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Edward Lear

Author John Cech
Air Date 5/12/2000

Edward Lear Transcript

Brief sound clip

You’re hearing part of Carly and Lucy Simon’s version of Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat.” Lear was the also the creator of the Jumblies, Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò, the Scroobious Pip, the Quangle Wangle, and myriad other nonsensical creatures. He was born today in 1812, the twentieth of twenty-one children. Extremely talented, nearly impoverished, and suffering from epilepsy, Lear began earning a living as a commercial artist when he was 16, doing pictures and signs for shopkeepers and, as he put it, “making morbid disease drawings for hospitals and certain doctors of physic.” By 19 he had become one of the leading painters of ornithological pictures in England, which led him to be invited to Knowsley Hall, near Liverpool, by the Earl of Derby, to make drawings of the birds and animals in the Earl’s private menagerie. And this, in its turn, led to nonsense.

When he wasn’t busy on his serious portraits of the Wattled Crown Crane or the Spectacled Owl, he was writing hilarious verses that gave the venerable folk form of the limerick new legs–or, perhaps one should say, new wings.

Socially isolated because of his epilepsy, he found solace in satire and parody, which he as often as not directed at himself. And he made little books of these poems for the Earl’s children, and sent them in the letters he wrote to trusted friends and their children. The children understood what it meant to be trapped, as Lear’s characters often were, on top of a Crumpetty tree or stuck in a bucket or a teapot–at sea in a sieve, at a loss for words or simply, at a loss. And that’s what Lear seems to have been throughout much of his life–at a loss for good health, at a loss for personal happiness, and even at loss for money, despite the successes of his books of nonsense and the assembly line of landscape watercolors he cranked out by the hundreds, of his far-flung travels in Egypt, the Middle East and India, and of romantic Italy, where he spent much of his later life and where he died in 1888. He was a man of vast talents, who gave us remarkable realistic paintings, like the large canvas Lear did of the road to the pyramids at Giza, and he also gave us the quick, agile grace notes of an owl and a pussycat playing, quite happily, from the other side of reason.

Posted in Poetry