Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense 
by Jenny Uglow.
Faber, 608 pp., £25, October 2017, 978 0 571 26954 9
Show More
Show More

When​ faced by admirers, Edward Lear was inclined to portray himself as a puzzle, or a trap:

‘How pleasant to know Mr Lear!’
    Who has written such volumes of stuff!
Some think him ill-tempered and queer,
    But a few think him pleasant enough.

The first observation was originally made by somebody who did not know Mr Lear. As a truth universally acknowledged is then whittled down to the opinion of a few, it’s hard to be sure whether this stanza is a protest against understanding or a plea for it. The decision to stay in the third person is coyly evasive, Lear’s way of intimating that he’s not what is said about him; more unnervingly, though, it whispers that he doesn’t have the last word on who he is. To know him is not to be him – and vice versa.

Lear’s ‘stuff’ (for which read: stuff and nonsense) has often been taken to be merely pleasant. But to be ‘pleasant enough’ is to be other things too, and elsewhere the word carries a glint of queerness or ill-temper. (In diary entries, he records: ‘the pleasantest time of these tiresome times’; ‘Dinner very pleasant. Evening very ditto’; ‘pleasant evening – in a way – ’.) Sometimes the word stretches to untold pleasure or perturbation: ‘Evening pleasant enough; went into some lady’s room by mistake, thinking it mine. Great fuss thereanent.’ Lear’s nonsense is full of mistakes that both the characters and their creator may or may not want to make, and Jenny Uglow’s absorbing new biography brings to the fore the question of the relation of his creativity to the accidence of his experience. In his diaries Lear often quotes or invokes his nonsense characters when talking about his own life, and Uglow’s subtitle – ‘A Life of Art and Nonsense’ – gives you pause. Is nonsense artful, or not? Could a life be engulfed (not simply informed) by both? What could have happened to make someone insist on talking nonsense in this way?

The title page of Lear’s first book of poems explains that he wrote it because he ‘loved to see little folks merry’. He was under no illusions about the sources of such merriment: the first children in the volume throw stones at the Old Person of Chester until they break nearly every bone in his body, and the only other children in the book have an appetite for patricide (their father had given them a feast, ‘But they all ate so much, and their conduct was such,/That it killed that Old Man of the East’). John St Loe Strachey was eight when he met Lear, and later recalled that ‘he knew a great deal about children, and they knew that he knew it and he knew that they knew that he knew it and so a complete and (as he might have said) abject harmony was established.’ The abjections of Lear’s own childhood helped to forge these unsentimental intimacies.

He was born in 1812, the 16th of 17 children of a London stockbroker. As well as being very short-sighted (‘my imperfect sight formed everything into a horror’), he struggled with bronchitis, asthma and epilepsy, and kept this last condition a secret for the rest of his life. When he was four, his father defaulted on the stock exchange and his mother left Lear to the care of his eldest sister, Ann. His sense of rejection began early, and he dated the start of his prolonged periods of depression (‘the morbids’) to the age of six. Then, just before his tenth birthday, his cousin Frederick Harding ‘did me the greatest evil done to me in life – excepting that done by C: – which must last now to the end – spite of all reason and effort’. Lear never specified what the evil was (the actions of ‘C’ also remain a mystery), but some kind of sexual abuse seems likely. He was sent away to school the following year (‘a crowd of horrid boys’), before he and Ann took rooms away from the rest of the family at Gray’s Inn Road. He was, he wrote, ‘at the age of 14 & a half … turned out into the world, literally without a farthing’.

As Uglow puts it, much of Lear’s writing is ‘funny, but only just’. The earliest poem we have is a mock heroic ‘Eclogue’ in which he recalls how he and his siblings were forced to leave the house in Holloway where they were born. His letters and journals contain linguistic breakings and remakings, with nonsense refusing to play by house rules: ‘Then “home” – politeful word!’, ‘were you a Tome yesterday?’, ‘I came moam & rote this.’ Lear would refer to ‘this ludicrously whirligig life which one suffers from first & laughs at afterwards’, and his experiments in the ludicrous often take shape as a form of aftermath. In another early poem, Miss Maniac confesses that, having been exiled from her home, she became ‘lost in unknown agony’ and ‘laughed as if in mirth’. Everywhere in Lear you sense a connection between damage and merriment, a taste for the comic as a kind of frantic fun. When he describes the Old Person of Chili ‘whose conduct was painful and silly’, the second adjective is both an expression and an avoidance of the former.

Many readers are as resistant to serious interpretations of nonsense as they are to silly behaviour in adults. Still, although Lear conceded that his work could reasonably be described as ‘bosh’, he also felt the need to add: ‘not but that bosh requires a good deal of care’. This sounds like a surreptitious appeal for attention – surreptitious, perhaps, because Lear’s childhood had made him as wary of those who did attend to him as of those who didn’t. Staying with another sister when he was ill as a teenager, he wrote a verse-letter to Ann: ‘Exceedingly careful were they of my health,/And I scarcely left home at all – saving by stealth.’ One response to the feeling that your earliest dependencies have left you intolerably exposed is to refuse or evade care, or to see care itself as ‘exceeding’ boundaries. Lear is always leaving home by stealth, always soliciting and shying away from attempts to keep him healthy. His fury at being turned out without a farthing is also his pride at going it alone (in his portrait of the artist as an old man, he notes that Uncle Arly ‘Always by his own exertions … subsisted on those hills’). Lear writes in one letter that it should have been preceded by a ‘deadication’, and his poems are full of people who reserve the right to decline various forms of indebtedness, or suspect they might be harmed by affection (a nonsense story tells of tokens of ‘sincere and grateful infection’). ‘The Owl and the Pussy-Cat’ doesn’t provide the last word on relations between fair and fowl in his work, and for one of his closest friends, Chichester Fortescue, he dreamed up a darker parable: ‘Once upon a time a bird was ill, and a cat, bending down to it, said, “How are you and what do you want? I will give you everything, only get well.” And the bird replied, “If you go away I shan’t die.”’

‘Is this the nonsense man?’ John Ruskin asked, after receiving a letter from Lear that detailed his latest ventures in painting. He wasn’t the last to think of Lear as only nonsensical, and Uglow redresses the balance by situating the poetry in relation to many other things. In 1846, the year his first nonsense book came out, Lear also published Illustrated Excursions in Italy, demonstrating his abilities as a travel writer and landscape artist, and provided illustrations for Gleanings from the Menagerie and Aviary at Knowsley Hall. As a teenager, he had scraped a living by teaching part-time, making ‘uncommon queer shop-sketches’ and anatomy drawings, and selling pictures to passengers in inn-yards while they waited to change coaches; by the summer of 1846, he was being asked to give drawing lessons to Queen Victoria. He first made his mark, if not quite his name, with the astonishing Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots, the first part of which appeared in 1830. Working from live models in the gardens of the newly established Zoological Society, the 18-year-old Lear produced his book without any formal training, independent funding, or institutional support. The day after publication, he was nominated for election as an associate of the Linnean Society.

According to David Attenborough, Lear is ‘the finest bird artist there ever was’. His drawings were primarily intended to help scientists identify species, yet his birds are exhibitionists as well as exhibits, always more than an instance that confirms a rule. The same impulse can be felt in the nonsense: the hens of Oripò ‘don’t behave like other hens;/In any decent way’. In ‘The Pobble Who Has No Toes’, Aunt Jobiska is another of those surrogate parental figures who is keen to protect, and to discourage indecency. The best remedy for keeping her young charge’s toes safe is lavender water, tinged with pink: ‘For she said, “The World in general knows/There’s nothing so good for a Pobble’s toes!”’ His toes end up lost anyway, and the poem ends as he returns, forlorn, to his aunt: ‘And she said, – “It’s a fact the whole world knows,/That Pobbles are happier without their toes.”’ Behind Lear’s smile at the factitiousness of worldly wisdom, and at what he would elsewhere refer to as ‘a serene and sickly suavity only known to the truly virtuous’, one senses the adult taking something else from the child: his right to explore – and endure – his own deprivation. She means well, no doubt, but her insistence on his happiness may be a considerable threat to it. The slide from talk of ‘a Pobble’ to ‘Pobbles’ is suggestive: are all Pobbles the same? Is this particular Pobble not allowed to feel differently from other ones?

I’m being too hard on Aunt Jobiska. After all, she doesn’t say that Pobbles are happy, just happier. Nonetheless, Lear’s own restive resistances – and his need to make himself up as he goes along – often lead him towards a sense of what escapes observers when they try to speak categorically. The structuring premise of the limericks – ‘There was an old person of X’ – raises a question about how to read the word ‘of’ (being ‘of’ a place needn’t limit you to it, though it might), and the charm of the poems owes much to the curious way Lear doesn’t want to speak for his creations, the way he casts side glances at the form’s claims to omniscience:

There was an Old Man of Peru,
Who never knew what he should do;
So he tore off his hair, and behaved like a bear,
That intrinsic Old Man of Peru.

In the original manuscript drawing for these lines, Lear depicted the old man with tears pouring down his face and described him as ‘unhappy’. Then he revised to ‘uneasy’, and then cut the tears altogether and went for ‘intrinsic’. It would be too much to say that the man is so happy he doesn’t know what to do with himself, but the published version allows for the possibility that, by lacking conviction, he gains something else (maybe behaving like a bear is what he’s always secretly wanted to do). This is the only occasion that Lear uses ‘intrinsic’ in his poetry, and the adjective here feels like an obscure victory or achievement; the OED gives earlier, obsolete definitions of the word as ‘interior, inner’, and as ‘internal (in a figurative sense); secret, private’, before it passes into meaning ‘belonging to the thing in itself, or by its very nature; inherent, essential, proper; “of its own”’. In Lear’s hands, the word calls up something occluded yet vital, allows self-knowledge and self-estrangement to go together; by behaving nonsensically, the human animal may get closer to becoming what he is. Lear once wrote of ‘the sense of the absurd so nearly akin to shame, on which you are forced to dwell if constantly reminded of your own awkwardness by observation’. The spry speed of the limericks is itself a refusal to dwell on awkwardness; paying its observances without trying to foist anything onto the observed, the writing looks to keep the absurd just out of shame’s reach.

Lear wrote this limerick, along with most of the others in his first book, during the mid-1830s while staying in Lord Stanley’s home at Knowsley, making watercolours and drawings of the contents of the most important private zoological collection in the world. Uglow writes well on these years, and on Lear’s odd status – ‘neither servant nor guest’ – in the human menagerie of the great country house. ‘I am sick of splendour,’ he wrote privately, ‘vomiting with excess of pomp – longing for a little porter out of a pewter pot – & some bread and cheese eaten with my fingers.’ He always wanted to be accepted, if only the better to resist acceptance – or to revise the terms on which it was offered. He was reliant on patronage, and, as Uglow observes, ‘he liked sinking into the leather chairs in well-stocked libraries,’ but he also realised that to go up in the world was to sink to new lows (later he would snap that he was ‘disgusted at their tiresome upper 10000 ways’, or half-proudly lament that ‘society is a game I can’t play at’). Nonsense may be seen as the creature he invented so that he could refuse to play the game, and the mode has sometimes been read as an avoidance – of manners, of precedent, of sense. Yet the poems frequently point to the avoidances that constitute manners themselves. The Old Lady of Chertsey, who makes a remarkable curtsey, twirls round and round until she sinks underground, burying herself in her own propriety. Encountering the Old Person of Newry, ‘Whose manners were tinctured with fury’, you feel that ‘manners’ could go either towards signifying the man’s own peculiar way of doing things, or towards a set of accepted social graces. The suspicion of a tussle within the word, the sense you get that the latter meaning is trying to sabotage the former one, is a reminder that manners may contain animosity – and that the energy that goes into maintaining them is not unfurious.

Despite being sick of splendour, when leaving Knowsley for Rome in July 1837 Lear wrote to a friend that ‘I shall always look back to it as the best home I have ever met with.’ Domesticity always brought out mixed feelings in him (‘met with’ is a slightly frosty way to refer to home). Lear travelled partly for health reasons (the English climate exacerbated his bronchitis and asthma, and doctors thought exercise reduced the risk of epileptic seizures), partly for ambition (he yearned to be a great landscape painter), and partly for adventure. Over the next fifty years or so he visited several parts of Europe, the Middle East and India, making periodic trips back to England to sell his work and to sustain relationships that remained important to him (with Alfred and Emily Tennyson, and with the Pre-Raphaelite painter William Holman Hunt, whom he would call ‘daddy’). Lear’s travel journals and letters are full of observations that could have made it into nonsense poems: hedges ‘absolutely pink’, rocks like ‘gruyere cheese’, storks making a sound ‘like dice shaken in a box’. He takes in thousands of lovely views (‘also tame pigs, and a sodawater machine’), and everywhere encounters people doing and saying weird things (‘the clatter of strange monosyllables – dort beer, dort bloo, dort hitch, hitch beer, blue beer, beer chak, dort gatch, with other musical sounds’). In the introduction to Journals of a Landscape Painter in Albania (1851), he writes of carrying out ‘an artist’s mere tour of search’; like the best of the nonsense, the phrase sounds like a good-bad translation from another language, and it captures the odd combination of the driven and the aimless in him. Although he speaks of his ‘professionally useful’ motives for travelling, the thrill of the writing comes from his itinerancy, not his itinerary. He continually finds himself drawn to other things: ‘liberty, hard-living, and filth’.

Dishing​ the dirt on Lear is tricky. He had certainly taken some liberties: ‘What days, (& what nights)’, he recalled when looking back on his early years in London. ‘I got into bad ways … I myself in 1833 had every sort of syphilitic disease.’ The disease is more likely to have been gonorrhoea, but, as Uglow points out, the treatment for this would have been ‘enough to cause years of problems and to make him anxious about marriage’. Despite – or because of – his flights from domesticity (he didn’t have a home of his own until he was nearly sixty, when he settled in San Remo), Lear was plagued by the need to settle down. The owl and the pussy-cat are prudent even as they sail away from it all (they take plenty of money), and they follow the rules by getting married; they want to ratify their desires, not simply to gratify them.

Uglow is excellent on Lear’s poetry and its oblique conversations with life, not least because she realises the dangers of thoroughness. His nonsense makes you unsure of what – or how much – you should say about it, and Uglow often handles this difficulty by tactfully drawing attention to what doesn’t quite happen in the poems, writing of how rarely they speak of physical desire, of the way some figures seem ‘obscurely responsible’, and of ‘the gap between the characters, never quite touching, the action suspended in time’. The owl and the pussy-cat are revealingly uncharacteristic in this respect, as ‘hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,/They danced by the light of the moon’. Lear never published another poem in which people are described as holding hands. He chooses to give hands only to handless creatures (the pair must have had them, for how else could they have held the runcible spoon?), as though he can only bear to bring fabulous, fabulated odd couples into contact. (The Dong recalls that the Jumbly girl has ‘sky-blue hands’, but the adjective keeps them sorrowfully – and perhaps safely – unreachable.) In his sonnet on Lear, Auden originally wrote that ‘a cat/Invited him to dance and shyly squeezed his hand,’ but in the final version the cat ‘let him squeeze her hand’, which is truer to the ache, the longing and the trepidation in Lear (‘let him’ opens up vistas of implication). Suspending the action in time in ‘The Owl and the Pussy-Cat’ by leaving them dancing on the sands also allows their creator to indulge in what he called ‘the marriage phantasy’ even as he guards against it. ‘The thought of annual infants would drive me wild,’ he told Fortescue, ‘married – many risks & miseries are semi-certainly in waiting – nor till the plot is played out can it be said that evils are not at hand.’

Those evils arrive in Lear’s unpublished sequels to the poem. The couple end up having many children, ‘lovely & subsequeamish and reprehensible animals’; the pussy-cat is killed off (suicide, one source claims); the owl and his progeny live on in a ‘bereaved & bohemian condition’ – all noteworthy details from a man whose mother became dead to him, swamped and exhausted by a nonsensically large family. In 1867 Lear agonised about whether to propose to Augusta (‘Gussie’) Bethell, daughter of the lord chancellor, and I think Uglow is right to suggest that, despite hundreds of Prufrockian indecisions, visions and revisions, he was never really going to ask her. ‘Even in jokes,’ she notes, ‘his fantasy wife resembled sisterly figures like Ann and Fanny – kindly and caring, hardly an object of desire.’ Those sisters were surrogate mothers and one interpretation of this state of non-affairs might take in an unpublished limerick about the old person of Oude:

Who fled when no creature pursued –
When called back by his mother –
He merely said – ‘bother!’ –
That uncivil old person of Oude.

‘Bother’ could be thrown back dismissively as he continues to flee, or uttered with a defeated shrug as he trudges back to her. Either way, to rhyme ‘mother’ with ‘bother’ (elsewhere Lear rhymes ‘mammy’ with ‘clammy’) is to gesture towards unfinished business. Maybe he takes flight in the hope that someone will give chase, or maybe he’s on the run from what desire has done to him (‘To the calm and silent sea/Fled the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò’). What else is a lovely, subsequeamish and reprehensible individual to do – or be?

One short answer is: gay. Commentators have disagreed about Lear’s sexuality – disagreed not just with one another, but with themselves. In Edward Lear: The Life of a Wanderer (1968), Vivien Noakes became the first biographer to describe him as homosexual, but in her revised edition she called him ‘partly homosexual’ (‘partly’ is subject to varying inflections in her book: sometimes it means ‘probably unaware’, sometimes ‘probably only partly realised’). Uglow says his homosexual longings are suppressed but clear, and when discussing his relationship with Franklin Lushington she writes that ‘Lear had fallen in love with this younger man, and it would shape his life.’ Lushington became Lear’s executor, destroying their entire correspondence as well as scoring out several passages from his journals. In a surviving letter to Fortescue, though, Lear wrote of his intense need for ‘some communion of heart & spirit – with one who should have been this to me – I have none. And I can’t bear it.’ He was speaking of Lushington. Uglow suggests that this was perhaps his most self-revealing moment (elsewhere Fortescue recalled Lear telling him of his ‘secret feeling’), and later she writes of his attraction to another young man, Hubert Congreve: ‘a host of emotions, open and unacknowledged, clouded Lear’s feelings.’

It’s complicated. Uglow reads Lear’s turmoil over Gussie Bethell as evidence of his being ‘on the rebound’ (‘he had never really got over Frank’), yet when the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò flees from the Lady Jingly Jones after she has rejected his proposal of marriage, it’s possible that he’s on the rebound in the opposite direction. He whispers sweet nothings to a large and lively turtle: ‘You’re the Cove … for me;/On your back beyond the sea,/Turtle you shall carry me!’ Elsewhere, two distraught gentlemen, Mr Daddy Long-Legs and Mr Floppy Fly, feel trapped in bodies that render them unfit for polite society and sail far away to play together for evermore. And at the end of ‘The Two Old Bachelors’, the men who ‘were living in one house’ take a tumble – ‘And from the precipice they rolled promiscuous down’ – before being forced to leave their home, and were ‘never heard of more’. When you note that the pair were climbing ‘purpledicular’ crags (that’s the way Lear spells it), you wonder what he’s trying to say – or not to say. Is the poem enjoying or lamenting or simply observing its own desire to mete out punishment? Lear is happy to indulge in lewd puns elsewhere (an ‘improper riddler’, he calls himself), and often it’s not easy to decide whether he is loitering with dubious intent or whether he’s not quite privy to his own intention. To speak nonsense is to speak a language in which what is meant is apprehended more as a drift than as a definitive purpose. The mode raises – and refuses to answer – a question about how seriously you can take it, and about what might happen when a speaker is ‘only joking’. In his diary Lear once recalled flying off the handle when told by a certain ‘Sir R. B.’ that ‘all fine poetry could never be misunderstood, or interpreted in but one way.’ This enraged resistance to intelligibility – coupled with the sense that intelligibility is the enemy of experience – is a defence of his life as well as his writing.

Biographies of Lear are sometimes hard to read because he is not somebody with whom you want to spend prolonged periods of time. Reviewing Noakes’s biography, Stevie Smith observed that ‘another thing that bit upon poor Lear’s nerves when they were ageing – and bites upon ours as we read of them – are those endless travels.’ He was infuriating to himself and to others, an interminably perplexed celebrant of what he called ‘my naturally magnificent capacity for worry’. He was also prone (as he admitted) to ‘make sorrows rather than have none’. His great subject – although this sounds too knowing, too controlled – is the difficulty in telling the difference between sticking at it and getting stuck (‘This I believe – all things considered – to be my wisest plan of progress – or egress – or nogress’). The biographer who stays true to the can’t-go-on-must-go-on-ness in him, as Uglow does, has sometimes to risk tedium in order to explore his way of being in the world, his strange gift for enduring and inquiring into the ‘Queer blank spaces of life’. ‘Dear me!’ he confides to his diary, ‘what an astonishing bore are these idle days here! – They even begin to become interesting from their excessive immensity of boredoms … drew nonsenses.’ Uglow’s book is the best biography of Lear yet written, not because it always avoids the boring, but because it finds ways to let boredom shed light on – and provide opportunity for – other things. I doubt her readings of the poems would be as imaginative and revealing if she hadn’t been so willing to give herself up to the ‘excessive immensity’ of the life story.

Nonsense was what Lear did when he didn’t know what to do with his life, and the poetry’s wryly searching gaze owes much to his dreamy willingness to go with the flow even as he registers counter-currents. One review that especially pleased him spoke of ‘Mr Lear’s peculiar gifts, his art in the midst of audacity, his self-restraint where sense and logic seem flung most wildly to the winds’. This note is sounded when the Jumblies proclaim: ‘we never can think we were rash or wrong,/While round in our Sieve we spin!’ ‘While’ stalks ‘never’, and the ghost of a stress on ‘can’ allows for a whistling in the dark as well as a trumpeting of high spirits. Nonsense, for him, is often born from a hesitation over his own or other people’s state of mind: in one limerick, he originally wrote that the old person ‘was greatly disgusted with life’, before changing ‘was’ to ‘felt’, as though aware of the duplicities of disgust, or of the way what you feel needn’t tally with what you are. When he finds himself ‘teetotally demoralised’, or ‘bothery-idiotic’, or in a ‘disturbidious state’, the words seem resistant to the mood they describe, acting more like the discovery of inner resources than the diagnosis of a plight.

The best of Lear – and his legacy to his admirers (Elizabeth Bishop and John Ashbery, among others) – owes much to his willingness to turn his life’s abandonments into forms of strange abandon, his ability to shape conjurations of the blithe and the bereft:

        Calico Pie
        The little birds fly
Down to the calico tree,
        Their wings were blue,
        And they sang ‘Tilly-loo!’
        Till away they flew, –
And they never came back to me!
        They never came back!
        They never came back!
They never came back to me!

I read this poem to my five-year-old son about a year ago. After hearing this opening stanza, he looked confused and asked: ‘Where are the birds not coming back to, then?’ The longer I looked, the less beside the point I found the question. The poem appears to be an inversion of the Freudian fort/da game (which is to say that the game has gone terribly wrong). Although it starts in the present tense, and therefore leads you, not unreasonably, to think the speaker may be close to the calico tree, the sudden shift to the past tense cuts you as well as him adrift. He seems as lost, as unplaceable, as the birds are.

In subsequent stanzas he’s left by little fish, little mice and several other creatures. The last stanza begins, ‘Calico Drum,/The Grasshoppers come’, only then to tell us that ‘they never came back!’ Which is it to be: ‘come’ or ‘never came’? Both, perhaps, because the sense of loss may be so powerful that his long-absent loves return too vividly in his mind’s eye. While writing this piece, I read the poem to my son again. One year older and wiser, he listened to the whole thing and then said: ‘Whoever this “me” is, he has a lot of pets, doesn’t he?’ This also seems to be part of the exposed yet surefooted magic of the thing; the song itself keeps returning the things that are lost, as though dispossession could be answered – or coped with – through the possession of a musical spell. Playing the calico drum and charming the animals with a tune, the speaker is a would-be Orpheus. And what neither he nor we can finally get out of our heads is the refrain, which no matter how mournful, or shocked, or even angry, is such a self-pleasuring performance, so satisfying to intone.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences