Syd Barrett and Edward Lear


[Syd Barrett’s Fart Enjoy contains] two pages of cut-up nursery rhymes. One reads:

Sprat Locket Patch Lift The Latch.
Johnny Shall Have A New Bonnet

The other reads:

Hark! Jack Was Diddlty Dumpty
All Jolly
To Market To Buy A Plum Cake

The former is accompanied by a drawing of a three-headed creature (turkey, pig and cockerel?) which mimics the style of Edward Lear’s animal grotesques. The letters ABC are stencilled across it – a reference to Cobbing’s recently published ‘ABC In Sound’. The latter is accompanied by a drawing of a rouge-cheeked boy wearing green cap, shorts, sandals and a blue T-shirt.


These cut-ups are composites of eight rhymes: ‘Hark! Hark! The Dogs Do Bark’, ‘Little Jack Horner’, ‘Diddlty Diddlty Dumpty’, ‘We’re All Jolly Boys’, ‘To Market to Market to Buy a Plum Cake’, ‘Lucy Locket Lost her Pocket’, ‘Cross Patch Draw the Latch’ and ‘Johnny Shall Have a New Bonnet’. Syd took these rhymes from Kate Greenaway’s illustrated Mother Goose anthology, where they comprise eight of the first twelve rhymes in the book.

The first edition of Greenaway’s pocket book was published in 1881 and contained fifty-four pages of colour chromolithograph illustrations and rhymes. It ran into numerous reprints. Many households of Syd’s generation would have had one of the many Mother Goose anthologies that had been in circulation since folklorists began collecting nursery rhymes during the Victorian era. These rhymes, frequently dark and macabre in tone, and the lavish illustrations that accompanied them, burned their way into many a young child’s imagination. Nursery rhymes in general, and the Mother Goose rhymes in particular, were integral to Syd’s development as a songwriter. His use of them in the Fart Enjoy booklet gives us the first indication of the centrality of childhood motifs to his work, and they would become a common thematic thread in his lyrics for Pink Floyd. The way they are utilised in Fart Enjoy suggests that Syd, transforming whatever materials he had at his disposal and working, as Andrew Rawlinson put it, ‘in the immediate context’, was now beginning to develop a highly inventive approach to language to match the sophisticated touch and technique of his painting. There was nothing rigorous or methodical about it. Syd simply used whatever was available, in this instance a pocket book of nursery rhymes, and deconstructed it.

[Chapman, Rob. A Very Irregular Head: The Life of Syd Barrett. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2010. 63-65. Google Books.]

‘You’ve gotta look at Cambridge really; you’ve gotta look at Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, more than the lifestyle thing,’ says Pete Brown of Syd’s influences. ‘Maybe it’s inspired by people like Rimbaud and Verlaine and people like that, but I think the English fringe thing is more to do with it, always has been. Language, lateral thinking, looking at the weirdness of British existence, looking at rural or semi-rural peculiarities.’

No account of Syd Barrett’s creative blossoming can take place without examining these earliest and most enduring influences. The lives and works of Edward Lear (1812-88), Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll (1832-98), Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932) and Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) form a thematic framework within which Syd’s initial flowering as a songwriter can be contextualized and understood. The songs that were overtly influenced by Belloc, Grahame et al. only constitute a very small body of his oeuvre but these are the songs for which he is best known and on which his reputation as a songwriter largely rests.

‘The English Robin and Puck and Goodfellow thing. The slightly whimsical faery quality that he had,’ notes Emily Young. ‘It’s from the English folk tradition, but not the English workingman one. You’re not quite sure if he will appear or disappear. More of the Irish and Celtic and less of the Germanic. Something of “the trees have secrets”. I think he was absolutely in touch with that.’

As Emily Young suggests, Syd was very precise in his absorption of childhood literature. There is nothing of the Germanic or Norse tradition, no Hans Christian Andersen, no Aesop, no Brothers Grimm and, despite what some have suggested, little or no Tolkien either. He draws very directly upon Belloc, Grahame, Lear and Carroll, and little else but the merest hint of C.S. Lewis and the found material he plundered from a few nursery rhyme pocket-books.

[Ibid. 143-144.]

Edward Lear created a fascinating nonsensical cosmogony of human, animal and plant life, populated by such creatures as the Jumblies, the Quangle Wangle, the Pelican Chorus, the Akond of Swat and, perhaps most famously, the Dong with the Luminous Nose. He wrote nonsense botany, nonsense recipes, nonsense limericks and nonsense songs and constructed an entire nonsense alphabet.

John Lennon was clearly the pop world’s most obvious descendant of Lear. The characters that populate his books John Lennon in His Own Write (1964) and A Spaniard in the Works (1965), such as Eric Hearble, Treasure Ivan, the Wumberlog and Mr Boris Morris, as well as the language that describes them and the sketches that accompany them, are highly reminiscent of Lear. Although the influence was never as overt in Syd’s work (his influences rarely were), he exhibited the same sense of playful absurdity.

Syd’s letters to Libby crackle with the same kind of offbeat wit and invention that characterised much of Lear’s own correspondence. Often Syd is undeniably juvenile ― e.g. a drawing of a limbless man sunbathing is accompanied with the caption ‘Don’t disturb him, he’s quite armless’ ― but then so is much of Lear’s work. Documenting his travels through the Scottish Highlands with his friend Phipps Hornby in 1841 Lear drew a series of bizarre illustrations depicting the two men cramming huge game birds into their knee-high boots (‘P & L being hurried insert the remains of their lunch in their boots’) and Lear being comically poked in the eye by a brush-wielding child (‘L ― on ascending the cabin stairs ― nearly loses his eye by the abrupt and injudicious promission of a new broom in the hands of a misguided infant’). Syd sent Libby illustrations depicting, among other things, a stick man carrying a huge sausage above his head (‘sausage thief running’) being pursued by another stick man (‘copper ― whistle note (G#)’). Another drawing, captioned ‘ A retch [sic] goes to school with his paints in a box while all sleep and are not bothered’, is pure modern-day Lear in its lyrical inventiveness.

I could not find a decent image of the stickman running away with a sausage, so here's another "sticky" picture story, cf. here.

I could not find a decent image of the stickman running away with a sausage, so here’s another “sticky” picture story, cf. here.

Syd even walked like a Lear illustration. As biographer Vivien Noakes noted, many of Lear’s drawings were suffused with ‘a sense of movement ―the arms are flung spontaneously back like bird’s in flight and the legs stride out or stand poised expectantly on tip-toe as if they are going to be spun round like a child’s top’.

Like Lear, Syd would populate his lyrics with imagery drawn from botany, zoology and nature. Lear and Carroll influenced the clarity of his lyrics too, and, of course, a key chapter in Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’, where Rate and Mole embark upon a mystic odyssey downriver and encounter the great god Pan, provided the title of the first Pink Floyd LP. Interestingly enough, Grahame only wrote the ‘Piper’ and ‘Wayfarers All’ chapters in the book almost as an afterthought, in order to give the book its mystic dimension. Coincidentally Syd only named Pink Floyd’s debut LP at the last minute. The album’s working title right up until July 1967 was Projection.

[Ibid. 147-149.]

This entry was posted in Edward Lear, Nonsense Lyrics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Syd Barrett and Edward Lear

  1. Linda Hughes says:

    Do you know of Ivor Cutler? He was a Jewish/Scottish nonsense poet and performer. Lennon was a fan and Cutler appeared in the ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ film.

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