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Dancing with ravens: how pleasant to remember Edward Lear

Jonathan Gibbs
lear getty 300x225 Dancing with ravens: how pleasant to remember Edward Lear

Exhibition of Edward Lear’s artwork in the Ashmolean Museum - Getty Images

Where do we stand today on Edward Lear? John Lennon loved him, as did Queen Victoria, to whom he gave drawing lessons. Danny Baker took the title of his recent autobiography, Going to Sea in a Sieve, from him. And, although he is still best known for his nonsense verse, you never have to look far for an exhibition of his artwork – whether his earlier zoological illustrations, or his later landscapes, made on his many Mediterranean travels, which he undertook largely for the sake of his health.

Last year there were bicentennial shows in Oxford, at the Ashmolean, and at the Royal Society, and there is currently a smaller exhibition of prints at the World Land Trust gallery in Halesworth, Suffolk. The zoological illustrations I can take or leave, but his watercolour landscapes are wonderfully delicate, and a world away from the brash line drawings with which he illustrated his children’s books.

But when we celebrate his legacy, as we might do today, on the 125th anniversary of his death, it is to the nonsense that we turn. The Owl and the Pussy-Cat has kept its place at the heart of the nursery rhyme canon, with The Jumblies (them that went to sea in that sieve), the Dong with the Luminous Nose and The Pobble who had no Toes, coming close behind.

The illustrated alphabets and nonsense botanies (ah, the dainty Manypeeplia Upsidedownia, a bluebell-like plant with, for its flowers, tiny people hanging upside down) still raise a laugh quicker than any number of Flanimals. And just how important the illustrations are to the nonsense is suggested by the fact that, when Lear was included in 2000’s The New Penguin Book of English Verse (he wasn’t in the ‘old’, 1956 one), his poems came with the drawings attached; and those are the only drawings in it.

George Orwell admired the poems’ “amiable lunacy”, pointing out that there is an undercurrent of sadness to many of the poems and songs, and this is something that had chimed with GK Chesterton, who preferred the “rich hues and haunting rhythms” of The Jumblies’

Far and few, far and few

Are the lands where the Jumblies live

to the more intellectual nonsense of Lewis Carroll, whose Alice came twenty years after the first publication of Lear’s A Book of Nonsense in 1846.

Thus far, I think we can take most people with us. But it’s when we come to the limericks that opinion tends to divide, and divide sharply. Kingsley Amis hated Lear’s attempts at the form – well he hated Lear altogether (“Hate Lear.” Letter to Philip Larkin, 11 June 1976), but the limericks came in for a particular pasting when Amis was looking for poems to put in his New Oxford Book of Light Verse. “It’s amazing how many bad limericks there are in the world, as I’m still discovering. Lear was bad enough, the old man of Boulogne and the young lady of Riga were bloody awful,” he wrote to Robert Conquest, classifying them as “quite competent most of them but without any real ingenuity or any humour.”

The real sticking point, I think, is the identical (or ‘null’) rhyme of the last line, which is often, in Lear, a near-repetition of the first:

There was an Old Man of Whitehaven,

Who danced a quadrille with a raven;

But they said, ‘It’s absurd

To encourage this bird!’

So they smashed that Old Man of Whitehaven.

Orwell, following Aldous Huxley (see the kind of cheerleaders the man has had!), sees in this a political statement, pointing out that “To smash somebody just for dancing a quadrille with a raven is exactly the kind of thing that ‘They’ would do”, where ‘they’ are all the right-thinking, fun-drubbing, soulless monsters of this world.

It’s left to Anthony Burgess – who, naturally, wrote a never-filmed screenplay for a Lear biopic – to calm things down. “I think most people only pretend to like the limericks: they feel in their bones that Lear lets the form down by making the last line a feeble near-reprise of the first”.

Personally, and without any sense at all of Lear’s feelings about the matter, I think the dud last rhyme has something very modern about it. It’s bathetic, it clunks and it’s wrong, but it wrongfoots us too. It’s the kind of deliberate #fail that has driven much contemporary comedy since The Mighty Boosh.

Should you feel the urge, the World Land Trust is running a limerick competition along with their exhibition. Unfortunately, the rules do not give any indication as to their preferred final line rhyme.

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  • bobbellinhell

    The raven limerick is particularly apposite in the current authoritarian atmosphere in the UK. The terror police certainly would smash you for dancing a quadrille with a raven these days.

  • parallel_monologue

    Very nice to be reminded of him…maybe it’s time for a revival of nonsense, in these stymied circumstances for humour.
    There is not much to laugh about in the current state of affairs, it either makes you angry or despair!

  • Beachgirl

    There was a British Poet name Lear
    who wrote irreverently without fear
    He was a poet of considerable with
    so celebrate him with laughter not tears lol

  • Beachgirl

    I’m up for a Lear revival, definitely. If you ask me, we as a society really need to find the balance again, gain a genuine sense of humor and learn to laugh with rather than at each other. There’s always something good to laugh about if one looks around everyday life, and doesn’t keep their nose buried in politics and/or take on an attitude of all gloom and doom all the time. Lear taught us through his limericks and poetry that you can’t take life too seriously, it’s just not good for one. Unfortunately, most folks today fall into one of two categories: extremely hypersensistive and humorless and insisting on maintaining control of their environment through relentless political correctness with no room for laughter at all, or the very insensitive ‘bullies’ who cloak their hostility, anger, hatred, prejudices and aggression in so-called “jokes” which are in reality cruel, hurtful and malicious taunts targeted at those whom they dislike (generally the hypersensitives. lol)

  • parallel_monologue

    Too right, a very good analysis. I like your Limerick, too.


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