Happy as a Hedgehog

Private collection/Look and Learn/Bridgeman Images
A colored lithograph from A Book of Nonsense, by Edward Lear, circa 1875

One day in 1848 Edward Lear, professional traveler, artist, and purveyor of nonsense, entered a small Albanian village and, spotting a stream full of watercress, pulled up a clump to have with his bread and cheese. Excited by the sight of a tubby foreigner eating weeds, local children proceeded to present the peculiar visitor with a series of even more outlandish snacks—a thistle, a stick, a nice juicy grasshopper. Soon everyone was laughing, none louder than Lear, who recalled that “we parted amazingly good friends.”

The way Lear tells the story in his Journals of a Landscape Painter in Albania (1851) makes it sound as if the episode would be perfectly suited for one of his collections of nonsense verse. All the elements seem to be in place. There’s the eccentric central character, in this case Lear himself, and the gleeful toppling of hierarchies: watercress may be a delicate summer garnish in civilized Britain, but in this backward corner of Europe it is nothing but a dirty weed. And then there’s the example of how quizzical logic becomes when pushed to its limits: If a foreigner likes foraging among nature’s less exalted bounty, then why would he not also enjoy a juicy grasshopper?

What’s missing, though, is any undertow of emotional longing or physical threat. For if this anecdote really had been taken from Lear’s first nonsense book, published five years before Journal of a Landscape Painter, then the Young Man of Albania would have been smashed, or bashed, or even lashed by the locals—on an earlier occasion Lear had been pelted by Muslim townsfolk for drawing living creatures. And if it had appeared in one of his longer narrative poems from the 1870s, then the Young Man of Albania might have fulfilled his desperate longing for love by asking the grasshopper to elope with him to a faraway land.

The fact that it is so easy to imagine Lear’s anecdote recast as one of his comic verses shows how complete a hold he still has on our imagination. His four books of nonsense, published in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, are still in print, and in 2012, the bicentenary of his birth, “The Owl and the Pussycat” was voted Britain’s favorite poem. Lear’s original audience was the children of his many friends for whom he wrote illustrated letters and impromptu rhymes, but it was the grown-ups who kept buying his books, as if they had a lingering desire to return to the land where the Bong-Tree grows.

What keeps pulling us back to Lear’s comic verse is not the prospect of everyone ending up “amazingly good friends” but the rueful recognition that they probably won’t. Read his poems carefully and you’ll find anger and disappointment in…

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