Edward Lear and the Classics

It is well know that Edward Lear did not have a formal education, a fact that he apparently did not consider a limitation as he thought that it had left him with a curiosity to know new things that lacked in many people educated at the best universities. He certainly did not have a university-level education in the classical languages, but he very probably read a number of classical works in translation or, as a child, summaries of many. The theme has been extensively treated by Marian W. Makins in a recent essay, “Latin, Greek, and Other Classical ‘Nonsense’ in the Work of Edward Lear.” Classical Reception and Children’s Literature: Greece, Rome and Childhood Transformation. Eds. Hodkinson, Owen and Helen Lovatt. London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2018. 203-25.

While discussing “The Tragical Life and Death of Caius Marius,” probably in large part based on Plutarch, Makins, p. 222 note 12, notices  that pictures 15 to 18 appear to be based on Oliver Goldsmith’s The Roman History, from the Foundation of the City of Rome to the Destruction of the Western Empire. Abridged for the Use of Schools, London: J. Williams, 1781, pp. 117-118. A book Lear had perhaps read as a young boy, or was reading with the child of a friend. After checking the text here is what I think she found corresponding to Goldsmith’s version:

Goldsmith writes, p. 117: “In this distress he was obliged to conceal himself in the marshes of Minturnum, where he spent the night up to his chin a quagmire.” The part which does not appear in Plutarch is “up to his chin.”

Goldsmith, p. 117: “being known and discovered by some of the inhabitants, he was conducted to a neighbouring town with an halter round his neck, without cloaths, and, covered with mud, was sent to prison,” and “The Governor of the place… soon after sent a Cimbrian slave to dispatch him; but the barbarian no sooner entered the dungeon for this purpose, but he stopt short intimidated by the dreadful visage and awful voice of the fallen general, …” The “halter” is not mentioned in Plutarch, nor is the man going to kill Marius defined as a “slave” and he offers to go, is not “sent.”

Goldsmith, p. 118: “”He afterwards landed in Africa, near Carthage, and went, in a melancholy manner, to place himself amongst the ruins of that desolated place”

Makins, however, misses, or chooses not to discuss another interesting classical reference by Lear in one of the two sequels to “The Owl and the Pussy-cat” he wrote. Published in the Complete Verse edited by Vivien Noakes, pp. 450-541, in “The Later History of the Owl and the Pussy-cat”, the cat dies after swallowing, “in a rage,” a document that “if found upon them the discovery would insuredly lead to acrostic results,” after her husband, the owl, refused to do so. Before falling off a tree and “perspiring,” the Pussy-cat manages to say: “My Pœtus! it is not painful.” This is an obvious reference to the story –  told by Pliny, Tacitus, Cassius Dio and Martial –  of Aulus Caecina Paetus, condemned to death for his participation in the revolt of Lucius Camillus Scribonianus; given the opportunity to kill himself, he wavered, but his wife Arria stabbed herself and then gave him the dagger saying: “Non dolet, Paete!” the exact words Lear reports in the letter and in the accompanying picuture.

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