Episode 6

The Jumblies

by Edward Lear

 

Mark McGuinness reads and discusses ‘The Jumblies’ by Edward Lear.

Poet

Edward Lear

Reading and commentary by

Mark McGuinness

The Jumblies

by Edward Lear

I

They went to sea in a Sieve, they did,
   In a Sieve they went to sea:
In spite of all their friends could say,
On a winter’s morn, on a stormy day,
   In a Sieve they went to sea!
And when the Sieve turned round and round,
And every one cried, ‘You’ll all be drowned!’
They called aloud, ‘Our Sieve ain’t big,
But we don’t care a button! we don’t care a fig!
   In a Sieve we’ll go to sea!’
      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.

II

They sailed away in a Sieve, they did,
   In a Sieve they sailed so fast,
With only a beautiful pea-green veil
Tied with a riband by way of a sail,
   To a small tobacco-pipe mast;
And every one said, who saw them go,
‘O won’t they be soon upset, you know!
For the sky is dark, and the voyage is long,
And happen what may, it’s extremely wrong
   In a Sieve to sail so fast!’
      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.

III

The water it soon came in, it did,
   The water it soon came in;
So to keep them dry, they wrapped their feet
In a pinky paper all folded neat,
   And they fastened it down with a pin.
And they passed the night in a crockery-jar,
And each of them said, ‘How wise we are!
Though the sky be dark, and the voyage be long,
Yet we never can think we were rash or wrong,
   While round in our Sieve we spin!’
      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.

IV

And all night long they sailed away;
   And when the sun went down,
They whistled and warbled a moony song
To the echoing sound of a coppery gong,
   In the shade of the mountains brown.
‘O Timballo! How happy we are,
When we live in a sieve and a crockery-jar,
And all night long in the moonlight pale,
We sail away with a pea-green sail,
   In the shade of the mountains brown!’
      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.

V

They sailed to the Western Sea, they did,
   To a land all covered with trees,
And they bought an Owl, and a useful Cart,
And a pound of Rice, and a Cranberry Tart,
   And a hive of silvery Bees.
And they bought a Pig, and some green Jack-daws,
And a lovely Monkey with lollipop paws,
And forty bottles of Ring-Bo-Ree,
   And no end of Stilton Cheese.
      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.

VI

And in twenty years they all came back,
   In twenty years or more,
And every one said, ‘How tall they’ve grown!’
For they’ve been to the Lakes, and the Torrible Zone,
   And the hills of the Chankly Bore;
And they drank their health, and gave them a feast
Of dumplings made of beautiful yeast;
And everyone said, ‘If we only live,
We too will go to sea in a Sieve,—
   To the hills of the Chankly Bore!’
      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.


Podcast transcript

I’ve loved this poem since I was very small. We had a beautiful illustrated anthology of poetry for children, and this was my favourite. It had wonderful illustrations of the Jumblies and their sieve and everything else in the poem and I can remember requesting this poem at bedtime and poring over the images and humming the words to myself, particularly the chorus.

And this must have been one of my first experiences of falling under the spell of poetry. So I thought it would be nice to make it one of the first poems that I read on this podcast.

Because even now, I think it’s a terrific poem, with a great mixture of absurdity and bravado. Because clearly the idea of going to see in a sieve is impossible but the poem – actually the poetry – somehow persuades us that it is possible, that if you really believe in something, and you go for it with enough gusto, and élan, then you can make it happen – if you keep spinning the sieve fast enough, the water will not come in. Each time I read this poem, it’s like going on an impossible but fantastic voyage.

And as a poet myself, I’m professionally interested in how Edward Lear manages to do this, to make such an absurd proposition somehow compelling and believable. And as with any good poem, there are lots of different elements coming together.

First of all, it’s a rollicking good adventure story. How could you not be captivated by the idea of setting out in a sieve, to explore the high seas and strange lands?

And I know this poem was written at the height of the Victorian era, so it wouldn’t be hard to read in a proto-Imperialist sub-text, and start thinking uncomfortable thoughts about the consequences of enthusiastic adventurers travelling the globe in search of wonders and treasures and bringing lots of them back home.

And it’s also true that human beings have been setting out to sea in search of new realms for a very long time. Apparently the original Australians migrated from Asia by sea during the Pleistocene epoch, tens of thousands of years ago. And even now, some of us are planning voyages to Mars, while others would rather we all stayed at home and concentrated on matters nearer to hand. So for better or worse, the call to adventure seems to be a part of who we are as a species, and it’s hard to think of a more exciting or magical version than ‘The Jumblies’.

And who is answering the call to adventure? The usual suspects: the ne’er do wells, the misfits, the awkward squad. The ones who couldn’t sit quietly at home but had to get out there and see the world and see what they could make of themselves. And as usual, there were plenty of people queuing up to tell them it was a bad idea:

And every one said, who saw them go,
‘O won’t they be soon upset, you know!
For the sky is dark, and the voyage is long,
And happen what may, it’s extremely wrong
   In a Sieve to sail so fast!’

And we recognise these people too, don’t we? The scaredy-cats. The ones who want to stay at home and don’t want anyone else to leave either. The voice of reason, which somehow sounds a lot like the voice of doom. And of course the Jumblies ignore them:

And each of them said, ‘How wise we are!
Though the sky be dark, and the voyage be long,
Yet we never can think we were rash or wrong,
   While round in our Sieve we spin!’

I’m not sure we’re meant to agree that the Jumblies are wise, but they’re certainly brave, because there is an awful lot resting on that word ‘while’, in the line ‘While round in our Sieve we spin!’. Because of course, if the sieve stops spinning, if the magic stops working, then they are in deep trouble. And yet… amazingly, the sieve keeps spinning, the poem keeps going, and the Jumblies are proved right. They come back laden with goodies and stories and even a few extra inches:

And every one said, ‘How tall they’ve grown!’
For they’ve been to the Lakes, and the Torrible Zone,
   And the hills of the Chankly Bore;
And they drank their health, and gave them a feast
Of dumplings made of beautiful yeast;
And everyone said, ‘If we only live,
We too will go to sea in a Sieve,—
   To the hills of the Chankly Bore!’

Now, I don’t know about you but I am not buying that last bit for a moment. These people who stayed at home and said ‘It’s far too dangerous’, and ‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you’, and ‘It’ll never work’. These are the one who are suddenly brave enough to set out for the hills of the Chankly Bore? Yeah yeah yeah, woulda coulda shoulda.

And it’s easy to take sides and fancy ourselves as Jumblies and look down our noses at the scaredy-cats. But maybe one way we can read this poem is as a tug of war between the adventurous part of ourselves, and the cautious part.

Or reading it now with the benefit of hindsight, and the considerable wisdom that I have amassed over the years, I’m thinking you could maybe read it as a parable of the creative life. You know, writers or artists or entrepreneurs, are often seized by a vision and then propelled by enthusiasm. And they set out in the face of all kinds of common sense and dire warnings from people around them, and at a certain point it’s a case of sink or swim.

I mean, there are plenty of shipwrecks in any creative career. Here’s what John Keats had to say when his long poem Endymion was slammed by the critics:

In Endymion, I leaped headlong into the sea, and thereby have become better acquainted with the Soundings, the quicksands, and the rocks, than if I had stayed upon the green shore, and piped a silly pipe, and took tea and comfortable advice. I was never afraid of failure; for I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest.
(1818 letter to his publisher)

So clearly Keats was a natural Jumbly. And eventually he got his sieve to float. And isn’t that the joy of doing something creative? You have to ignore the voice of doom inside your own head as well as naysayers in the real world, and a lot of the time you fail, but when you succeed, it feels like you’ve defied the forces of nature and done something impossible. And you can’t bottle that feeling, you only get it by setting out in spite of the odds. And for me, this is a big part of the attraction of ‘The Jumblies’.

Anyway. As well as a great story, Lear gives us a lot of absolutely gorgeous and charming details, like the pea-green sail and the tobacco-pipe mast, and the pinky paper all folded neat and fastened with a pin. And one of my favourite stanzas is the one listing all the things they bought when they reached the land by the Western seas:

And they bought an Owl, and a useful Cart,
And a pound of Rice, and a Cranberry Tart,
   And a hive of silvery Bees.
And they bought a Pig, and some green Jack-daws,
And a lovely Monkey with lollipop paws,
And forty bottles of Ring-Bo-Ree,
   And no end of Stilton Cheese.

Isn’t that just delightful? You know, poets really like to make lists of stuff, possibly going back to the old bardic tradition, where poetry was partly a memory system; in cultures without writing the poet was the memory database of the tribe, and the job would have entailed memorising thousands of lines of history and mythology and theology and even botany and other types of knowledge. And I think the Jumblies’ shopping list can take its place within this noble tradition. And I’m sure we will encounter plenty more lists in future episodes of A Mouthful of Air.

So, we’re looking at how Lear manages to sweep us off our feet in this poem, and first of all he’s got this amazing traveller’s tale, he’s also filled it with gorgeous description, and last but not least, the rhythm is absolutely key to the poem’s success. It sweeps us along, like being caught up in a a dance, when you’re in great company and maybe you have a great dancing partner. And you know it’s all silly nonsense and maybe you’re going to have a headache tomorrow morning, but it’s such fun to let go of all of that and go with the fun, and the fantasy, and just get carried away by it all.

And just like a dance, the magic ingredient that propels the sieve through our imaginations, is the rhythm. And Lear is a very skilled versifier, he’s doing lots of subtle and clever things with the form and particularly the metre, we could spend a long time analysing the details, but at heart of it is something very simple and very powerful:

   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.

Now, if that rhythm sounds familiar, it’s because it is; these four lines are written in ballad metre, a very old metre, which has been used for popular songs and stories for centuries. It was used by wandering minstrels and singers for reciting legends and stories of knights and ladies and lovers and fairies and other supernatural creatures, so it’s obviously a good fit for ‘The Jumblies’. It was also used in broadsheet ballads, printed and sold on street corners, and used for news stories and political satire as well as the traditional themes.

Ballad metre is basically very simple, you have alternating lines of four beats and three beats, usually in four line stanzas. For instance, here are the opening lines of a traditional ballad, ‘The Wife of Usher’s Well’:

   There lived a wife at Usher’s Well,
      And a wealthy wife was she;
   She had three stout and stalwart sons,
      And sent them o’er the sea:

So this is the basic pattern:

[Wooden block beating four times, then three times.]

You hear that? Four beats followed by three. And here they are in the words [bold = stressed syllable]:

   There lived a wife at Usher’s Well,
      And a wealthy wife was she;
   She had three stout and stalwart sons,
      And sent them o’er the sea:

And here are those same beats in the chorus of ‘The Jumblies’:

   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.

So those alternating beats, four and three, are the hidden engine powering the Jumblies’ sieve.

And ballad metre is a form of stress metre, which means you don’t need to worry about counting the syllables, just the stresses. Which is quite different to the dreaded iambic pentameter you may have learned about at school, which goes ti-TUM ti-TUM ti-TUM ti-TUM ti-TUM, so it’s alternating stressed and unstressed syllables. But with stress metre it’s not so neatly ordered, you can play fast and loose with the number of syllables, as long as you’ve got a nice strong beat in the line.

So for instance you can easily hear that the line

Far and few, far and few,

Has far fewer syllables than

Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,

But in the world of stress metre, they are both regular four-beat lines. And this gives a poet a lot of flexibility to vary the lines in very expressive ways. So if you listen to the chorus again, we start with ‘Far and few, far and few’, which is stripped down almost to the bare bones of the four beats, which has a really weird and compelling effect.

Then in the rest of the stanza, the lines have lots more syllables, so we have to skip through them very quickly, giving them a wonderfully syncopated quality:

      Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
   Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
      And they went to sea in a Sieve.

Okay, I could go on and on enthusing about Lear’s use of metre and rhythm in this poem. Because in the main stanza he introduces even more variations and bells and whistles, so you end up with a kind of fantasia on a ballad metre. But I hope I’ve done enough to give you a glimpse of the engine room of the poem and some of the amazing things that are going on in there.

And I think another aspect of the ballad that is crucial to the poem, is that a lot of traditional ballads were often very dark tales of the supernatural. So although there’s a lot of froth and frivolity in ‘The Jumblies’, there is also something genuinely dark and mysterious and thrilling.

If you compare it to a lot of Edward Lear’s other poems, like his limericks or some of his other nonsense verse, a lot of them give you a kind of daylight nonsense, silly rhymes to entertain the children. But there is something of the night about ‘The Jumblies’, there’s a genuine sense of darkness and danger. And I think every time we read this poem or hear it, it’s hard not to feel the call to adventure – however, old and wise and sensible we’ve become.


The Jumblies

by Edward Lear

I

They went to sea in a Sieve, they did,
   In a Sieve they went to sea:
In spite of all their friends could say,
On a winter’s morn, on a stormy day,
   In a Sieve they went to sea!
And when the Sieve turned round and round,
And every one cried, ‘You’ll all be drowned!’
They called aloud, ‘Our Sieve ain’t big,
But we don’t care a button! we don’t care a fig!
   In a Sieve we’ll go to sea!’
      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.

II

They sailed away in a Sieve, they did,
   In a Sieve they sailed so fast,
With only a beautiful pea-green veil
Tied with a riband by way of a sail,
   To a small tobacco-pipe mast;
And every one said, who saw them go,
‘O won’t they be soon upset, you know!
For the sky is dark, and the voyage is long,
And happen what may, it’s extremely wrong
   In a Sieve to sail so fast!’
      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.

III

The water it soon came in, it did,
   The water it soon came in;
So to keep them dry, they wrapped their feet
In a pinky paper all folded neat,
   And they fastened it down with a pin.
And they passed the night in a crockery-jar,
And each of them said, ‘How wise we are!
Though the sky be dark, and the voyage be long,
Yet we never can think we were rash or wrong,
   While round in our Sieve we spin!’
      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.

IV

And all night long they sailed away;
   And when the sun went down,
They whistled and warbled a moony song
To the echoing sound of a coppery gong,
   In the shade of the mountains brown.
‘O Timballo! How happy we are,
When we live in a sieve and a crockery-jar,
And all night long in the moonlight pale,
We sail away with a pea-green sail,
   In the shade of the mountains brown!’
      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.

V

They sailed to the Western Sea, they did,
   To a land all covered with trees,
And they bought an Owl, and a useful Cart,
And a pound of Rice, and a Cranberry Tart,
   And a hive of silvery Bees.
And they bought a Pig, and some green Jack-daws,
And a lovely Monkey with lollipop paws,
And forty bottles of Ring-Bo-Ree,
   And no end of Stilton Cheese.
      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.

VI

And in twenty years they all came back,
   In twenty years or more,
And every one said, ‘How tall they’ve grown!’
For they’ve been to the Lakes, and the Torrible Zone,
   And the hills of the Chankly Bore;
And they drank their health, and gave them a feast
Of dumplings made of beautiful yeast;
And everyone said, ‘If we only live,
We too will go to sea in a Sieve,—
   To the hills of the Chankly Bore!’
      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.


Edward Lear

Pencil portrait of Edward Lear

Edward Lear was an English artist, author, poet and musician who was born in 1812 and died in 1888. He is best remembered as an author of nonsense verse, including such classics as ‘The Owl and the Pussy Cat’, ‘The Pobble Who Has No Toes’ and ‘The Jumblies’. He wrote many limericks and helped to popularise the form. As a musician he set many of his own poems and songs to music, as well as works by other poets. Like the Jumblies, Lear was a keen traveller, and he spent his final days at his villa in San Remo, in northwest Italy.


A Mouthful of Air – the podcast

This is a transcript of an episode of A Mouthful of Air – a poetry podcast hosted by Mark McGuinness. New episodes are released every other Tuesday.

You can hear every episode of the podcast via Apple, Spotify, Google Podcasts or your favourite app.

You can have a full transcript of every new episode sent to you via email.

The music and soundscapes for the show are created by Javier Weyler. Sound production is by Breaking Waves and visual identity by Irene Hoffman.

A Mouthful of Air is produced by The 21st Century Creative, with support from Arts Council England via a National Lottery Project Grant.

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