Inventing Edward Lear

It is not easy to review Sara Lodge’s Inventing Edward Lear (amazon.co.uk, amazon.com); it presents such a wealth of details that it is impossible to do it justice. In this scholarly study, Lodge proposes interpretations of almost all Lear’s classic poems, as well as presenting several previously-unknown writings and pictures. While not a biography, the book also provides new information on Lear’s early years and his family, as well as new details about the people he met and associated with. The fact that she manages to keep all this material under control and use it to present a coherent picture of Lear as a man, an artist and a poet is an indication of how much thought and time has gone in the writing of the book.

In Lodge’s view, Edward Lear was mainly an entertainer and from the very beginning she distances him from what is nowadays universally recognized as Victorian Nonsense, separating his poetry from Lewis Carroll’s production – “Where Lewis Carroll’s nonsense likes to dig down, into the rabbit hole of logic, the dominant direction of Lear’s nonsense is up and away” (16) – and connecting it rather to a widely distributed practice of popular comic entertainment. Nonsense, according to her, is not so much a genre based on specific techniques applied to particular materials as a “function” that has to do with fun, jokes, games and socializing in general; she mentions very few theoretical writings on nonsense and then only in a footnote. In this light Edward Lear, “from the start a performer” in both music and art as a consequence of an education he got mainly at home from his sisters, was perfectly positioned to reinvent nonsense and make it popular.

The opening chapter, apparently about a minor aspect of Lear’s production, is largely devoted to identifying the songs he knew, performed and illustrated during his formative years and showing how these naturally developed into his later “songs and stories”. In doing so, Lodge identifies several previously ignored sources for Lear’s later poems, in particular the importance of the romantic poets of a previous generation, the more popularly accessible ones like Thomas Hood – the subject of a previous book – and James Bird; while Lear also admired poems by Byron and Shelley, some of which he also set to music, he does not seem to have had much interest in the previous generation of Wordsworth and Coleridge. This part is best read in conjunction with the performances presented on a website devoted to the music Lear composed, listened to and played at after-dinner parties. (Also check out the previous post)

The second essay discusses Lear’s idiosyncratic approach to religion. He very soon dissociated himself from the dissenting evangelical tendencies shared by the other members of his family and came to the conclusion that what was really essential was to “read and think for oneself”; he therefore rejected any doctrinal affiliation. In addition to more readings of the songs, the chapter offers the opportunity to discuss the originality and social lack of conformity of the characters whose adventures are told in the limericks. Like many other academic texts do, in my opinion Lodge tends to exaggerate the innovative character of Lear’s rejection of didacticism in his Book of Nonsense; the limerick books of the 1820s which inspired him, for instance, may appear pedantic to a modern audience but, with many other chapbooks published in the early decades of the nineteenth century, they certainly share Lear’s light approach to very singular characters.

Chapter 3, “Queer Beasts”, is devoted to Lear’s work as an ornithological illustrator and his life-long interest in the scientific discoveries of the age. It also contains a long-overdue analysis of his reaction to the evolutionary theories advanced by Darwin and his followers, and the way these influenced his writings. As the title implies, interspecies relationships, which are frequent in Lear’s limericks and songs, are here repeatedly interpreted as signs of the social anxiety that Lear must have felt because of his background and, especially, his sexual ambiguity. Lodge’s position on the long-debated sexual preferences of Lear seems to me the most balanced: in his “bisexual ambivalence”, at different times and in different situations, he was attracted both by women and by men. In the final pages of this part Lodge emphasises the recurrence of involution / regression in Lear’s work, which seems to suggest that many of his jokes hide what Freud – that Lodge mentions several times but not in this context – defined a “death drive”, which echoes the theme, also highlighted in the chapter, of the impossibility  reproduction by ordinary means.

Lodge then takes up Lear’s visual language in chapter 4, starting with an analysis of some of his “storyboards” – what I prefer to call picture stories – then moving on to the relationship of image and poem in the limericks and a long, extremely illuminating analysis of the alphabets that, though neglected by most critics, she considers “foundational” (219). She then proceeds to investigate the paintings, or rather the sketches he made in situ and the pervasive annotations that he left on them even on the penned-out versions, to conclude with a discussion of Lear as a Pre-Raphaelite and his use of colour in the oils, which includes an interesting, detailed reading of one of Lear’s most beautiful pictures, Beachy Head.

“Inventing Edward Lear”, the final chapter, which also gives the title to the volume, goes back to the theme of Lear as a performer, in this instance as the creator of a persona for his own self: “Both in his published nonsense books and in his private letters, Lear performs the role of a figure who entertains us by behaving in a ridiculous manner” (293). The self-caricatures with which he interspersed his letters to friends were just one of his favourite means in presenting himself as a weak, silly character “who solicits affection”, too young or too old to be self-sufficient and therefore in need of the support of others. In these, as well as in the letters and at times even in the journals, “Lear’s self-fashioning is insistently performative” (297).

In a year that has seen an unprecedented number of publications on Edward Lear, the five essay which make up the book, taken together, provide what I consider the best available overall critical interpretation of Lear’s thought and artistic production in several media and demonstrate that his nonsense is not the result of an escapist tendency, as it has often been seen: on the contrary, the author appears as a man deeply involved in the main political, religious and scientific debates of his time, open to new progressive ideas and able to transform them into something which has been giving pleasure to generations of readers.

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2 Responses to Inventing Edward Lear

  1. Peter Byrne says:

    If ever there was a review that sent us out to get hold of the book, it’s this one. One theme we’d like to follow is that of the artist as performer. Isn’t every creator just that, in as much as he’s presenting something to an audience? Lear’s presentation of himself as “weak” seems like a more jovial version of Samuel Beckett’s grim confession of incompetence.

  2. Pingback: Calendaria Botanica Ricdiculoso | A Blog of Bosh

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