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.
As a child, it was Edward Lear’s limericks and nonsense rhymes which first entertained me. The Owl and the Pussycat remains one of my favourite poems. As an adult, I was more attracted to the delicate watercolours which he painted on his journeys through Italy and Greece, such as the example hanging in my grandfather’s sitting room. But it was only on taking down from my father’s bookshelf Vivien Noakes’ biography The Life of a Wanderer that I discovered that Lear had epilepsy.
Lear was born on 12 May 1812 in Holloway, then on the outskirts of London. He was the twentieth of twenty one children. Most of his siblings died in childhood, and Lear always had delicate health – not just epilepsy but also poor eyesight and respiratory problems.
His stockbroker father became bankrupt when Lear was five, shortly after he had his first seizure and Edward was brought up by his eldest sister, Ann, who tutored him at home and encouraged his artistic talent. By the age of 16, Lear was supporting the household by his sketches and illustrations for anatomical and natural history books. He gained an aristocratic patron, Edward Stanley (later Earl of Derby) who commissioned him to draw the animals at his Knowsley estate. Through Stanley, Lear met other upper class clients for his paintings. At one point, he gave drawing lessons to Queen Victoria, although he got in trouble for failing to follow court etiquette.
In 1937, poor health forced Lear to move to Rome, where funding and introductions from the Earl helped him establish himself as a landscape painter. It was during his ten years in the city that he became known as a nonsense poet, although he had first produced poems and humorous drawings for the children at Knowsley. In 1846 he published his limericks and drawings in A Book of Nonsense. Lear’s verse is usually about eccentrics and outsiders: for any child brought up with strict Victorian morality, the transgressiveness of these poems must have been very refreshing.
Charming and gregarious, Lear had many important male friendships, including with peers such as Lord Carlingford, Lord Northbrook (who took him to India and Ceylon in 1873 and 1874), as well as with Alfred, Lord Tennyson. He fell passionately in love with another young man, Franklin Lushington, with whom he toured Greece. However, he never achieved romantic fulfillment with either a man or a woman. He came close to proposing to an old friend, Augusta Bethell, who might have agreed to marry him, except that her sister discouraged Lear.
Although Lear signed up at the Royal Academy for professional training in 1850, within a few years he had returned to the Mediterranean, and from 1855 decided to make his home on the Continent: as Lushington was stationed on Corfu, he started off there, but continually travelled throughout the Mediterranean and Near East. His nonsense poems often involve journeys – another of my favourites being the Jumblies:
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and the hands are blue
And they went to sea in a sieve.
In all he published four books of nonsense and six travel books, as well as books of natural history illustrations, one on parrots and the other on owls.
Epilepsy, which he called “The Demon” and later “The Morbids”, was a source of shame to Edward Lear. He kept his epilepsy secret, apparently saying once “It is wonderful that these fits have never been discovered”. He usually experienced an aura before having a seizure, which helped him withdraw to lie down in another room, and thus keep his attacks hidden. In later life, his siezures became more severe, although less frequent, always recorded in his diaries with an X and a score from one to ten to mark their severity.
A great writer of letters (up to 20 a day) and diaries (40 volumes), to the end of his life Lear remained solitary, accompanied by the loyal Greek manservant who accompanied him for three decades, and his cat Foss. Severe bronchitis in 1886 led to a worsening of his heart condition: his cat died the same year. Edward Lear finally died alone except for a servant on 29 January 1888.
Like the Dong with the Luminous Nose, Lear seems to have had a melancholy life: unlucky in love, plagued by poor health, and far from his country and his friends. Consequently, his poems are often poignant and full of wish fulfillment. He turned his pain into immortal images of joyful tenderness, which have become consoling for generations of children, and adults.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon.
Vivien Noakes, Edward Lear: the life of a wanderer