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Coming In: Edward Lear

Edward Lear blasted his way into the world on this date in 1812. He was born in Holloway, near Highgate, just before midnight. The twentieth of twenty-one children, the young Edward was near-sighted, asthmatic, and epileptic. His family’s business collapsed when he was four. Nonsense (and a devoted older sister) saved him.

In a letter written in 1870, Lear reflected on “this ludicrously whirligig life which one suffers from first & laughs at afterwards.” That’s a nearly perfect distillation of the Comic Spirit. As Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote, in a New York Times appreciation published three years ago (on the bicentennial of Lear’s birth): “There are two Lears in English Literature: King and Edward. One veered off into madness. The other . . . veered off into ‘nonsense, pure and absolute,’ as he put it. Good nonsense is vastly harder than good tragedy, and Lear’s is as good as it gets.”

Here are the first four stanzas of one of Lear’s many alphabet poems:

The Absolutely Abstemious Ass,
who resided in a Barrel, and only lived on
Soda Water and Pickled Cucumbers.

The Bountiful Beetle,
who always carried a Green Umbrella when it didn’t rain,
and left it at home when it did.

The Comfortable Confidential Cow,
who sate in her Red Morocco Armchair and
toasted her own Bread at the parlour Fire.

The Dolomphious Duck,
who caught spotted frogs for her dinner
with a Runcible Spoon.

And here are two limericks:

There was an Old Person of Troy,
Whose drink was warm brandy and soy;
Which he took with a spoon, by the light of the moon,
In sight of the city of Troy.

There was an Old Lady whose folly,
Induced her to sit in a holly;
Whereon by a thorn, her dress being torn,
She quickly became melancholy.

While writing this post, I’ve been occasionally glancing at a print of Lear’s “The Light-Green Bird” that hangs on my office wall. I’ve spent a lot of time in the company of this bird; I love how bemused he appears, and how melancholy. He must be a stand-in for Lear himself. In his introduction to Edward Lear: The Complete Verse and Other Nonsense, Vivien Noakes writes of Lear’s frustration with “lofty society” and offers this gem from one of Lear’s letters: “nothing I long for half so much as to giggle heartily and to hop on one leg down the great gallery—but I dare not.”

“But in the nursery,” Noakes writes, “it was another matter. Here he was in his element, entertaining the earl’s great-grandchildren, grandnephews and grandnieces with his nonsense and drawings.” Auden put it this way (in his poem “Edward Lear”): “children swarmed to him like settlers. He became a land.”

Lear, bird