Edward Lear

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Edward Lear’s verse collections include three prose stories and three prose recipes called “Nonsense Cookery.” A few of his fanciful botanical drawings are accompanied by whimsical texts. Like his poems, these pieces show Lear at play with language, blithely disregarding common sense.

Two volumes of letters, most of them to Chichester Fortescue, were published in 1907 and 1911. Enlivened by riddles, cartoons, and bits of verse, they demonstrate Lear’s fascination with the sound and meaning of words. He uses puns and creative phonetic spellings; he coins words and humorously distorts existing ones. A cold January day in Corfu is so “icicular” that it “elicits the ordibble murmurs of the cantankerous Corcyreans.” He complains of the proliferation of tourists, especially “Germen, Gerwomen, and Gerchildren,” around his property in San Remo. Although he often revealed his loneliness and depression, Lear characteristically found something to laugh about—if not in his situation, then in his response to it: He called himself “savage and black as 90,000 bears,” and wished he were “an egg and was going to be hatched.” In 1883, he wrote, “I sometimes wish that I myself were a bit of gleaming granite or pomegranite or a poodle or a pumkin”; at seventy-one and in ill health, Lear’s imperishable delight in wordplay pulled him out of self-pity.

He kept journals of his painting excursions; these were later published with his own illustrations. Lacking the warmth and spontaneity of the letters, these topographical and travel books are valuable to readers who relish pictorial description and wish to know the conditions of travel in the nineteenth century.


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Edward Lear thought of himself as a topographical landscape painter, and his ornithological drawings are still highly regarded. Students of nineteenth century painting also admire his watercolor drawings—pen or pencil sketches executed outdoors and later elaborated and colored. Nevertheless, Lear’s reputation as an author eventually overshadowed his painting, and he become famous as the founder of nonsense literature and today is best known for the verses and cartoons he created to entertain children. He popularized the form that came to be known as the limerick, and his innovative comic drawings have influenced many artists, notably James Thurber.


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Byrom, Thomas. Nonsense and Wonder: The Poems and Cartoons of Edward Lear. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1977. Byrom attributes the idiosyncrasies of Lear’s “nonsense” to his epilepsy.

Chitty, Susan. That Singular Person Called Lear: A Biography of Edward Lear, Artist, Traveller, and Prince of Nonsense. New York: Atheneum, 1989. This comprehensive bibliography contains eight pages of plates.

Colley, Ann C. Edward Lear and the Critics. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1993. A history of the critical reception of Lear’s work. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Lehmann, John. Edward Lear and His World. New York: Scribner, 1977. Relatively slim volume contains 137 illustrations as well as an index and a bibliography.

Levi, Peter. Edward Lear: A Biography. New York: Scribner, 1995. This biography of Lear describes his life as one of twenty-one children, his violent and secret struggle with epilepsy, his depression, and the inspiration for his works.

Noakes, Vivien, ed. The Complete Verse and Other Nonsense, by Edward Lear. London: Penguin, 2001. In this volume, Noakes renounces her guess that Lear may have been gay, which was the major premise of her earlier works, including Edward Lear: 1812-1888 (1986).

_______. Edward Lear: The Life of a Wanderer. Rev. ed. Thrupp, Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton, 2006. Noakes rewrote this biography, originally published in 1969, in which she portrayed Lear as possibly gay, to reflect her changed opinion.

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