March 17, 2018

"How Pleasant to Know Mr Lear"

On this day in 1846, Edward Lear's A Book of Nonsense was published. This was the first of his four "nonsense" books, and Lear was the first in a golden half-century of English nonsense that would include Lewis Carroll and Hilaire Belloc. Lear was a self-taught illustrator with a special talent for animals, and while still in his twenties he was commissioned to make drawings of the Earl of Derby's menagerie, and to live with the Earl while doing them. During his four-year residence, Lear entertained the Earl's grandchildren with his nonsense limericks and accompanying illustrations. He also developed his enduring fear of living as if confined in some stuffy Victorian mansion: "Nothing I long for half so much as to giggle heartily and hop on one leg down the great gallery -- but I dare not."

Lear left England in 1837, and spent most of the next 50 years living or traveling in Italy, Greece, India and Egypt, producing seven illustrated travel books about his wanderings. His contemporaries, his letters and his biographers all portray him less as the avuncular eccentric than as a lonely bachelor plagued by epilepsy, asthma, melancholia and a tangle of maladjustments -- to being a twentieth child raised virtually parentless, a victim of sexual abuse, a repressed homosexual, and more. Like the travel and the painting, the nonsense became a way to cope or cover up, with samples such as the following vulnerable to readings which range from the innocent to the Freudian:

Edward Lear, Old Man in a Barge
There was an Old Man in a Barge,
Whose Nose was exceedingly large;
But in fishing by night,
It supported a light,
Which helped that Old Man in a Barge.

"How Pleasant to Know Mr Lear," written in his last decade, may be a way of saying 'how unpleasant to be Mr Lear,' always at sea in a sieve or in shoes too tight; it may also be just fun, and true:
    . . . When he walks in a waterproof white,
    The children run after him so!
    Calling out, 'He's come out in his night-
    Gown, that crazy old Englishman, oh!'

    He weeps by the side of the ocean,
    He weeps on the top of the hill;
    He purchases pancakes and lotion,
    And chocolate shrimps from the mill.

    He reads but he cannot speak Spanish,
    He cannot abide ginger-beer:
    Ere the days of his pilgrimage vanish,
    How pleasant to know Mr Lear!

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