Edward Lear and Nonsense Verse

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Edward Lear published his first collection of poems, A Book of Nonsense, in 1846, reinventing an old verse form, the limerick, and winning the affection of both children and adults. He went on to publish several more collections of ‘nonsenses’, including some poems you might be familiar with from your own childhood. Perhaps best-known is ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ (1871), a poem which sees an unusual pair of creatures elope. This unit explores some more of the unusual couplings that run through Lear’s poetry: from pairs of rhymed words to pairs of mixed up animal and human parts. It also explores the genre of ‘Nonsense poetry’ more generally, inviting the reader to think about what nonsense is, as well as what might be gained from a study of it.

The first activity invites readers to reflect on Nonsense as a genre: What is it? Are there rules for writing it? And what separates Nonsense from non-meaning: from being just noise? Nonsense poems seem partly to be about rule-breaking, and both the pleasure and anxiety that such rule-breaking entails. The second half of the activity tests out these questions on a few of Lear’s limericks, and asks the reader to consider them from different angles: as stories, as kinds of parody, and as constructs which allow several kinds of interpretation to take place at once.

The second activity considers some of Edward Lear’s animal creatures, using them to situate his poetry in a wider social context. Lear’s early career was spent as an ornithological draughtsman, or artist of birds. His affinity with animals, both real and poetic, acquires a new significance in the context of scientific debates which inform late Victorian discourse. This module begins to sketch a biographical approach to these questions by contemplating Lear’s attachment to non-human life in relation to his conception of himself as oddity or outsider.

The third activity reads Edward Lear beside one of the best-known poets of the Victorian period, Lord Alfred Tennyson. Writers, like all of us, are often deeply influenced by their friends, and Lear’s and Tennyson’s writing shares many features that might be missed at first reading. Both poets ask the reader to think with his or her ears. Both, too, write a kind of travel poetry, peopled with lonely figures who have flown the nest. This activity looks at ‘Mariana’, one of Tennyson’s best known poems, beside Lear’s ‘The Quangle Wangle’s Hat’ and asks the reader to think about them in dialogue with one another.