Life Among the JumbliesBy Dan Coxon
April 27, 2012
I sit with my two-month old son on my lap, surrounded by the detritus of parenthood – burp cloths, bottles encrusted with the grainy residue of infant formula, drool-glistening pacifiers, neglected toys – and try to dredge a diversion from my battered and sleep-deprived brain. Most days something rises to the surface. A silly rhyme, a Stewie-inspired internal monologue, a popular rock song with the lyrics changed to include the infant triumvirate of milk, pee and poop. But today, nothing comes. I’m an empty vessel, a vacant-eyed zombie casualty of the babyocalypse.
Then the trickle starts, slowly, phrase by phrase, an echoing refrain from the distant reaches of my back brain:
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live…
Edward Lear’s nonsense poem ‘The Jumblies’ was one of the staples of my childhood, its six stanzas just short enough to hold my micro-sized attention. The frequent repetition worked in its favor too, and, as I grew older, the nonsensical fantasies that children devour like unattended candy. I recall the illustrations to this day, the dome-headed Jumblies packed together like diminutive scholars riding the high tide of my imagination. Its unbridled flights of fancy may go some way towards explaining my teenage fascination with fantasy and science fiction. At the very least, they fed my burgeoning appetite for all things ridiculous and surreal.
If you’re not familiar with Lear’s poem, I suggest you get your hands on a copy (you can read it online here). The Jumblies are presumably no bigger than the top joint of your thumb, as they pack together into a sieve – that most unsuitable of seafaring vessels – and head out across the sea in search of… nothing. We never learn the motivation for our thimble-sized heroes. They simply launch their leaky boat onto the water one day for no reason other than the undeniable desire to sail away in a sieve. Some may say that’s reason enough.
Naturally they almost die when their makeshift boat starts to leak, but with the help of a pinky paper – whatever that may be – and a crockery jar they stave off disaster, spinning round and round in the dark on a voyage that even now fills me with infantile terror. It sounds like one of those white-water rafting experiences that’s advertised with grinning tourists gurning for the camera, mere seconds before they drop over a precipice to a watery grave. Maybe that would be the Jumblies’ idea of a good time (round in our sieve we spin!), but it certainly isn’t mine.
Against all odds the Jumblies somehow survive this prototypical adrenaline ride, and they end up on the ‘Western sea’. Their excitement upon arriving at this new horizon is best summarized by Lear’s catalog of their ill-advised purchases: an owl, a cart, some rice, a cranberry tart, some bees, a pig, some jackdaws, a monkey, a blue cheese, and forty bottles of ‘Ring-Bo-Ree’. I’m assuming this last item is an extremely potent alcoholic beverage – that may at least explain their bizarre spending spree, and the fledgling menagerie that joins them in their sieve.
What has stayed with me longest, however, is the refrain at the end of each stanza, and it’s this that inveigles back into my brain as I slump beneath the wailing form of eight-week old Jacob. Before I can register what’s happening my mouth starts flapping, and Lear’s words echo from some forgotten point in my past:
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.
I can’t help wondering whether our heroes’ hands were blue before they began their seafaring adventure in an item of leaky kitchenware, but the effect is instantaneous. Jacob slumps into a confused silence, his clenched hands slackening at his sides. I’m pretty sure I lost him at ‘Far and few’, but Lear’s words clearly work some kind of spell. They probably make as much sense to him as they do to anybody.
With an apology to literary purists everywhere, I must confess that my next move was to jump straight onto my iPad and search for a Lear fan site. It took less than a minute to uncover the poem in its entirety. Whatever you think of electronic media and the future of the printed word, the internet certainly has one advantage over paper-and-ink books – you don’t have to wait weeks to get your hands on a copy. Even Jonathan Franzen must appreciate the benefits of instant gratification when it comes to calming a squalling infant.
Reading one-handed is a bonus too. As Jacob continues to stare trance-like at my lips I read him the nonsense poem from start to finish, and I look on with unbridled awe as his eyelids gradually droop and close. Lear’s lyrical cadence and frequent repetitions act like a pre-pharmaceutical Infant Tylenol. Before I can quite believe what’s happening he’s slack-jawed and snoring in my lap, and I can finally slump into a relaxed stupor of my own.
What’s even more surprising is the discovery that I’d completely forgotten about the poem’s last verse, a final act that makes more sense now that it’s projected thirty years into the future. The Jumblies don’t simply vanish off to the Western sea – they also return, twenty years later, much to the surprise and consternation of those who watched them leave. And as they tell tall tales of their adventures (and presumably show off their flashy purchases of rice and livestock) everyone else starts to wish that they too had mustered the courage to take to sea in a leaky vessel.
And every one said, “If we only live,
We too will go to sea in a Sieve –
To the hills of the Chankly Bore!”
The pioneering message isn’t subtle, but before I drift off to the dream shores of the Chankly Bore myself I can’t help wondering how much it has influenced my own adult life. I’ve traveled the globe, worked in four different countries, gawped at the wonders of the world from Ayer’s Rock to La Sagrada Familia. Sometimes the trips were intricately-planned projects, but more often than not I trusted my future to some pinky paper and a crockery jar.
Then I see Jacob snoring contentedly in my lap, and I realize that my wife and I have yet again embarked on a life-changing adventure. And when we return to our previous lives, in twenty years or more, we too will amaze our friends with tales of the Western sea, and Ring-Bo-Ree, and going to sea in a sieve.
Good article Dan, thoroughly enjoyed it, Love to all, Hugh.
Nice article. I too find myself reading the poem to my two year old having remembered it from my chilhood forty years past. There is some sense in the nonsense.
I’m on my own journey by sieve right now.
Every night I read to my son, then he makes me stay by his bedside for “100 more minutes”, so I grab the netbook while he nods off (although I have never known him to last the full 100 minutes of course). For the last few nights I have read and re-read “The Jumblies”, and I have also been hypnotised by the rhythm and the mystery of the refrain: “Far and few, far and few, are the lands where the Jumbles live.” So I searched for web references to it and found your article, which is spot on.
A masterpiece. I, too, have mused about the Jumblies’ adventures for decades – as well as the devoted quest of the titular character in Lear’s sequel, ‘The Dong with a Luminous Nose’. It’s delightful to discover that others have also been inspired to wander. Among Lear’s several poems and writings about wanderers, my favorite has got to be ‘The Duck and the Kangaroo’.
[…] loved the comments made by author and father Don Coxon after reading this poem to his […]
AMAZING!!!! Another person in the universe who grew up with the Jumblies. I can’t believe it. Praise Be to the Internet. I have an original copy of “Edward Lear A Book of Nonsense” and I read it to my sons 25 years ago. Now, even in the digital pace of children’s entertainment, I read The Jumblies to my 6-year-old granddaughter, thinking she would lose interest after the first chorus. She listened attentively to the entire poem. I’ve searched for action figure Jumblies for her. Clearly no luck. So I have ordered some bake-able clay and vivid markers so we can create our own Jumblies. Has to be permanent markers, of course, so it won’t come off in the sieve. So very happy to have found this post. I wish we could create a Jumblies Society with a yearly convention (it would just be the six of us.) A companion book I grew up with was Hilaire Belloc’s “Cautionary Verses for Children” with violent consequences for bad behavior. Did anyone have this book?
I know that it has been several years since the author of this piece set it down to the internet and a half a year since the last comment … but … I thought that I would add something here.
I’ve long loved the poem and I can and do recite it to friends, young and old, from time to time. It seems to resonate in many different situations.
But let me mention, here, another connection that I found years ago. I am an entertainer, I blow soap bubbles for a living (Google my name and the word “bubbles”) and that interest led me to a book written by a contemporary of Mr. Lear’s, Charles Vernon Boys. Mr. Boys gave a series of lectures on the science of soap bubbles at the Royal Institution in London and from those lectures compile the information for a book on the subject. The first edition of that book was in 1890 and it remains in print today.
As a part of his lecture, as documented in his book, Mr. Boys took a normal kitchen sieve and was able to show that it could not only float on water but could, in fact, hold some small amount of weight. Before showing that, he did first carefully coat the metal wires that make up the sieve with paraffin but … while the melted paraffin was still fluid he banged the sieve on a hard surface and, thereby, caused the holes in the sieve to open again. The result, once it cooled, was a sieve full of holes but now the water interfaced not with metal, which it could wet, but with this waxy surface that resists wetting.
Then Boys floated this hole-filled sieve boat on water and he carefully added small doll figures and … “a small tobacco pipe mast” and sail. He quoted The Jumblies and amazed his audience.
Well, that explains it very nicely, then – thank you for answering that long-standing mystery.
Thank you for this essay — so nostalgic for me! When I was a child, my mother would play records to us at bedtime, rather than reading by our bedside. One of the records was the “Nonsense Verse of Carroll and Lear” being read dramatically by three actors: Beatrice Lillie, Cyril Ritchard, and Stanley Holloway. Ritchard read “The Jumblies” and that is the voice I always hear in my mind when the poem comes to my memory. You can get a copy of the original 1957 record very cheaply on Amazon right now (https://www.amazon.com/Nonsense-Verse-Carroll-Lear/dp/B002SCOAFY). If you have an old-fashioned record player for vinyl, your baby would love it!
I still have my copy of this same recording. I digitized it, available for ready access, whenever I need to refresh my memory.
I just read your commentary on life with Jacob and The Jumblies — the poem came to my attention later in life (when I was about 57) during a book signing with Garrison Keillor in Minnesota. Mr. Keillor had read the poem on Minnesota Public Radio, one evening, and I mentioned it to him during the book signing; it made him smile.
Your essay is as entertaining as the poem. Recently, I took an Oxford program on The Brontes and eight members of my online class have now been friends for two years.
Brontes aside, we discuss art, literature, poetry, sculpture, opera and many subjects.
I began a weekly poetry video short from my garden patio and it was well-received, so for my next piece, this Saturday, I will read The Jumblies. I think perhaps a few may not know of the poem, one colleague being from The Phillipines, another from Argentina. I will direct them to your essay post reading to provide a fuller experience and introduce them to Jacob.
Fabulous essay and I could read it several times. Thank you so much for writing this piece. By now, Jacob must be listening to poetry, and not dozing off…but your immense creativity during his early years will not doubt inspire his future too.
Children’s Author/Aviation Columnist (Airways Magazine)