Edward Lear: The Life of a Wanderer

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Edward Lear, the London Olympics, and the Power of Absurdity

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Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening ceremony was a literary romp and a cultural riot. One giant limerick.

Rather than overwhelm his audience with grand formations and laser beams, the filmmaker chose to tell us the story of his country — and season it with a very British sense of the absurd. Or, in the words of England’s master of nonsense verse, Edward Lear, “pure, absolute nonsense.”

When the old girlie (the Queen) sate upon a whirly and the man in tails (Mr. Bean) ran slower than a snail, one could almost hear old Lear’s ghost chortle into his bushy beard. Like any good limerick, Boyle’s had music and rhythm, and for all its choreographed barminess, was underpinned by a surprisingly sound logic. Perhaps most crucial of all, it was a collective effort. The best nonsense poetry, George Orwell once said, pointing to the literary form’s folk origins, is that which is “produced by communities rather than by individuals.” And what else was the London opening but a terrific display of team-work, with thousands of volunteers  rehearsing for months in the rain and snow for no fee, but just the fun of it?

The Olympics have opened in the middle of Edward Lear’s bicentennial. And though he is being commemorated in England and Europe,  the celebrations have all but been drowned out by the obsessive focus on the other birthday boy, Charles Dickens. Having the bad form to be born in the same year as a literary rock star is a fate the self-ridiculing Lear would have accepted with a joke and a shrug. The 20th in a brood of 21 children, he was a bronchial, epileptic child who never got the attention he deserved or fame where he craved it most. History remembers him as a writer of limericks who gave us unforgettable characters like the Jumblies, the Qangle-Wangle, and the Pobbles, or even as a brilliant ornithological painter second only to Audubon. But this versatile Victorian’s great love was something else — landscape painting — and his gravestone in Italy simply reads: “Landscape painter in many lands.”

Again, the “many lands” we associate him with are not those he painted — Corfu, Italy, England and Egypt — but fictional ones he dreamed up to amuse little children. At the Olympics ceremony, when the parade of 204 competing nations marched around the stadium, some of the tinier countries sounded as if they had been plucked straight from Lear’s crazy cartography of places like Buda, Tring, Ischia, and Chankly-Bore, peopled by eccentric old men and women doing silly things like waltzing with cats and making tea in hats, and constantly vexing their straitlaced neighbors, always referred to by that ominous and slightly rude pronoun, “They.”

Fortunately, Lear hasn’t been completely forgotten by London’s Olympic mandarins. One of the events commissioned as part of the Cultural Olympiad is an opera based on his most famous poem, The Owl and the Pussycat. The opera was staged on a barge that floated down London’s rivers and canals and was open to the public. In an inspired choice, the Royal Opera House asked Monty Python member Terry Jones, now 70, to write the libretto. Jones’s energetic opera works as a prequel to the poem — what were the circumstances, he asks, that brought these strange lovers together? — and crosses Lear’s quaint Victorian nonsense, which Jones complained had no drama worth the name, with a more Pythonesque brand of postmodern comedy. Fans of Monty Python may recall how they once conducted their own Olympics, with a traditional 100-yard race except that it was open only to athletes with no sense of direction. Consequently, the sportsmen ran all over the place in an earnest display of silliness that no doubt Lear, who once expressed a wish to hop around on one leg, would have heartily loved.

Anyone less confident than Terry Jones might have blushed at the generous use of the word “pussy” in the poem — when Lear wrote it, it meant cat, not twat — and even attempted to substitute it with something hideous like “kitty.” To cite a related example of censorship, in the BBC’s recent adaptation of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the young heroine, who in Dickens’s unfinished novel is always referred to by her nickname, Pussy,  is called Rose, which is her real name that no one uses. Un-hustled by these displays of political correctness, Jones has stuck to Lear’s ballad, and in his production, too, the elegant fowl strums on a small guitar and sings those marvelous lines, “Oh beautiful pussy, oh pussy my love, what a beautiful pussy you are, you are. What a beautiful pussy you are.”

Apart from being one of the most beautiful love songs ever written, Lear’s endorsement of an inter-species marriage fits right in with Boyle’s Olympian theme of multicultural inclusiveness, something that he literally spelled out by flashing Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web motto of “This is for Everyone” in towering letters across the stadium. Reacting to the opening ceremony, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, a fearless and outspoken critic of his own government’s totalitarian ways, put his finger on the zeitgeist when he said that only a free country could have pulled off this kind of an idiosyncratic entertainment that reflected the character of a free people rather than the marketing vision of a police state.

Freedom, or a mousy longing to be free, is at the heart of Edward Lear’s writing. It is this radical element that made Aldous Huxley, an altogether more serious wit, turn to Lear again and again in moments of depression. There is a certain freedom in being completely inconsequential, and Lear offers no dearth of unadulterated silliness. But his nonsense verse, though light-hearted on the surface, also has a persistent and often violent pattern of rebellion that slips in and out like a dark ripple. His Book of Nonsense, for instance, is full of pain and death, grotesque conflict and romantic heartbreak. Michael Rosen, Britain’s former children’s laureate and Lear admirer, calls it a pattern of “disruption.” Lear, he says, not only delighted in disrupting language by conjuring up new words, he also reveled in disrupting bodies and dress and notions of propriety in an age where morality and sexuality were suffocatingly corseted. So his old man on a hill runs up and down in his grandmother’s gown; another old man with a poker paints his face with red ochre; and yet another prances around in an outlandishly oversized ruff. Not only does the moral majority, the nameless “they,” frown on these men in drag, they are subconsciously so afraid of them that they take matters into their hatchet-happy hands and serve out punishment. So the old man of Whitehaven who dances with a raven gets smashed, as does another old man who incessantly bangs on a gong. The courageous young lady of Norway, who is bold enough to sit in the doorway, gets squeezed by the door. In each case, the harmless eccentric pays dearly for being different.

Which is what makes The Owl and Pussycat so extraordinary. Here, finally, Lear gives his inner demons the slip, and goes for a full-on happy ending. We leave the blissful and quince-and-mince-fed newlyweds in a trance of happiness, dancing hand in hand in the moonlight. Rosen calls it one of the “purest” love poems in the English language — which is a lovely irony given that it celebrates a gender-ambiguous, bird-beast union that the “they” would no doubt condemn as a gross impurity straight out of “Leviticus.” With quiet cunning, Lear withholds the gender of his two lovers. Perhaps the owl, who serenades his beloved, is male; but then Pussy is the one who proposes, which makes it rather confusing. The Owl and the Pussycat was published in 1871, in an era when homosexuality and miscegenation were serious crimes. In one of Lear’s most ruefully direct political limericks, we are told of the man from Jamaica who married a Quaker: “But she cried out, ‘Oh, lack! I have married a black!’ Which distressed that Old Man of Jamaica.” If even a Quaker — a denomination known for their progressive social views — balks at a black husband, think of how the dreaded “they” would react to such a union. Or to that of raptor and feline.

So is The Owl and the Pussycat Lear’s vehicle to assert in a charmingly inoffensive and anthropomorphic way that marriage is a many-splendored thing? That in a perfect, fantasy world, the word marriage — something which the real world is struggling with today — could embrace a same-sex, trans-species love as well as a more conventional inter-sex, same-species one? “All great humorous writers show a willingness to attack the beliefs and the virtues on which society necessarily rests,” writes Orwell in his essay on nonsense poetry. “Boccaccio treats Hell and Purgatory as a ridiculous fable, Swift jeers at the very conception of human dignity, Shakespeare makes Falstaff deliver a speech in favor of cowardice in the middle of a battle. As for the sanctity of marriage, it was the principal subject of humor in Christian society for the better part of a thousand years.”

The laws of love and marriage are the windmills Lear chooses to tilt at. The owl and the pussycat overcome society’s marital taboos by resorting to one of the oldest tricks in the book, elopement. Lear’s characters frequently run away — whether it’s the Old Person galloping away from the people of Basing or the heartbroken Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo racing across the ocean on the back of a turtle — and they usually run away to sea — sometimes in a sieve. The sea is a symbol of endless adventure and freedom, so instead of going to Gretna Green, the runaway couple hops into a pea-green boat and sails far away to a land where the Bong-tree grows. But it’s not as if convention is completely flouted — wisely, they take with them plenty of money, some food and a famous spoon, and make sure that their marriage is sealed with a ring and by a religious minister, even if, parodically, the ring is a pig’s nose-ring and the minister is a gobbling turkey.

This tension between flouting the establishment and accommodating it is an accurate manifestation of Lear’s conflicted personality — one replete with inner longings that he never really had the courage to pursue. Like the young lady of Portugal whose ideas were “excessively nautical” but who didn’t have the gumption to leave Portugal, Lear never really broke the rules the way his characters did. So he lived vicariously through them, and in this poem he seems to be telling us that fowl and feline may come from two very different worlds — even if, as Terry Jones helpfully points out, they both eat mice — but with some smart planning and a little luck, omnia vincia amor— love can conquer all.

Love didn’t play much of a role in Lear’s lonely and wandering life. Many scholars have dwelt on the phallic imagery in his poems and drawings and his suppressed sexuality — the fact that he never married and had only one middle-aged romance that ended badly and made him flee into himself like the poor Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo. Orwell says “it is easy to guess that there was something seriously wrong in his sex life.” Several biographers have suggested that he was “spiritually or emotionally homosexual.” In her biography, Edward Lear: The Life of a Wanderer, Vivien Noakes describes Edward as a “rather ugly, short-sighted, affectionate little boy” frequently given to bouts of depression which he called “the Morbids.” He also suffered from epilepsy, which was debilitating enough without the cruel belief at the time that it was a curse caused by masturbation. The shame must have destroyed young Edward and deformed him emotionally. As for that sigh of sadness that runs through even his funniest verse, what else would you expect from a man who, as a little boy, was taken to see the clowns and began to sob uncontrollably?

Image Credit: Flickr/Nick J Webb

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