Somewhat belatedly, today, I think, I’ll take a drink, of lavender water, tinged with pink… accompanied, of course, by a tasty dish, of eggs and buttercups fried with fish – and if that doesn’t give you a clue about the topic under discussion, then you don’t deserve to join the party! For today I’m celebrating Edward Lear’s 200th birthday. And yes, I do know he was born on May 12, 1812, but I failed to finish writing this before setting off on a four-day holiday in Paris (although I did manage to schedule some Saturday Snapshots, and they appeared right on time, which I thought was very clever, as I had never done a ‘timed’ post before).
Anyway, I am sure you are all aware of Lear’s limericks (he wrote more than 200 of them) and his nonsense verse, including The Owl and the Pussy-cat, which most people seem to think is a nursery rhyme, which is a shame, because he deserves some recognition for what must be one of the most joyful – and silliest – poems in the English language. The whole idea is just so delightful: an owl and a cat sailing away to get married – but I’d love to know why they took honey with them, and why was the money wrapped up in a £5 note. Does the £5 note not count as money?
And who could fail to love the Jumblies, whose lands are ‘far and few’ and who went to sea in a sieve:
They sailed to the Western Sea, they did,
To a land all covered with trees,
And they bought an Owl, and a useful Cart,
And a pound of Rice, and a Cranberry Tart,
And a hive of silvery Bees.
Best of all in my view is The Pobble, whose story romps along from beginning to end in a truly magical fashion:
The Pobble who has no toes
Had once as many as we;
When they said “Some day you may lose them all;”
He replied “Fish, fiddle-de-dee!”
And his Aunt Jobiska made him drink
Lavender water tinged with pink,
For she said “The World in general knows
There’s nothing so good for a Pobble’s toes!”
The Pobble who has no toes
Swam across the Bristol Channel;
But before he set out he wrapped his nose
In a piece of scarlet flannel.
For his Aunt Jobiska said “No harm
Can come to his toes if his nose is warm;
And it’s perfectly known that a Pobble’s toes
Are safe, — provided he minds his nose!”
The Pobble swam fast and well,
And when boats or ships came near him,
He tinkledy-blinkledy-winkled a bell,
So that all the world could hear him.
And all the Sailors and Admirals cried,
When they saw him nearing the further side –
“He has gone to fish for his Aunt Jobiska’s
Runcible Cat with crimson whiskers!”
But before he touched the shore,
The shore of the Bristol Channel,
A sea-green porpoise carried away
His wrapper of scarlet flannel.
And when he came to observe his feet,
Formerly garnished with toes so neat,
His face at once became forlorn,
On perceiving that all his toes were gone!
And nobody ever knew,
From that dark day to the present,
Whoso had taken the Pobble’s toes,
In a manner so far from pleasant.
Whether the shrimps, or crawfish grey,
Or crafty Mermaids stole them away –
Nobody knew: and nobody knows
How the Pobble was robbed of his twice five toes!
The Pobble who has no toes
Was placed in a friendly Bark,
And they rowed him back, and carried him up
To his Aunt Jobiska’s Park.
And she made him a feast at his earnest wish
Of eggs and buttercups fried with fish, –
And she said “It’s a fact the whole world knows,
That Pobbles are happier without their toes!”
I love the rhyming of ‘forlorn’ and ‘were gone’ – it has to be one the greatest rhymes ever, right up there with Byron’s incredible two lines from Don Juan:
But — Oh! ye lords of ladies intellectual,
Inform us truly, have they not hen-peck’d you all.
Lear illustrated his rhymes, and also produced nonsense alphabets and nonsense botany, featuring strange plants like Stunnia Dinnerbellia, where the flower is a washtub), or Manypeeplia Upsidownia, which is self-explanatory. But he started his career as a serious artist, painting and drawing birds, animals and landscapes. He was nominated as an Associate of the Linnean Society, and in 1846 he gave drawing lessons to Queen Victoria, so he must have been well thought of. I’d love to know how and why he turned his talents to ‘nonsense’, but he once described nonsense as ‘the breath of my nostrils’ and wrote about ‘this ludicrously whirligig life which one suffers first and laughs at afterwards’. Perhaps nonsense simply made him happy – whatever the reason, his work has made a lot of people smile over the years.
He was born in Highgate and was the 20th child of Jeremiah Lear, a stockbroker who lost his money when Lear was four, at which point it seems his mother Ann handed him over to his sister (also an Ann) who was 21 years older than him. I don’t know if all the children survived, but I must say that after so many births his poor mother must have been quite worn out and the prospect of raising another offspring in reduced circumstances must have been less than enticing.
|A painting of Venice by Lear
Anyway, he was educated by his sister Ann and another sister, and started work as an artist when he was about 14 or 15. His first book of limericks was published in 1846, but it didn’t become really popular until the third edition was printed in 1861. His health was never good. Even as a young child he suffered from epilepsy and depression (which he referred to as ‘the demon’ and ‘the morbids’) and was very short-sighted, as well as suffering from bronchitis and asthma. However didn’t stop him travelling widely, not just in Europe but in Jerusalem, Lebanon, Constantinople, Petra, Bethlehem, Egypt, India and Ceylon, and he painted the scenes he saw while abroad. He died in San Remo on January. 29, 1888.
|Edward Lear photographed in 1887