A Homage to Edward Lear

This posting is long overdue. Yet perhaps no time is the right time to pay homage to a man who births brilliance from sadness. Trouble, sickness, and loneliness muse the best out of us, make for the creative and whimsical. Sadness or social ineptitude or anger allow new views, new takes on society. Think Goerthe, Poe, Proust, even Hemingway. We might pause and ponder on how dangerously easy it is to paint a romantic picture of a man long-dead… but to hell with it, let’s do it anyway. Edward Lear, impoverished epileptic, clownish artist, misfit bumbling socialite, endearingly teary-eyed poet, and above all, a man whose name should ring out side by side with Lewis Carroll, but very rarely does. Edward Lear was born 200 years ago, in May of 1812. In the 76 years of his life, he illustrated ornithological and botanical texts, he published travel writings, and he pursued a career as the herald of Tennyson. But he is best known for his Nonsense for children: his alphabets, his limericks, his cartoons. The Owl and the Pussycat and their runcible spoon are perhaps his greatest legacy, and for good reason. Romance and ridicule in perfect harmony. We will get there… It wasn’t until 1846 that his first success was published. A Book of Nonsense was a series of 112 limericks, all illustrated. Here are a few examples:

There was an Old Man in a tree,

Who was horribly bored by a Bee;

When they said, ‘Does it buzz?’

He replied, ‘Yes, it does!’

‘It’s a regular brute of a Bee!’

There was an Old Person whose habits, Induced him to feed upon rabbits; When he’d eaten eighteen, He turned perfectly green, Upon which he relinquished those habits.

His work was always teetering on the ridiculous, though rarely offensive, and for this reason, it was good for children. Though, as children’s books were not necessarily only for children in the 19th century, his books appealed to a wide audience. The illustrations above are not puerile, just silly, and even an adult can appreciate the silly. Take these examples of his nonsense botany for instance:

Manypeeplia Upsidownia

Piggiawiggia Pyramidalis

This man who approached the English language as a game, playing and pulling with it’s possibilities, had less than a gamesome beginning. He entered the world as child number 20 of a poor family. He was soon discovered to be an epileptic. Remember, in the early 1800’s, people still believed epileptic fits were a temporary possession by the Devil. And so, if we carry on in our unabashed assumptions of what makes a man a man, young Edward learned a sense of shame and the permanent stamp as an outcast. Thus began his loneliness. Thus planted the artist’s seed. Lear never married. Though he proposed twice to the same woman, he was rejected both times. He and his cat, Old Foss, spent their old-man days together, ex-patriots in Italy.  Lear did, of course, have friends. Lady Strachey was one. She published a posthumous book about Lear, and according to her painting of him, that early coupling of poverty and epilepsy left its mark. A man with a humble view of himself grew from humble birth and birthed his own mark on the world. Lear exploited the potential of the English language and mixed humor with irony in a bold way. But that mark he made never came back to shine its light on him. This poem, one he wrote of himself in his old age, gives a little glimpse into his sideways view of himself, humorous yet knife-in-the-back: “How pleasant to know Mr.Lear!” Who has written such volumes of stuff! Some think him ill-tempered and queer, But a few think him pleasant enough. His mind is concrete and fastidious, His nose is remarkably big; His visage is more or less hideous, His beard it resembles a wig. He has ears, and two eyes, and ten fingers, Leastways if you reckon two thumbs; Long ago he was one of the singers, But now he is one of the dumbs. He sits in a beautiful parlour, With hundreds of books on the wall; He drinks a great deal of Marsala, But never gets tipsy at all. He has many friends, lay men and clerical, Old Foss is the name of his cat; His body is perfectly spherical, He weareth a runcible hat. When he walks in waterproof white, The children run after him so! Calling out, “He’s gone out in his night- Gown, that crazy old Englishman, oh!” He weeps by the side of the ocean, He weeps on the top of the hill; He purchases pancakes and lotion, And chocolate shrimps from the mill. He reads, but he cannot speak, Spanish, He cannot abide ginger beer: Ere the days of his pilgrimage vanish, How pleasant to know Mr. Lear! [from The Complete Nonsense Book, edited by Lady Strachey, 1912, pp. 420-1. Etext prepared by Doug Love.] (The hat of the runcible spoon? Perhaps a nod at being known only for– and therefore trapped in– that poem.)  In the same vein, these are drawings he made of himself in one of his books: There’s Lear’s own representation of himself… Though his work be whimsical and comic, his underlying current isn’t. Lady Strachey said his laughter was akin to tears. Laughter breeds tears, deep sadness breeds light frivolities. Such is the life of Edward Lear, comic or mourner, success or failure. But whatever we decide to read into him, let’s just make sure to not forget him. Next few posts will be on Lear things, The Owl and Pussycat for sure. But there are other good things. Like Daddy Long-Legs and the Fly. Or A Nonsense Alphabet. Stay tuned…. (Many thanks to www.nonsenselit.org for an awesome compilation of all Lear things)

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