So there I was, yesterday, wandering around my favorite antiques store (real antiques, very little junk–although, on occasion, I’m fond of junk stores too), looking for a mirror to set above my restored oak chest of drawers. Discovered one. It’s walnut, and in a completely different style, but it works!
And I found myself in their book nook (always dangerous). I escaped with only two volumes (phew). The first is a very nice 1900 edition of the Travels of Sir John Mandeville (the Cotton Manuscript version rendered into modern English). It’s a wonderful tome, the original of which was written somewhere in the fourteenth century. I have the Middle-English textbook version from my Medieval Lit class about half a century ago. But this version is easier on my age-addled brain. The entire work is thought to be a fiction: Sir John Mandeville didn’t actually exist, and there were no “travels.” The Medieval equivalent of Paddy Leigh Fermor he was not. (Although, as you’ll see–if you read on–there’s a connection between them.)
But what a charming narrative! The excerpt posted on the British Library site reads as follows:
In the land of Bactria there are trees which grow wool as you would find on the body of a sheep. Bactria is also filled with griffins, which have ‘the front of an eagle and the back of a lion’, while in Cairo people incubate hens’ eggs in a giant house filled with horse dung.
Proof positive that a fascination with the unknown, and with land and time beyond the edges of the known world, is a universally human condition. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The second volume I picked up for a song is a 1948 edition of The Complete Nonsense Book by Edward Lear, inscribed “To Bob and Edith, Christmas 1952.” I’m sure there’s a story. Bob and Edith, I salute you! And I share your affection for Edward Lear.
Not surprisingly, the second purchase reminded me of a post a few years ago on Ricochet, one I’ve published here, and have decided to re-up for a second viewing. Here it is:
He has many friends, lay men and clerical,
Old Foss is the name of his cat;
His body is perfectly spherical,
He weareth a runcible hat.
One of the dearest friends of my childhood, Edward Lear, was born on May 12, 1812. 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-seven 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.
It was a very long time before I discovered that Edward Lear was about far more than nonsense. More than Owls and Pussycats. More than The Jumblies (who “went to sea in a sieve”).
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 of such whom 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.