I just finished reading my review copy of Edward Lear and the Play of Poetry. The book consists of seventeen scholarly essays, many of which got their starts as papers delivered at an Edward Lear bicentennial conference at Oxford in 2012. I found the book admirable, valuable, and annoying as hell. The present note will not be a review, but only a few stray thoughts.
When people write about Victorian nonsense, they tend to take one of two stances. There’s the almost intolerable one taken by Martin Gardner in his classic The Annotated Alice—i.e., aggressive pedantry trying to pass itself off as a spoof on pedantry. In fact, it really is a bunch of learned obnoxiousness. Unfortunately for everyone, this kind of exercise really does elucidate things at least some of the time. (Gardner’s tone, by the way, used to be the standard one in which nineteenth-century porn novels were couched: lore-spouting dickishness, with lots of wordy pseudo-gusto.)
The Play of Poetry book doesn’t have anything like that. The essayists in here are modern academics. Their assumption is that their colleagues already know everything, and so the only way to get anywhere is to say something brilliant. And so you get a lot of overingenious readings. For example, much is made of the “grammar” of Lear’s drawings. Whenever the content of the picture diverges from that of its limerick, we are sure to have to sit through a paragraph of speculative prose.
Or how about this:
“No one heard such a scream”—ah HA. So maybe they can’t hear her after all (??).
Or how about:
Isn’t it just possible, despite the “concluded,” that the old person used that book as a kind of hang glider, and so flew away rather than et cetera, et cetera, et cetera—? (???)
I would not have you think the whole book is like this. But it’s like this to a trying degree. I couldn’t just set the thing aside, though, because almost every page contained pleasurable surprises. For example, this picture:
Really does look like this one from Goya:
I’m not persuaded the similarity means anything, but it did give me a jolt. Some of the comparisons in the “Lear and x” chapters, where x is a twentieth-century poet (T. S. Eliot, Auden, Stevie Smith, John Ashbery), were satisfactory in the same way. You always knew those people had some Lear in ’em, but to be shown a gallery of parallel passages is a pleasure.
But mainly the “hook” in edited volumes like this is the quotations from Lear’s much-less-well-known writings: the letters, the diaries, the travel books. Most of us have every reason to be grateful to scholars for going through that material and coming back with choice bits. Truly, one could get an immense amount of improvement simply by reading the block quotes in this document. I, who know Lear’s letters somewhat, am here to tell you: In real life, there’s only so much of that baby talk you can take. So when somebody cherry-picks all the wittiest morsels for you, you gotta be a beast not to grovel thanks from the floor.
A great masterpiece of this sort of cherry-picking can be found in the back of the indispensable Edward Lear: The Complete Verse and Other Nonsense, edited by the equally indispensable Vivien Noakes. She has a section, beginning on page 461, titled “Examples of Lear’s Nonsense Similes”—which must have cost an ocean of labor. It’s three-pages-plus of single-spaced type, all of it just Lear signing off letters with things like, “Now my boy I must close this as the Cyclopses used to say of their one eye.” (I must have regifted that a hundred times.) Here are some other specimens:
What is the use of all these revolutions that lead to nothing?—as the displeased turnspit said to the angry cookmaid.
I find my effort vain—all vain—as the mouse said when she climbed up as far as the top of the church steeple.
Never mind. They will be useful when I am dead—those pictures;—as the reflective & expiring bear thought when he considered that his skin would become muffs.
I will now look over your last letter & make ozbervatims on its points, as the monkey said when he casually sate down on the pincushion.
… sufficient to the day is the weevil thereof, as the hazelnut said when the caterpillar made a hole in his shell.
I fear I have only the alternative before me of beginning and executing the whole 200 over again, or of giving up my 40 years work, altogether a disgust and humiliation I shrink from, as the snail said when they showed him the salt cellar.
Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book of poems is called Try Never (Canarium Books, 2017). He is a correspondent for the Daily.