“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.