Later Letters of Edward Lear (to Canon Selwyn)

‘I DARE say you know my name: I once brought out the “Book of Nonsense,”‘ said the elderly gentleman wearing an eye-shade, as he sat under a shaded lamp in his solitary corner of the salle-à-manger of Dr. Pasta’s Hotel at Monte Generoso. Darkness had fallen before I reached the hospitable light that beckoned the guideless wayfarer up the mountain path, bosky with beeches, from Mendrisio. The September sunset had faded across the outspread plain of Lombardy far beneath—

Calm and still light on yon great plain
That sweeps with all its autumn bowers,
And crowded farms and lessening towers—

but not till it had lightened the load at every step—those were knapsack days and tinged the mind with golden memories. Two belated guests, at their several suppers in an empty room, must needs eventually arrive at the Homeric question ‘Who and whence art thou?’ if they do not press the enquiry to ‘What father dost thou boast?’ I soon found I was in the presence of one who had seen as many cities and men as Odysseus, who knew their mind as clearly, and was no less full of craft and wiles and stories than the sly Ithacan—only the craft of Edward Lear was truth in art, the wiles were such as knew no guile, and his stories were lovely and delicious fun. After two days spent mostly in his company I became aware of the attachment and the confidence that only wait time for friendship, and his was the comprehensive friendship of a genius. And so it came to pass that in the closing years of his life I corresponded with him frequently and freely. Some of the less intimate portions of his letters to me are presented in this paper; for there can be no reason why the currency of the household words which they contain should be limited to the recipient’s own immediate circle.

Other geniuses have dealt in sense. He is the only genius of nonsense. The realm of sense is infinite. Metaphysicians may be left to decide whether the realm of nonsense is anything less than infinite. If it is not less, then there must be two infinities, each defining the other, which is absurd! At any rate Lear’s mind ranged over one or two infinities and revelled and romped in the absurd. I think he was greater than all the geniuses who never looked into the infinity of nonsense and had no eye for it. No wonder Lear’s two eyes had become somewhat enfeebled by years, one with observing nature with that scrupulous accuracy which marks all his pictures, the other with scanning the underlying nonsense which results from the happy combination of incompatibles.

Was ever art so aptly united with science in one and the same mind? Art selects, science collects. His business as a painter was to select the subject and the contents of his picture: his science collected with a marvellous readiness not the specimens that were to be compared and ordered and classified together as exhibiting varieties of the same genus, but those which were just incongruous and which in their juxtaposition—’Juxtaposition is great’—must simply make a man—and probably a cat—laugh loud and long.

Lear was fond of depreciating his life’s work as that of ‘a dirty landscape painter,’ but when he applied the expression to himself there had been originally also an adjective before ‘dirty’ which began with the same consonant; and when he told how the title was originally bestowed upon him he heartily accepted it as truly conveying the miseries of long years of exposure to climate, rising before dawn and waiting in the open to paint the sunrise, enduring heat and cold and wet, lodging in unspeakable quarters, if haply he might please a fastidious public taste. It chanced that he had stayed the night at a mountain inn and engaged in civil conversation with two young Englishmen, who rose betimes next morning, and, like inconsiderate travellers, made as much noise over their departure as if all other guests in the hotel were asleep. Lear, who was also rising, overheard this remark from one of them who had gathered information downstairs: ‘I say, Dick, you know that fellow we talked to last night; well, what do you think he is? He is a d—d dirty landscape painter.’

Thus Lear was like Odysseus again—’much-enduring, divine.’ Whether in appearance Odysseus was really plain or not, whether

His mind was concrete and fastidious,
His nose was remarkably big,
His visage was more or less hideous,
His beard it resembled a wig;

it cannot be doubted that he, like Lear, enjoyed his course of life, enjoyed laughing at himself, enjoyed possibly even caricaturing himself. I possess one of these caricatures, ‘E.L., æt. 71,’ attended by ‘Foss, æt. 14,’ his faithful Manx cat, welcoming the present writer to Villa Tennyson, preceded by the Sanremo porter with portmanteau. Now this E.L. is essentially the same as that

Old Deny down Derry, who loved to see little folks merry,

of the early sixties.

But did we not know in fact from ‘Nonsense Songs and Stories’ (p. 7) that he

—has many friends, laymen and clerical,
Old Foss is the name of his cat:
His body is perfectly spherical,
He weareth a runcible hat,

we could still see him depicted in the frontispiece of the ‘Book of Nonsense,’ exhibiting the Book to the amazed, tumultuous, himmeltaneous children. The snub nose is a reminder of one greater than Odysseus, the real Socrates himself, and the projecting eyes were hardly less a marked feature in his later years than in Socrates. Had Socrates worn goggles, they would surely have dropped off in delight at welcoming a friend, his runcible hat would have slipped off behind, his arms would have been extended, the left arm exalted, the palm open, ringers too, while the right leg simply pranced with joy, bootlaces and buttons seeming to share in the profuse and prepossessing pageant of E L. and that copycat Foss.

The first letter to be cited here is one of many containing references to his pictures, some of which are treasured exceedingly by the present writer.

Villa Tennyson, Sanremo, 6 Novr., 1882.

‘I had thought to send you your 3 Monte Generosian scraps before now, but I have not been able to do so; for, returning from that delectable mountain, I somehow contrived to misplace my sketches of the points you want—and nowhere could I find them until 2 days back, when it turned out that they had slipped down behind some folios. I sometimes believe that inanimate objix move about of their own selves to give mortles unnecessary trouble.’ …

Here, then, is a fresh declaration of that Doctrine of Inanimate Intention which has illuminated so many of the Nonsense Songs, written long before it.

They rode through the street, and they rode by the station,
They galloped away to the beautiful shore;
In silence they rode, and ‘made no observation,’
Save this, ‘We will never go back any more!’

And still you might hear, till they rode out of hearing,
The sugar-tongs snap, and the crackers say ‘crack’!
Till far in the distance, their forms disappearing,
They faded away—and they never came back!

The next deals with more serious subjects, at least in parts.

15 October, 1882.

… ‘I take it there is no such happiness in this life as a really happy marriage—but I grant there are few when compared with the multitudinous majority of marriages unhappy—or marriages neither happy nor unhappy—but what I call “cup and saucer” marriages. …

‘What I wanted to write to you was about the Prescot living. Have you really finally given it up and declined it? I have been thinking that although your college life be more to your liking and in accord with your conscientious views of doing good—yet supposing illness or inability to go on with Liverpool work—would not the settled life inkum be a greater thing, and rejecting of it a flinging away the interpositions of Providence? I have my own likings for the Prescot choice, seeing that Prescot church spire was a part of my life for many years, and I must have made literally hundreds of sketches from Knowsley Park with that spire [sketched] in the distance. But if you have really and absolutely refused the living—what is done is done as the tadpole said when his tail fell off. And nothing will then be left me but to hope for the speedy decease or release of the next incumbent or encumberer, so that Prescot living may be again offered to you. …

‘Your Cedars [of Lebanon, an oil-painting] go on well, considering how dark and rainy it has been and how many days not light enough for delicate work. But 7 goats, a Maronite priest, and various other vegetables have of late been inserted.

‘There have been deluges of rain lately, and my garden was all overbeflowed: otters and salmon swimming all over the Virginian Stock, walrusses walking about the geranium cuttings and an obese hippopotamus sitting on the giant anemone. …

‘Let us all hope for “lucidity,” as the elephant said when they told him to get out of the light, because he was opaque.

‘O! scissars and submarine sucking-pigs!! Here’s the Bordighera railway bridge been and gone and broke his self down and the ——s are stopped here so I must go and see them. …

‘I know I ought to put some letters after your name but I don’t know if they are B.A. or B.D. (B.C. would make you too old).’

Sanremo, 17 May, 1883.

… ‘I have been putting ultimate and penultimate and propenultimate and apopospenultimate touches to the “Cedars” continually of late, and it is wonderful how greatly the picture is improved, nor can I tell you how much it has been admired. Enough for I, if you its pozessur will see it with admiring ize and reflective mind … (When may a door be said to be in the potential mood? When it is made of would—or could, or should be.)

… ‘My garden is over and above abunjiantly lovely, and I myself am somewhat less mumpy, along of the summer weather, just set in a little too hot and suddenly, with full moons, broad beans and asparagus, exit of Anglo-Saxons, and other intangible

‘I will now look over your last letter and make ozbervations on its points, as the monkey said when he casually sat down on the pincushion. …

‘Quâ daffodils, I have had none, but there is a sort of Ranuncle-buncle coming up. (Talking of uncles, I have worked so much to make the rocks in the foreground of the “Cedars” like hard bits of limestone, that I believe you will sprain your uncles every time you look at them) …

‘Some one was in my gallery the other day who said he knew Dingle Bank well—but I can’t remember who it was. Perhaps General Count Moltke, who was said to be here. Now I must go and get my bellicontingical breakfast.’

Recoaro (Veneto), 20 July, 1884.

… ‘It is very kind of you to think of me under your present stircumstanzes [of approaching marriage]. …

‘I wrote to J. J. Hornby on seeing he was Provostically exalted; but I know nothing of Eton mutters, except that the boy whom the escaped Tiger devoured was an Eaten boy.

‘I meant to have written to you—to tell you that the “Gethsernane” is sold … to Mr. E.W.—of North Seaton, Northumberland, near that place where you and the Venerable Bede used to live together when the papists used to tell you to go to “L.”‘

This Hellenic and aspirating and exasperating observation refers
to the reiterated doggerel that used to greet us curates in the streets of the historic constituency of Jarrow-on-Tyne:

Protestant Minister, quack, quack, quack!
Go to the devil and never come back, back, back!

To which Echo answers from the Nonsense Songs—’And they never came back!’

However, in our next letter the Cat comes back—the Cat that Lear made—he must have made—to laugh, and the good Fossile sagacity:

Villa Tennyson, Sanremo, 29 December, 1884.

‘It is 2-troo that there is a letter of yours—date Nov. 8—to be answered, but my days of promptuality as to correspondence is over and gone. I don’t not think I didn’t never receive no letter from you at Abetone, but am not shewer.

‘No—my poor Nicola, George’s [his servant Cocali’s] eldest son, was always perfectly honest and good; and now all I can do for him and as a reminder to me of his father’s long services, is to pay Doctors’ bills, and keep him alive with as little suffering as possible, as long as it pleases God. He is always grateful and uncomplaining, but the shock of Dimitri’s conduct [he had finally bolted] and his own fate made him naturally far from cheerful.

‘The new servant—a Milanese—with 14 years’ first-rate character is as excellent and able a domestic as I have ever known; his father now æt. 79, has been 70 years in the Gavazzi family at Milan, and he himself has been for 8 years a cavalry Carabiniere. Then I had to get a cook, but he turned out a thundering thief and had to go. Then I had my meals from the Hotel Royal for a fortnight, but though cheaper that was a nastier life. Finally I have got another chosskimoolious cookly candidate, which he has only one i—but cooks well, and will probably stay, especially as Foss took to him at once, whereas after examining the late thievy cook, that intelligent beast fled the kitchen wholly and never would go near the wicked Pietro Pavesi who, by the bye, could not cook at all.

‘The 3-pronged sentiment[l] has been for some time abandoned as to active progress, though various persons keep sending their intentions to be Tenguinea sobsquibers. How should I know that Matthew Arnold hadn’t millions of money? (Dickens made 33,000 by his visit to America.) And him I ignorantly worshipped as a possible one of 30 peepl.

‘Dimitri Cocali has, I hear, arrived in Corfu actually penniless, though he must have had over 30l. when he left me. As for the other, Lambi, he is going on decently in a nin at Brindisi, to which I have had my part in helping him. It appears that we are not in a position to judge how far birth-tendencies, and thousands of circumstances, weak intellect, &c., &c., are factors in the ruin of young men; anyhow I choose rather to be a fool than over-harsh, and as for people’s opinion about me I care no more than if it was the 9999th part of a flea’s nose. So I go my own way, remembering the text that there is more joy over one cockroach who is reclaimed than over 99 cockchafers who need no reclaiming.

‘As for my elth, it ain’t elth particularly, but rather pheebleness, and I can now hardly doddlewaddle as far as the pestilential postoffis. But I work a great deal …——has been and gone and bought some of this child’s work lately, which if he hadn’t done, I was preparing like St. Simon Stylites to live on my capital,
which ain’t at all big. …

‘When you write to Italians do you name your address: [Fox How, Ambleside, Westmoreland] Volpecome? Trottofianco, Ponentepiùterra?

‘By the bye do you ever walk as far as the top of Windermere—(I don’t mean the top of the water, as of course you don’t walk at the bottom of the lake)—to a place called Wansfell? I wonder who has it now; it used to be Rev. J.J. Hornby’s—uncle of J.J.H. of Eton—Provost. He and I (the Provost) used to run races all over that part of the country and perhaps you don’t know that I know every corner of Westmoreland: Scawfell Pikes is my cousin, and Skiddaw is my mother-in-law.’

Never was a master more careful of the interests of his servants than Lear, and it was a grief to him that his faithful Albanian, George Cocali, predeceased him, and almost a greater grief when two of George’s sons were overtaken by misfortune. Another source of worry and anxiety was the untoward fate of his Villa Emily at Sanremo, blocked from the sea by buildings, and then let to some people as a school, till ‘these beastesses mizzled,’ and left him in the lurch.

January, 1884.

‘So far the beginning was begùnbegùn a long time agò: but now—(Feby. 19)—I have a purple dicular and diametrical notion that I shall finish this document, for unless I do so I fancy I shall never hear if you are married or knot. But as a set off to this resiolution I must needs add that age and Asthma have so greatly impaired my gnatural liveliness and energy as to make it doubtful if I can cover even half a sheet of this penurious primeval poppsidixious paper this evening. … [Three pages follow.]

‘I am now (e’en in our ashes live, &c.) working at a set of Palestine drawings and later shall finish Argos and Gwalior. After that, sufficient to the day is the weevil thereof, as the hazelnut said when the caterpillar made a hole in his shell.’ …

May 24, 1885.

… ‘(9thly) Signor Marsaglia, the Brassey of Italy, has long been making acquedux and penitential pipes to bring what he calls “Acqua Potabile” from Badaluco above Taggia to Sanremo, and I who for 3 years have heard of this scheme have always called it “Acqua Probabile.” But now it has really been brought here, and for 5l. a year I get a thousand bottles a day, all of which as you may suppose I drink. …

’12thly. Enlivenment has been greatly kneaded—seeing that since poor Nicola’s death—March 4—I have lost my last surviving sister, aged 84, and have now no one of my generation except a brother in Texas, whom I have not seen for 65 years.

’16thly. Have you any frogs and snails in your garden? If not, purchase a large number immediately, and place them in a row in a glass case, which will be highly ornamental and abomalous.

’17thly. Yours affectionately, Edward Lear.

’18thly. Amen. God Save the Queen and confound Mr. C——’

25 Hocktomber (as my servant calls it), 1885.

… ‘I have been and still am grieved about W. E. Forster. There is no finer specimen of an Englishman living, and his advocacy of the interest of the colonies greatly interested me—not but what Lord Rosebery and Lord Dunraven did likewise. …

‘I advise you all to take the Villa Figini at Barzano where you may “rear a marble slab” to my memory, tho’ my Boddy, or what remains of it, will be buried in the Symmetry of Sanremo, where I have already bought a Toomb and have ordered a Toomstone. …

‘Bring up the boy [my eldest son] to be a Chimblysweep rather than an artist.

‘Epitaph really in a churchyard—Isle of Wight.

‘”Forlorn Eliza rears this marble slab
To her dear John. (He died of eating Crab.)”‘

Edward Lear was the youngest of a family of nineteen children, of Danish parents, and he owed what education he had to the loving care of one of his sisters. His name was originally spelt Lör. He first earned a precarious livelihood by drawing animal pictures. Some of these, in a window front in Piccadilly, caught the eye of the 13th Earl of Derby, who, after enquiry, invited the author to reside at Knowsley and draw his zoological specimens there, and in order to amuse his children the Nonsense Rhymes, an entirely new kind of literature, were composed. Now the rest of the acts of Lear, and his drawings, and his travels, and how he gave lessons to Her late Majesty Queen Victoria in 1846, are they not written in the book of ‘Nonsense Songs and Stories,’ by himself, in a letter prefixed (1889) ‘by way of preface’?

His anticipation of death was constant and of some long standing, if not lifelong. He wrote in May 1882:

… ‘There is No chance of my seeing either Cambridge or Oxford any more—nor England. Ill, and 70 years old, it is useless to shut one’s eyes to the inevitable θάνατος ἄλυρος ἄχορος &c. Just at this moment I am a little better. …’

The Greek characters in the above quotation from Sophocles are written in the style of a true scholar’s pen. In thanking me for a copy of Jebb’s ‘Modern Greece,’ in 1880, he writes with enthusiasm for ‘so much real information on the subject conveyed in so condensed and clear and pleasing a form—so much learning combined with so much poetical appreciation of the landscape beauties of Greece—and—last not least—such complete and remarkable moderation and good taste in treating of a subject which seems to drive many people crazy—or if they are already crazy to make them crazier.’ The painter, whom the Laureate had addressed as ‘E.L. on his Travels in Greece,’ was no incompetent judge of the great scholar’s volume.

‘ As for memory, I remember lots of things before I was born, and quite distinctly being born at Highgate 12 May 1812.’ …

27 April, 1884.

… ‘On the 29th and 30th of March I did not at all expect to live beyond a few hours, but Dr. Hassall, thank God, skilfully got the inflammation under, and ever since I have been getting—though very slowly—better. Of course at 72 I cannot expect a return of much of my former strength, but it is a great thing to be thankful for that I have not been paralyzed nor have had my sight affected.

‘I am now—as far as I am able—arranging matters so that my Executors and friends shall have as little trouble as possible, should it please God that my life end shortly. If the contrary, I intend to endeavour to carry out my old plan of Alfred Tennyson Illustrations—200 in number—by Autotype.’

A letter of his written November 7, 1887, within three months of his decease, shows him still interested in the movements of other persons and their children, still able to laugh at his own increasing infirmities; but this paper shall conclude with something epithalamial and happy of that very March 1884, terminating in what Lear might perchance have called a Eugenious Aram tail. My address was then Dingle Bank, Liverpool.

‘I am always incapacitated more or less … and having worked much in the day, I am Nocktupp afterwards entirely. I do not know why you congratulate me on “good health and spirits,” as I have neither; and if I told you I had, I was muffstaken very much. …

‘I wish you a pleasant honeymoon. There are many large black bees here (Sir J. Lubbock writes to me that they are called Xylocopa Violacea), but as they don’t make honey, I don’t recommend you to take them with you, otherwise I would send a lot. Your idea of boating on the Tems seems to me highly grotesque and bizzerable. …

‘He lived at Dingle Bank—he did;
He lived at Dingle Bank;
And in his garden was one Quail,
Four tulips, and a Tank:
And from his windows he could see
The otion and the River Dee.

‘His house stood on a cliff,—it did,
Its aspic it was cool;
And many thousand little boys
Resorted to his school,
Where if of progress they could boast
He gave them heaps of butter’ d toast.

‘But he grew rabid-wroth, he did,
If they neglected books,
And dragged them to adjacent cliffs
With beastly Button Hooks,
And there with fatuous glee he threw
Them down into the otion blue.

‘And in the sea they swam, they did,—
All playfully about,
And some eventually became
Sponges, or speckled trout:—
But Liverpool doth all bewail
Their fate;—likewise his Garden Quail.



[1] The long-cherished design of reproductions of his 200 illustrations of Tennyson’s ‘Palace of Art ‘ and other poems. He was a proper worshipper of Tennyson. The three prongs are those of the monogram AT.

E.C. Selwyn, “Later Letters of Edward Lear.” The Cornhill Magazine n.s. 28, March 1910, pp. 389-398.

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1 Response to Later Letters of Edward Lear (to Canon Selwyn)

  1. Pingback: “Twentieth of Twenty-one”: Edward Lear and his Siblings (1) | A Blog of Bosh

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