Edward Lear’s Last Poem

Below are a picture and a transcript of Edward Lear’s “Some Incidents in the Life of My Uncle Arly.” The manuscript was sold at Bonhams in May 2013 as part of the Roy Davids Collection. Part III. Poetry: Poetical Manuscripts and Portraits of Poets (auction 20923, lot 279).


Some incidents in the Life of my Uncle Arly.


O! my agèd Uncle Arly! ―――
Sitting on a heap of Barley
Through the silent hours of night; ――
Close beside a leafy thicket. ――
On his Nose there was a Cricket, ――
In his hat a Railway=Ticket, ――
(But his shoes were far too tight.)


Long ago, in youth, he squander’d
All his goods away, and wander’d
To the Timskoop=hills afar:
There, on golden sunsets blazing,
Every morning found him gazing, ―――
― Singing, “Orb! you’re quite amazing!
“How I wonder what you are!”


Like the ancient Medes and Persians, ―
(Always by his own exertions,)
He subsisted on those hills; ――
― Whiles, ― by teaching children spelling, ―
Or at times by merely yelling, ―
Or at intervals by selling
“Propter’s Nicodemus Pills.”


Later, in his morning rambles
He perceived the moving brambles
Something square and white disclose;
’T’was a First-class Railway Ticket; ――
But in stooping down to pick it
Off the ground, a pea green Cricket
Settled on my Uncle’s nose.


Never, ― never more ―- oh! Never,
Did that Cricket leave him ever, ――
Dawn or Evening, day or night; ―
Clinging as a constant treasure, ――
Chirping with a cheerious measure, ―
Wholly to my Uncle’s pleasure; ―――
(Though his shoes were far too tight.)


So for three and forty winters,
Till his shoes were worn to splinters,
All those hills he wander’d o’er, ―
Sometimes silent; ― sometimes yelling, ―
Till he came to Borly=Melling, ―
Near his old ancestral dwelling; ―
And he wander’s thence no more.


On a little heap of Barley
Died my agèd Uncle Arly; ――
And they buried him one night: ―[1]
― There, ― his hat and Railway=Ticket, ―
― There ― his ever faithful Cricket; ――
(But his shoes were far too tight.)

Villa Tennyson. Sanremo.
11 March. 1886.

[1] Lear omits a line, “Close beside the leafy thicket; ―” which appears in The Complete Nonsense Book, edited by Lady Strachey in 1912.

 Here is the catalogue description including the auction results:

LEAR’S LAST POEM. ‘Some incidents in the Life of My Uncle Arly’, which is in the metre of his friend Lord Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shallot’, is full of autobiographical references, most obviously to Lear’s life as an incessant ‘wanderer’. It was also his own obituary. Drafting it over a period of thirteen years, partly on the endpapers of The Letters of Horace Walpole in 1873 and of Addison and Steele’s The Spectator in 1885, he completed it on 1 March 1886 and sent presentation copies to at least thirteen friends. These included Wilkie Collins, whom Lear said he resembled so closely that he was often mistaken for him; Collins considered it Lear’s best poem. Another copy went to John Ruskin (‘Roughskin’), the great art-critic and Utopian, after he had written in the Pall Mall Magazine: ‘I really don’t know any author to whom I am half so grateful, for my idle self, as Edward Lear. I shall put him first of my hundred authors’. In his letter to Ruskin on that occasion Lear esteemed it ‘a thing to be thankful for that I remain as great a fool as ever I was.’

The present manuscript Lear sent to Mary, the wife of Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt (1820-1877), architect, Secretary of the Great Exhibition and first Slade Professor of Fine Arts in Cambridge. It is dated 11 March 1886, ten days after Lear recorded he had finished writing the poem. Lady Wyatt (‘Dear Mrs Digby’) was the recipient of a number of enchanting phonetic letters from Lear, in one of which he sent verses written with a ‘lithp’ (‘O Thuthan Thmith! Thweet Thuthan Thmith…’), explaining that ‘my teeth have thufferred tho mutth, & it theemeth to me that it will produthe a thenthation in the muthical thphereth…’ (see also Roy Davids Collection Part II lot 295).

The notable differences between the present manuscript and the printed version are in the title, line 10 [he is consistent in dotting ‘i’, otherwise the third minim of the ‘m’ in Timskoop might have been assumed to be an ‘i’] the alternative reading for line 42 and the omission in the manuscript of line 46 of the printed version, doubtless just by mistake since there is no reason to assume that the seventh stanza should be the only one without seven lines. Lear began line 27 by writing ‘Off’ indented as if it were the last line of a stanza and, realising his error, immediately smudged it and started the line again correctly aligned. The paper is a little foxed; Lear is writing with something very akin to printers’ ink.

In her life of Edward Lear, Vivien Noakes hints at deeper and darker meanings beneath the benignly whimsical surface of ‘Uncle Arly’.

PROVENANCE: Mary Digby Wyatt.

REFERENCES: The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear, edited by Holbrook Jackson, 1979; John Lehmann, Edward Lear and his World, 1977; Selected Letters, edited by Vivien Noakes, 1988; Vivien Noakes, Edward Lear the Life of A Wanderer, 1968; Vivien Noakes, Edward Lear 1812-1888, Royal Academy of Arts Catalogue, 1985; Susan Chitty, That Singular Person Called Lear, 1988; Angus Davidson, Edward Lear: Landscape Painter and Nonsense Poet, 1933.
Sold for £10,000 inc. premium

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1 Response to Edward Lear’s Last Poem

  1. Pingback: An Edward Lear Letter to Wilkie Collins | A Blog of Bosh

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