Inventing Edward Lear

Sara Lodge

Harvard University Press, £23.95

Review by Nick Major




> I don’t have much time for surveys of the most or least popular books,

> but it says something about Edward Lear’s enduring appeal that in 2014

> The Owl and the Pussy-Cat was voted Britain’s best-loved children’s

> poem. Only this morning, my son threw into my lap an illustrated

> edition of Lear’s verse and started yelling his daily refrain, “read

> it, read it!” All children love nonsense. Lear’s nonsense, however, is

> superlative.


> In this heavy but insightful critical study of his work, Sara Lodge, a

> lecturer at St. Andrew’s University, considers some intriguing reasons

> why this might the case. In order to appreciate Lear, Lodge argues, it

> is essential to understand his life-long interest in music and art. It

> should come as no surprise to most readers that Lear was a consummate

> performer and musician. As his name suggests, he had a finely-tuned

> inner ear.


> From an early age he played a variety of instruments, including the

> piano, the accordion and - like “the elegant fowl” in his famous poem

> - the small guitar. As a boy, he sang at artists’ parties. He set

> Tennyson’s poems to music. In his twenties, one of his patrons, Lord

> Derby, invited him to live at Knowsley Hall in Liverpool. His job was

> to paint the animals and birds in Derby’s menagerie - drawing and

> painting were how Lear earned his keep - and during the evenings he

> regaled his hosts with drawing room ballads and comic songs. It all

> explains why, even if his words don’t mean anything, they make the

> most delightful music.


> Lodge also presents a convincing case for a textual analysis of Lear’s

> poems and limericks. I confess, initially I scoffed at the idea that

> The Quangle Wangle’s Hat, for instance, could be subject to much

> reason. Lodge is aware of this kind of scepticism. She notes GK

> Chesterton’s writing about nonsense verse, in which he argued against

> a utilitarian approach to life and art: “So long as we regard a tree

> as an obvious thing, naturally and reasonably created for a giraffe to

> eat, we cannot properly wonder at it.” Lear’s verse, says Lodge, has a

> “purity that wit and logic lack, because unreason is closer to the

> state necessary to ‘draw out the soul of things.’ ”


> Nevertheless, looking at Lear’s work in the light of the 19th

> century’s great philosophical debate between religion and science does

> reveal some method behind the linguistic madness. Lear refused to

> worship “the greatest of English gods, conventionality”. He was a

> liberal and religious non-conformist. For him, a “Christianity that

> didn’t reflect a broad, tolerant and progressive view of morality and

> which insisted that those whose beliefs lay outside Anglicanism were

> ‘damned’ was, in his inventive coinage, ‘Christinanity.’” His famous

> Book of Nonsense, published in 1846, with its wealth of spoonerisms,

> limericks and portmanteau words, can be understood as a joyous riposte

> to literal interpretations of The Bible.


> Lear was a devotee of natural history. He was a member of the British

> Association for the Advancement of Science. His main contribution was

> in “communicating science” through his zoological and ornithological

> paintings and drawings. Among many other projects, he illustrated John

> Gould’s well-known study, The Birds of Europe.

> Lear’s surreal polymorph inventions, like the Scroobius Pip, “are no

> more inherently strange than many of the real species he was

> depicting.” Moreover, the development of theories of evolution

> demonstrated to Lear that language is like a living organism, always

> changing and adapting to its times.


> In observations like these, Lodge shows herself a brilliant researcher

> with a synthesising imagination. Although this book is definitely not

> a biography, Lear emerges from it as an elusive figure of fun, despite

> his unhappy upbringing and afflictions: epilepsy and “dishpear,” as he

> put it. He rarely took himself too seriously (he sketched countless

> self-caricatures), a sign of good character. Yet he was more than a

> court jester. He was a vigorous intellectual. On his bookshelves, The

> Origin of the Species sat comfortably next to Plato’s Republic.

> Reflecting on this latter work, “Lear considered his own chances of

> metempsychosis; he might return after death as ‘a tree – a cloud – a

> cabbage – or silence in the next world: but most probably an ass.’”

> Hee-haw!