by Vivien Noakes
EDWARD LEAR would have been delighted, though not, I think, entirely surprised that The Owl and The Pussycat was recently voted the nation’s favourite children’s poem. “Nonsense is the breath of my nostrils,” he once wrote, and his joy in absurdity reflected his whole approach to “this ludicrously whirligig life which one suffers first & laughs at afterwards.”
He was the 20th of 21 children. His father, Jeremiah Lear, was a sugar refiner, Past Master of the Fruiterers’ Company and one of the original Proprietors of the London Stock Exchange. In 1816, when Lear was about four, Jeremiah suffered a sudden financial collapse and served a short prison sentence for fraud and debt.
Rejected by his mother and brought up by his eldest sister Ann, the boy had a troubled and sickly childhood, suffering from asthma, bronchitis, depression and epilepsy, which he called “the terrible Demon” — in popular belief the illness was linked with demonic possession. Even though none of his many friends ever realised that he was epileptic, Lear saw himself as an oddity, a social outcast.
When he was about 15 he started to earn his own living, making bold, colourful designs for screens and fans which he sold to travellers in stagecoach yards. Then he was taken under the wing of Prideaux Selby, one of the leading ornithological illustrators of his day, and for the next ten years he worked as an ornithological and natural history draughtsman.
In the early 1830s Lear was introduced to the limerick, then a little-known verse form, and at once saw its limitless possibilities.
This was an era when many children were denied the joys of youthful exuberance and spontaneity, when too often virtue was pursued at the price of hypocrisy. The limerick characters, however, suffer no such constraints. In Lear’s characters there is an honesty that is lacking in the improving literature of the time. They do not deceive, but share with the children both the folly of their actions and the reality of the human characteristics they display — carelessness, stupidity, generosity, greed.
They do everything to excess, for they eat and drink immoderately, they dance and leap and spin, and even share their noses and bonnets and beards with those free-flying creatures, the birds. Above all, they are their own masters.
His first book of limericks was published in 1846, but attracted little attention. It was not until the third edition in 1861 that the book swept into popular renown. In the words of a 19th-century review, it originated “quite a new class of prose rhymes that for a good twelvemonth were the rage in all societies,” spawning the witty, risqué limericks which left Lear’s children’s verses far behind.
Aged 35, Lear abandoned his ornithological work and became a landscape painter. In his hunt for exciting and picturesque views, he travelled widely through southern Europe, the eastern Mediterranean and India, journeys that were exhausting and often dangerous. He demonstrated to himself that his life need not be ruled by his epilepsy. He saw that, for all its suffering, the world is full of beauty and wonder.
Above all, he found in these journeys a physical and spiritual freedom he had never imagined possible and which he sought to share in the nonsense songs with their two central themes: the rewards that may come if you have the courage to dare and the need for tolerance. He did not pretend that the great Gromboolian plain and the hills of the Chankly Bore can be reached easily; you have first to face a difficult journey, as with any voyage of self-discovery. It takes courage to go to sea in a sieve, and as he launched his Jumblies, Lear knew that they were embarking on an adventure few had either the vision or the courage to share.
Yet, “O Timballo! How happy we are,” they exclaim, and “How wise we are!”, for however ridiculous they may appear with their green heads and their blue hands, and although theirs might seem to be a Ship of Fools, they know that it is the others, with their cautious warnings and anxious fears, who lack wisdom. He had never forgotten what it was like to be a child, and as one of his young friends later recalled: “I knew he was ‘safe’ and that I was safe and that we were all safe together.”
Exiled by ill-health, Lear spent the last years of his life in San Remo, on the Italian Riviera. They were the years in which he wrote his greatest nonsense, expressing within these songs the loneliness and isolation he felt.
His last companion, Foss the cat, “who has no end of a tail because it has been cut off,” died in September 1887. Lear survived him by only a few months, dying in San Remo on January 29, 1888.
Vivien Noakes is the editor of Edward Lear: The Complete Nonsense and Other Verse (London: Penguin, 2001) and author of Edward Lear: The Life of a Wanderer (1968, revised and enlarged edition, Stroud: Sutton, 2004).
This article first appeared in The Times, 26 October 2001, and is here republished with permission from the author.