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Funny Peculiar

The genius of the poet laureate of nonsense.

Nov 19, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 10 • By SARA LODGE
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Lear’s principal career was as an artist. He was an ornithological illustrator of genius and deserves to be remembered alongside John James Audubon—who prized Lear’s work—as one of the foremost exponents of a new style of natural history painting. Where the birds and animals rendered by earlier artists often look stuffed (they generally were drawn from dead specimens), Lear’s creatures are vivid, vibrant, and vivacious in every luminously colored feather or shiny-shelled carapace. His parrots and toucans eye us amusedly, askance. His tortoises contain worlds of detail in their whorls of black, brown, and green. Strange animals new to science, like the Whiskered Yarke, saunter across the page with an independent air. 

Lear’s early work, documenting species in the newly founded London Zoo and the Earl of Derby’s menagerie at Knowsley Hall, is astonishingly assured for that of a man in his teens and early twenties. Charles Darwin admired it. When Lear began to illustrate his “nonsenses,” as he called his poetry, he would bring the same energy to drawing people who leap and dance off the page, behaving in an exhilarating manner that gleefully oversteps the margins of the Victorian drawing room.

At Knowsley Hall, when he wasn’t drawing lemurs, Lear began writing what we now call limericks for the Earl of Derby’s grandchildren. He didn’t invent the form: He borrowed it from a book called Anecdotes and Adventures of Fifteen Gentlemen. But Lear allowed his imagination to run away with him (in Lear’s poetry, something is generally running away with something else). Thus, scores of old and young persons from places all over the globe prove to enjoy erratic behavior that includes ignoring their parents, eating spiders, dancing with ravens, and fishing at night using their noses for illumination. 

For example:

There was an old man of Peru

Who watched his wife making a stew

But once by mistake

In a stove she did bake 

That unfortunate man of Peru

The illustration, adding to the joke, makes it clear that the wife is rushing her husband towards the oven with pointed intent. 

These poems erupt with physical activity. They are full of adults who are as willful and disobedient as children. The tight rules of the limerick are like the tight rules of society. Despite them, a whole world of delightful eccentricity opens up as we turn each page. The fact that the pictures are so large in relation to the text is also liberating and pleasurable. This is emphatically not a textbook; it is a book we can enjoy with our eyes and ears, even if we can’t yet read for ourselves. 

Most early-19th-century literature for children was moral and educative: Evangelical authors produced, as one contemporary complained, “cold, unimaginative .  .  . prosaic good-boy stories.” Lear, who was a dissenter in religion, did not believe in original sin or damnation. In his “nonsense,” nutty and naughty nonconformists run riot. Children were entranced. 

Lear moved to Italy in 1838, when he was 26, so that by the time A Book of Nonsense, containing these limericks, was published in 1846, he was an infrequent visitor to England. He was a man who needed to keep moving. His depressive temperament led to what a friend called “vehement reversions.” When Lear was happy, his delight in color, variety, people, and landscape bubbles up in diary entries popping with exclamation points. Arriving in India, he exclaims: “O new Palms!!! O flowers!! O creatures!! O beasts!! .  .  . anything more overpoweringly amazing cannot be conceived!!!” When he was miserable, his reflections are clouded in “utter disgust.” 

Lear became a landscape painter and travel writer, undertaking arduous journeys across Greece, Turkey, Albania, Egypt, and the Holy Land. He would rise at dawn to capture the light on mountains, ruined temples, or rugged pelican coasts, producing delicate pencil sketches washed with smoke-grey and hyacinth-blue watercolor that, at their best, suggest the same longing for the far horizon as his poetry, where the “Dong with a Luminous Nose” gazes out perpetually, looking for his lost love, and the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò, a rejected suitor, disappears on a turtle’s back.

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