- Edward Lear: A Biography by Peter Levi
Macmillan, 362 pp, £20.00, January 1995, ISBN 0 333 58804 5
Which famous Victorian poet-painter was the 20th child of a dodgy stockbroker? Yes, it was the man in the runcible hat, Edward Lear. His latest biographer, Peter Levi, confides to us that, like Lear’s mother, his own grandmother also had 21 children. Easily lured into digression, Levi adds that ‘it is not uncommon in such families that by some mysterious compensation of nature a number of the children or grandchildren should be childless, and that is what happened in Edward’s family.’ Seven of the Lear siblings never had a chance to breed; the gifted 20th turned out to be, as the Victorians used to say, not the marrying kind. By another mysterious compensation of nature he rejoiced greatly in the company of children and is described in this book as ‘one of the world’s natural uncles’.
Vol. 17 No. 10 · 25 May 1995
Reviewing Peter Levi’s Edward Lear: A Biography (LRB, 23 February), E.S. Turner comments on Lear the limerick-writer: ‘Notoriously, he often squandered the fifth line by making it a lazy variant on the first, whereas, we are told here, it should serve as a sudden crescendo, with a rhyme like a stone from a catapult. An obscenity, Levi says, is always a great help.’ By whose authority are Levi and Turner laying down the Law of the Limerick? Any primary-school child could think up a rhyming obscenity, but a good poet using an old form tries to do something a bit different with it. Lear’s deflationary tactics in his last lines, far from being ‘lazy’, seem beautifully calculated, and produce a range of effects. To name a few: triumphant, emphatic, mournful, disapproving, disbelieving. They may imply a wry ‘no comment’ on the preceding absurdity. The repeated word is usually a place-name, and there may be a sense of weary relief as the protagonist returns home after futile or disturbing adventures elsewhere (e.g. that politically most incorrect Old Person of Dundalk who tried to teach Fishes to walk, with disastrous effects on the students). Or there may be a dreadful banishment: ‘You shall never remain in Thermopylae.’ A frequent result of the repetition is to push the emphasis back onto a previous word in the line, perhaps a wonderfully apt adjective (nonsense-ish or not) which may create a jewel-flash of irony (see ‘That ingenious Young Lady of Poole’, for instance, who decided to heat up her soup because it had got cold), or a telling portrait of the character in question, e.g. ‘That abruptions old man of Thames Ditton’. Sometimes, it is a dramatic or violent verb that gets foregrounded: ‘smashed’ is a surprising favourite. If Lear were a contemporary poet, critics would be praising him for ‘deconstructing’ the limerick. Better, that, than taking him to task for failing to be predictable.