Josna Rege

207. The Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò

In 1950s, Books, Britain, Childhood, Family, India, Inter/Transnational, reading, Stories on April 29, 2013 at 4:37 pm


P1030249The first book I remember owning was Nonsense Songs by Edward Lear. My mother must have bought it for me, along with a few other English children’s classics, like The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan, to take back to India with us when I was four. I still have the book today, countless moves later, and have read and recited the rhymes in it so many times that their deeply humanistic nonsense is an integral part of who I am. (By the way, my father told me just the other day that the Marathi folk tradition is full of nonsense rhymes, too, which I didn’t learn as a child because when in India we lived clear on the other side of the country and I went to English-medium schools.)

Picture books and board books were not as prevalent as they are now, so my first book was a beautifully printed hardcover, which I regret to say I drew and wrote on, though thankfully only on the end papers. But in so doing I made it all the more my own, by bestowing upon it special marks of my affection.

The two most well-known of Edward Lear’s nonsense rhymes are The Owl and the Pussycat:


They dined on mince and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible
[Lear’s own neologism] spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

and The Jumblies, with its hypnotic chorus:


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

These I soon learned by heart, including the song in the case of the former, although the tune has now escaped me. Just about every poem in that entire collection is weird and wonderful, including The Pobble Who Has No Toes, Mr. and Mrs. Spikky Sparrow, The New Vestments, and Mrs. And Mrs. Discobbolos. But perhaps the quirkiest, the most touching, and overall the most perfect of them all, the one lodged most deeply in my brain, is The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò.

First of all, the story is set on the Coromandel Coast. All I knew was that it had a certain ring to it; little did I realize that it was in fact the southeast coast of India, a Portuguese corruption of the original Cholamandalam. It was the saddest of love stories, not unrequited love, but love fully requited yet impossible because of the ridiculous strictures of society. At the same time it was hilarious, exemplified by the verse reproduced below, in which the Lady Jingly Jones reluctantly turns down the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò’s proposal of marriage.


That is all you need to know. It is patently obvious that the illustrations are inseparable from the text, both having come out of the zany head of Mr. Lear. Here’s a curiously English 1966 recording of David Davis reading it aloud, I leave you with another picture from my beat-up old edition, still holding together after all these years. Now just read, reciting it out loud, again and again, whenever and wherever possible; and, if you have any human feelings at all, shed a few tears for the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò.


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  1. Wonderful stuff! I love Lear, and the illustrations are a marvel. I was extremely surprised a couple of years ago when I saw one of his landscape paintings at Amherst College’s Mead Art Museum. “The same Edward Lear?” I asked in disbelief. Yes, indeedy. What a ball of talent the man was!

    • Sarah, that “ball of talent” ought to be in one of his poems. I’m started looking up his paintings, and it’s clear that he’s a good painter, too. Mt friend Sally just wrote to me by email and told me about still more facets of this amazing man. She told me about Edward Lear’s Notebook of Botanical Plants, his illustrated “Nonsense Botany.”

  2. Such beautiful nonsense! What about some of the stuff from Alice? Are these really scaans from books you have saved?

    • I agree, abundantly! Yes, Alice is full of comparable delights. My recent post, Jam Today (, tells part of one small episode in Through the Looking Glass. And yes, those are photos from my old book. You can see that it’s printed letterpress on good paper, though it’s a little the worse for wear after all these years. Thank you for your comment, J

  3. I remember hearing bits of this but don’t think I’ve ever seen the books before. Reminded me of the Goops when I first saw the pictures but the rhymes are so much better.

  4. The pobble was in one of my childhood annuals, and I loved it very much. So of course we bought it for our children and they loved it to. Lear’s poems are so round and loveable and friendly sounding.

    I am a children’s writer now, mainly poetry.

    Congrats on getting almost to the end of the A-Z! Liz ~

    • Thank you for your visit and comment. Yes, Lear is friendly, deeply humane, though not without real-life anxieties, sorrow, and of course, extreme (and extremely lovable) eccentricity. I visited your blog and want to go back, Beautiful writing, delicate and spare.
      Hooray, the end of the challenge! Congrats to you, too.

  5. I didn’t know about the “Nonsense Botany,” but you can bet I’m going to look it up right now!

    • Did you find it? I didn’t know about it either, until my friend Sally sent me that one image. As you said in your first comment, what an amazingly versatile person he was.

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