Uncle Arly’s Tune (and a New Lear Self-Caricature)


In a recent post celebrating Edward Lear’s 204th brithday on the Untold Lives blog at the British Library Alexandra Ault, Curator of Manuscripts and Archives 1601-1850, posts a nice self-caricature of Lear and his cat Foss from a letter to William Bevan, the British vice-consul in Sanremo, sending the text of “How Pleasant to Know Mr Lear” — Bevan’s eldest daughter had helped with the composition of the poem — and stating:

I disclose you a Pome, which you may or may Knott send to the Lady who says “How pleasant to know Mr Lear,”  It may be sung to the air “how cheerful along the Gay Mead”.

At Hymnary.org is the text for “How Cheerful along the Gay Mead,”  no. XIX in A Collection of Psalms and Hymns for Publick Worship (1789), with a couple of scores. Under the title of “Hymn of Eve,” it is the only surving music from Thomas Arne‘s oratorio Abel, first performed in Dublin in 1744 and in London in 1855:


Here you can listen to a midi arrangement of the tune.

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Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and Edward Lear

It has always irked Paul that posterity regards him as the tuneful, cosy, safe side of the Lennon–McCartney partnership and John as the rebel, experimenter and iconoclast. The casting had been decided in Liverpool, then Hamburg, where he’d always hung back, feeling himself a provincial outsider, while John hung out with the arty in-crowd. After the migration south John had had his usual shaggy head start, cast as the ‘intelligent’, ‘clever’ or ‘deep’ Beatle, as opposed to the merely ‘cute’ one.

In 1964, he’d become the first pop musician to publish a book and the only one ever to have it launched at a Foyle’s bookshop literary lunch attended by the cream of the capital’s intelligentsia. John Lennon in His Own Write was a collection of his cartoons and nonsense writings, with a deferential foreword by Paul, recollecting their first meeting at Woolton church fête (and characterising himself that day–unbelievably to millions of young women around the world–as ‘a fat schoolboy’). The book was a massive bestseller and a critical triumph, its author hailed as a joint reincarnation of Edward Lear and James Joyce.

But by the mid-Sixties, the elastic-sided boot was firmly on the other foot. As Swinging London approached its zenith, McCartney was at the epicentre of its cultural avant-garde while Lennon rarely emerged from suburban Surrey. ‘John was basically a lazy bastard,’ their former assistant Tony Bramwell remembers. ‘He was quite happy to stay down in Weybridge, doing fuck-all.’


From there, she [Heather] joined Paul in Los Angeles where he was to record a new album with the producer David Kahne. The title, Driving Rain, seemed an odd choice as its theme was how Heather had rescued him from tempests of grief; the tracks included ‘Back in the Sunshine Again’ (‘You gave me the strength to get out of bed’), ‘Riding into Jaipur’ (‘Riding with my baby/ Oh, what a delight’) and ‘Heather’, identifying the two of them with Edward Lear’s ‘Owl and the Pussycat’ (‘I will dance to a runcible tune with the queen of my heart’).

Philip Norman, Paul McCartney: The Life. New York: Little, Brown, 2016.

Here are the song lyrics:


I’m gonna fly to the moon
Check in outta space
Find me a suitable plot
Build myself a place
There I will stay
For a year and a day
Until the cares of my life blow away
And I will dance to a runcible tune
With the queen of my heart

This is clearly a different song from the 1968 one of the same title, see here, and listen to the older one:

or the new one from Driving Rain:

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John Lennon, Edward Lear, and Nonsense

An English exercise book from his junior year at Quarry Bank—neatly covered in brown paper and titled MY ANTHOLOGY—demonstrates what pains he [John Lennon] would take if his enthusiasm were aroused. Quotations from classic poems like Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha and Tennyson’s “Morte d’Arthur” are framed by watercolor cartoons showing a remarkable maturity of line and grasp of perspective as well as their unmistakable scatty humor. Porky kept the book to show future generations of juniors the standard they should aim for.

Two comic artists, one British, one American, were to have a profound influence on John’s style. He loved the intricate, scratchy technique of Ronald Searle, whose sadistic St. Trinian’s schoolgirls were modeled on Searle’s guards as a Japanese prisoner of war in Burma. And, thanks to Aunt Mimi, he became a devotee of James Thurber, both the writings for The New Yorker and the cartoons, whose surreally wavering lines were a product of Thurber’s own near-blindness. John later said he began consciously “Thurberising” his drawings from about the age of fifteen.

He kept a special exercise book for caricatures of his teachers and classmates, organized with a meticulous care that would have astonished Quarry Bank staff other than Porky Burrows. Pete Shotton (“A Simple Hairy Peters”) popped up repeatedly, with his pale curls and rosy face, shaking a baby’s rattle or peeping from a garbage can. There was even a portrait of the artist himself, wearing his hated National Health glasses and self-deprecatingly captioned “Simply A Simple Pimple Shortsighted John Wimple Lennon.” In this case, “Wimple” did not mean a medieval veil but was the name of a character in one of John’s favorite radio programs, Life with the Lyons.

The book was passed around among John’s cronies each time a new character was added to it. Harry Gooseman was once even allowed to take it home overnight to show to his family. John liked to regard it as a campaign of subversion that would bring authority’s direst wrath on his head if it were ever discovered. In fact, Quarry Bank’s teachers were no less sorely in need of some comic relief than the boys, and they tended to laugh just as loudly if they chanced to see his lampoons of them. One summer term, during preparations for the school’s fund-raising garden fête, he even found his subversion co-opted to official ends. Half facetiously he proposed decorating squares of card with caricatures of his teachers, then pinning them up for people to throw darts at—but to his amazement, the idea was accepted. The game attracted a large crowd and Shennon and Lotton were later commended for raising more money than any other stall, despite having kept back £16 of the take for themselves.

Even the po-faced early fifties had not quite extinguished a time-honored British trait, handed on from Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear to W. S. Gilbert and P. G. Wodehouse—that of using all one’s intelligence to be unbelievably silly. Until John reached his teens, he was like a prospector, panning through the drab shale of logic and common sense that constituted his daily life at Quarry Bank and Mendips for those few stray, gleaming nuggets of absurdity. The school library introduced him to Stephen Leacock, Canadian author of “nonsense novels” like Q: A Psychic Pstory of the Psupernatural and Sorrows of a Supersoul, or the Memoirs of Marie Mushenough (Translated out of the Original Russian by Machinery). Early children’s television programs featured occasional appearances by “Professor” Stanley Unwin, a pious-looking man who told fairy stories in innuendo-laced gibberish, such as “Goldiloppers and the Three Bearlodes.” English lessons at Quarry Bank provided an unexpected seam in the Middle English of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (“When that Aprille with his shoures soote…”) so often like Stanley Unwin speaking from the fourteenth century.

All this was mere marginalia, however, in comparison with The Goon Show, which had begun its first series on BBC radio in 1951 but hit full stride in 1953, the year of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. Scripted almost single-handedly by a sometime jazz musician named Spike Milligan, it superficially harked back to the Second World War (Goons had been Allied prisoners’ nickname for their German guards) and to a Conan Doyle-esque world of spies, intrigue, and derring-do. But in content, it was mold-breakingly anarchic, a mélange of demented voices and lunatic situations such as had never before been offered to a British audience, least of all on the sanctified airwaves of the BBC.

Together with a little-known variety comedian named Peter Sellers, Milligan created a gallery of characters who often seemed to have only the most nodding acquaintance with the human race—the decrepit Colonel Bloodnok, the quavery duo of Henry Crun and Minnie Bannister, the moronic Eccles, the supersmooth Grytpype-Thynne, the whining hermaphrodite Bluebottle. Embedded in the madness like hooks in blubber were jibes against previously inviolable national institutions such as the army, the church, the Foreign Office, and even the BBC itself (which the corporation, amazingly, never noticed).
The Goons’ most besotted fans were middle-class preadolescent schoolboys, those overserious war babies who had hitherto believed the oppressive sanity of life to be everlasting. For John, between 1953 and 1955, they were the brightest spot in his whole existence. Nothing could unstick him from the wireless on evenings when the cut-glass voice of announcer Wallace Greenslade presaged another Milligan free-form fantasy such as “Her” (a parody of H. Rider Haggard’s She) or “The Sinking of Westminster Pier,” featuring Minnie and Henry as oyster-sexers, with frantic musical interludes by Dutch harmonica player Max Geldray. John could do the voices and catchphrases of every character, from Minnie’s senile gurgle to Bluebottle’s scandalized shrieks of “I do not like dis game,” “Dirty, rotten swine!,” and “You deaded me!”


While interviewing him in late 1963, the American author Michael Braun had picked up some of the nonsense writing he still compulsively turned out in spare moments between composing, recording, and performing. Braun’s publishers were the old established house of Jonathan Cape, at that time being shaken up by a new young editorial director named Tom Maschler. When Braun happened to show him a selection of John’s output, Maschler instantly spotted a potential literary chart topper.

Rather than over the boozy lunch with which publishers traditionally woo prospective authors, he met John at a convention of the Beatles’ Southern Area Fan Club. The Beatles stood behind a metal grill while the fans lined up to pass autograph books and gifts through an aperture at the bottom. John was amazed that anyone, other than his old Mersey Beat mates, would want to publish his work. At the same time, he made Maschler feel rather foolish, as the publisher has recalled, “for taking his frivolity seriously.” A contract was drawn up through Brian Epstein, whom Maschler expected to demand some impossibly vast advance against royalties; instead, the sum agreed was just £10,000.
The backlog of poems, parodies, and playlets in John’s possession did not constitute enough for even the slimmest hardback book. He therefore had to buckle down to a new, unavoidable kind of homework as well as do more concentrated drawing than he had since leaving art college. Maschler acted as his editor, making regular trips to the Lennons’ flat in Emperor’s Gate. Though the place, in his recollection, always seemed “full of noisy children,” John took the consultations seriously and always found a quiet corner where they could work. One day, Maschler brought a new book on Cape’s list by the cartoonist Mel Calman, hoping that John might supply a quote for its jacket. John’s only comment was, “Why don’t you suggest he takes up the guitar?”

They finally settled on thirty-one pieces, illustrated by the same octopoid grotesques that had once populated Quarry Bank school’s “Daily Howl.” Through the blizzards of Goonery could be discerned pastiches of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five (“Gruddly pod, the train seemed to say…We’re off on our holidays….”) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (featuring “Long John Saliver” and “Blind Jew”), even fragments of Bible-study inculcated by St. Peter’s Sunday School (“Yea, though I walk through the valet of thy shadowy hut I will feel no Norman….”)

Favorite targets cropped up everywhere and, in that pre-PC era, remained free of editorial blue penciling—Partly Dave, who “leapt off a bus like a burning spastic”; Eric, who “lost his job teaching spastics to dance”; Michael, who was “debb and duff and could not speeg”; the “coloured man,” who “danced by, eating a banana or somebody”; Little Bobby, whose “very fist was jopped off and he got a birthday hook.” There was even a description of a drug trip, still in the voice of an objective satirist: “All of a southern, I notice boils and girks sitting in hubbered lumps, smoking Hernia, taking Odeon and going very high. Somewhere 4ft high but he had Indian hump which he grew in his sleep….”

John drew up a list of possible titles, among them The Transistor Negro; Left Hand, Left Hand (a play on Osbert Sitwell’s autobiography, Left Hand, Right Hand, which he was probably the only pop musician to have read); and Stop One and Buy Me (ice cream carts in his boyhood used to carry the invitation Stop Me and Buy One). In the end, Maschler opted for the more straightforward John Lennon: In His Own Write. The book was produced in an elegant pocket hardcover format, designed by Robert Freeman, its dark blue cover showing John in his trademark cap. Paul McCartney contributed a foreword, affectionately recounting how he had first met the author, “drunk” at St. Peter’s Church fête.

The book was a simultaneous popular and critical triumph, selling out its first printing of fifty thousand copies on publication day, March 23, and spurring even the most highbrow reviewers to Beatlemania of their own. As a writer, John was compared with Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, and James Joyce, and as an illustrator, with James Thurber and Paul Klee. The Times Literary Supplement, a separate publication from the daily Times and normally even stuffier, said In His Own Write was “worth the attention of anyone who fears for the impoverishment of the English language and of the British imagination.” In America, where it was published by another prestigious house, Simon & Schuster, equally high-flown comparisons gushed forth. Tom Wolfe, writing in Book World, called John a “genius savage” like Artemus Ward, Mark Twain, and Brendan Behan and, later in the same article, a “genius of the lower crust.”

As with song lyrics later, John firmly resisted all attempts to find classical literary influences or cerebral subtexts in his stories and verses, even where they were most obviously present. But he could not hide his pleasure at so resounding an independent achievement. “There’s a wonderful feeling about doing something successfully other than singing,” he admitted. “Up to now [the Beatles] have done everything together, and this is all my own work.”

The critiques that flooded in from every intellectual compass point even included one in Hansard, the daily official record of parliamentary debates. In the House of Commons, Charles Curran, Conservative MP for Uxbridge, read out three verses of “Deaf Ted, Danoota and Me” in support of an attack on current standards in state education. The author, Curran acknowledged, had “a feeling for words and storytelling” but was in “a state of pathetic near-literacy” comparable to H. G. Wells’s Mr. Polly. The Conservative member for Blackpool, Norman Miscampbell (his real name, not a John coinage), responded with a fellow northwesterner’s loyalty: “It is unfair to say that Lennon of the Beatles was not well educated. I cannot say which, but three of the four went to grammar school, and as a group are highly intelligent, highly articulate and highly engaging.”

As might be expected, John’s new status as a published author impressed his literary-minded Aunt Mimi more than all the Beatles’ musical triumphs put together, even if the book in question did consist of drawings and poems like those she once used to fling into the dustbin.


Following the success of In His Own Write, John had contracted with Tom Maschler at Jonathan Cape to produce a sequel for publication the following year. Having now used up all his student and Mersey Beat material, he had to start this second book from scratch, which gave the project an unpleasant flavor of school homework. To limber up, he began reading Chaucer, Edward Lear, and his other supposed stylistic influences, even making a stab at James Joyce’s nonsense epic, Finnegans Wake. “It was great, and I dug it and felt as though [Joyce] was an old friend,” he reported. “But I couldn’t make it right through the book.”

Cape duly received a further batch of prose, verse, and black-and-white illustrations, mostly wrought amid the splendor of his Kenwood den. However painfully extracted, the material this time was both more ambitious and funnier, with noticeably less schoolboyish harping on physical disability or race. “The Singularge Experience of Miss Anne Duffield,” featuring the great detective “Shamrock Wolmbs,” caught the authentic tone of a Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes story as well as turning “Elementary my dear Watson” into “Ellafitzgerald, my dear Whopper” and “recuperated” into “minicoopered.” “Cassandle” was a well-observed parody of the Daily Mirror’s columnist W. F. Connor, aka Cassandra, even down to the line drawing of Connor that headed his column. A poem, “The Wumberlog (or The Magic Dog),” evidently inspired by Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark,” ran to seven printed pages.

There was a topical commentary on the “General Erection,” in which “Harrassed Wilsod” had defeated “Sir Alice Doubtless-Whom” (Sir Alec Douglas-Home, pronounced “Hume”) and the “Torchies” (Torchy the Battery Boy was a children’s television character) “by a very small marjorie.” No great faith in the new prime minister was evident, despite his generosity with MBEs: “We must not forget to put the clocks back when we all get bombed, Harold….” The book was called A Spaniard in the Works after another of its prose offerings, the story of Barcelover-born car mechanic Jesus El Pifco (a foretaste of larger sacrilege to come). The cover picture showed John in a cape and wide-brimmed Spanish hat, somewhat resembling the trademark for Sandeman’s Port. Lest the pun in the title should not be clear enough, his right hand flourished a large spanner.

British publication was on June 24, coincidentally just after a Beatles European tour that had included shows in two Spanish bullrings. To promote the book, John made the rounds of highbrow arts programs, both radio and television, often reading extracts as well as answering questions. He admitted that A Spaniard in the Works had been hard work of a very different kind from touring, songwriting, and recording. “I could only loosen up to it with a bottle of Johnnie Walker…. We [the Beatles] are disciplined but we don’t feel as though we are. I don’t mind being disciplined and not realising it.” Had he plans to try writing at greater length, say in a novel? “The Sherlock Holmes seemed like a novel to me, but it turned out to be six pages…. I couldn’t do it, you know. I get fed up. And I wrote so many characters in it, I forgot who they were.”

Philip Norman, John Lennon: The Life. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.

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The Wisdom of Nonsense

WELL-TIMED nonsense is the divinest sense. In the current number of the Cornhill Magazine Canon Selwyn publishes some of the later letters of Edward Lear, and suggests that as the realm of sense is infinite, and as the realm of nonsense might also be pronounced by metaphysicians to be infinite, there would in that ease be two infinites, which would be absurd. We gladly accept the inference. Nonsense can occupy the same realm as sense, with which it is co-extensive, without disturbing or displacing it, just as—to borrow a simile from one of the patristic writings—heat can be contained within iron without displacing any part of it or changing its substance. Or, again, may it not be said that nonsense is the necessary counterpart of sense as humour is of pathos, neither being able to exist without the other? Canon Selwyn calls Lear “the only genius of nonsense.”

On first reading the words we were tempted to challenge them. What about Lewis Carroll? But on consideration we see what Canon Selwyn means.. The mind and heart of Lear swam in the pure aether of nonsense. “Nonsense for nonsense’ sake” was his principle. Lewis Carroll was not quite unconcerned by motives and applications; he was attached to the shore of plain moral teaching by a long but trustworthy string. Lear never thought of applying his nonsense; he had no literary foibles in his mind to satirise, no political situation, no social conventions, no moral cult to serve. Yet he could not have written such deliciously good nonsense if he had not possessed a judgment of superb sanity,—which is another way of saying that sense and nonsense, rightly defined and employed, belong to the same infinity. Lear’s nonsense, because it was not intended to be applied to anything in particular, is capable of universal application.

Further, Lear’s nonsense because it ranged free was necessarily irresponsible. Universality and irresponsibility are its twin qualities. He loved nonsense so much that he hardly ever wrote a letter in his life to a friend without misspelling a good many words if they looked pleasantly foolish in their irregular form, or without introducing delightfully imposing sham words that were near enough to real ones to suggest some fine shade of meaning—phantasms flitting about, heavily visible yet always elusive—or without using real words with audaciously sham meanings. In one of the letters to Canon Selwyn he spoke of the “penurious, primaeval, poppsidixious paper” on which be was writing. This trait was quite different from that of Lewis Carroll, whose congregated inconsequences in “Alice in Wonderland” and “Alice through the Looking-Glass” are the result of such a mathematical accuracy of thought as enabled him to appreciate the exact value of inconsequence. Lear’s “Book of Nonsense,” to take only the book by which he is best known, illustrates perfectly his qualities of universality and irresponsibility. Since he popularised the nonsense rhyme it has been perfected in form; much more ingenuity and technical art has been bestowed upon it; and yet we feel that more has been lost than has been gained. The first bloom has been brushed off the fruit. We all know the simple form:—

“There was an Old Person of Bangor,
Whose face was distorted with anger!
He tore off his boots,
And subsisted on roots,
That borascible Person of Bangor.”

The last line offers a comment on the first line, and is almost a repetition of it. But rarely did Lear make his last line provide a new or culminating idea, as in:—

“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.”

That is the form which became the model for imitators. So we have such highly sophisticated rhymes as—

“There was a young lady of Rio
Who tried to play Handers Grand Trio;
But her skill was so scanty,
She played it andante
Instead of Allegro con brio“—

where the skill lies in the neat and euphonious contrasting of technical terms. Modern, again, is:—

“There was a strong man on a syndicate
Who tried his position to vindicate;
He wished to deny
That his words could imply
The sense that they might seem to indicate?”

The same highly wrought touch appears in:—

“There was an old lady of Delhi
Who refused to read Crockett’s Cleg Kelly.
When they said ‘It’s the fashion,’
She replied in a passion
‘I know, and so’s Marie Corelli.'”

And in:—

“There was a young maid named Amanda
Whose novels were terribly fin de
; but I wean
‘Twas her journal intime
That drove her papa to Uganda.”

And in:—

“There was a young man of Sid-Sussex
Who considered that w + x
Was the same as xw,
But they said ‘Sir, we’ll trouble you
To confine that idea to Sid-Sussex?”

There is wit in all these; but the wit is perhaps rather a bitter sweeting. The nonsense rhyme has, in fact, gone through stages similar to those displayed in the case of those transferences of the initial syllables in grouped words which, with an equal dose of bad taste and inaccuracy, have been connected with the name of a distinguished don. We doubt whether the dignitary of the University in question ever made one of these blunders in his life,—probably he was not even responsible for “Kinkering kongs their titles take.” But the simple transference of that sort has developed into something tremendously elaborate. We have “Please hush my brat because it’s been roaring with pain all day” for “Please brush my hat because it’s been pouring with rain all day”; or we have the story of the supposed founder of this verbal dynasty searching long and vainly for an inn called the ‘Dull Man’ at Greenwich when he should have gone to the ‘Green Man’ at Dulwich.

The present writer, knowing tolerably well the best that has been said and thought lately in the way of nonsense, has just returned with intense pleasure to Lear’s “Book of Nonsense,” which has been reprinted with the original drawings (how inimitable is their preposterous vivacity of line!) by Messrs. Routledge (1s.) The last occasion he can remember when he enjoyed a pleasure comparable with this re-reading of Lear was when another classic of his youth fell into his hands after a period of neglect,—”Struwwelpeter.” We said that Lear’s rhymes, having no particular application, are capable of many applications. They are like the Delphic oracle; being full of general wisdom, they can always be proved to be right:—

” There was an Old Person of Gretna,
Who rushed down the crater of Etna;
When they said ‘Is it hot?’
He replied No, it’s not!’
That mendacious Old Person of Gretna.”

Who does not know the audacious politician who goes down Etna and tells you that he is positively shivering from cold? And there are people who believe his word, as though Empedocles need not have been consumed after all! Then we have the perfect type of the agnostic:—

“There was an Old Man of th’ Abruzzi,
So blind that he couldn’t his foot see;
When they said ‘That’s your toe!’
He replied Is it so?’
That doubtful Old Man of th’ Abruzzi.”

Then we have an example of the fate which notoriously waits on good advice, good advice being given only in order that it may be ignored:—

“There was an Old Person of Hurst,
Who drank when he was not athirst;
When they said ‘You’ll grow fatter!’
He answered ‘What matter?’
That globular Person of Hurst.”

If that is advice combative, the following is an example of the equally familiar phenomenon of advice sententious:—

“There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who sat on a horse when he reared;
But they said ‘Never mind!
You will fall off behind,
You propitious Old Man with a beard!'”

What a picture of unfounded idealism in this!—

“There was an Old Man in a boat,
Who said ‘I’m afloat! rm afloat!’
When they said ‘No you ain’t!’
He was ready to faint,
That unhappy Old Man in a boat.”

Here is a picture of the person who deliberately puts his head into a noose, and afterwards calls heaven to witness that he is the victim of some misfortune which could not possibly have been foreseen:—

“There was an Old Man of Jamaica,
Who suddenly married a Quaker;
But she cried out ‘O lack!
I have married a black!’
Which distressed that Old Man of Jamaica.”

Finally, here is an example of knock-me-down inconsequence in the categorical negative:—

“There was an Old Man who said ‘Hush!
I perceive a young bird in this bush!’
When they said Is it small?’
He replied ‘Not at all!
It is four times as big as the bush!'”

Most of us must have had such an experience. Some polite and conventional question explodes, as it were, a contradiction that veritably “shakes the arsenal and fulmines over Greece.” That perhaps demonstrates (by the rule of exception) as well as any rhyme in the book the difference between Lear and Lewis Carroll. If Lewis Carroll had been Lear, he would have written more rhymes like that; and if Lear had been Lewis Carroll, he would have written more like “‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves.”

The Spectator, 26 March 1910, pp. 9-11.

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Later Letters of Edward Lear (to Canon Selwyn)

‘I DARE say you know my name: I once brought out the “Book of Nonsense,”‘ said the elderly gentleman wearing an eye-shade, as he sat under a shaded lamp in his solitary corner of the salle-à-manger of Dr. Pasta’s Hotel at Monte Generoso. Darkness had fallen before I reached the hospitable light that beckoned the guideless wayfarer up the mountain path, bosky with beeches, from Mendrisio. The September sunset had faded across the outspread plain of Lombardy far beneath—

Calm and still light on yon great plain
That sweeps with all its autumn bowers,
And crowded farms and lessening towers—

but not till it had lightened the load at every step—those were knapsack days and tinged the mind with golden memories. Two belated guests, at their several suppers in an empty room, must needs eventually arrive at the Homeric question ‘Who and whence art thou?’ if they do not press the enquiry to ‘What father dost thou boast?’ I soon found I was in the presence of one who had seen as many cities and men as Odysseus, who knew their mind as clearly, and was no less full of craft and wiles and stories than the sly Ithacan—only the craft of Edward Lear was truth in art, the wiles were such as knew no guile, and his stories were lovely and delicious fun. After two days spent mostly in his company I became aware of the attachment and the confidence that only wait time for friendship, and his was the comprehensive friendship of a genius. And so it came to pass that in the closing years of his life I corresponded with him frequently and freely. Some of the less intimate portions of his letters to me are presented in this paper; for there can be no reason why the currency of the household words which they contain should be limited to the recipient’s own immediate circle.

Other geniuses have dealt in sense. He is the only genius of nonsense. The realm of sense is infinite. Metaphysicians may be left to decide whether the realm of nonsense is anything less than infinite. If it is not less, then there must be two infinities, each defining the other, which is absurd! At any rate Lear’s mind ranged over one or two infinities and revelled and romped in the absurd. I think he was greater than all the geniuses who never looked into the infinity of nonsense and had no eye for it. No wonder Lear’s two eyes had become somewhat enfeebled by years, one with observing nature with that scrupulous accuracy which marks all his pictures, the other with scanning the underlying nonsense which results from the happy combination of incompatibles.

Was ever art so aptly united with science in one and the same mind? Art selects, science collects. His business as a painter was to select the subject and the contents of his picture: his science collected with a marvellous readiness not the specimens that were to be compared and ordered and classified together as exhibiting varieties of the same genus, but those which were just incongruous and which in their juxtaposition—’Juxtaposition is great’—must simply make a man—and probably a cat—laugh loud and long.

Lear was fond of depreciating his life’s work as that of ‘a dirty landscape painter,’ but when he applied the expression to himself there had been originally also an adjective before ‘dirty’ which began with the same consonant; and when he told how the title was originally bestowed upon him he heartily accepted it as truly conveying the miseries of long years of exposure to climate, rising before dawn and waiting in the open to paint the sunrise, enduring heat and cold and wet, lodging in unspeakable quarters, if haply he might please a fastidious public taste. It chanced that he had stayed the night at a mountain inn and engaged in civil conversation with two young Englishmen, who rose betimes next morning, and, like inconsiderate travellers, made as much noise over their departure as if all other guests in the hotel were asleep. Lear, who was also rising, overheard this remark from one of them who had gathered information downstairs: ‘I say, Dick, you know that fellow we talked to last night; well, what do you think he is? He is a d—d dirty landscape painter.’

Thus Lear was like Odysseus again—’much-enduring, divine.’ Whether in appearance Odysseus was really plain or not, whether

His mind was concrete and fastidious,
His nose was remarkably big,
His visage was more or less hideous,
His beard it resembled a wig;

it cannot be doubted that he, like Lear, enjoyed his course of life, enjoyed laughing at himself, enjoyed possibly even caricaturing himself. I possess one of these caricatures, ‘E.L., æt. 71,’ attended by ‘Foss, æt. 14,’ his faithful Manx cat, welcoming the present writer to Villa Tennyson, preceded by the Sanremo porter with portmanteau. Now this E.L. is essentially the same as that

Old Deny down Derry, who loved to see little folks merry,

of the early sixties.

But did we not know in fact from ‘Nonsense Songs and Stories’ (p. 7) that he

—has many friends, laymen and clerical,
Old Foss is the name of his cat:
His body is perfectly spherical,
He weareth a runcible hat,

we could still see him depicted in the frontispiece of the ‘Book of Nonsense,’ exhibiting the Book to the amazed, tumultuous, himmeltaneous children. The snub nose is a reminder of one greater than Odysseus, the real Socrates himself, and the projecting eyes were hardly less a marked feature in his later years than in Socrates. Had Socrates worn goggles, they would surely have dropped off in delight at welcoming a friend, his runcible hat would have slipped off behind, his arms would have been extended, the left arm exalted, the palm open, ringers too, while the right leg simply pranced with joy, bootlaces and buttons seeming to share in the profuse and prepossessing pageant of E L. and that copycat Foss.

The first letter to be cited here is one of many containing references to his pictures, some of which are treasured exceedingly by the present writer.

Villa Tennyson, Sanremo, 6 Novr., 1882.

‘I had thought to send you your 3 Monte Generosian scraps before now, but I have not been able to do so; for, returning from that delectable mountain, I somehow contrived to misplace my sketches of the points you want—and nowhere could I find them until 2 days back, when it turned out that they had slipped down behind some folios. I sometimes believe that inanimate objix move about of their own selves to give mortles unnecessary trouble.’ …

Here, then, is a fresh declaration of that Doctrine of Inanimate Intention which has illuminated so many of the Nonsense Songs, written long before it.

They rode through the street, and they rode by the station,
They galloped away to the beautiful shore;
In silence they rode, and ‘made no observation,’
Save this, ‘We will never go back any more!’

And still you might hear, till they rode out of hearing,
The sugar-tongs snap, and the crackers say ‘crack’!
Till far in the distance, their forms disappearing,
They faded away—and they never came back!

The next deals with more serious subjects, at least in parts.

15 October, 1882.

… ‘I take it there is no such happiness in this life as a really happy marriage—but I grant there are few when compared with the multitudinous majority of marriages unhappy—or marriages neither happy nor unhappy—but what I call “cup and saucer” marriages. …

‘What I wanted to write to you was about the Prescot living. Have you really finally given it up and declined it? I have been thinking that although your college life be more to your liking and in accord with your conscientious views of doing good—yet supposing illness or inability to go on with Liverpool work—would not the settled life inkum be a greater thing, and rejecting of it a flinging away the interpositions of Providence? I have my own likings for the Prescot choice, seeing that Prescot church spire was a part of my life for many years, and I must have made literally hundreds of sketches from Knowsley Park with that spire [sketched] in the distance. But if you have really and absolutely refused the living—what is done is done as the tadpole said when his tail fell off. And nothing will then be left me but to hope for the speedy decease or release of the next incumbent or encumberer, so that Prescot living may be again offered to you. …

‘Your Cedars [of Lebanon, an oil-painting] go on well, considering how dark and rainy it has been and how many days not light enough for delicate work. But 7 goats, a Maronite priest, and various other vegetables have of late been inserted.

‘There have been deluges of rain lately, and my garden was all overbeflowed: otters and salmon swimming all over the Virginian Stock, walrusses walking about the geranium cuttings and an obese hippopotamus sitting on the giant anemone. …

‘Let us all hope for “lucidity,” as the elephant said when they told him to get out of the light, because he was opaque.

‘O! scissars and submarine sucking-pigs!! Here’s the Bordighera railway bridge been and gone and broke his self down and the ——s are stopped here so I must go and see them. …

‘I know I ought to put some letters after your name but I don’t know if they are B.A. or B.D. (B.C. would make you too old).’

Sanremo, 17 May, 1883.

… ‘I have been putting ultimate and penultimate and propenultimate and apopospenultimate touches to the “Cedars” continually of late, and it is wonderful how greatly the picture is improved, nor can I tell you how much it has been admired. Enough for I, if you its pozessur will see it with admiring ize and reflective mind … (When may a door be said to be in the potential mood? When it is made of would—or could, or should be.)

… ‘My garden is over and above abunjiantly lovely, and I myself am somewhat less mumpy, along of the summer weather, just set in a little too hot and suddenly, with full moons, broad beans and asparagus, exit of Anglo-Saxons, and other intangible

‘I will now look over your last letter and make ozbervations on its points, as the monkey said when he casually sat down on the pincushion. …

‘Quâ daffodils, I have had none, but there is a sort of Ranuncle-buncle coming up. (Talking of uncles, I have worked so much to make the rocks in the foreground of the “Cedars” like hard bits of limestone, that I believe you will sprain your uncles every time you look at them) …

‘Some one was in my gallery the other day who said he knew Dingle Bank well—but I can’t remember who it was. Perhaps General Count Moltke, who was said to be here. Now I must go and get my bellicontingical breakfast.’

Recoaro (Veneto), 20 July, 1884.

… ‘It is very kind of you to think of me under your present stircumstanzes [of approaching marriage]. …

‘I wrote to J. J. Hornby on seeing he was Provostically exalted; but I know nothing of Eton mutters, except that the boy whom the escaped Tiger devoured was an Eaten boy.

‘I meant to have written to you—to tell you that the “Gethsernane” is sold … to Mr. E.W.—of North Seaton, Northumberland, near that place where you and the Venerable Bede used to live together when the papists used to tell you to go to “L.”‘

This Hellenic and aspirating and exasperating observation refers
to the reiterated doggerel that used to greet us curates in the streets of the historic constituency of Jarrow-on-Tyne:

Protestant Minister, quack, quack, quack!
Go to the devil and never come back, back, back!

To which Echo answers from the Nonsense Songs—’And they never came back!’

However, in our next letter the Cat comes back—the Cat that Lear made—he must have made—to laugh, and the good Fossile sagacity:

Villa Tennyson, Sanremo, 29 December, 1884.

‘It is 2-troo that there is a letter of yours—date Nov. 8—to be answered, but my days of promptuality as to correspondence is over and gone. I don’t not think I didn’t never receive no letter from you at Abetone, but am not shewer.

‘No—my poor Nicola, George’s [his servant Cocali’s] eldest son, was always perfectly honest and good; and now all I can do for him and as a reminder to me of his father’s long services, is to pay Doctors’ bills, and keep him alive with as little suffering as possible, as long as it pleases God. He is always grateful and uncomplaining, but the shock of Dimitri’s conduct [he had finally bolted] and his own fate made him naturally far from cheerful.

‘The new servant—a Milanese—with 14 years’ first-rate character is as excellent and able a domestic as I have ever known; his father now æt. 79, has been 70 years in the Gavazzi family at Milan, and he himself has been for 8 years a cavalry Carabiniere. Then I had to get a cook, but he turned out a thundering thief and had to go. Then I had my meals from the Hotel Royal for a fortnight, but though cheaper that was a nastier life. Finally I have got another chosskimoolious cookly candidate, which he has only one i—but cooks well, and will probably stay, especially as Foss took to him at once, whereas after examining the late thievy cook, that intelligent beast fled the kitchen wholly and never would go near the wicked Pietro Pavesi who, by the bye, could not cook at all.

‘The 3-pronged sentiment[l] has been for some time abandoned as to active progress, though various persons keep sending their intentions to be Tenguinea sobsquibers. How should I know that Matthew Arnold hadn’t millions of money? (Dickens made 33,000 by his visit to America.) And him I ignorantly worshipped as a possible one of 30 peepl.

‘Dimitri Cocali has, I hear, arrived in Corfu actually penniless, though he must have had over 30l. when he left me. As for the other, Lambi, he is going on decently in a nin at Brindisi, to which I have had my part in helping him. It appears that we are not in a position to judge how far birth-tendencies, and thousands of circumstances, weak intellect, &c., &c., are factors in the ruin of young men; anyhow I choose rather to be a fool than over-harsh, and as for people’s opinion about me I care no more than if it was the 9999th part of a flea’s nose. So I go my own way, remembering the text that there is more joy over one cockroach who is reclaimed than over 99 cockchafers who need no reclaiming.

‘As for my elth, it ain’t elth particularly, but rather pheebleness, and I can now hardly doddlewaddle as far as the pestilential postoffis. But I work a great deal …——has been and gone and bought some of this child’s work lately, which if he hadn’t done, I was preparing like St. Simon Stylites to live on my capital,
which ain’t at all big. …

‘When you write to Italians do you name your address: [Fox How, Ambleside, Westmoreland] Volpecome? Trottofianco, Ponentepiùterra?

‘By the bye do you ever walk as far as the top of Windermere—(I don’t mean the top of the water, as of course you don’t walk at the bottom of the lake)—to a place called Wansfell? I wonder who has it now; it used to be Rev. J.J. Hornby’s—uncle of J.J.H. of Eton—Provost. He and I (the Provost) used to run races all over that part of the country and perhaps you don’t know that I know every corner of Westmoreland: Scawfell Pikes is my cousin, and Skiddaw is my mother-in-law.’

Never was a master more careful of the interests of his servants than Lear, and it was a grief to him that his faithful Albanian, George Cocali, predeceased him, and almost a greater grief when two of George’s sons were overtaken by misfortune. Another source of worry and anxiety was the untoward fate of his Villa Emily at Sanremo, blocked from the sea by buildings, and then let to some people as a school, till ‘these beastesses mizzled,’ and left him in the lurch.

January, 1884.

‘So far the beginning was begùnbegùn a long time agò: but now—(Feby. 19)—I have a purple dicular and diametrical notion that I shall finish this document, for unless I do so I fancy I shall never hear if you are married or knot. But as a set off to this resiolution I must needs add that age and Asthma have so greatly impaired my gnatural liveliness and energy as to make it doubtful if I can cover even half a sheet of this penurious primeval poppsidixious paper this evening. … [Three pages follow.]

‘I am now (e’en in our ashes live, &c.) working at a set of Palestine drawings and later shall finish Argos and Gwalior. After that, sufficient to the day is the weevil thereof, as the hazelnut said when the caterpillar made a hole in his shell.’ …

May 24, 1885.

… ‘(9thly) Signor Marsaglia, the Brassey of Italy, has long been making acquedux and penitential pipes to bring what he calls “Acqua Potabile” from Badaluco above Taggia to Sanremo, and I who for 3 years have heard of this scheme have always called it “Acqua Probabile.” But now it has really been brought here, and for 5l. a year I get a thousand bottles a day, all of which as you may suppose I drink. …

’12thly. Enlivenment has been greatly kneaded—seeing that since poor Nicola’s death—March 4—I have lost my last surviving sister, aged 84, and have now no one of my generation except a brother in Texas, whom I have not seen for 65 years.

’16thly. Have you any frogs and snails in your garden? If not, purchase a large number immediately, and place them in a row in a glass case, which will be highly ornamental and abomalous.

’17thly. Yours affectionately, Edward Lear.

’18thly. Amen. God Save the Queen and confound Mr. C——’

25 Hocktomber (as my servant calls it), 1885.

… ‘I have been and still am grieved about W. E. Forster. There is no finer specimen of an Englishman living, and his advocacy of the interest of the colonies greatly interested me—not but what Lord Rosebery and Lord Dunraven did likewise. …

‘I advise you all to take the Villa Figini at Barzano where you may “rear a marble slab” to my memory, tho’ my Boddy, or what remains of it, will be buried in the Symmetry of Sanremo, where I have already bought a Toomb and have ordered a Toomstone. …

‘Bring up the boy [my eldest son] to be a Chimblysweep rather than an artist.

‘Epitaph really in a churchyard—Isle of Wight.

‘”Forlorn Eliza rears this marble slab
To her dear John. (He died of eating Crab.)”‘

Edward Lear was the youngest of a family of nineteen children, of Danish parents, and he owed what education he had to the loving care of one of his sisters. His name was originally spelt Lör. He first earned a precarious livelihood by drawing animal pictures. Some of these, in a window front in Piccadilly, caught the eye of the 13th Earl of Derby, who, after enquiry, invited the author to reside at Knowsley and draw his zoological specimens there, and in order to amuse his children the Nonsense Rhymes, an entirely new kind of literature, were composed. Now the rest of the acts of Lear, and his drawings, and his travels, and how he gave lessons to Her late Majesty Queen Victoria in 1846, are they not written in the book of ‘Nonsense Songs and Stories,’ by himself, in a letter prefixed (1889) ‘by way of preface’?

His anticipation of death was constant and of some long standing, if not lifelong. He wrote in May 1882:

… ‘There is No chance of my seeing either Cambridge or Oxford any more—nor England. Ill, and 70 years old, it is useless to shut one’s eyes to the inevitable θάνατος ἄλυρος ἄχορος &c. Just at this moment I am a little better. …’

The Greek characters in the above quotation from Sophocles are written in the style of a true scholar’s pen. In thanking me for a copy of Jebb’s ‘Modern Greece,’ in 1880, he writes with enthusiasm for ‘so much real information on the subject conveyed in so condensed and clear and pleasing a form—so much learning combined with so much poetical appreciation of the landscape beauties of Greece—and—last not least—such complete and remarkable moderation and good taste in treating of a subject which seems to drive many people crazy—or if they are already crazy to make them crazier.’ The painter, whom the Laureate had addressed as ‘E.L. on his Travels in Greece,’ was no incompetent judge of the great scholar’s volume.

‘ As for memory, I remember lots of things before I was born, and quite distinctly being born at Highgate 12 May 1812.’ …

27 April, 1884.

… ‘On the 29th and 30th of March I did not at all expect to live beyond a few hours, but Dr. Hassall, thank God, skilfully got the inflammation under, and ever since I have been getting—though very slowly—better. Of course at 72 I cannot expect a return of much of my former strength, but it is a great thing to be thankful for that I have not been paralyzed nor have had my sight affected.

‘I am now—as far as I am able—arranging matters so that my Executors and friends shall have as little trouble as possible, should it please God that my life end shortly. If the contrary, I intend to endeavour to carry out my old plan of Alfred Tennyson Illustrations—200 in number—by Autotype.’

A letter of his written November 7, 1887, within three months of his decease, shows him still interested in the movements of other persons and their children, still able to laugh at his own increasing infirmities; but this paper shall conclude with something epithalamial and happy of that very March 1884, terminating in what Lear might perchance have called a Eugenious Aram tail. My address was then Dingle Bank, Liverpool.

‘I am always incapacitated more or less … and having worked much in the day, I am Nocktupp afterwards entirely. I do not know why you congratulate me on “good health and spirits,” as I have neither; and if I told you I had, I was muffstaken very much. …

‘I wish you a pleasant honeymoon. There are many large black bees here (Sir J. Lubbock writes to me that they are called Xylocopa Violacea), but as they don’t make honey, I don’t recommend you to take them with you, otherwise I would send a lot. Your idea of boating on the Tems seems to me highly grotesque and bizzerable. …

‘He lived at Dingle Bank—he did;
He lived at Dingle Bank;
And in his garden was one Quail,
Four tulips, and a Tank:
And from his windows he could see
The otion and the River Dee.

‘His house stood on a cliff,—it did,
Its aspic it was cool;
And many thousand little boys
Resorted to his school,
Where if of progress they could boast
He gave them heaps of butter’ d toast.

‘But he grew rabid-wroth, he did,
If they neglected books,
And dragged them to adjacent cliffs
With beastly Button Hooks,
And there with fatuous glee he threw
Them down into the otion blue.

‘And in the sea they swam, they did,—
All playfully about,
And some eventually became
Sponges, or speckled trout:—
But Liverpool doth all bewail
Their fate;—likewise his Garden Quail.



[1] The long-cherished design of reproductions of his 200 illustrations of Tennyson’s ‘Palace of Art ‘ and other poems. He was a proper worshipper of Tennyson. The three prongs are those of the monogram AT.

E.C. Selwyn, “Later Letters of Edward Lear.” The Cornhill Magazine n.s. 28, March 1910, pp. 389-398.

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Mind Your Language

Many people think a runcible spoon is a sort of pickle-fork with a serrated edge. If that is what they call it, then that is the word for it, but it is not the same word that Edward Lear used when he wrote of a runcible spoon in 1871. He also wrote of a runcible hat and a runcible cat, neither much use for eating pickles.

The new meaning of runcible can be traced no further back than 1926, when someone wrote to Notes and Queries with the suggestion. The correspondent gave its origin as a ‘jocose allusion to the battle of Roncevaux because it has a cutting edge.’ A likely story.

I mention all this because good old Mr Richard Rose writes to share gleanings from Thomas Tusser (to whom I referred when rambling on about prim and privet). Mr Rose is not so fond of Tusser as to be oblivious to ‘a large dose making you feel as though you’ve been lectured by some rustic Polonius’. But he was struck by the couplet: ‘Dig garden, stroy mallow, now may you at your ease,/And set as a daintie thy Rouncivall pease.’

Rouncival peas are sort of big, fat garden peas, which ‘took their name from Ronceval, a place at the foot of the Pyrenean Mountains, from whence they first came to us,’ said Thomas Blount in his Glossographia of 1674. There is no other evidence for this unlikely claim. Tusser’s reference to them (in 1573) is the first recorded, but within a decade we find Nashe writing of ‘so fulsome a fat Bonarobe and terrible Rouncevall’ — a woman, not a pea.

One can’t help noticing that the word rouncy was also used of such a woman, and rounce is used in some English dialects to mean ‘bouncy.’ But the main meaning of rouncy is a desirable kind of horse. It is related to Rocinante, the name of Don Quixote’s horse, which is rendered in English translations of the novel as Rosinante. The mediaeval Latin for rouncy is runcinus, as clever Du Cange notes. He speculates that the origin is the ‘Teutonic’ ross. If so, it goes back to the word that gives us modern English horse.

I don’t think Lear knew where he got runcible from. Attempts have been made to connect it with runcinate, botanically ‘saw-toothed’, although in Latin runcina is ‘a plane’. But runcival, an alternative form of rouncival, seems to have a better Owl and Pussy-Cat claim. Whether Roncevaux or Roncesvalles was a horsy place before Roland arrived, I cannot tell.

Dot Wordsworth.

The Spectator, 13 September 2003, p. 24.

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Margaret Terry Meets Edward Lear

The summer of 1870 we spent in the mountains south of Turin. …

That summer was memorable to me for my first experience in hero worship. Those were the days of the table d’hôte. The guest assembled and sat together at long tables; one talked with one’s neighbour; occasionally the chance acquaintance ripened to friendship. Perhaps the travelling public was more homogeneous then than it is now, people were less on the defensive against fellow travelers, and we never dreamed of asking for separate tables in the dining room; there were none.


One day there appeared at luncheon sitting opposite to us a rosy, gray-bearded, bald-headed, gold-spectacled little old gentleman who captivated my attention. My mother must have met him before, for they greeted each other as friendly acquaintances. Something seemed to bubble and sprkle in his talk and his eyes twinkled benignly behind the shining glasses. I had heard of uncles; mine were in America and I had never seen them. I whispered to my mother that I should like to have that gentleman opposite for an uncle. She smiled and did not keep my secret. The delighted old gentleman, who was no other than Edward Lear, glowed, bubbled, and twinkled more than ever; he seemed bathed in kindly effulgence. The adoption took place there and then; he became my sworn relative and devoted friend. He took me for walks in the chestnut forests; we kicked the chestnut burrs before us, the “yonghy bonghy bos,” as we called them; he sang to me “The Owl and the Pussy-cat” to a funny little crooning tune of his own composition; he drew pictures for me.

I still have a complete nonsense alphabet, beautifully drawn in pen and ink and delicately tinted in water colors, done on odd scraps of paper, backs of letters, and discarded manuscript. Every day Arthur and I found a letter of it on our plate at luncheon, and finally a title-page for the collection, with a dedication and portrait of himself, with his smile and his spectacles, as the “Adopty Duncle.” The drawing is much finer, more masterly, than would appear in th rough reproductions in the published copies of his work, for he was a professional painter. He had been drawing master to [p. 30] Queen Victoria and her children. His health had suffered from the English climate and he had come to Italy for the sunshine. He published some delightful books of travels in Italy, with very carefully drawn illustrations. These have been forgotten and overlooked. His immortal nonsense is part of English literature — some of it, indeed, part of English poetry. I never saw him again, but he has never faded from my memory — a fixed star twinkling across the waste of years.

Chanler, Margaret Terry (Mrs. Winthrop Chanler). Roman spring: memoirs. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1934. 29-31.

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