One of the dearest friends of my childhood, Edward Lear, passed away 132 years ago today, on January 29, 1888. Perhaps it’s because of him that I formed the love affair with words I’ve enjoyed for almost every single one of my sixty-five years. (I told you to believe people who tell you that I’m an old hag. Even if everything else they say about me is Learworthy nonsense.) Perhaps it was through Edward Lear that I found my voice. My sense of humor. My love of nature. And my foundational belief that truth, decency, and kindness are the most important values with which we should treat each other, and which we should pass on to future generations.
Edward Lear is best known as the man who popularized the limerick, although Lear’s limericks were nothing like the bawdy, double-entendre efforts that the genre has come to be known for more recently. (“A pansy who lived in Khartoum,” etc.) Lear’s limericks appealed to the sweet, the kind, and the gentle, and were always contra the ugly “they” who sometimes appeared to wreck his lovely world. Thus:
There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, “It is just as I feared!—
Two Owls and a Hen, four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!”
There was an Old Person of Dean,
Who dined on one pea and one bean;
For he said, “More than that would make me too fat,”
That cautious Old Person of Dean.
There was an Old Man of Whitehaven,
Who danced a quadrille with a Raven;
But they said, “It’s absurd to encourage this bird!”
So they smashed that Old Man of Whitehaven.
So much more.
He was a genius. An illustrator of birds on a par with John James Audubon. A landscape painter, and a travel writer matching and, perhaps, surpassing the magnificence of (deep breath) Paddy Leigh Fermor, who had his own private collection of Lear’s writings and paintings. A musician who set to music a number of Tennyson’s works–the only one such who Tennyson found remotely supportable.
And a terribly insecure, unhappy and sad man who suffered from grand-mal epileptic seizures all his life, who found his own sexual appetites and preferences problematic, whose only forays into heterosexual commitment were two proposals to the same woman who was 49 years younger than himself (crimenutely), and whose closest friends were his cat, Fosse, and his Albanian chef Giorgis, who Lear claimed was a good friend but a terrible cook. (The fact that he stuck with him, under those circumstances, says something about the man, I think.)
For anyone interested in learning more about Edward Lear, the book Mr. Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense, by Jenny Uglow, has my highest recommendation.
Edward Lear was buried in the Cimitero Monumentale della Foce in San Remo, Liguria, Italy, following a ceremony in which none of his family was present. On his grave marker are written Tennyson’s words:
…all things fair.
With such a pencil, such a pen.
You shadow’d forth to distant men,
I read and felt that I was there.
Thanks for everything, Edward Lear. I’m sorry I wasn’t around in the mid-19th century. If I had been, I’d have tried to be there for you. Because, God knows, you’ve always been there for me. And I’m grateful.