Edward Lear


Edward Lear, 1812-1888


Eagle Owl, Edward Lear, 1837


Another Edward Lear owl, in his more familiar style

Edward Lear (12 May 1812 - 29 January 1888) was an artist, illustrator and writer, well known for his nonsensical poetry and limericks, which he popularised. He was born in London and was the twentieth child of his parents. He started work as an serious illustrator, and his first publication, at the age of nineteen, was Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots in 1830. His paintings were well received and he was favorably compared with Audubon. Throughout his life he continued to paint seriously. He cherished a lifelong ambition to illustrate Tennyson's poems, which was never properly realized.

Edward Lear was plagued by epilepsy, suffering frequent grand mal seizures; he also suffered from bronchitis, asthma, and partial blindness.

In 1846, he published A Book of Nonsense, a volume of limericks which helped to popularize the form and which went through three editions. In 1865 The History of the Seven Families of the Lake Pipple-Popple was published and in 1867, his most famous piece of nonsense, The Owl and the Pussycat which he wrote for the children of his patron Edward Stanley, 13th Earl of Derby. Many other works followed.

Lear's writing

Edward Lear's nonsense works are distinguished by a facility of verbal invention and a delight in the sounds of words, both real and invented. A stuffed rhinoceros becomes a "diaphanous doorscraper." A "blue Boss-Woss" plunges into "a perpendicular, spicular, orbicular, quadrangular, circular depth of soft mud." His heroes are Quangle-Wangles, Pobbles, and Jumblies. His most famous piece of verbal invention occurs in the closing lines of The Owl and the Pussycat:

They dined on mince, and slices of quince

  Which they ate with a runcible spoon;

And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,

  They danced by the light of the moon,

    The moon,

    The moon,

They danced by the light of the moon.

The "runcible spoon," a Lear coinage, entered the language and is now found in every dictionary.

Edward Lear's limericks are written as four lines rather than five, with an internal rhyme in the fourth line. The first and last lines usually end with the same word, rather than rhyming. For the most part, they are truly nonsensical and devoid of any punch line or point; there is nothing in them to "get." And, of course, they are completely free of the off-color humor with which the verse form is now associated. A typical thematic element is the presence of a callous and critical "they." An example of a typical Lear limerick:

There was an Old Man of Aôsta,

Who possessed a large Cow, but he lost her;

But they said, 'Don't you see, she has rushed up a tree?

You invidious Old Man of Aôsta!'

It is interesting to compare those two Victorian masters of nonsense, Edward Lear and
Lewis Carroll. Lewis Carroll's "nonsense" is a reversal or parody of ordinary logic. He plays on the meaning of words, and his writing style itself is prosaic. Edward Lear's "nonsense" is an true absence of logic; he plays on the sound of words; and his writing style is poetic. Among Lear's tremble-bembles and the chippy-wippy-sikki-tees can be found some very felicitous turns of phrase. Lear's self-portrait in verse, How Pleasant to know Mr. Lear, closes with the stanza:

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!

"Ere the days of his pilgrimage vanish" must surely be one of the most pleasant references to mortality ever coined.

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