Invisible Ink: No 187 - Edward Lear
Saturday 24 August 2013
“Throw us a bone,” begged a friend, “write about someone we’ve heard of.” “Edward Lear,” I suggested. “Oh, the artist,” came the reply.
For those of a certain age it must seem inconceivable that Lear could be overlooked as an author, but I’ve mentioned his name to a number of younger colleagues and drawn blanks, although they can recall his sumptuous art, and “The Owl and the Pussycat”.
Born in 1812 in Holloway, north London, Lear was one of 21 children, although he left his understandably penniless family home at the age of four with his sister. A lifelong epileptic and asthmatic, painfully closeted and far too intense to form lasting relationships (he proposed to women twice and was turned down, too), he’s the last person one would associate with a peculiarly English form of nonsense, the collegiate love of wordplay mixed with surreal elements that continued through Maurice Richardson’s The Exploits of Inglebrecht to Monty Python, the Viz comics and The League of Gentlemen.
At the age of 16, Lear trained as an ornithological draughtsman, producing a great many works for the Zoological Society. He travelled through Greece, Egypt, and India, creating distinctive wash drawings and vivid sun-drenched landscapes that appear to glow. His dream was to create illustrations for Tennyson’s poetry, but he only managed to finish a few.
Lear’s written nonsense predates Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland by nearly 20 years, but the difference was that he did not string his bizarre word-pictures into a complete narrative. Instead he concentrated on the five-line anapaest with an AABBA rhyme scheme, or limerick. What drew him to this rare form is unclear, but he popularised it, and in the process became famous for his fanciful neologisms, most obviously the “runcible spoon”, but there are many others, often used to describe animals. He enjoyed surprising his readers with odd words and rhythms, and seemed to possess such a nonsensical attitude that it was assumed he was the Earl of Derby writing under a pseudonym (“Earl” being an anagram of “Lear”). Indeed, he was once called on to prove that he wasn’t.
If his poems lack the more familiar crudity of the form, they also lack any point, and don’t encourage scholastic unravelling as Alice does. There was a time when it seemed every house had a volume of his nonsense verse, in which his spidery, angular drawings were complemented by his familiar handwriting. That time, clearly, has passed.
Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'music
Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Thailand beach murders: Thai PM suggests 'attractive' female tourists cannot expect to be safe in bikinis
- 2 Scottish independence: Learn from Quebec's mistakes and beware of promises. Vote Yes.
- 3 A bottle of wine a day is not bad for you and abstaining is worse than drinking, scientist claims
- 4 Revealed after 75 years of secrecy: 'Fifi' the glamorous WW2 special agent who tested British spies' resolve
- 5 Hitler’s food taster reveals the horrors of the Wolf’s Lair
Laurie Lee's Rosie: What is it like to inspire a writer's work and be immortalised on the page?
Doctor Who series 8: Time Heist pictures revealed ahead of episode 5
The Walking Dead season 5 air date, trailer and season 4 recap
Well this Star Wars 7 leaked set photo of Adam Driver changes everything
Pharrell Williams says 'Blurred Lines' criticism is 'out of context'
Daniele Watts: Django Unchained actress detained by Los Angeles police after being mistaken for a prostitute
Scottish independence referendum: A nation divided against itself
The political class is doing what Hitler couldn’t – destroying Britain
Scottish independence: Nationalist leader Jim Sillars threatens pro-union companies with 'day of reckoning' after independence
Portuguese academic says British are 'filthy, violent and drunk'
Russia freezes Ukraine into submission: Kiev admits country doesn't have enough fuel for winter