Brian Alderson returns to the works of the Old Man with a Beard.
to the Editor and any other readers of these effusions, I return to the Old Man with a Beard for a third time. I may already have said enough to justify my view of his status in creating a poetic world which is unmatched anywhere in children’s literature. (There can be no comparison with his contemporary, Charles Dodgson, a mathematician with many comical, but ultimately dry, narrative ideas.)
Since Lear here
is being given a place in a series on Children’s Classics usually found as fiction, it is justifiable to take his ‘nonsense’ as a meaningful totality, the whole being larger than a sum of the parts – compositions over several decades related to each other as a commentary on the distracted madness and sadness of the human condition (not least in the year of grace 2021). Time and again, in the Nonsense Songs and Nonsense Stories, as I have noted in foregoing essaylets, we are confronted by a comprehensive absurdity behind which lurks a terminal sense of despair. The calamities and comicalities that occur in the limericks are set to a plangent music in the songs, so often with a dying fall. Those bachelors in their forlorn quest for sage and onion stuffing leave their house by its ‘once convivial door’ and are never heard of more. ‘Make the best of it’ it says Aunt Jobiska, dishing up eggs and buttercups fried with fish, ‘you are going to be happier without your toes’. (The ballad rhyme schemes are almost always superb.)
There are several compendia
which amount to slightly augmented collections of Lear’s four main books touched on earlier (recent very late reprints of old Warne volumes by the British Library are cheapjack affairs typical of that institution’s declining publishing standards). Irreplaceable though is the substantial Collected Verse from Penguin Classics, edited by the late Vivien Noakes in 2001, which includes and dockets all the verse and some nonsense prose that can be found in throwaway passages from his huge output of letters (see for instance the lines written as though with a broken front tooth: ‘O Thuthan Thmith, o Thuthan Thmith, / I thit in thilence clothe to thee…’. Of special importance too is her treatment of illustrations, whether alongside or additional to, published work or as singletons or unpublished sequences [pic].
Having earned his living
from the start as a professional artist, Lear’s prolixity as a seemingly casual amateur illustrator and caricaturist has provoked questions as to its adequacy. Noakes’s complementary inclusion of these often inventive additions through all his oeuvre shows a consistency in his visual thinking in presenting narrative pictures which provokes a reverse question as to the legitimacy of any alternative accompaniment.These are, of course, legion in single instances, for Edward Lear has generously supplied his successors with several much-loved ballads of a length which makes them easily convertible into picture books. The full-colour examples from Leslie Brooke set a precedent in 1900 with three sets of verses chosen for separate pictorial treatment but it is only since the expansion of picture-book publishing here and in the USA that the numbers have increased.
As for the rest,
Lear’s many versions of the alphabet lend themselves to representation in varying formats while the Songs usually find themselves as the now customary quartos. Obviously The Owl and the Pussy Cat predominate (I have 24 versions) followed at some distance by the Pobble. Almost all of them are horrible – fit to be blown up by Mr Discobbolus’s gunpowder gench – and they have the common failing in their executants being unable to draw with any facility and relying on swamps of colour. (The only example of original colour in Noakes’s compendium is eighteen of the twenty coloured birds that Lear produced for Baring’s daughter which were published by Mills & Boon [?] in 1911.) [pic]
Here and there
and, encouragingly, with texts rarely chosen by the easygoing mob, one finds a response by draftsmen who are sensitive to narrative drawing and to the double-edged implications of Lear’s texts. Surprisingly too, the best are from America where, as we saw at the start of these pieces, the first ever Owl and Pussycat illustration appeared. Paul Galdone’s Two Old Bachelors of 1962, in two colours, is a delight; there is a wild linearity in Arnold Lobel’s New Vestments (1970); while Edward Gorey’s twinning of The Jumblies and The Dong (initially as two volumes, 1968-9, but, more satisfyingly as one, 1972) must be accounted not only supremely intelligent and accomplished but among the greatest of all interpretive picture books. Pomsquizilious!
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times. His book The 100 Best Children’s Books is published by Galileo Publishing, 978-1903385982, £14.99 hbk.
The Nonsense Verse of Edward Lear illustrated by John Vernon Lord is published by Jonathan Cape, 978-0857550439, £14.99 hbk.
 There are very few attempts at a complete volume of his main works in the hands of another illustrator, but John Vernon Lord’s Nonsense Verse of 1984 is of exceptional interest. It is the result of a longstanding affection for the artist and reveals a close study of sources (he includes, for instance, the two known versions of ‘The Pobble who has no Toes’) and his pen-drawing is native to his own skills, having a density and an exactness of detail, even in the many caricature scenes, that ring true to his author’s Victorian oddities. Astonishingly there is also a German Kompletter Nonsens, beautifully produced and brilliantly translated by Hans Magnus Enzensberger (1977), and a bilingual Italian Libro dei Nonsense, all the limericks translated by Carlo Izzo (1970).