Edward Lear was born two hundred years ago this month. His reputation, which has outlived many others, rests largely on a book of limericks published when he was thirty-four and a single poem, appearing twenty-one years later, that begins (as you all know, or should):
The Owl and the Pussycat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat
They took some honey, and plenty of money
Wrapped up in a five-pound note
For the cowardly, for those who require permission to enjoy nonsense or doggerel (which are, after all, the purest forms of poetry—poetry stripped of inflated ambition and ornament), let me note that T.S. Eliot glossed Lear’s self-portrait in verse (“How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot / with his features of clerical cut”) and Auden devoted a poem to him (“he wept to himself in the night / A dirty landscape-painter who hated his nose”). For the grim-hearted, let me add that it’s impossible to take Edward Lear seriously—at least in the dreadful sense of the phrase to take seriously that has infected our language (it’s come to mean something close to embalming). And from that very impossibility is derived the inescapable hold he exerts as a lyricist and prosodist. Lear’s verse is so strong and so unitary that it resists analysis; it requires, in fact, no analysis at all. One is never in doubt as to what he means, even when he’s relating the sad fate of the old man of Thermopylae, who was exiled for his disregard of convention, or the tale of the “Dong with the Luminous Nose,” heartbroken and stalwart, a prosthesis made of tree bark affixed to his face and a lamp suspended within it.
When awful darkness and silence reign
Over the great Gromboolian plain,
Through the long, long wintry nights;–
When the angry breakers roar
As they beat on the rocky shore;–
When Storm-clouds brood on the towering heights
Of the Hills of the Chankly Bore:–
Then, through the vast and gloomy dark,
There moves what seems a fiery spark,
A lonely spark with silvery rays
Piercing the coal-black night,—
A Meteor strange and bright:–
Hither and thither the vision strays,
A single lurid light.
So begins the Dong’s tale. He falls in love with a foreign woman, she leaves, he is bereft and driven to his insane and endless wanderings. Never imagine that some sordid, Viennese impulse lies behind the name this forlorn lover bears. If anything, the attentive reader will hear in it a knell, nothing more. Or the lament we all raise when confronted with loss and the hideous inadequacy of our art, of our intellect itself. “Far and few, far and few / are the land where the Jumblies live”: copying down that line as an adult carries with it a certain shame at ever having been entranced by it, to say nothing the greater shame that this entrancement has not ended, although the words no longer possess the incantatory power they did when I first encountered the poem as a child. And its jogging, broken meter, that too recalls the ragged and unendurable pace of childhood, which now seems absurd and feverish, trite, forced, but which, as you lived through it, excruciated and exalted you.
I don’t want to go on too long or too volubly. To do so would run counter to the spirit of Lear’s work. But I doubt that any reader of poetry—after encountering the the tyrannical, fanatical cruelty so often displayed in the limericks and the more recognizably human experiences portrayed in his longer lyrics—has ever rid himself of the pain reading Lear induces.
Sam Munson’s novel The November Criminals is now available in paperback.