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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.”