‘Verily, I am an odd bird’, Lear once confessed. He was also a superb illustrator of odd birds, as his Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots attests. Working from live models in the gardens of the newly established Zoological Society in London the 18-year-old Lear produced his book without any formal training, independent funding, or institutional support. The remarkable story of his work on this volume—alongside other commissions—has recently been told in Robert McCracken Peck’s The Natural History of Edward Lear. ‘Parrots are my favourites’, Lear noted, but there is also another bird that haunts his imagination, one that makes its presence felt across his oeuvre (from his ornithological draughtsmanship to his travel journals, from his landscape painting to his nonsense poetry, and beyond). Enter The Pelican.
He began drawing these birds early. Houghton Library holds a lovely preparatory sketch of a pelican that Lear would later work up for John Gould’s The Birds of Europe (1837):
He depicted the creatures singly and in pairs, and the finished articles were resplendent examples of what could be achieved using the new technique of lithography, which involved the artist drawing the initial image directly on to a piece of fine-grained limestone before transferring it to paper:
Passing through Avlona (now Vlorë) in Albania a few years later, Lear had a singular experience—at once absurd and strangely moving. He recalled it in his Travels of a Landscape Painter in Albania, &c. (1851):
As we skirted these salt lagunes I observed an infinite number of what appeared to be large white stones, arranged in rows with great regularity, though yet with something odd in their form not easily to be described. The more I looked at them, the more I felt they were not what they seemed to be . . . so I resolved to examine these mysterious white stones forthwith, and off we went, when—lo! on my approach, one and all put forth legs, long necks, and great wings, and “stood confessed” so many great pelicans, which, with croakings expressive of great disgust at all such ill-timed interruptions, rose up into the air in a body of five or six hundred and soared slowly away to the cliffs north of the gulf.
Lear goes on to say that his travelling companion ‘nearly fell off his horse with laughter at my surprise at the transmutation of the white stones’. Perhaps the translation of stolid matter into legs, necks, and wings wryly alludes to the lithographer’s art, and to Lear’s ability to make ‘something odd’ and beautiful take off from white stone. He made a hasty, on-the-spot sketch of the encounter, jotting little notes on the paper to remind himself of what he had seen (‘foreground of Pelicans, white and gray’):
Later, he turned to lithography once again in order to render the creatures in more detail:
A few years afterwards, Lear took a risk and decided to ‘stand confessed’ himself, admitting to Alfred Tennyson that:
I feel woundily like a spectator,—all through my life—of what goes on amongst those I know: very little as an actor. David’s particular Pelican in the Wilderness was a fool to what I have been all my days, whether in a crowd or not—But I suppose it’s all right, or will come so bye and bye.
He’s alluding to the Psalms (‘I am like a pelican of the wilderness’). When watching pelicans, Lear is often watching himself, bringing his own loneliness or isolation to mind. In Avlona, the pelicans in the wilderness were defined by their togetherness; hundreds of them rose in unison while the humans who watched them were divided (the birds croaked as one, while the awe-struck spectator was laughed at by his companion). It’s as though Lear’s inability to get to the birds—or to get at them—somehow puts him in touch with all the things that are ungettable about his relations with other people—and with himself.
Over twenty-five years later, he found himself absorbed by the pelicans of the Nile, noting in his diary:
O queer community of birds! On a long sand spit are 4 black storks — one legged: apart. — 8 Pelicans — careless foolish. 17 small ducks, cohesive. 23 Herons — watchful variously posed.
(9 January 1867)
A few days afterwards, he added:
Perhaps the funniest community came thro’ the air, just then — 2 immense pelicans— & 20 cranes. These alighted near 2 other Pelicans who put up their heads — (present arms,) & then slept.
It’s the combination of queerness and community that speaks to him; he’s marvelling at the way in which oddities can live alongside one another without too much apparent bother. The cranes, herons, ducks, and pelicans all come together again a few months later in one of Lear’s finest nonsense poems, ‘The Pelican Chorus’ (he also composed a musical setting for it; Houghton has an autographed manuscript). The poem tells of how Dell, the daughter of the King and Queen of the Pelicans, makes her grand entrance into society at a feast put on for
Herons and Gulls, and Cormorants black,
Cranes, and Flamingos with scarlet back,
Plovers and Storks, and Geese in clouds,
Swans and Dilberry Ducks in crowds.
Everyone is invited to the party, and Dell falls ‘in violent love’ with one particular guest, the King of the Cranes:
As zoologist Clemency Fisher has observed, Lear’s drawing in fact shows a pelican alongside a composite creation (the King is upper-half Blue Heron and lower-half Stanley Crane), so it would seem that minglings and inter-breedings are to be allowed everywhere in this nonsensical swamp. And yet, because the poem also humanizes the birds (the story is related by the proud parents, King and Queen Pelican, who are endowed with the power of speech), it also brings with it those glimpses of sadness that Lear always feels whenever he reads the lives of humans through those of birds:
She vowed to marry the King of the Cranes,
Leaving the Nile for stranger plains;
And away they flew in a gathering crowd
Of endless birds in a lengthening cloud
. . .
And far away in the twilight sky,
We heard them singing a lessening cry,—
Farther and farther till out of sight,
And we stood alone in the silent night!
The poem leaves the parents somewhere close to the place—and the mood—in which those Pelicans left Lear in Avlona: struck by the beauty of creatures who were never really theirs to have and to hold, touched by the way in which all lives are often lived most intensely when lived on the wing (‘gathering’ becomes ‘lengthening’ becomes ‘lessening’). Dell flies the nest and is now ‘out of sight’, although not out of mind, and one of the things her flight brings home to her parents is that the most cherished forms of intimacy and community contain intimations of ‘stranger plains’. A simple phrase in the last line captures the mixed feeling well: ‘we stood alone’. In Lear’s imagination, ‘we’-ness is always haunted by ‘alone’-ness. The poet means, of course, that the King and Queen of the Pelicans stood together, with nobody else nearby; but he also means that, at times like this, even togetherness must exist alongside an apprehension of gaps, longings, distances.
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For the next installment, Aspects of Edward Lear (Part IV), go here.