by Jackie Wullschlager
Like many lovers of the most famous nonsense poem in English, I have often wondered what became of the Owl and the Pussy Cat. Now I know. Ill in bed at the end of his life, Edward Lear scrawled out their sequel on a book jacket:
Our mother was the Pussy Cat, our father was the Owl,
It is astonishing that this delightful poem, in four verses, has never been published before; it appears now in Penguin Classics' Edward Lear: The Complete Verse and Other Nonsense, the first-ever complete collection of the poet's verse. Interleaving familiar and unfamiliar songs and stories, Lear's wonderfully frenetic, cartoon-like drawings, and biographical details, this definitive edition opens up to us the mind of the man who wrote that "nonsense is the breath of my nostrils", and reveals the unfolding of his particular, bizarre genius.
Of course, in his sequel, Lear couldn't let the Owl and the Pussy Cat live happily ever after: just as Lear was for a solitary wanderer, so the Owl ends up singing alone "to that original guitar" after "all the money has been spent, beside the £5 note". Like most gifted clowns, Lear was a depressive whose comic energy came from the view that "I see life as basically tragic and futile and the only thing that matters is making little jokes".
Born in 1812 in Holloway, then a village north of London, he was the twentieth child of Jeremiah Lear, a stockbroker who went bankrupt when Lear was four and ended up in the King's Bench Prison. The family was forced out of its home - his earliest surviving poem comically recounts the exile that was for him a catastrophe. After their exile, his mother wanted nothing more to do with his upbringing, and he was cared for by his eldest sister Ann: loving, supportive, with a flair for comic stories, but still unable to compensate for the parental rejection which gave that haunted sense of desertion to everything Lear wrote.
A highly strung, thoughtful boy whose nervous temperament was complicated by epilepsy, Lear suffered acute depressions - "the Morbids" - from the age of seven. An early memory was of a twilit performance by clowns in Highgate, and of "crying half the night after all the small gaiety broke up - and also suffering for days at the memory of the past scene." The mix of carnival energy and melancholy, the snatching for happiness as it fades: the memory evokes famous nonsense songs like "Calico Pie" and "The Jumblies" where joy mingles with loss. Even in juvenile poems Lear chose subjects such as "the Shady Side of Sunnyside" and "Miss Maniac", about a girl's descent into madness.
At 15, he began earning his living as an ornithological draughtsman - his drawings of people, round, beak-nosed, arms fluttering like wings, always resembled birds rather than human beings. At 20, he was invited by Lord Stanley to draw his private menagerie at Knowsley Hall, near Liverpool, his introduction to upper-class society. "The uniform apathetic tone assumed by lofty society irks me dreadfully", he wrote. "Nothing I long for half so much as to giggle heartily and to hop on one leg down the great gallery - but I dare not." But the aristocrats sought him out as a comic entertainer, and some became lifelong friends. Lear poured into limericks his rage at social constraint, his forlorn sense of not fitting in, a joky despair at life's absurdities. Each tells of an energetic, wild individual destroyed by narrow-minded, vicious society, the omnipotent "they":
There was an Old Man of Whitehaven,
As Lewis Carroll was later to do in Wonderland, Lear's limericks celebrate odd characters with a spirit of tolerance: people with peculiar chins, embarrassing habits, creaking shoes, the wrong sort of nose. Like Carroll's too, Lear's world is violent and anarchic. Destruction and death lurk at the end of the most innocent lines - the old man who "sat on a chair till he died of despair" - reflecting Lear's own mix of humour and nihilism.
In 1837 Lear left England for Italy, determined to become a landscape painter, and so began half a century of wandering across southern Europe and the Middle East, in search of stunning views, spectacular scenes. He made his home on the Italian Riviera, and wrote the wonderful, romantic poems of sailing away to exotic, distant seascapes, such as "The Owl and the Pussy Cat", "The Duck and the Kangaroo" and "The Daddy Long-legs and the Fly". They tell of joyful escape from convention and the triumph of exuberant spirits; many are about mismatched couples with whom Lear, an epileptic "dirty landscape painter" torn between inadmissible homosexual desire and the longing for domestic stability, could identify. The floppy short-legged fly, banned from court, and his long-legged friend, for instance, reject the world, "sailed across the silent main,/ And reached the great Gromboolian plain;/ And there they play for evermore/At battlecock and shuttledoor." Others celebrate gatherings of peculiar animals such as the friends of the Quangle Wangle who "at night by the light of the Mulberry moon¼ danced to the Flute of the Blue Baboon". Lear, most affectionate of friends himself, wrote that "one finds that constant quiet sympathy is not only one of the most loveable qualities, but also one of the very rarest": in his nonsense it is a part of the landscape.
When Lear published these poems in 1870, nothing like them had ever been seen before. His genius was to bring traditional English nonsense, which has always thrived through oral transmission, mostly in nursery rhymes, into the literary fold. A modern sense of the absurd, a thoroughly English humour rooted in the fantasy and earthiness of nursery rhymes, a lush Victorian melancholy reminiscent of his friend Tennyson, are the mix of ingredients that make up a great Lear poem. Only someone self-educated, living beyond mainstream English cultural life, sensing himself to be an outsider, would have had the boldness and freedom to write as he did, yet the psychological cost was enormous. Rejected by the man he loved, an upper class judge called Franklin Lushington, he never married and went through life alone, in his last years suffering too a waning market for his paintings.
His fantastical characters mirror the passage of his own life. The Yonghy Bonghy Bo's hilarious courtship of Lady Jingly Jones parallels his own failed attempts at proposing to a female friend who might have accepted him; just a shred of absurdity links the sad, ridiculous Dong with a Luminous Nose, half-menacing, half-pathetic, to the world of nonsense where at the end of Lear's life "awful darkness and silence reign/ Over the great Gromboolian plain". What gives depth to his escapist fantasies is the ability to transform emptiness and pain into a unique, attractive nonsense world, with its own evolving characters and landscape: the Jumblies, the great Gromboolian plain, the hills of the Chankly Bore.
It is fascinating to learn how some of the odder late poems came into being: "The Akond of Swat" was inspired by a news item about an Indian potentate when Lear was travelling on the sub-continent; "The Cummerbund" was first published in The Times of India under the banner "Salaam to the poets!", the background to destructive Mr Discobbolos ("And all the Discobbolos family flew/ In thousands of bits to the sky so blue") was the building of a huge hotel for "Germen, Gerwomen and Gerchildren" on the land between Lear's San Remo home and the sea.
Lear's last poem was the fantastical autobiography "Incidents in the Life of My Uncle Arly", a mock-ballad where the hero wanders over hills to gaze at "golden sunsets blazing", finds a "First Class Railway Ticket" - his invitation to upper-class Victorian society - "but his shoes were far too tight": he does not fit in. He roams away, like Lear is without a fixed home for forty-three years, and is either solitary or furious:
So for three-and-forty winters,
Anyone who has ever felt, for one reason or another, that their shoes were far too tight, and who has dreamt of fleeing humdrum reality, will find themselves consolingly at home in Lear's nonsense world.
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