Edward Lear

The Complete Nonsense and Other Verse

“Nonsense is the breath of my nostrils.”

It’s high time I introduced you to Edward Lear (May 12, 1812 – January 29, 1888), a humorist of singular ability and imagination and one of my favorite characters (though he was very much a real person).

“Lear’s nonsense poetry is not nonsensical poetry,” argues satirist George Mikes in his study of British bumour, “But poetical nonsense. It catches the imagination and often the heart; it amuses, it charms and sometimes saddens the reader.”

Illustration of Edward Lear nonsense poetry.

Lear was many things, an avid botanist, a traveler, and a for-hire illustrator during the early 18th century. He is best known (and most appreciated by this writer) for his illustrated nonsense verse.

Illustration of Edward Lear nonsense poetry.
Nonsense verse was certainly not developed by Lear but under his free-flowing thoughts and silliness it reached its apotheosis. It is one of many forms in the long tradition that is British humor.

It is recognizable today in nursery rhymes like “Hey Diddle, Diddle” and the “Owl and the Pussycat” (the latter written by Lear).

The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
“O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
You are,
You are!
What a beautiful Pussy you are!”

Pussy said to the Owl, “You elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married! Too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?”
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the Bong-Tree grows
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood
With a ring at the end of his nose,
His nose,
His nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.

From “The Owl and the Pussycat”

Read full poem here.

Lear’s nonsense poems, first published in 1846, were so unusual that there was a bit of myth surrounding Lear himself, it certainly did not help that he published under a pseudonym “Old Derry Down Derry.”

In the introduction to his 1872 publication More Nonsense Pictures, Rhymes, Botany, Etc. Lear retells a time on a train when he overhead a conversation that the author “Edward Lear” did not exist but was rather a pseudonym (and anagram) of the Earl of Derby, who was in fact Lear’s patron and whose vast menagerie Lear studied and painted. While the Earl was indeed Lear’s patron and the person to whom Lear dedicated his early poetry, Lear was not the Earl.

To Lear’s amazement the strangers kept insisting his non-existence. Lear finally interrupted and professed his authorship of the famous book. The passengers looked skeptically and told him, in sublime nonsense fashion, that he simply does not exist.

Over the next few decades Lear continued to publish nonsense books, to an eager and growing audience in both America and England, “Nonsense is the breath of my nostrils” he confessed.

Long years ago, in days when much of my time was passed in a Country House, where children and mirth abounded, the lines beginning, “There was an old man of Tobago,” were suggested to me by a valued friend, as a form of verse lending itself to limitless variety for Rhymes and Pictures; and thenceforth the greater part of the original drawings and verses for the first “Book of Nonsense” were struck off with a pen, no assistance ever having been given me in any way but that of uproarious delight and welcome at the appearance of every new absurdity.

Do not, however, let the silliness of the verse fool you.

Lear’s verse – a limerick poem but lacking the five line bawdiness for which this poetic form is known today – was born out of a difficult childhood and life-long physical afflictions like blindness, epilepsy, and a persistent depression (then called melancholy) Lear referred to as “The Morbids.”

There was an old person so silly,
He poked his head into a lily;
But six bees who lived there, filled him full of despair,
For they stung that old person so silly.

There was an old man whose despair,
Induced him to purchase a bear;
He played on some trumpets, and fed upon crumpets,
Which rather assuaged his despair.

There was an old man whose repose,
Consisted in warming his toes;
When they said, ‘Are they done?’ he answered, ‘What fun!
Do you think I’m a ‘cooking my toes?’

The penultimate of twenty children, and the youngest to survive past infancy, Lear was distant from his parents and raised by his elder sister.1 Although his family were solidly middle-class, their overheard costs were significant and the children were urged, at a young age, to make their own livings.

Limited by his epilepsy, Lear began to draw at age sixteen and quickly settled on birds as a major point of interest and ability.

New Holland Parakeet (Palaeornis novae-hollandiae) now known as a Cockatiel, hand-colored lithograph from Edward Lear’s Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae 1830-232

Dear Ann

I conjecture you’ll like it no worse
If I write you this evening in a letter in verse,-
But such an epistle as this, Ma’am, I tell ye – I can’t
Anyhow prove either pleasant or elegant, –
For writing by night – I am in quite a flurry
And nervously warm – like a dish of stewed curry…

Letter from Edward to his sister Ann

With a gift of fraught, Lear began to earn money for his illustrations, which were mostly ornithological at that time.2

Hungarian immigrant to Britain, George Mikes, a writer of acute observation and pathos, studied the methods of British humor – there are more than most cultures – and determined that nonsense was the “ultimate literary rebellion against an orderly universe; shaking off the unbearable chains of everyday orderliness and logic. One thinks of Camus’ anti-hero Sisyphus who only wins against an uncaring universe by smirking.

Its essence is that it is poetry. Put down something meaningless and irrational with intense and deadly seriousness, and people will nod knowingly, be impressed and even overawed. Edward Lear does it with humor, charm and wisdom, so people refuse to see the beauty, the deeper meaning and the allegory in what he writes. A lot of people are silly enough to think that if something is funny it cannot be serious. They fail to see that Lear is a serious and often a very sad poet. He describes the world as it should be; as it could be. He invents words because he needs them and people laugh at these words. I laugh at them too, because they are funny. But they are lovely words and there is a profundity in their form and shape and smell. Runcibleis not a word one can find in a dictionary, but it definitely ought to exist and mean something

From George Mike’s English Humor for Beginners

When I left a career in management consulting to write (write what I had no idea) I created a profile using Lears’ Runcible Goose which is essentially a silly thing, a nonsense thing. I loved the avatar, I loved explaining it even more to readers unfamiliar with Lear or the layers of British humor. But I could not expand the boundaries of the goose to express all that I was or hoped to be. So I switched to a crow. An intelligent, tricky, morbid, independent beast (which also happens to be the English translation of my married Czech surname Vrana).

I am runcible I am and always will be.

We invent words when current words fail, as Ursula Le Guin argued in her celebration of the matter and medium of words “we need the global, intuitional language of fantasy.”

Roald Dahl's inventive list of imagined words. Featured in Roald Dahl's "Boy" in the Examined Life Library.
Roald Dahl’s inventive list of imagined words. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

As his health and his eyesight deteriorated, Lear threw himself into nonsense. Lear continued publishing many volumes, each quite thick, of nonsense verse and illustration right up until his death in 1888. Time compresses things physically and capitalistically and now all of Lear’s imagination and sadness are condensed in this single publication The Complete Nonsense and Other Verse which needs to be read imagining it took fifty years to create. Because it did.

Enjoy Lear, his mirth and sadness, alongside Mike’s 1939 classic How to Be a Brit, a look at the humor of absurdity, a celebration of words, and two personal stories of humor born of pain in the memoirs of John Cleese and Stephen Fry respectively.

All illustrations are from my personal copy of Edward Lear’s More Nonsense Pictures, Rhymes, Botany, Etc. published in 1872. Please forgive imperfections.