Edward Lear
Edward Lear; drawing by David Levine

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 from his devoted sister. He became a wanderer, dogged by what he called “the demon”—his epilepsy—drawn by desire for a human norm in marriage, but at the last moment dodging away from it.

Very early he turned mistrustfully from human beings to unpeopled landscapes and to birds, animals, and children. Yet he was very lucky. His talented drawings and his oddity attracted the rich who also had the British delight in eccentrics. The Earl of Derby liked his drawings of parrots. He was welcome in country houses when he emerged from the servants’ quarters to play the court fool—very much after the pattern of Hans Andersen. He was soon traveling in the Mediterranean with men of means, with one or two of whom he seems to have been platonically in love. He amused their children, he confided in their wives; and the long-lasting Victorian taste for landscape painting in water colors kept him going. Here also he was the victim of folly: he longed to belong to the grander profession of academic oil painters for which he was not trained: he came to it too late and was defeated by having gone to the academic school too old to be anything but bored by copying classical figures. His gift was spontaneity. The admiration and affection he received from his Pre-Raphaelite friends, from Holman Hunt, Ruskin, and Tennyson, were for his sketches and cartoons and his nonsense poetry.

With this outline in mind, Mr. Byrom turns to the intimate life which lies half hidden in Lear’s art. Of the painting he says little, although he makes two important remarks. First, the appeal of Lear’s landscape sketches lies in his absorption in nature uninhabited. Secondly, in Athos, in Greece, Egypt, the Holy Land, and India, he is not looking for pictorial novelty or to advance his career: these journeys were inward journeys. “He was looking for a sublime, not merely to paint it and sell it, but to possess.” A sublime of freedom and space which is organic in its detail.


Mr. Byrom takes the limericks in their groups. It has been forgotten that Lear was something of a droll singer and composer of songs, “a drawing room Orpheus,” whose greatest successes were his touching and grave versions of “Sweet and Low” and Tennyson’s “Tears, Idle Tears.” In the first series of limericks, begun in his twenties, there are gongs, a fiddle, a flute, jigs, and hornpipes. The Old Man and the Young Lady were his chief characters at the time:

There was an old man with a flute,
A sarpint ran into his boot;
But he played day and night, till the sarpint took flight,
And avoided that man with a flute.

(A horror has been exorcised.)

There was an Old Man with a gong,
Who bumped at it all the day long;
But they called out: “Oh law! you’re a horrid old bore!”
So they smashed that Old Man with a gong.

(“They”—society, the enemy, the paranoiac pursuers of the solitary—have won.)

The Young Lady is usually imperturbable, more amusing, friskier and cleverer, even if her appearance is against her—as Lear’s ugliness was against him: he had a dark, Gogolian horror of his nose.

There was a Young Lady whose chin
Resembled the point of a pin;
So she had it made sharp, and purchased a harp,
And played several tunes with her chin.

The repetition in the first and last lines suggests that the bizarre has an everyday reassurance in it: the onlookers are enraptured, instructed, entranced, cured.

The relief offered by well-mannered, conventional behavior is often pointed out. The Old Person who has the habit of eating huge quantities of rabbits turns green and relinquishes the habit. These early limericks fulfill a child’s delight in the grotesque, the dangerous and deadly, but within the guarantee of a return to the safety of good manners. One can hear the injunctions of Lear’s sister Ann or the upper-class toughness of Carroll’s Alice settling matters—but less by moral strictures than by the exercise of something calmer than frenzy: authority.

What are we to make of the Young Lady? The limericks, Mr. Byrom warns himself and us, are open-ended. It would be wrong to think the author knew any better than we do what lies behind them. (A remark that all critics and psychologists ought to put in large letters on the walls of their studies: Art is a mystery, devious and many-headed.) It could be said that the Young Lady was sister Ann, the surrogate mother, or the female aspect of Lear’s personality. He had several homosexual relationships and suffered a confusion of sexual identity. Perhaps he felt the more feminine part of himself to be more potent and a threat to his happiness and sanity. All this is speculation. All Mr. Byrom thinks we can say is that by his forties Lear had matured, made peace with himself, and settled into his eccentricity. He suffered less, if he was still absolutely lonely. When he settled for the long period at San Remo in 1871 he “opened himself to his own feelings.” Out of his honesty with himself he did not become happier, but he “saw his misery more lucidly” and began to write his best work.

We are left, quite properly, nonplused and with the feeling not just that there is more here than meets the eye, but that there is more than the eye can ever hope to discern.

It is no good making a novelist’s character out of him. There are a number of death limericks—a Victorian taste for obvious reasons—and a frantic suicide limerick about the Old Person of Tartary who divided his jugular artery. All Tartary, his wife screeched, would feel his death: “divide” and “feel” put the matter witheringly within propriety. There are limericks of indifference. Life is not the disaster it seems; it may be “a mysterious success all round.” There are metamorphoses in the cartoons. The bees, in the drawing of the Old Man who is bored by them, have human faces. Underlying these limericks is a tiptoe sense of wonder, a suspense that hushes all questions, as it hushed the old man who perceived the bird in a bush.

Mr. Byrom gets better as Lear gets better and especially on the marvelous “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat.” He remarks that Victorians had moved away from the hard clear notes of Words-worth’s Lyrical Ballads: the ballad had moved into the rubato and vibrato of the drawing room. Lear played two tricks on it:


First, he turns it into a sort of literary nursery rhyme. He leads it, as I said earlier, underground into the nursery, where adult sentimentality cannot spoil it. Second, he writes with a flawless ear.

He is out to make the romantic ballad more vigorous than the silly stuff of the Victorian drawing room. There are possible dark meanings in the poems—fear of marriage and sex: the Dong’s nose and the toes of the Pobble hardly bear thinking of in Freudian company. But the final feeling is not one of insinuation but of strangeness and wonder. On the other hand “The Dong with a Luminous Nose” is a poem of desperation, although the Dong shows enormous courage in facing the anticlimax of his journey. The superb “The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò” is a frankly autobiographical account of Lear’s evasion of marriage with his friend Gussie, who longed to marry him. The following passage will indicate the grace and subtlety of Mr. Byrom’s analysis:

He is deceiving when he ends the poem with a poignant picture of her grief. Gussie may indeed have felt sad that her love for Lear was not requited. But in the poem she has rejected him, and this is a strange way of representing the real-life situation, in which he never had the courage to propose to her in the first place. Since it is he who has been rejected, it is he who should be left desolate and grieving. Instead, the poet places the whole burden of sadness on the Lady, and allows the Bò a bold and decisive escape. While this is a kind of deception, it is not in the end dishonest. It has two cleansing effects. First, it dispels self-pity. The poet cannot pity himself if he is busy making a bold escape. Second, because the real grief has been displaced, it can be safely recognized and fully expressed. So an evasion of shallow feeling (self-pity) allows for an expression of real and deep feeling (grief).

We come at the end to Lear’s alienation from the society that had pitched him heartlessly into the world. A long political essay might be written on the fate of Mr. Discobbolos, the perfect bourgeois who contains the conflict between the idea of the sublime as domestic and the knowledge that domesticity is a prison: Lear’s case too. The Discobboloses are wavering expatriates as Lear himself was. Their tension is too much to endure. Mr. Discobbolos is a Humpty Dumpty who decides to blow himself and his family to “thousands of bits in the sky so blue” and, as Mr. Byrom says, this is the only occasion in a mature work in which three kinds of murder are decided on—suicide, wife murder, and infanticide. Pretty grim. (Was it Balzac who spoke of revenge as one of the privileges of the artist?)

The amusing thing is that the poem was set going by the elderly Lear’s fury with a German who had built a monstrous hotel at San Remo which spoiled Lear’s view, but of course a mere liver attack may set off the gunpowder of a lifetime. Society had better learn that it cannot play nasty tricks on children: they will fight back, sometimes in words of genius. These words happened to be nonsense, which is perhaps a form of a childish welcome to terrorism: but he was imaginative, not cynical as the author of “Little Willie in the best of sashes” was. We can see why the wounded Tennyson and the martyred Ruskin found Mr. Lear so pleasant to know. We must be grateful for Mr. Byrom’s prose and his perceptions.

This Issue

October 13, 1977