The genius of the poet laureate of nonsense.
Nov 19, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 10 • By SARA LODGE
While Lear earned a living as a painter, notable success eluded him. Increasingly, from middle age, he became a figure in his own nonsense: a lovable caricature with a large stomach and sticklike legs, a big beard, and spectacles which are perpetually falling off. Sometimes he is a composite creature: a man-bee or a man-goose, or one who strolls confidentially arm-in-arm with frogs or slugs. Lear’s insistence on being nonsense, rather than just relating it, brings the reader closer to him than we ever get to Lewis Carroll, or perhaps to any other children’s writer. In his self-caricatures, Lear is small and silent but physically exuberant, like an animal or a pre-verbal child—we read him through his comic body. In aligning himself with the strange creatures who populate his nonsense, Lear makes himself appear foolish, impotent. Yet the effect of his dumb show is also to place himself beyond the reach of adult concerns. He offers adult viewers a glimpse into their own subconscious desire to remain a child.
This is why Lear’s best, long poems—such as “The Owl and the Pussycat” and “The Jumblies”—are wistful as well as wishful. They conjure realms to which characters can sail, against the prevailing tides of decorum and probability. The mesmerizing chorus of “The Jumblies” has the insistent rhythm of the sea itself in its lines:
What follows is the opposite of a cautionary tale. The Jumblies set off in their sieve, ignoring well-meant public advice. In an ordinary Victorian nursery narrative they would be punished for disobedience. They would come to grief. But the Jumblies come, instead, to a land of happiness, where they buy a hive of silvery Bees . . . / And a lovely Monkey with lollipop paws. When they sail back home, the naysayers are converted: And every one said, “If we only live, / We too will go to sea in a Sieve . . .”
As in Lear’s limericks, there is delight in defiance here. The nonconformists turn out to be right. They seek their pleasures freely, and gain by the adventure. But there is also, more subtly, an air of melancholy about “The Jumblies.” They sail away, but in twenty years they all came back . . . / And everyone said, “How tall they’ve grown!” It seems that the Jumblies are children, whose magical thinking keeps them safe from sinking. But adult readers know, even as we gaze at the delicious country of wish-fulfillment the Jumblies discover, that neither they nor we can go back. Far and few, far and few is a poignant lament for the lost empire of childhood.
Lear survived the Modernist distaste that swept other Victorian classics off the shelf. W. H. Auden and T. S. Eliot loved the sound of his poems and learned from them. Aldous Huxley and George Orwell admired his resistance to tyranny. But in our own time, critical aspects of Lear’s work—particularly his painting, his travel writing, and his letters (some lost, some still secreted in private collections)—have fallen from sight. The bicentenary has witnessed a number of small exhibitions; the Oxford English Dictionary, on Lear’s 200th birthday, made “runcible” its featured word.
But Edward Lear deserves to be known and regarded as more than the author of “The Owl and the Pussycat.” He was an artist who captured hitherto unexplored worlds in the natural kingdom, and a writer whose art was to show words as a set of characters that might meet, meld, rejoice, and rebel, making a new language of creativity.
Sara Lodge, a senior lecturer in English at the University of St Andrews, is the author of Thomas Hood and Nineteenth-Century Poetry: Work, Play, and Politics.