Mention Edward Lear and most people with a love of poetry will think of limericks and nonsense prose that bring a smile to the lips. Born in 1812 near London, Lear was the youngest of 21 children and was brought up by his sister Ann who acted as his mother for most of their lives.
He was not the healthiest of individuals, suffering from epilepsy and asthma, the former causing him much embarrassment throughout his life. It also led Lear to suffer from periodic bouts of depression. Early on, he discovered a gift for drawing and was employed by the Zoological Society and later also produced a number of powerful landscapes on his numerous visits to Egypt and India.
But it was for his writing that Edward Lear is best known. He helped to make limericks popular with the general public when he produced his illustrated collection A Book of Nonsense in 1846. Most children will know the poem The Owl and the Pussycat as it has remained a staple of bedtime reading for more than a century and a half.
An interesting rumor that persisted during his lifetime was that Edward Lear didn’t really exist and that all this popular nonsense was in fact written by Earl Edward Stanley (Lear’s supposed patron).
Lear’s writing gloried in the use of words, both real and made up, and he seemed to find great delight in the sounds and rhythms when these crashed together in his verse. He was an inveterate wanderer and there has always been the notion that this trait was in some way a reflection of the uncertainty and sadness that often creeps into his verse despite its levity.
For a man who received very little education at school or college, the patronage of someone like Earl Stanley was very important to Lear. It also gave him access to middle class society and a route out of the poverty of his earlier life. More importantly it gave him the opportunity to travel. The Earl gave him money to go to Italy when Lear’s health became problematical, particularly in the winter months which seemed to affect his lungs quite badly.
Lear’s limericks came in a variety of formats but were notable for using the same first and last line and often setting his characters against a mysterious ‘they’ that in hindsight appears to be those faceless people in society who were too conformist or officious. Most of his limericks give a comical snapshot of individuals with a particular strangeness such as an overly long nose or a loud mouth, as in the ‘Old Man of the South’.
Having traveled extensively throughout his lifetime, Lear eventually settled in the small town of San Remo on the Italian coast. While he was there his health began a gradual decline and he died of heart disease in 1888 at the age of 76.
He was still remembered fondly a hundred years later when he was commemorated on a collection of Royal Mail stamps in 1988.