Having written about Lewis Carroll, It occurred to me that there was really no good reason to omit Edward Lear. He was certainly not a literary genius in the sense of one who has contributed significantly to our understanding of the world we live in and the people with whom we interact. But he was responsible for popularizing, in effect for creating, one of the best loved of verse forms.
Were it not for Edward Lear, we would not have limericks in such profusion as we now enjoy. He wrote hundreds, and many of them are still favourites. One has only to think of:
There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, ‘It is just as I feared!
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!’
to appreciate Lear’s particular genius, in providing such splendid entertainment to the world at large.
But can we claim that, in addition to entertainment, Lear also provided insights into the way we live? I don’t suppose we can attribute deep psychological insights to him, or the exposition of the subtle manner in which the human mind works, but there are certainly flashes of illumination which can help us to understand better those around us.
There was a Young Lady of Portugal,
Whose ideas were excessively nautical:
She climbed up a tree,
To examine the sea,
But declared she would never leave Portugal.
There was an Old Man with a gong,
Who bumped at it all day long;
But they called out, ‘O law!
You’re a horrid old bore!’
So they smashed that Old Man with a gong.
Surely recall to mind people who can irritate or attract beyond measure.
Lear also had his darker moods and, if they are not quite as insightful as Carroll with his Duchess or his Walrus, they do warn us of pitfalls in store as we make our way in a world that is not especially user friendly.
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.
With regard to form, it must be noted that, though Lear is associated inextricably with the limerick, he did not use what for many is the limerick’s greatest strength, the punch delivered by the last line. This is particularly important in what for many adults are the limerick’s greatest achievement, its capacity to deliver smutty jokes with verbal dexterity. That allows us to feel we are enjoying the form rather than the substance, which is a useful piece of casuistry.
Lear did, as in the last example above, have unexpected explosions in his last line, but he was also good at delivering a kick as it were in the previous couplet, as in the first famous example I have cited.
That particular limerick reminds us of how whimsical Lear could be. Even if he did not rise to Carroll’s preposterous excesses in this area, he certainly displayed an unusual sense of the absurd for what we think of as the staid Victorian period, as in for instance
Cold are the crabs that crawl on yonder hills,
Colder the cucumbers that grow beneath,
And colder still the brazen chops that wreathe
The tedious gloom of philosophic pills!
For when the tardy film of nectar fills
The simple bowls of demons and of men,
There lurks the feeble mouse, the homely hen,
And there the porcupine with all her quills.
Yet much remains – to weave a solemn strain
That lingering sadly – slowly dies away,
Daily departing with departing day
A pea-green gamut on a distant plain
When wily walrusses in congresses meet –
Such such is life –
Extensive absurdity is to be found in ‘Incidents in the life of my Uncle Arly’ which it has been claimed also has an autobiographical element,given what an inveterate traveler Lear himself was –
O my aged Uncle Arly!
Sitting on a heap of Barley
Thro’ the silent hours of night,
Close beside a leafy thicket:
On his nose there was a Cricket,
In his hat a Railway-ticket
(But his shoes were far too tight).
Long ago, in youth, he squander’d
All his goods away, and wander’d
To the Tinskoop-hills afar.
There on golden sunsets blazing,
Every evening found him gazing,
Singing, ‘Orb! you’re quite amazing!
How I wonder what you are!’
Like the ancient Medes and Persians,
Always by his own exertions
He subsisted on those hills;
Whiles, by teaching children spelling,
Or at times by merely yelling,
Or at intervals by selling
‘Propter’s Nicodemus Pills.’
Later, in his morning rambles
He perceived the moving brambles
Something square and white disclose;
‘Twas a First-class Railway-Ticket;
But, on stooping down to pick it
Off the ground – a pea-green Cricket
Settled on my uncle’s Nose.
Never – never more – oh, never,
Did that Cricket leave him ever,
Dawn or evening, day or night;
Clinging as a constant treasure,
Chirping with a cheerious measure,
Wholly to my uncle’s pleasure
(Though his shoes were far too tight).
So for three and forty winters,
Till his shoes were worn to splinters,
All those hills he wander’d o’er,
Sometimes silent; sometimes yelling;
Till he came to Borley-Melling,
Near his old ancestral dwelling
(But his shoes were far too tight).
On a little heap of Barley
Died my aged Uncle Arly,
And they buried him one night;
Close beside the leafy thicket;
There – his hat and Railway-Ticket;
There – his ever-faithful Cricket
(But his shoes were far too tight).
Lear did indeed have a sad and lonely life, with only a cat and an Albanian cook for companions in his later years at Sanremo on the Italian riviera. Traces of this can be seen in the extraordinary Dong with a luminous nose with its gloomy opening
When awful darkness and silence reign
Over the great Gromboolian plain,
Through the long, long wintry nights;–
When the angry breakers roar
As they beat on the rocky shore;–
When Storm-clouds brood on the towering heights
Of the Hills of the Chankly Bore:–
Then, through the vast and gloomy dark,
There moves what seems a fiery spark,
A lonely spark with silvery rays
Piercing the coal-black night,–
The reason for the ‘lonely spark’ moving sadly through the long wintry nights is a lost love.
Long years ago
The Dong was happy and gay,
Till he fell in love with a Jumbly Girl
Who came to those shores one day,
For the Jumblies came in a sieve, they did,–
Landing at eve near the ZemmeryFidd
Where the Oblong Oysters grow,
And the rocks are smooth and gray.
And all the woods and the valleys rang
With the Chorus they daily and nightly sang,–
‘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.’
Happily, happily passed those days!
While the cheerful Jumblies staid;
They danced in circlets all night long,
To the plaintive pipe of the lively Dong,
In moonlight, shine, or shade.
For day and night he was always there
By the side of the Jumbly Girl so fair,
With her sky-blue hands, and her sea-green hair.
Till the morning came of that hateful day
When the Jumblies sailed in their sieve away,
And the Dong was left on the cruel shore
Gazing–gazing for evermore,–
Ever keeping his weary eyes on
That pea-green sail on the far horizon,–
Singing the Jumbly Chorus still
As he sate all day on the grassy hill,–
But while we have to recognize the loneliness and the sense of unrequited love that lay behind Lear’s sparkling nonsense, I should end on a happy note, what for me is Lear’s best as well as his best-loved poem, with its delightful consummation of a strange love.
The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
‘O lovely Pussy! O Pussy my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
What a beautiful Pussy you are!’
Pussy said to the Owl, ‘You elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married! too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?’
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the Bong-tree grows
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood
With a ring at the end of his nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.
‘Dear pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?’ Said the Piggy, ‘I will.’
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
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,
They danced by the light of the moon.