Edward Lear was born 200 years ago, and nonsense enthusiasts are celebrating 2012 with a variety of bicentennial events. Lear’s fame began with the publication of A Book of Nonsense in 1841. This volume collects 112 limericks, a poetic form on which Lear had tremendous influence. An illustration done in Lear’s whimsical style accompanies each limerick.
Although he lacked formal academic education in the arts, Lear made his living as an artist from age fourteen. He drew or painted hundreds of landscapes for travel books. Contemporary ornithologists admired his illustrations in bird books. Today, however, mentioning him as an artist bringsan image from his nonsense books to the minds of most people.
After the publication of A Book of Nonsense, Victorians loved his informal sketches as well. His correspondents saved his letters, which include pen-and-ink sketches in the same style as his illustrations of A Book of Nonsense. At the request of Queen Victoria, Lear even gave her a series of drawing lessons. I doubt Victoria wanted instruction in drawing birds and landscapes.
Edward Lear shaped the five-line poetic form we now call the limerick into its modern form. In the Victorian era these brief poems were called “learics” after Lear. Lear did not invent the form. The scholar Gershon Legman traced the stanza back to the middle ages and also found it in familiar folklore (“Hickory Dickory Dock”) and literature (Robert Herrick, Robert Southey). Lear, however, made the form popular and recognizable.
Lear adopted a stanza used by many others, to be sure; but he copied a specific version of it from an 1822 chapbook, Anecdotes and Adventures of Fifteen Gentlemen by R. Sharp. This early book of limericks featured illustrations by Robert Cruikshank, the older brother of George Cruikshank. The first line of the fifth poem in the book is immediately recognizable as a limerick of the kind written by Edward Lear: “There was an old captain of Dover.”
In Lear’s hands the limerick usually begins with a line describing a person as a resident of some locality. This person is thenidentified as some type of eccentric in the third line, which rhymes with the first. The third and fourth lines, which in A Book of Nonsense are written together as one line, describe some action that takes place. The end word of the final line repeats the end word of the first line. Only one poem of the collection has a different rhyme word for each of the first, second, and final lines. The meter of the poems is generally anapestic; that is, each poetic foot has two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable.
Lear added one very new important feature to the limerick: nonsense words. Flipping through the pages of A Book of Nonsense we find ombliferous and borascible. Nonsense words were not a feature of earlier limericks, but they are a key feature of Lear’s style. This feature of limericks gives the writer tremendous freedom; in no other form that I know can a writer make up words without regard for meaning.
The limericks of A Book of Nonsense are very familiar to almost all readers of English. I tried to introduce my daughter, age 7, to these poems, but she told me that she knew them from Pre-K. Despite their familiarity, rereading the poems and reexamining the pictures makes an enjoyable half-hour even for an adult. Lear’s drawing are vigorous and droll. His poems, all though familiar, are silly beyond the silliness of Lear’s imitators.
This article is a revision and abridgment of a longer article that appeared August 18, 20012 on Triond’s Bookstove website: http://bookstove.com/poetry/review-a-book-of-nonsense/. Looking for notes, references, and suggestions for further reading? See the version of this article on Triond.