From Shakespeare’s The Tempest to Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea to Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, much of great literature consists of strong protagonists voyaging across literal and metaphorical stormy seas to fulfill their dreams. In the poem “The Jumblies” by Edward Lear, the protagonists choose to go to sea in a literal sense, but they also voyage across a metaphorical sea by standing up to the opposing opinions of their peers. The conflict between the Jumblies and their dissenters reflects the central thematic conflict of the poem: wanting to pursue aspirations that push societal barriers vs. the voice of dissuasion, driven by orthodox establishment. Throughout the poem, the conflict is reflected by the use of literary devices such as irony, distinctive diction, and repetition.
To begin with, the ironic plot of the poem helps the reader to understand the boldness of the Jumblies’ choices. In the first line of the poem, it is established that the Jumblies “went to sea in a sieve”. Because sieves are made of mesh, the concept of using a sieve as a sailing vessel seems ludicrous. Consequently, the reader is left to question whether this scheme will succeed, or whether it will result in shipwreck. Thus, they can appreciate the courage of the Jumblies to take risks and undertake their seafaring dreams. While most people in the real world do not attempt to use culinary instruments as vessels, the Jumblies represent individuals who undertake other daring plans despite the overwhelming potential for failure. Through using irony as a basis for the poem, the author captures the unorthodox yet brilliant spirit of the Jumblies and more generally of anyone who wishes to deviate from traditional behaviour or social norms.
Later in the poem, the critics facing the Jumblies are described and portrayed as antagonists through the use of judgemental diction. For instance, in the second stanza, the opponents of the Jumblies’ plot appear and declare that “it’s extremely wrong/In a Sieve to sail so fast!” While it is possible that they are concerned for the Jumblies’ safety, the tone of their comments suggests that they are presenting their opinions of the Jumblies’ behaviour for no legitimate reason, only to dissuade the Jumblies from doing as they please. The rudeness of pushing their views onto the Jumblies is apparent, and there are many real-world parallels to these opponents, that being any discouraging person who attempts to squash the ambitions of others rather than pursue their own. The distinctly disparaging voice of the Jumblies’ challengers shows the reader why passing judgement on others’ lives is both disrespectful and unnecessary.
Despite the presence of critical individuals, the Jumblies’ defiance is demonstrated through the use of repetition as a literary device. In the third stanza, the Jumblies confidently exclaim that “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!” The Jumblies’ words use the same sentence structure, rhyme, and meter as the section described in the earlier stanza, where the opponents state that going to sea in a sieve will fail because “the sky is dark, and voyage is long/And happen what may, it’s extremely wrong/In a Sieve to sail so fast”. When the Jumblies’ flip the lines of their opponents, it underpins their tenacious attitude towards skeptics. It is inspiring how when faced with adverse responses, they do not simply ignore them, but use the comments to their advantage by shaping the rhetoric so that it helps advance their agenda and justify their cause. Truly, the Jumblies make lemonade out of lemons when they use repetition in their creative replies to cynics.
In the end, perhaps the idea of going to sea in sieve is indeed ridiculous. But the underlying idea of rising above people who, despite possibly meaning well, are obstacles to one’s dreams is an idea that is applicable to everyone in some way, shape, or form. Through the use of a range of literary devices, Lear crafts a work that not only beautifully chronicles the conflict between the Jumblies and their opponents, but the ongoing battle between ambition and doubt.
You can find the poem “The Jumblies” here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/54364/the-jumblies