a Young Lady with a nose that ``reached to her toes'' speaks volumes about the need we sometimes feel for the cheerful and willing assistance of others: ``So she hired an Old Lady, whose conduct was steady,/ To carry that wonderful nose.'' But the drawing suggests otherwise. This nose-bearing assistant prances forward with a gleeful abandonment, born, no doubt, of the unusually exhilarating nature of her employment, and the Young Lady looks as though she is finding herself ... led by the nose.

The nose recurs yet again in Lear's longer poem about ``The Pobble Who Has No Toes'' - which isn't nearly as sad a tale as it sounds, though it is his Aunt Jobiska's theory that his toes would not have been lost as he swam the channel if he hadn't first managed to allow the piece of scarlet flannel she had given him to protect his NOSE to be carried away by a sea-green porpoise.

What further can be made of literary noses? Not much. Even Shakespeare has little memorable on the subject, except perhaps ``A nose by any other name would smell as sweet,'' and inexplicably Gertrude Stein did not (as might have been expected) write, ``Nose is a nose is a nose is a nose.'' No, when it comes to the nose, Lear's the man.

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