Edward Lear – The Queer Life of a Man of Queer Words

It is often said that a person who knows how to hide his sorrow becomes a comic and the one who knows how to show it becomes a poet. For the nineteenth-century Victorian era humourist Edward Lear, it was a merry melancholic mixture of both. Edward Lear, the twentieth child out of the twenty-one children of Ann Skerrett Lear and Jeremiah Lear, a stockbroker, was born in the London suburb of Holloway on the 12th of May, 1812 and was the youngest of the Lear children to survive through infancy. His life as documented in the path-breaking biography ‘Edward Lear: Life of a Wanderer’ by the expert on Edward Lear, the great British biographer and critic Vivien Noakes provides a testimony to how queer the life of the man of queer words was.  A journey in which he ‘wandered’ from his impoverished childhood through his rise as a painter and illustrator for the Zoological Society of London, patronage at the Earl of Derby, his travels across Europe and India painting exceptionally skilled landscapes, his meteoric rise as a poet and pioneer of the non-sense, accusations of homosexuality in a homophobic Victorian England to his self-imposed isolation at “Villa Tennyson” (his villa he named in honour of his friend, Lord Alfred Tennyson) in Rome and subsequent death of ailments he had been suffering since the age of five.


Lear young
A Portrait of Young Edward Lear (Artist Unknown)

Being the family of a stockbroker and an unsuccessful one at that, Edward Lear’s family faced acute financial distress which was only heightened by, as Lear claims, his father being sent to the debtor’s prison when Edward was just thirteen years old. Unable to sustain such a large family on her own, Edward’s mother sent him to live under the care of his working twenty-five-year-old sister, also named Ann like her mother and thus, Ann was thrust upon the responsibility of the young sketch artist and they pretty much lived together until her death in 1861. Fortunately for the Lears, financial stability returned but his mother never really cared to take Edward back and this rejection and loss of motherly love that he had to face is often reflected in the ambivalence attitude of confusion over one’s decisions and beliefs portrayed in the mother-like figures in his poetry. His sister, the other Ann, on the other hand never married and acted as a mother-figure to her brother till her death. Being born into impoverished roots, they had started to earn to support themselves from an early age.  With little formal education, home-tutored by Ann and on the back of her encouragement of the leanings towards painting that he had exhibited from an early age, Edward chipped in by selling miscellaneous sketches until a certain ornithologist by the name of Prideaux Selby noticed the skill of the eighteen-year-old bespectacled, shy and asthmatic art-monger on the streets of London in 1830 and took him in as one of his aides in producing detailed anatomical paintings of parrots. It is believed that it was through the influence that Selby commanded and the fondness that Selby had developed for him that Edward Lear was sanctioned a volume of twelve folio lithographic prints of parrots, ‘Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae’ for the noted British ornithologist John Gould (later to work alongside Darwin on his finches) and the newly founded Zoological Society of London in 1832. This publication shot Lear into public consciousness and brought him the attention of the aristocratic circles of the great British Empire, the most famous interaction as a result of this being the offer of patronage by Edward Stanley, later the thirteenth Earl of Derby. Stanley had wanted an artist to draw the animals in his menagerie at Knowsley, the Derby estate in Lancashire, and impressed by Lear’s work with the Zoological Society sent a royal invitation to the artist. Lear accepted Stanley’s offer of residency at Knowsley Hall while the work was in progress and stayed there off and on from 1832 to 1837.

Both Noakes and the biographers who preceded and succeeded her in chronicling Lear’s life have clearly argued that the years that he lived at the Knowsley Hall shaped his subsequent career as the poet that he was going to be remembered in posterity. It was in those years that he spent detailing natural history, Edward Lear first documented his attempts at the Viking and the Irish oral tradition of ‘limericks,’, a verse form he said to have first encountered in the joke book ‘Anecdotes and Adventures of Fifteen Gentlemen’ (circa 1822), and other children poems apart from the various drawings and menus that he produced for the entertainment of the children at Knowsley. These artistic endeavours which he termed as “nonsense” coupled with his charming conversations and his exploits at the piano soon made him popular not only among the children but the adults as well thereby gaining him entry into the elite section of the British society which would, otherwise, be a far-fetched fairy tale considering the bankrupt middle-class origins that he had. His years entertaining the posh gatherings organised by the Earl of Derby at the Knowsley Hall also helped him in earning the unflinching support of Earl Stanley such that when on account of his failing eyesight and of his lungs increasing difficulty in coping with the English winters, he asked for the permission to discontinue the drafting of natural history, the Earl himself funded and provided introductions to establish Lear in Rome so that he could pursue a vocation as a painter of topographical landscapes. With this, still as an unpublished poet, Edward Lear, an illustrator of natural history started off to the rest of Europe and then India as a landscape painter in 1837.

For the period of the next ten years, Lear learned the craft of landscape painting at Rome and perfected it in practice during his travels across the Italian peninsula as a wandering artist from the period of 1842 to 1846. During these dangerous journeys through Lazio, Rome, Abruzzo, Molise, Apulia, Calabria, and Sicily, Lear gathered his impressions on the Italian way of life, folk traditions, and the beauty of the ancient monuments and produced some of his most renowned paintings such as the Temple of Venus. In these four years, Lear had already traveled more than what the average English artist dared to do despite being afflicted by bouts of epilepsy coupled with depression and confusion regarding his own sexuality, but he even pushed onto Illyria, Albania and Egypt in 1848-49. He published his accounts of the journeys which earned him much acclaim and readership as what would be the Victorian analogy of the travel-blogger of our times. Later, as an established poet he toured India during 1873-1875 while taking a brief detour to Sri Lanka (then, Ceylon) which served as crucial material for his later poems. During these travels, the works that Edward Lear chose to invest his time and array of talents in produced large quantities of coloured wash drawings in a distinctive style, which he converted later in his studio into oil and watercolour paintings known for the conflicting contrast of colours sprinkled over the strong sunlight. Despite evident artistic exploits, it is a shame really that Lear is now remembered mostly for his pages of poetry. Often critics have compared Edward Lear to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for this similarity as Doyle is also best remembered for his iconic creation – Sherlock Holmes while the highly praised historical novels of his have happened to have become mere names on the list of books he had written beside Sherlock Holmes. Noakes, however, opposes this comparison as she argues that Doyle often confessed that he valued his historical novels above the eccentric detective series while on the other hand, Lear never compared the diverse art-forms that he practiced but rather took joys and pains in composing the timeless verse characterised by the mixture of fancy, quirky romanticism and melancholy as much as painting parrots and places.

Wandering with no permanent residence in 1848, he gathered together some of his limericks written back at his days at the Knowsley Hall, and had them published with his own illustrations in ‘A Book of Nonsense’ under the pseudonym ‘Derry down Derry’. One defining and sometimes overwhelming characteristic of Lear’s initial poems is that they depended on illustrations for full effect and another is their fixation on the obscure. Although, these specific characteristics that the poems have been distinguished for might actually be due to the fact that these poems were originally produced as a source of entertainment for the grandchildren of the Earl of Derby. The Learian limerick particularly focuses on the singular individual, an old or young “Person,” “Man,” or “Lady,” who is distinguished by unusual appearance, behaviour, talents, diet, or dress. To generalise the Learian limerick into a definitive form, it starts with the announcement of the existence of the person upon whom the limerick is going to be based, proclaims the person’s dwelling place, and then describes the distinctive features of the person which makes the person unconventional or an oddity and then goes on to explain the consequences of the peculiarity and concludes with addressing to or about the person in focus directly thereby, using an apostrophe. In terms of comparision in form with other limericks, according to the Poetry Foundation, “the Learian limerick generally has a closed structure, repeating the final word of the first line at the end of the last rather than utilizing the unexpected, punch-line rhyme that characterizes the successful modern limerick.” For example, consider the famous limerick below:

There was an Old Man of Whitehaven, / Who danced a quadrille with a Raven; /But they said, “It’s absurd / To encourage this bird!” / So they smashed that old man of Whitehaven.

Moreover, according to the Scottish novelist and journalist Allan Massie, Lear’s limericks always have an undercurrent of violence ingrained in them. Considering the above limerick itself, the word ‘smashed’ signifies strength and violence. Again, if one stops and takes another look at the limerick, one would find that the levels of obscurity are well escalated therein as there’s no answer to why would ‘they’ really be angry. Was it because of the raven being a sign of bad omen and even if it was, why would the old man dance with a raven and then again, if the old man and the raven did perform a quadrille, which is a dance for four, then who were the other two? Consider another famous limerick:

There was a Young Lady of Norway, / Who casually sat in a doorway; / When the door squeezed her flat, / She exclaimed “What of that?” / This courageous Young Lady of Norway.

The underlying violence is evident in the third line where ‘the door squeezed her flat’ and also the obscurity as when she proclaims the squeezing so casually in the next line rather than the shriek at the grievous injury that the preceding line might suggest.

Another defining feature of Learian Limericks is the omnipresent conflict between the eccentric in focus and the ‘they’. The ‘they’ represents the faceless judgemental society which is often seen to persecute the eccentric. This is a highly satirical take on how the society tends to undermine any element that does not conform to the defined norms of the society. Lear’s poetry is a form of protest which draws inspiration from the personal struggle that Lear faced in elevating himself from the dark clutches of poverty and class-segregation prevailing in Victorian England.

Lear’s subsequent poetry collections called ‘A Book of Nonsense(extended)’, ‘Nonsense Songs’, ‘More Nonsense’ and the ‘Laughable Lyrics’ gained him recognition as a poet which ‘amused’ him as he always had previously believed that he would be more famous as a painter rather than a poet. These collections though dotted with the shorter limericks also gave the literary world some of the best satirical poetry in the form of the longer poems, “The Owl and the Pussy-cat” (which is controversial for being written on themes of homosexuaity and interracial marriage), “Jumblies” and “Duck and Kangaroo”. The striking similarity of these lyrics is however that in most of these lyrics, described is the central character as a non-human, but more realistically and more ‘humanely’ characterised than his earlier limericks. The characters are depicted as embarking on a journey and the experiences that the characters have during the course of the journey are illustrated in Lear’s characteristic language. Thus, these first lyrics seem clearly to constitute of Lear’s reflections on his own life as a wanderer but ironically, the lyrics often also described a joyful togetherness that the poet never quite attained in his personal life.

Lear was, of course, a man of many friends; the most notable among them being the Tennysons, Lord Northbrook and Lord Carlingford. Legend has it that a year before the publication of the ‘Book of Nonsense’, Lear had befriended Chichester Fortescue, later to become Lord Carlingford, and the friendship is said to have transfigured into one of the rare firmest of his many lifelong friendships. The correspondence between the two through letters is a matter of intellectual debates as their ‘delightful conversations’ compiled in two volumes by Lady Strachey is the largest collection of Lear letters published to date and generates interest between admirers of either personality. During his travels through Italy in 1848, Lear was befriended by another future peer, Thomas Baring, later Lord Northbrook and Viceroy of India, who played a crucial role in facilitating his later tour through India in the 1870s. After coming back from Italy to England in 1849, Lear was introduced to Alfred and Emily Tennyson. Lear was an ardent admirer of Poet Laureate Tennyson’s poetry and set several pieces of Tennyson to music in his brief stint as a music composer. It was his life-long dream to illustrate a Tennyson collection and was working on the same when he died at Villa Tennyson, his home at San Remo. Tennyson had even addressed an admiring poem “To E. L., on His Travels in Greece.” However, their personal relations were best described as cordial. On the other hand, he absolutely adored Alfred’s wife, Emily, and she gradually superseded Edward’s sister, Ann (who died in 1861) as his confidante and surrogate mother.

Despite these relationships, Lear’s most talked about relationship was his fervent and most painful friendship involving Franklin Lushington. He had met the young barrister in Malta in 1849 and then had toured southern Greece with him. It is believed that Lear had developed an undoubtedly homosexual passion for him that Lushington did not reciprocate. Although, the two remained friends for almost forty years until Lear’s death, the unrequited love that Lear had to harbour caused considerable discomfort to his mental being. Another curious case in Lear’s love life is the case of the Honorable Augusta “Gussie” Bethell of London, with whom Lear had maintained a long-term friendship and was almost prepared to propose her for a marriage when his elder sister Emma intervened and sternly discouraged him not to and thereby dooming Edward Lear, a man of many friends, into a solitary life at San Remo which the poet self-imposed on himself following his exasperation of the British life.

His terrible emotional state is comprehensibly reflected in his last volume of verse, ‘Laughable Lyrics’ (1877). The name of the collection is misleading as most of the poems therein rather deal with some sort of loss with an overwhelming tone of melancholy in general. For example, ‘The Pobble’ loses his toes, ‘the pelicans’ lose their daughter, etc. while “The Dong with a Luminous Nose” and “The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò.” deals directly with the loss of love. Another remarkable aspect of ‘Laughable Lyrics’ is that it is filled with imaginary creatures  such as the Dong, the Bò, the Pobble, the octopod Discobboloses, and the Quangle Wangle, apart from the poems being set in the imaginary locations of ‘the Hills of the Chankly Bore’ or ‘the Great Gromboolian Plain.’ Lear’s obsession with creating imaginary and nonsense creatures and landscapes during one of his most troubled time only reflects his desire and frivolous attempt at trying to break free from his own despair and find recluse in the one thing he did best – art. Troubled with physical ailments that had been affecting him since the age of five and the new-found mental bearings, Edward Lear died at his villa in 1888 of heart disease, from which he had suffered since at least 1870. As per Dr. Hassell’s wife, the physician who treated him, Lear’s funeral was a sad and lonely affair with none of Lear’s many lifelong friends being able to attend and pay poetic tributes.

Edward Lear, a man of many talents, is often compared to Lewis Carroll for the genre that the both practised was almost the same but one would always find some crazy logic behind Carroll’s writings, given because Carroll was after all, a distinguished mathematician, whereas Lear’s writings were purely stretched exaggeration of a basic idea or an emotion weaved into an obscure setting. Lear will always be remembered for his unparalleled verbal play and other ‘distancing devices’ that he employed in his attempt to derive humour from cruelty, pain, and dealear hatth and bring about a smile onto the readers’ faces. He will be known for composing poems which require no special knowledge to read and enjoy and can be entered from any perspective that the reader wants to dictate upon the poem thereby, changing in meaning from the utter nonsense for children to satirical protest poems for adults. His nonsense verse as a whole along with the writings of Lewis Carroll and other practitioners of similar art forms influenced various twentieth-century aesthetic movements such as surrealism and the theatre of the absurd.

However, Lear’s works in totality comprising all of his nonsense verse, illustrations and paintings, as like any other artist, contains themes unique to Lear’s personal experience or in other words, is a coded key to decode the man himself. As the Vivien Noakes notes, “It is above all an expression of the inmost longings, frustrations, and wish-fulfillment dreams of a lovable and intensely loving man who, despite the fond affection of numerous relatives, friends, and readers–children and adults–was never beloved in the intimate, exclusive, constant manner he so fervently desired.”

lear tombstone



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Copyright –  A. D. Konwar|nailapost.wordpress.com | 2017
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Bibliography :

  • Edward Lear : The Life of a Wanderer – Vivien Noakes (London: Collins, 1968)
  • Edward Lear: not just a pretty poet – David Attenborough (London, The Telegraph, 2012)
  • Edward Lear was the master of glorious nonsense – Allan Massie (London, The Telegraph, 2012)
  • Biography – Edward Lear ( The Poetry Foundation)
  • Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots (London: Privately printed, 1832).
  • Views in Rome and Its Environs: Drawn from Nature and on Stone (London: McLean, 1841).
  • Gleanings from the Menagerie and Aviary at Knowsley Hall (Knowsley, U.K.: Privately printed, 1846).
  • Illustrated Excursions in Italy, 2 volumes (London: McLean, 1846).
  • A Book of Nonsense, as Derry down Derry (2 volumes, London: McLean, 1846; enlarged, as Lear, 1 volume, London: Routledge, Warne & Routledge, 1861; Philadelphia: Hazard, 1863).
  • Journals of a Landscape Painter in Albania, & c. (London: Bentley, 1851).
  • Journals of a Landscape Painter in Southern Calabria, & c. (London: Bentley, 1852).
    Views in the Seven Ionian Islands (London: Privately printed, 1863).
  • Journal of a Landscape Painter in Corsica (London: Bush, 1870).
  • Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany and Alphabets (London: Bush, 1870; Boston: Osgood, 1871).
  • More Nonsense, Pictures, Rhymes, Botany Etc. (London: Bush, 1872).
  • Tortoises, Terrapins and Turtles Drawn from Life, by Lear and James de Carle Sowerby (London: Sotheran, Baer, 1872).
  • Laughable Lyrics: A Fourth Book of Nonsense Poems, Songs, Botany, Music Etc. (London: Bush, 1877).
  • Queery Leary Nonsense: A Lear Nonsense Book, edited by Constance, Lady Strachey (London: Mills & Boon, 1911).
  • The Lear Coloured Bird Book for Children (London: Mills & Boon, 1912).
  • Lear in Sicily May-July 1847, edited by G. Proby (London: Duckworth, 1938).
  • The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear, edited by Holbrook Jackson (London: Faber & Faber, 1947; New York: Dover, 1951).
  • Indian Journal: Watercolours and Extracts from the Diary of Edward Lear (1873-1875), edited by Ray Murphy (London: Jarrolds, 1953; New York: Coward-McCann, 1955).
  • Teapots and Quails, and Other New Nonsenses, edited by Angus Davidson and Philip Hofer (London: Murray, 1953; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953).
  • Letters of Edward Lear, edited by Constance, Lady Strachey (London: Unwin, 1907).
  • Later Letters of Edward Lear, edited by Constance, Lady Strachey (London: Unwin, 1911).
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