"The Dong with a Luminous Nose" begins with a scene that might have come from a gothic novel. The speaker—more a narrator, really, an omniscient third-person storyteller—paints a picture of a landscape where "awful darkness and silence reign" over a "rocky shore" dashed by the "breakers" (the waves, that is). Nearby, thunderclouds gather over high hills. It's a murky, forbidding, and lonely vision. This world isn't just empty, it's hostile: the personified breakers are "angry," and the "Storm-clouds brood" as if preparing to make trouble.
This, the speaker tells readers, is the "great Gromboolian plain," near the "Hills of the Chankly Bore." Readers familiar with Edward Lear's work will know from these words alone that they're entering Lear's nonsense world: over and over again, his poems visited these peculiar invented places, whose names are as savory as their landscapes are inhospitable.
Just listen to way the alliterative /gr/ of "great Gromboolian" knocks against its round /oo/, or consider how the mere sound of the words "Chankly Bore' conjures up sharp, chalky, desolate rock. This delight in evocative sound—using the music of language to conjure meaning and atmosphere out of nonsense—is a hallmark of Lear's poetry.
So is a responsive, flexible form. Notice that there’s no steady pattern of meter or rhyme here:
- Lear uses accentual meter—that is, lines that use a certain number of beats, but don't stick to a regular metrical foot like the iamb or the trochee.
- In this stanza, he dances between lines with three beats (as in "When the angry breakers roar") and lines with four beats (as in "When awful darkness and silence reign"), creating a surging, unpredictable rhythm that swells and falls like the wind.
- Always rhythmic and musical, the poem's meter will change shape to suit the unfolding drama.
And drama does seem to be on the way. This whole first moody stanza, readers gather, is a kind of drumroll or overture, preparing the audience for the story to come. Listen to the ominous anaphora in these first lines:
When awful darkness and silence reign
Over the great Gromboolian plain,
Through the long, long wintry nights;—
When the angry breakers roar
As they beat on the rocky shore;—
When Storm-clouds brood on the towering heights
Of the Hills of the Chankly Bore:—
All those "when"s make it clear that something is about to happen against this grim backdrop.