Thursday, November 30th, 2017...10:47 am

Aspects of Edward Lear (Part I)

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Houghton Library at Harvard has an incomparable set of materials relating to Edward Lear—the largest, most diverse collection in the world: his natural history illustrations, thousands of landscape paintings, travel journals, diaries, letters, nonsense books and manuscripts, and personal documents including musical scores. This is the first of four blogs by Matthew Bevis, Professor of English Literature at Keble College, Oxford University, celebrating Lear’s work and exploring how Houghton’s collection can shed new light on his achievements. For a scrupulously-detailed checklist of the collection at Houghton, see Hope Mayo’s Appendix in the Harvard Library Bulletin, 22.2-3 (Summer-Fall 2011), 97-159.


‘How pleasant to know Mr. Lear!’ The pleasantry of one of the poet’s most famous lines also contains a wry smile at those who think they have got to the bottom of him. When Emily Tennyson told Lear that a certain Miss Cotton admired him, he replied: ‘Alack! For Miss Cotton! And all admirers. But we all know about the beautiful glass jar—which was only a white one after all, only there was blue water inside it.’ What we all know, then, is that we don’t always quite know what we’re admiring. Lear’s metaphor may be read in different ways: a person made of glass could be fragile or tough; maybe he’s less transparent than he seems; perhaps he only appears to be beautiful when he’s feeling ‘blue’; and so on. The poet was fascinated by the ways in which people are read (and misread), and by how beautiful surfaces conceal hidden depths.

Take his Old Person of Bar. Many of Lear’s limerick figures initially seem to be fantastical, nonsensical, other-worldly creatures, yet they are often being tacitly observed or judged by society. Houghton’s collection contains some revealing draft drawings for his nonsense books, including this one:

MS Typ. 55.1

There was an Old Person of Bar,

Who passed all her life in a jar,

                                         Which she painted pea-green, to appear more serene,

That placid Old Person of Bar.

In the published version, Lear erased the three shadowy spectators so as to leave the lady alone in the picture. But what the draft implies is that he began the poem with a sense that she is always being studied—not just by readers, but by the society she is both apart from and a part of. One way to read her would be to imagine her as akin to one of the Jumblies:

MS Typ 55.14 (36)

O Timballo! How happy we are,

                   When we live in a sieve and a crockery-jar,

                And all night long in the moonlight pale,

    We sail away with a pea-green sail.

One hesitates before shadowing this ecstatic escapism with any other feeling, but the facial expressions of the group on the left are not quite the same as those on the right. The ‘we’ who are happy may not include everyone. Like the Old Person who passed all her life in the jar, one may wish to ‘appear’ serene, but that is not necessarily the same thing as being so.

For Lear, the ‘pea-green’ often conjures up a vision of serenity, or pleasure, or happiness. His most famous escape-artists take off in a pea-green boat:

MS Typ 55.14 (105)

They don’t seem to have a care in the world as they sail away from it, and yet the couple are prudent too (they take ‘plenty of money’). The Owl and the Pussy-cat are perhaps the most gloriously odd of all Lear’s odd couples, but they are not so odd as to shun social convention. They get married, after all.

Lear once conceded that his nonsense was ‘bosh’, but he went on to add: ‘not but that bosh requires a good deal of care’. And sometimes it takes a child, not an adult, to spot this care. My three-year-old daughter is a huge fan of ‘The Owl and The Pussy-Cat’; it has to be read to her—just so—at most bedtimes. Reciting it recently I told her how the pair ‘were married next day, | By the Turkey who lived on the hill’, and she, not unfuriously, shouted out: ‘Lives!’ She was right, of course: Lear wrote that the turkey lives on the hill, not lived. Although the story is couched in the past tense, here the narrator switches focus for a second, as if to remind readers that this faraway nonsense world spills out into the present, into what Wordsworth called ‘the very world which is the world | Of all of us,—the place where in the end | We find our happiness, or not at all!’ The turkey isn’t over when the poem ends; he’s going about his business as we speak. And although Lear’s poem suspends the Owl and the Pussy-Cat in a kind of eternal happiness as they dance by the light of the moon, he kept on thinking about the meanings of the song, and about what the couple might be up to now. In fact, he went on to write strange sequel to the tale; and, just as with the Old Person in the Jar and the Jumblies, a second look revises first impressions. The sequel can be found in Vivien Noakes’s edition of The Complete Nonsense and Other Verse, but that’s another story.

Post contributed by:

Matthew Bevis, Professor of English Literature, Keble College, Oxford University

For the next installment, Aspects of Edward Lear (Part II), go here.




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