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Edward Lear

By A.E. Stallings

I’ve been thinking about a post on Lear, but a couple of entries have pushed it to the fore… Steve’s which mentions the ghazal, and Daisy’s on Rexroth in Rome. And I have been thinking too about poet-painters and painter-poets. And it ties in as well with some of my recent entries on children’s literature–Lewis Carroll, Dr. Seuss. One of the pleasures of having a small child is revisiting the literature of childhood in the presence of those fresh eyes and ears, remembering the intensity of childhood listening and reading, which is on a different, almost magical level, it seems to me, from adult reading–a complete lack of sense of divison from the narrative and the words, a total unity with it. The parent who takes the small amount of time required to memorize “The Owl and The Pussycat”–if it is not already lodged in the memory–so that it can be pulled out of a hat to calm or entertain or entrance, will never regret it.


Lear (1812-1888) is best known now for that poem and for his whimsical limericks. His nonsense verse doesn’t have the manic sharpness of Carroll’s, but it does have a surprising lyric melancholy all its own. Take his famous, wry self-portrait (later immitated by Eliot):
“How pleasant ot know Mr.Lear!”
Who has written such volumes of stuff!
Some think him ill-tempered and queer,
But a few think him pleasant enough.
His mind is concrete and fastidious,
His nose is remarkably big;
His visage is more or less hideous,
His beard it resembles a wig.
He has ears, and two eyes, and ten fingers,
Leastways if you reckon two thumbs;
Long ago he was one of the singers,
But now he is one of the dumbs.
He sits in a beautiful parlour,
With hundreds of books on the wall;
He drinks a great deal of Marsala,
But never gets tipsy at all.
He has many friends, lay men and clerical,
Old Foss is the name of his cat;
His body is perfectly spherical,
He weareth a runcible hat.
When he walks in waterproof white,
The children run after him so!
Calling out, “He’s gone out in his night-
Gown, that crazy old Englishman, oh!”
He weeps by the side of the ocean,
He weeps on the top of the hill;
He purchases pancakes and lotion,
And chocolate shrimps from the mill.
He reads, but he cannot speak, Spanish,
He cannot abide ginger beer:
Ere the days of his pilgrimage vanish,
How pleasant to know Mr. Lear!
*
“Long ago he was one of the singers/ but now he is one of the dumbs” strike me as some of the saddest lines in poetry.
Even in more rollicksome verse, there is a strangely melancholy note to the nonsense, as the eerie refrain of the Jumblies:
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies life:
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue;
And they went to sea in a sieve.
Then there is the surreal–innovative?–sonnet, “Cold are the Crabs,” that ends, not with a bang or a whimper, but with a shrug and an existential throwing up of hands:
Cold are the crabs that crawl on yonder hills
Colder the cucumbers that grow beneath,
And colder still the brazen chops that wreathe
The tedious gloom of philosophic pills!
For when the tardy gloom of nectar fills
The ample bowls of demons and of men,
There lurks the feeble mouse, the homely hen,
And there the porcupine with all her quills.
Yet much remains — to weave a solemn strain
That lingering sadly — slowly dies away,
Daily departing with departing day.
A pea green gamut on a distant plain
Where wily walrusses in congress meet–
Such such is life–
Though more famous for his nonsense, Lear was a painter and master of watercolors, who travelled extensively in Albania, Greece, the Levant and further east producing evocative landscape paintings and illustrated travel books, such as Journal of a Landscape Painter in Greece and Southern Albania, 1851. I was just at the British School at Athens and noticed a couple of original Lear’s on the wall–how quietly excellent they were! And indeed they provide a record of Greece from a time–a mere thirty years after independence–when it was not well-travelled by Western Europeans.
(As late as 1908, Forster could have Mr. Bebe in A Room with a View say: “I haven’t been to Greece myself, and don’t mean to go, and I can’t imagine any of my friends going. It is altogether too big for our little lot. Don’t you think so? Italy is just about as much as we can manage. Italy is heroic, but Greece is god-like or devilish–I am not sure which, and in either case absolutely out of our suburban focus.”)
Steve’s refrain post with its mention of the ghazal also brought Lear to mind. I remember coming back across that old favorite, The Akond of Swat, a couple of years ago and suddenly realizing that, with its strict adherence to the form and “exotic” eastern locale, it was a ghazal, and consciously so. Though it is not the first ghazal in English I don’t believe, it is surely one of the very, very early ones, and to my knowledge not generally recognized as such.
Actually, when I approached Dick Davis, the poet and Persian scholar, about the ghazal-ness of the “Akond of Swat,” he agreed with me, but pointed out that “To be really picky Lear probably meant the poem as a qasideh, not a ghazal. The qasideh and ghazal are formally identical (except the qasideh is usually much longer than the ghazal) and are distinguished by subject matter – the ghazal being erotic/lyrical, the qasideh being a praise poem. The A of S is clearly a mock praise poem.”
Lear includes directions for its performance: “The proper way to read the verses is to make an immense emphasis on the monosyllabic rhymes, which indeed ought to be shouted out by a chorus.”

Comments (5)

  • On February 15, 2008 at 2:17 pm Steve wrote:

    Cool! I didn’t know about the Akond. I wonder if he was a precedent for Babe Ruth’s later title as the Sultan?
    I suppose the Akond is a qasideh in the Persian sense of qasideh, praise poems which acquired early on the couplet form later adopted by the ghazal– there’s also, apparently, an early Arabic-language form called the qasida, which unlike the Persian form of the same name, and unlike the ghazal properly so-called in any language, has no refrains. Corrections and additions from Dick Davis, Alicia or anyone else welcome.
    Has anyone else noticed that Ashbery for the past fifteen or so years has been thinking constantly about E. Lear? (I think he’s thinking about K. Lear as well, but certainly E. Lear is all over the place.)

  • On February 15, 2008 at 2:41 pm Don Share wrote:

    Great post, Alicia!
    There’s some Lear (and Carroll) in Auden, too, who wrote (in the Birmingham Town Crier, 28 October 1938):
    “It is not an accident that Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, the two great English masters of nonsense, were both Victorians, for it was in the Victorian age that the atomisation of society into solitary individuals, which is one of the effects of laissez-faire capitalism, first began to be felt actively.”
    He goes on to point out that both were from the upper middle class, the class in which “social isolation is first felt.” And both were bachelors interested in children and family life. However, for Auden, Carroll is “happier and drier” – he is “classical” – while Lear is a “romantic rebel, who finds the real world unbearable; his poems are homesick of a lost happiness.” Auden figures that Carroll’s portmanteau words are intellectual abstractions (fruminous = fuming/furious) and Lear’s are “governed, like Milton’s, by the emotional value of the sound.”
    The social theorists among us might be amused by Auden’s concluding, in the same piece, that “if we are Socialists, we must not be prigs and talk contemptuously of escape art. For [Carroll and Lear] succeeded; their work can be enjoyed by everybody, it is democratic; and it is only Fascists who imagine that they can create a society so perfect that no one will ever want to criticise or escape from it.”

  • On February 16, 2008 at 2:16 am Alicia (AE) wrote:

    Thanks for your comments! Speaking of Ashbery, I am quite serious, too, about the innovative or experimental nature of Lear’s work. He took cadences from Tennyson and other Victorian writers (on hears Arnold as well in “Cold are the Crabs”) and applied them to nonsense–or applied nonsense to those cadences–and it is fascinating to see the result, which is able to reproduce emotional effects even while the words seem to be completely silly. Yet the result is not satire, for one feels, for whatever reason, the melancholy behind the experiment is genuine. Not to pile too much scholia, though, on what should rightly be pleasurable “escape art.”

  • On February 16, 2008 at 9:25 am Dick Davis wrote:

    Steve asks if I will follow up on his comment, which I’m happy to try to do. Qasideh and qasida are different transliterations of the same word; the word is originally Arabic but is used in Persian too (virtually all Persian words to do with prosody are Arabic loan words). The qasideh is a monorhyme with an additional rhyme half way through the first line. As the very long lines of Arabic and Persian poetry are usually lineated in translations as two lines, this looks as though the rhyme scheme is
    a
    a
    b
    a
    c
    a
    d
    a
    etc . . .
    In Lear’s poem the monorhyme is from “swat” “not” “hot” etc . . .
    As Steve says, the qasida / qasideh proper has no refrain. The “refrain” in Lear’s poem is a variant of what’s called a “radif” in Persian, a phrase that comes after the monorhyme every time it appears. The couplets that Lear has added before the monorhyme ar not a feature of the qasida / qasideh. However his poem is I think close enough in form and content to tie it to the qasida/ qasideh as its model; it’s a kind of mock qasida / qasideh with an additonal formal twist (the couplets). And because the form was, and is, associated with Islamic courts (including Indian Islamic courts) it was an appropriate form for Lear to choose with which to write about someone from the province of Swat (which is a real place in the northern subcontinent, which was giving the Brits in India trouble in Lear’s time, in case anyone reading this wasn’t aware of that).

  • On February 19, 2008 at 8:52 am Steve wrote:

    Thanks, Dick Davis! Everybody should read Dick Davis’ own poetry too…
    The work I’ve read on the subject (mostly by Franklin Lewis– anyone know him?) suggests that qasida/qasideh mean two different things in Persian poetry and in Arabic poetry, even though the word entered Persian from Arabic: the Persian qasida always has a radif (even before it evolves into the ghazal); the Arabic qasida is not a form but a genre of poetry, and has no radif.
    In what sense is the radif not a refrain?


Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, February 15th, 2008 by A.E. Stallings.