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In the poem 'The Jumblies' by Edward Lear, the protagonists go to sea in a sieve.

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.

Why a sieve?

  • 3
    It could also be a sea of the element mercury. Most common kitchen utensils float on mercury. The poem does not explicitly state the composition of the sea, however the line "Their heads are green, and their hands are blue" is doubtless an indication of poisoning by the ingestion of heavy metals. Just sayin'. – Wossname Apr 9 '17 at 12:06
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    Two by two, heads of green. – Rand al'Thor Apr 9 '17 at 12:12
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    @Wossname - A few paragraphs later it's confirmed to be a sea comprised (unsurprisingly) of water - "The water it soon came in, it did" – Valorum Apr 9 '17 at 15:45
  • @Randal'Thor Three by three, perhaps? – can-ned_food Apr 10 '17 at 17:13
  • See my note on the Greek origin in Aristophanes, per @Spagirls answer. After looking at the Greek, I have a very high level of confidence Lear was referencing Aristophanes. The word used by Aristophanes refers to an object that is porous and can be analogous to the much later, Germanic "sieve". Greek link: perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/… – DukeZhou Apr 11 '17 at 18:16
16

It is likely that at root the reference goes back to the plays of Aristophanes where it is said of Simonedes that

he's grown so old and sordid, he'd put to sea upon a sieve for money.

Where the suggestion is that the love of profit has overtaken sense.

A much fuller answer can be found on the English Language and Usage Stack in the question

What does it mean by “put to sea upon a sieve for money”?

Edward Lear wrote many of what he called 'non-senses', so it may be futile to expect to extract precise meaning. However, when Lear was a child his family suffered severe 'financial reverses' and he later claimed his father had spent time in Debtors prison, though this is not substantiated. This makes it possible to speculate that the theme of financial folly loomed large for him and may have contributed to his selection of the 'sailing in a sieve' theme. Likewise, 'pinky papers' in the second verse may be a reference to the Financial Times and its distinctively coloured pages.

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    You may wish to note that this image from the first edition (presumably hand-drawn by the author) shows that they went to sea in a wooden sieve. Given that this sort of sieve floats in water, a sieve as a boat isn't quite as ridiculous as it might seem at first glance. – Valorum Apr 10 '17 at 17:17
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    Wow! Interesting that the idea of going to sea in a sieve has such a long history. It just goes to show that what may seem a silly and pointless question can nonetheless have an interesting and informative answer. – Rand al'Thor Apr 10 '17 at 17:34
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    @Valorum Thank you that is interesting. Of course we don't know what the original greek sieve might have been made of. Google suggests that the ancient greeks had sieves of silver, earthenware, wood and hair, palm and other vegetable fibres... I imagine some would float and some would sink, and I'm not up to going back t the original greek to see if anything has been lost in translation (though Lear may have been able to do so). – Spagirl Apr 11 '17 at 12:54
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    @Spagirl Great answer! Here's a link the the Peace of Aristophanes on Perseus. O'Neil translates as "...he would put to sea on a hurdle to gain an obolus." Aristophanes uses ῥιπὸς (rhipos) which can mean a mat, as in a "plaited work". This was likely the true intent, counter to O'Neil's choice, and jibes with the translation you present. – DukeZhou Apr 11 '17 at 18:22
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How about the coracle? It is an ancient round boat which is woven and has skin on the outside, looking much like a willow sieve. It is still made today. The reference to the blue hands and green faces might refer to the Celts and the woo blue dye they used and to their painted and tattooed faces.


Image source

  • You mean the "sieve" might be a poetic description of a coracle? – Rand al'Thor Feb 1 '19 at 9:18
  • Yes I do think the sieve is a boat that floats called the coracle. Also from a previous quote of being so old as to be put out on such a boat was probably about the cremation ritual of those ancient folks. – Dn Pettipas Feb 1 '19 at 23:25
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    The poem has nothing whatsoever to do with cremation rituals. – Chappo Says SE Dudded Monica Feb 2 '19 at 4:54

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