Self-Portrait of the Laureate of Nonsense
How pleasant to know Mr Lear!
Who has written such volumes of stuff!
Some think him ill-tempered and queer,
But a few think him pleasant enough.
Rachel Anderson knows which side she’s on…
When I was six, my sister was presented, by a well-intentioned godparent, with a copy of Edward Lear’s A Book of Nonsense which consists of 112 four-line verse poems. I read these limericks aloud and we both looked at the peculiarly creepy black-and-white line drawings.
Edward Lear was a magnificent landscape artist but he was no great shakes at figure drawing. All human forms aspire to the condition of distorted birds. Even when not perching in trees or bushes (as do the young ladies of Lucca and of Portugal, and the old men of Philoe and Dundee, among many tree-sitters) his characters bear stumpy wing-like arms tucked into their sides, rounded bird-like breasts and tiny lower limbs tapering away to flippers. For some, there are the additional deformities of noses as long as worms, trailing to the ground, or head either far too large, or pin-headedly too small.
As if their physical problems aren’t enough, terrible things befall them. A man with dropsy is haunted by nightmares. A midget is devoured by a dog. Some, seriously warped in spirit, perform awesome acts of cruelty to others. A husband is baked alive. Babies are burned to death. Innocent bystanders are attacked with a poker. Even those whose habits are merely eccentric or self-destructive (amputating own thumbs, dancing with a raven, consorting with owls) are liable to be publicly ridiculed, chased out of town, or stoned to death by the populace.
Like many children of earlier generations on whom these horrors were thrust, my sister and I did not much care for them and we were perplexed as to why the adults should consider them funny. It was an abrupt introduction to the mystifying confusion of the seriously eccentric, to the distressing anguish of the profoundly disabled, to the painful loneliness of the outsider.
Lear was writing out of lived experience. He was a gay, epileptic, myopic, depressive, asthmatic, bronchitic, emotionally shipwrecked social outcast.
He was rejected in infancy by his mother (as well she might since he was her twentieth child), half brought up by an elder sister, and at 15, thrown out of the family home to make his own way in life. The wilful oddness of his middle and later years was a way of overcoming emotional insecurity, while hiding the shameful misery of his secret illness. The one sure way to deflect ridicule was, he claimed, by being ridiculous. ‘I don’t care the 999th part of a spider’s nose what others think of me,’ he wrote, but of course he did care very much.
Being an epileptic was, at that time, three quarters of the way towards being a madman. He mentioned in diaries and letters his depressions, anxieties about the size of his nose, poor sight, bronchitis and the general unfriendliness of people, but he referred to the epilepsy, from which he suffered frequent, violent, and totally debilitating attacks which took days to recover from, only in code. He marked the days of fits in his diary with a black cross, or mentioned them elliptically. ‘Remembering as I well do – all that used to occur from the day when I was 6 or 7 years old, it is most wonderful that I exist at all, or that life is ever at all tolerable.’
When A Book of Nonsense first appeared, only one disapproving voice spoke out, a Madame de Bunsen, who would not allow her grandchildren to look upon Lear’s book ‘inasmuch as the distorted figures would injure the children’s sense of the beautiful’.
It seems that every other aunt, uncle, god- or grand-parent welcomed it for its charm and humour. Lear himself, always an active self-advocator, claimed he came upon a stranger on a train reading it aloud who, unaware that Lear himself had written it, declared to his fellow-passengers how ‘Thousands of families are grateful to the author for providing such delight and entertainment for their little ones’.
These early nonsense verses were surely written out of desperate personal therapeutic need. Certainly, they were originally composed without any intention of publication. Lear entertained the family of one of his titled patrons with them. There are no clues in letters or diaries as to why, in 1846, he suddenly opted for publication. Possibly he was simply strapped for cash. As an artist he suffered a constant shortage of funds.
In the subsequent nonsenses, Nonsense Songs (1871), More Nonsense (1872), Laughable Lyrics (1877), Nonsense Songs and Stories (1895), which contain such gems as ‘The Owl and the Pussy Cat’ and ‘The Quangle Wangle’s Hat’, the cruelty and bitterness has softened into fantastical fantasy. There is much mystical magical journeying, reflecting and anticipating Lear’s own need for exotic travel. He embarked on long complicated voyages to Egypt, Cyprus, Greece and India, partly to discover new and fashionable visions of beauty for his landscape paintings, but also because keeping moving helped him cope with epilepsy. Although fits were exacerbated by stress, tiredness, uncertainty and seasickness, it seems that facing up to and surviving these discomforts was his way of triumphing over disability.
These days, A Book of Nonsense is thankfully no longer standard in the well-equipped child’s playroom. However, the early limericks it contains continue to pop up from time to time, inappropriately offered as a source of amusement and entertainment for children.
Last term, for instance, a friend aged 10, bright but a slow reader, found himself in the special group of his North London primary school where the teacher attempted to encourage her group of reluctant readers with limericks.
My friend said he didn’t understand them, and the words were very difficult to try and read. But Miss said they were funny.
Probably the chief value the verses have to recommend them as learning material for non-reading 10-year-olds is their extreme brevity, plus the fact that the first three words of each are always the same, ‘There was a’ or ‘There was an’.
But what are present-day children supposed to make of the subject matter? Characters with microcephaly being hounded out of town by the locals, old women with Tourette’s Syndrome being bashed to bits with bricks, unseemly homeless misfits being killed for their haplessness. Is this really the stuff with which to inspire and nourish young people?
Well yes, come to think of it, such representations of Care in the Community do most neatly reflect our Modern Times. Probably, a copy should be compulsory in every school to prepare children for the harsh realities of life without a welfare state.
Edward Lear’s verse is variously available. Amongst others, Puffin, Oxford, Macmillan, Little Brown, Faber, Dover, Chatto and Everyman all offer editions. A complete and unabridged cassette of Nonsense Songs, read by Alan Bennett, is available from Cover to Cover.
Rachel Anderson’s latest book, Black Water (Oxford, 0 19 271728 6, £8.99), is all about a small boy trying to come to terms with his epilepsy. It was while researching this title that she became more closely involved with the work of Edward Lear.