This is the 200th anniversary of Edward Lear's birth. He was one of the Victorian era's bizarre extrusions, like Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) in that he seems to defy convention whilst remaining firmly within its ethos. So on the one hand he created poetry which is full of disruption and breakage, on the other he was an immaculate versifier. A good deal of the longer poems pursue two themes: unrequited love and the stranger's 'gaze'. So we find characters who look for love or who offer it, whilst travelling to non-British places.
It's not hard to match all this to Lear's life, in that he was someone whose own body was disrupted by epilepsy and he spent a good deal of his life on the move away from Britain. He suffered desperately from depression and didn't ever seem to know how to win or receive love. He discovered that children (real live ones that he got to know) thought his writing was very funny but top flight art critics didn't rate his painting anywhere near as highly as he wanted them to. In fact, he was a brilliant painter of exotic birds, a superb water-colourist and a very funny cartoonist. This wasn't good enough for him because he wanted to be admired and feted for his huge oils which now seem dowdy and conventional.
It's been comparatively easy for Lear's poetry to fill the slot which we might call: 'the eccentricity we allow certain kinds of British gents to have or wear'. On the other hand, it doesn't take much to find goings on that are more dangerous than that. It always sounds absurd to treat nonsense verse as if it is real or autobiographical, so I'll tread carefully. To take 'The Owl and the Pussycat' as one example - at one level it is like an extended nursery rhyme in which animals play out something very conventional - wooing, marriage and honeymoon, all told in typically perfect rhyme and metre. However, there is a rather obvious anomaly in the poem in that it's a cross-species marriage (!). Well, nothing odd about that we might say, look at the Frog Went a-courting songs where the frog courts a mouse and the Butterfly's Ball with quite a few cross-species couplings (!)Absolutely - but then you could ask in a Freudian way, but why was Lear interested in such a set-up? You can't help wondering about the fact that he was supremely uncomfortable with who he was, and with the nature of his sexual desire along with the great difficulty he had in imagining how he could have an intimate relationship with anyone, given the terrible secret of his epilepsy.
I think that all this makes for some interesting tensions that make his poetry less easily recuperable than first appears. Yes, there is something of the classic Victorian colonial gaze which looks upon foreign parts as places to go into and occupy and which treats foreign names and people as odd because they're foreign and foreign because they're odd. Again though, you have to put that with the fact that Lear felt that he himself was odd, albeit not foreign. Perhaps this gaze was really a refracted view of himself.
He was also good at playing with the Victorians' obsession with taxonomy. His false taxonomies of plants are classic disruptions of the desperately serious tasks all the explorers, botanists, zoologists and the rest set themselves finding and labelling everything that grew on the planet - a tradition, it should be said, which gave us the greatest disruption of all, 'The Origin of the Species'.
I think he is a fascinating, contradictory, problematic figure who produced some of the best nonsense poetry ever. He was original, out of the ordinary, sad, disruptive and at times utterly haunting.
Saying that he's a 'nonsense' poet invites some thought about what nonsense actually is. For my own peace of mind, I think of nonsense as 'new sense'. That's to say, nonsense is not without any sense. It nearly always creates something new which doesn't tally with aspects of the world or aspects of texts which we regard as normal or conventional. So it frequently offers parallels, parodies, inversions and distortions. I guess we find a lot of this funny or attractive because it breaks up the world or texts we live with under compulsion and necessity. This nonsense, new-sense relieves us for a short while of these necessities and on occasions mocks them. This relieves us of feeling dutiful or polite or respectful.
Here is a blog which is carrying news of this year's anniversary activities:
Excellent facebook page here:
I'm involved in several of them: a BBC Radio 4 programme for 'Word of Mouth' going out on Tuesday March 20 at 4.00pm and Monday March 26 at 11.00pm, a celebration of Lear with Roger McGough and others at the British Library on May 13 and another celebration in the borough he was born in, Islington, on May 29.