Nonsense and Wonder: The Poems and Cartoons of Edward Lear
by Thomas Byrom
Dutton, 256 pp., $12.95
In the course of his ingenious book on the nonsense poems and cartoons of Edward Lear, Mr. Byrom remarks on the number of distinguished Victorian Englishmen who were manic depressives and who put on a childish mask. There is an extraordinary amount of childish and even cruel or boisterous fantasy in the period, in Carroll, in Gilbert, and in other unremorseful satirical ballad writers, and I feared that Mr. Byrom would be drawn into an academic study of the influences of the German grotesque, the social’ pressures of the bourgeois public, the class system, and on to Freudian speculations which the literature of Nonsense seems inevitably to evoke. I am glad to say that, having noted such matters, he at once leaves them to the laborious bores of criticism, and with diffidence, delicacy, and sensibility has surmised what the private impulses of the poet were.
Nonsense has its peculiar tradition, running from nursery rhymes to Jarry, Kafka, Ionesco, and Pinter: it is a disguise and demands what Mr. Byrom calls an act of blind faith. If we are to deduce some connection with biographical fact and claim that Lear’s nonsense contains the intimate biography of the writer, we must write with good sense, perception, and without bullying our man. This Mr. Byrom does. He brings an experienced knife to the opening of his oyster. The first fifty pages briefly run through the facts now known about Lear from Vivien Noakes’s Life, with references to Angus Davidson’s Edward Lear and other works. The rest of the book considers the emotional life transposed in the limericks and poems. They are an inner landscape. This is far the most suggestive part of the book, for among his fantasizing contemporaries, Lear was the only pure poet.
Lear was born in London in 1812, in the same year as Dickens and three years after Tennyson. Byron, whom Lear in a shy way adored—as Mr. Byrom reminds us—was in his mid-twenties. Lear died in 1888, a long life for a weak epileptic and an asthmatic, the twentieth child in a family of twenty-one children. The early history is of a comfortably off middle-class family losing its money and breaking up. Literature owes much to families going downhill. The boy’s mother, who had little interest in the puny result of her battery-hen labors, left him to be brought up by his older sister. There was now next to no money, so he was taught by his sister and at the age of fifteen he started to earn his living by doing drawings of all kinds for London booksellers.
To epilepsy was added the indignity of homosexual assault. There is no mention of this in Angus Davidson’s study, but I assume Miss Noakes wouldn’t say this, or note that he contracted syphilis, recklessly. These evils, added to the breakup of the family and desertion by his mother, made a nervous solitary of Lear, who craved “to get away,” even eventually …