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 every line: a wife is kept in a box by her husband; an old man is berated for dancing with a raven; a young lady from Wales catches a fish without any scales. In Lear’s limericks—not a term he ever used himself—the final line recalls the first rather than rhyming with it. Some curmudgeons have found the effect not only unfunny but slack, as if the poet simply couldn’t come up with a killer finish. But the veteran British biographer Jenny Uglow argues astutely in Mr. Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense that these repetitions are crucial to Lear’s engaging candor. He shows us what we find so hard to bear: that the business of living is not progressive but circular, and that there’s a high chance of ending up stuck where we started. The Old Person of Rhodes who hates toads and pays his cousins to catch them finishes the verse by carrying on, even though the effort is “futile.” The Young Lady of Dorking who buys a huge bonnet for walking soon discovers that she prefers staying at home in Dorking.
The persistence of Lear’s Persons, young and old, is doubly admirable given their refusal to take any notice of the naysayers who carp from the sidelines. Nearly every limerick features a “They” who want to scold the Persons into conformity. They tut at the way the Old Person of Hurst won’t stop getting fatter, They smash the Old Person of Buda who keeps growing ruder, and They tell the Old Man of Melrose that he looks ridiculous walking on the tips of his toes. For George Orwell, writing about Lear in the middle of the twentieth century, They are the oppressive arm of the state, intent on crushing individuality in the service of totalitarianism. For British psychoanalysts long fascinated by Lear’s work, They operate as a superego, an internalized policeman who steps in to censor a Person every time she attempts to express a side of herself that is messy, nonsensical, and authentic.
In Mr. Lear, Uglow sets out to show how both They and the Persons were forged by the conditions of Lear’s early life. He was born in 1812 to a City of London merchant, which explains his knack for rendering the dropped h’s and glottal stops of cockney speech in some of the longer poems. As the next-to-last child in a family of sixteen, Lear was painfully aware of the financial costs of animal fertility, especially after his father was humiliatingly declared bankrupt. So it’s no surprise that his comic universe throngs with prolific parents, fathers especially, who struggle to keep their progeny alive: the old man of Apulia feeds his twenty sons on nothing but buns, another huge family exists solely on snails, and in one poem the children eat so much that the father dies of shock. Rejected by his mother, who must have been numbed by the sheer size of her family (it’s possible she gave birth twenty-one times and lost some babies along the way), Edward was raised by his sister Ann, a lifelong spinster.
Maternal rejection and paternal incompetence only go so far in explaining Lear’s feelings of permanent displacement. From an early age he suffered from epilepsy, and while no one really believed that the condition was a mark of the Devil, it was still sufficiently shaming to make a sensitive boy feel permanently estranged from himself. As an adult his insistence on hiding away whenever he felt a fit coming on kept him physically and psychically remote from his peers: “It is wonderful that these fits have never been discovered,” he wrote gratefully in old age. The usual social pleasures of a mid-Victorian bachelor—a walking tour with friends, sharing lodgings with a colleague—were out of bounds since a seizure might occur at any moment. Romance was even harder to imagine, since at some point the bride would need to be let in on the terrible secret.
It wasn’t just health anxieties that kept Lear away from women. Ever since Vivien Noakes, Lear’s pioneering biographer, suggested in 1968 that he was a “repressed” or “non-practicing” gay man, Lear’s erotic preferences have been the subject of bad-tempered debate. Critics of Noakes’s view have drawn attention to the several crushes on women about which Lear would boast tiresomely to family and friends. There was one in particular, a plain, gentle young woman called Augusta Bethell, with whom he episodically declared himself to be in love. Every time Gussie moved away, married, or otherwise became unavailable, Lear convinced himself that he had been about to propose. At the age of seventy-five, months from death, he was still considering popping the question.
Whenever Lear sighed after a wife, he imagined her primarily as a purveyor of “pencils and puddings,” which suggests that what he actually had in mind was less a romantic partner than an older sister. Uglow follows Noakes in assuming, as a matter of accepted fact, that Lear was gay and that he worked hard to keep his desires out of his diaries and letters. She notes that “he recorded moods, health, toothache, itchy skin, constipation; work and travel; people met, letters received, gossip heard; walks taken, books read, meals eaten. What did he not record? Dreams, lusts, his feelings about words.” Except, that is, for a brief span in the mid-1850s when Lear fell lopsidedly and traumatically in love with a younger man called Frank Lushington. Many of the relevant diaries and letters from that time turn out to be missing—though Uglow can’t help wondering, “Are they still in some trunk, waiting to be discovered?”
For the time being, she reads between the lines and directs us to the many limericks in which the poet writes tenderly of unorthodox couplings. It’s not just the Owl and the Pussycat, although she is surely right to draw attention to just how much is at stake here: cats and birds of prey are quite capable of tearing each other to pieces. Other unlikely escape artists include the Duck and Kangaroo who “hopped the whole world three times round,” with the fowl balancing precariously on the marsupial’s tail. Then there’s the Daddy Long-legs and the Fly, another mixed-up couple who “Rushed downwards to the foamy sea/With one sponge-taneous cry.”
Lear was twenty-five before he could afford to rush down to the foamy sea, let alone hop the world three times round. By the age of fourteen and a half he was drawing for “bread and cheese,” loitering in innyards and selling sketches to passengers waiting to change coaches. Before long he was attracting serious attention for his remarkable ability as an ornithological illustrator. At eighteen he produced the landmark Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots, the first monograph produced in England that concentrated on a single family of birds. Many felt it to be as good as anything produced by the great Audubon, including Audubon himself. The secret was not simply young Lear’s technical skill but also his insistence on working from live models, which he could do at the Regent’s Park Zoo, where he had permission to sketch.
On the strength of this triumph Lear was invited by the Earl of Derby to his private menagerie on the family’s estate at Knowsley, where exotic animals from all over the globe disported themselves in the driving Lancashire rain. The experience not only gave Lear a sense of the grand span of the world, but also fixed his sense of his place in the taxonomy of British class. Neither servant nor gentleman, he was invited to dine with the toffs only on account of his professional usefulness. He could sing a bit, play the piano, and loved being with children in a blessedly uncreepy way.
This crafting of a social persona for evenings was particularly striking given that during the day Lear was honing his understanding of the way in which scientists classified the natural world. It is this impulse to document sameness and variation that Uglow suggests is the organizing principle of Lear’s limericks. His Persons are mostly defined with reference to their habitat, their behavior, and their diet. They like to sit at the tops of trees or perch on boxes; they play the harp with their chin or stick their heads into lilies; for food, they prefer crumpets, or roast mutton, or gruel with mice.
Nor do they stay the same. They are often in the process of bursting out of their old forms and evolving into strange new shapes. There’s a nice coincidence to the fact that in 1836 Lear briefly lived in the same West End lodgings where the young Charles Darwin was busy sorting his HMS Beagle specimens, trying to work out the process by which species evolve. To both young men it was becoming clear that the world’s physical forms, far from being divinely fixed, were in constant flux. The difference was that while Darwin was working in time’s longest measure, Lear’s comic transmutations happen in the blink of an eye. He draws the Old Person of Bree as something between a mermaid and a giant prawn. The Old Man of Quebec appears to be turning into a beetle, while the Old Man of Peru is already well on his way to becoming a bear.
Language too evolves at an extraordinary rate in Lear’s hands. For all that he liked to call his comic verse “nonsense,” it is actually no such thing. Meaningless babble does not sell books, and by 1846, with the publication of his first Book of Nonsense, Lear was selling thousands. Rather, what he gives us is language stuffed to its limits, made huge and potent by a surfeit of meanings. So, for instance, when Lear describes himself in a letter as “happy as a hedgehog,” we get a sense not just of his inner bliss but also of the sharp prickles he required to defend that precarious state. In another letter he describes wanting to stay in “a Pharmouse or a Nin,” and we work out both the intended meaning—farmhouse, inn—and are released into a stream of private associative fantasy, involving pharmacies, dormice, djinns, and who knows what else.
On other occasions the language is more direct, as when Lear describes himself as feeling “like a cow who has swallowed a glass bottle—or a boiled weasel.” We at once pick up on his terror of collapsing corporeal boundaries, which reaches a crescendo in his comic verse with “The Pobble Who Has No Toes” (the important point being that the Pobble “had once as many as we” before they were traumatically lopped off). When he declares he is “splendidophoropherostiphongious” we immediately understand that what is being communicated is an excess of joy that cannot help but overflow available linguistic containers. Uglow has a lovely way of summarizing all this by explaining how by the 1870s Lear’s wordplay had become Darwinian in its developmental energy, “alive, protean, ever evolving,” and “finding new endings and appendages, like new limbs.” Only now, she suggests, are we able to see what a huge influence Lear had on a whole cadre of later modernist writers, including Joyce, Eliot, and Auden.
This is praise indeed, although it’s unlikely that Lear would have set great store by being hailed as the pathfinder of literary modernism. He acknowledged that “bosh requires a good deal of care,” but he never considered his nonsense verse as anything more than a handy knack that had turned into a useful money-spinner. Real art, for him, resided in the huge landscape oil paintings on which he labored throughout the 1850s and 1860s. The moment he had some spare money he enrolled at the Royal Academy for the training he had missed as a boy. He also informally apprenticed himself to William Holman Hunt, in an effort to understand just how the younger man achieved the pin-sharp brushwork that was the calling card of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Yet while Lear worked hard to unlearn old tricks and acquire new skills, his finished work always defaulted to earlier models. Poussin and Claude remained his major influences.
You can see the evidence in the beautiful reproductions included in Uglow’s handsome volume. Masada on the Dead Sea (1858) is a seven-foot-long depiction of a fiery orange sunrise over a historic site, which while technically accomplished could only draw faint praise from the Times as being “conscientious.” Cedars of Lebanon (1861), which was supposed to seal Lear’s reputation as a great artist, was also poorly received and proved hard to sell, eventually going for only a third of the asking price. The fact that at one point Lear was hired to give Queen Victoria drawing lessons suggests that his art was generally considered both technically accomplished and, to use that curiously ambivalent Victorian compliment, “unexceptional.” It was everything that his comic verse was not: conventional, polite, earnest, and slightly pleased with itself.
Despite critical and commercial failure, Lear never stopped thinking of himself primarily as a landscape artist. This kept him constantly on the move for the better part of thirty years as he roamed around the Mediterranean looking for the best views. This compulsive fidgetiness presents a challenge for any biographer who chooses, as Uglow has, to write a cradle-to-grave account of her subject’s life. A thematic approach, or a partial life history, would have allowed her to compress or skip over the relentless roll call of railway journeys, bad hotels, good lodgings, slow mules, viceroys, encounters with fans (his nonsense was making him famous) and bores. As it is we are obliged to endure more of them than seems quite bearable.
But that, perhaps, is Uglow’s clever point. By making us feel exasperated, sad, dizzy, and bored as we watch the Middle-aged Man of Nowhere in Particular use up his money, health, and creativity on pointlessly circular activity, she makes us wonder in exasperation just what he was trying to outrun. If we could speak to him as They, we would ask, “Pray why do you never sit still?” Chances are that Lear would not have been able to say. In his late poem “How Pleasant to Know Mr. Lear,” he mutters something about dining on “chocolate shrimps from the mill,” which is really no answer at all. But as Uglow points out, the poem also contains two easily overlooked lines that may hold a clue to what is being displaced: “He weeps by the side of the ocean/He weeps on the top of the hill.”
What was he weeping about? Uglow suggests that the root of his recurring sadness, which he referred to as “the morbids,” lay in two incidents of sexual abuse in his early childhood, at the hands of a cousin and an older brother. In middle age, following the news of his cousin’s death, he took to marking the anniversary of the worst of these two events in his diary each year. Quite apart from the initial trauma, Uglow thinks it possible that he believed that these earlier experiences had skewed him toward a lifetime of homosexual desire and quotes his diary from middle age in which he described them as “the greatest evil…which must now last to the end—spite of all reason and effort.” After the disappointment of 1855, when he failed to transform his friendship with Lushington into an affair, he seems to have been too timid to try again. Instead he developed a fond dependency on his Greek servant Giorgio, who fussed around him with warm coats and chamber pots and gave him the mothering that may have been his greatest lack of all.
Yet it was these deficits in Lear’s life that produced his greatest art. When he spoke directly and clearly in his landscape paintings, the results were always slightly uninspired. But when he took refuge in a code whose sources he didn’t quite understand himself, he enchanted the entire world. It is a language that speaks of odd bodies and unlikely pairings, of threats ignored and lives made radiant (literally in the case of the “Dong with a luminous Nose,” and yes, Lear’s nonsense world is full of phalluses). Above all it is full of Persons who continue to revel in their queerness, despite what They say.