Authors: Edward Lear

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English poet and artist

Author Works

Poetry:

A Book of Nonsense, 1846, enlarged 1861

Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany, and Alphabets, 1871

More Nonsense, Pictures, Rhymes, Botany, Etc., 1872

Laughable Lyrics: A Fourth Book of Nonsense Poems, Songs, Botany, Music, Etc., 1877

Nonsense Songs and Stories, 1894

Queery Leary Nonsense, 1911 (Lady Strachey, editor)

The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear, 1947 (Holbrook Jackson, editor)

Teapots and Quails, and Other New Nonsenses, 1953 (Angus Davison and Philip Hofer, editors)

The Complete Verse and Other Nonsense, 2001 (Vivien Noakes, editor)

Nonfiction:

Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae: Or, Parrots, 1832; (with John Gould), The Birds of Europe, 1832-1837 (5 volumes)

Views in Rome and Its Environs, 1841

Illustrated Excursions in Italy, 1846 (2 volumes)

Gleanings from the Menagerie and Aviary at Knowsley Hall, 1846

Journals of a Landscape Painter in Albania, Etc., 1851

Journals of a Landscape Painter in Southern Calabria, Etc., 1852

Views in the Seven Ionian Islands, 1863

Journal of a Landscape Painter in Corsica, 1870

Letters of Edward Lear, 1907

Later Letters of Edward Lear, 1911

Indian Journal, 1953 (Ray Murphy, editor)

Edward Lear: The Cretan Journal, 1984

Selected Letters, 1988 (Vivien Noakes, editor)

Biography

The humorist and artist Edward Lear was born in Holloway, near London, on May 12, 1812. Four years later, his stockbroker father, Jeremiah, lost his fortune, causing Edward’s mother, Ann, to become withdrawn; consequently, Edward’s sisters raised him. During childhood, he began suffering from epilepsy and depression. Based on a cryptic entry in Lear’s 1871 diary, Vivien Noakes surmises that young Lear was sexually molested by a cousin.{$I[A]Lear, Edward}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Lear, Edward}{$I[tim]1812;Lear, Edward}

Because of the family’s poverty, fifteen-year-old Edward started earning his living as an artist. At eighteen, he published his parrot illustrations and was nominated for membership in the Linnean Society. His artistic career thereafter consisted of acquiring patrons, publishing a series of travel books (inspired by wanderings throughout Europe), and learning oil painting. To his frustration, he gained little recognition for the last of these activities.

His enduring fame, however, comes from his nonsense writings. These probably began between 1832 and 1836 at Knowsley Hall, where he was drawing the earl of Derby’s private zoo. Lear found there a book of limericks titled Anecdotes and Adventures of Fifteen Gentlemen. These inspired him first to illustrate others’ verse and then to compose his own. On his second visit to that estate in 1837, he presumed that he would be dining with the servants, but the children of the household had been so taken with Lear’s compositions that he was invited to dine with the family (a status he maintained on subsequent visits). Not until 1846, however, did he bother to publish a collection of 110 of his limericks as A Book of Nonsense; even then, he protected himself with the pseudonym “Derydown Derring” (as if only a daring author would so affront Victorian seriousness).

Every page of A Book of Nonsense consists of two limericks, each with a deliberately childlike picture. Having previously drawn some comic illustrations to deride other people’s texts, he often introduces a humorous difference between his own poems and pictures. The primary source of comedy, however, is satire of old people, who, instead of being venerable, appear grotesque and foolish, with their infant-sized heads and long noses.

In 1871 he built a villa, his first home, in San Remo, Italy, and published Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany, and Alphabets. It begins with “The Owl and the Pussy-cat,” which remains his most famous lyric even though his melody for it has been lost. He wrote it to comfort John Addington Symonds’s three-year-old daughter, Janet, when she became ill at Christmas. Ostensibly a happy romance, the poem is satiric, marrying a bird and cat (natural enemies), while the minister who joins them is a turkey. Other notable lyrics in the book include “The Jumblies” (about tiny creatures who go to sea in an inherently leaky sieve) and “Calico Pie” (about a series of lost animals). Indeed, all of the silliness has a plaintive undercurrent and a theme of wandering–not surprising from a depressive who spent most of his life traveling. The stories in the volume have a similar mood.

Expanding on earlier themes, but with increased cynicism, More Nonsense Pictures, Rhymes, Botany, Etc. consists primarily of one hundred additional limericks. These begin with a satire of traditional morality in the person of an old man who only manages to avoid wrongdoing by spending his life lying with a sack over his head. Many of these limericks depict violence, especially threatened or committed by an anonymous “they,” representing society.

Lear’s last humorous book to have much new material is Laughable Lyrics: A Fourth Book of Nonsense Poems, Songs, Botany, Music, Etc. It opens with his song “The Dong with a Luminous Nose,” its ridiculous title character described as the only antidote to the cold darkness of a gloomy world. Unlike previous volumes, this one contains some of Lear’s music along with the lyrics. It ends with “The Akond of Swat,” the culmination of his career-long ridicule of foreign place names. Nonsense was a genre becoming popular at the time, probably because imperialism kept the British from remaining parochial and because science was undermining literal belief in Christianity. Lear, the biological illustrator and traveler, was acutely aware of these expansions of knowledge and bravely utilized the loss of traditional meaning as a resource for his nonsense. Although plagued by financial problems and the technical difficulties of reproducing his illustrations of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poems at reasonable cost, Lear remained relatively serene into his final illness. He died with kind words for his many friends on January 29, 1888.

BibliographyByrom, Thomas. Nonsense and Wonder: The Poems and Cartoons of Edward Lear. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1977. Byrom attributes the idiosyncrasies of Lear’s “nonsense” to his epilepsy.Chitty, Susan. That Singular Person Called Lear: A Biography of Edward Lear, Artist, Traveller, and Prince of Nonsense. New York: Atheneum, 1989. This comprehensive bibliography contains eight pages of plates.Colley, Ann C. Edward Lear and the Critics. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1993. A history of the critical reception of Lear’s work. Includes bibliographical references and index.Lehmann, John. Edward Lear and His World. New York: Scribner, 1977. Relatively slim volume contains 137 illustrations as well as an index and a bibliography.Levi, Peter. Edward Lear: A Biography. New York: Scribner, 1995. This biography of Lear describes his life as one of twenty-one children, his violent and secret struggle with epilepsy, his depression, and the inspiration for his works.Noakes, Vivien, ed. The Complete Verse and Other Nonsense, by Edward Lear. London: Penguin, 2001. In this volume, Noakes renounces her guess that Lear may have been homosexual, which was the major premise of her earlier works Edward Lear: Life of a Wanderer (1969) and Edward Lear: 1812-1888 (1986).
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