Dancing with ravens: how pleasant to remember Edward Lear
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.Tagged in: Edward Lear
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