Appreciating the preposterous

Frontispiece by Philippe Jullian

Nursery Rhymes. An essay
by V Sackville-West.
Illustrated by Philippe Jullian.
Michael Joseph, 1950 (1947).

“Coleridge had a proper appreciation of the preposterous, astounding, yet entirely acceptable propositions which go to make up the thaumaturgy of the nursery. No one lacking that appreciation is advised to read any further in this essay.”

p 7

Well, I’m one of those who, like Coleridge, appreciate the preposterous thaumaturgy of nursery rhymes, so Vita Sackville-West’s enthusiastic paddling in the shoreless pool of childhood lore naturally appealed to me. That she does it with humour yet without condescension was a bonus, and that there were unexpected delights hiding under various rocks she turns over satisfied my abiding curiosity.

Surprisingly, for what now counts as a period piece, she’s prepared to be critical of antiquarian ‘explanations’ concerning the origins of these rhymes and what they supposedly signified, but her mockery is gentle and she’s even prepared to admit to her own mistakes, as first appeared in an earlier limited edition.

The whole is embellished by Philippe Jullian’s whimsical drawings all printed in plum-coloured ink, their style very much conforming to contemporary adult attitudes regarding nursery lore – genteel and aloof but maybe not absolutely reflecting their historical origins.

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