Just as American children grow up with Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat, British children grow up with Edward Lear’s fantastical but touching poem “The Owl and the Pussycat.”
The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of
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!”
These strange companions, eloping with their honey and money, purchase a wedding ring from a pig, who has been wearing one through his nose. This enables them to be married by the turkey who lives on the hill, after which they dine on mince, and slices of quince, / Which they ate with a runcible spoon. But the best line is the last: The happy couple, hand in hand, on the edge of the sand, become a reflection of perfect harmony—
They danced by the light of the moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.
I have heard this poem read at more than one wedding. There is always an awkward moment during the line when the owl serenades his bride-to-be—O lovely Pussy!—as the modern wedding guest tries not to allow his or her mind to descend to low thoughts. But it is striking that a “nonsense” verse, published in 1871 and intended for children, has become so entwined with the national heartstrings that people recite it at a ceremony of the greatest adult emotional importance.
The reason is that Lear’s best nonsense poetry is charming in the most powerful sense of that word: It casts a musical spell that is both hopeful and poignant. We all know, after all, that in the workaday world, birds and cats can’t love each other. But the impossibility of this romance is part of a wider, wilder, fragile dream of escape that Lear’s poetry enables—to the land where the Bong-tree grows. Significantly, in “The Owl and the Pussycat,” these two creatures of darkness don’t dance “in the moonlight” but by the light of the moon; we hear “delight” in “the light,” and a quiet joyfulness shimmers off the page.
Edward Lear (1812-88), whose bicentenary we have celebrated this year, had a curious life. He was born in London, the 20th of 21 children. Like Dickens, he experienced early the fiscal uncertainties of middle-class life. His father was a sugar-refiner turned stockbroker who lost his shirt in the stock market when Lear was 4, and was imprisoned for debt. Lear’s mother, perhaps understandably, given her huge brood, handed over Edward’s care to his oldest sister, Ann, his “guardian spirit.” He was a playful but sensitive boy: epileptic, depressive, and (possibly) the victim of some kind of abuse from an older child during his brief encounter with school.
The result was that he was ejukated (as Lear liked to spell it) at home, and his pursuits were closer to those of Victorian young women than those of tougher boys, who thrashed out a syllabus of Latin and rugby and mathematics. Instead, Lear learned to paint birds and flowers and butterflies, with which he decorated fans and albums. He learned to sing and play the piano, which he continued to do all his life. And he learned to write poetry and entertaining letters—often combining the two to make the recipient smile.
It is in the intimate dialogue of letters that Lear’s nonsense begins. He plays with phonetic representations of words: “Oliver Cromwell” becomes “Allofacrumble.” He uses words that sound like their more appropriate cousins, but have divergent meanings: “at my advanced age” becomes “at my advantageous.” Ultimately, words evolve that are clearly adjectives, but whose meanings are entirely suggested by their sound and shape: “runcible,” “scroobious,” “polybingular.” Most of Lear’s nonsense poems and stories were originally produced for friends’ children in the context of playful correspondence, and they still have the quality of private language and escapade that makes them seem peculiarly “for us,” whoever we may be.
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.
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.
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:
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands
And they went to sea in a Sieve.
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.