the brilliant and conflicted mind of Edward Lear

Download (5)Lyndall Gordon at The New Statesman:

How Pleasant to Know Mr Lear!” is a comical self-portrait by Edward Lear, the Victorian poet of nonsense. This Mr Lear “has written such volumes of stuff!” His nose is “remarkably big”, his body “perfectly spherical” and his face, ineffectively hidden by an immense, bushy beard, “more or less hideous”.

Born in 1812, Lear lived much of his life abroad and eventually built himself a house above the sea in San Remo, north-western Italy. By 1879, when he wrote this poem, he had become a “crazy old Englishman”, who once could sing but now was “one of the dumms”. Lear relays this comedown with mild tolerance. A self-portrait by his imitator T S Eliot is harsher. In “How Unpleasant to Meet Mr Eliot!”, the author’s mouth is prim and his grimness and precision are forbidding. Both poets appear to toss off jingles, yet invite us to pick up a signal: beckoning through thickets of words towards what they secrete.

Jenny Uglow’s Mr Lear explores an “oblique” mode of confession behind the nonsensical mask. To read it is like walking behind a detective’s searchlight trained on the lines. The strength of this biography lies in this illumination of the life through the work, including Lear’s drawings and paintings. The approach expands on the explorations of Vivien Noakes in Edward Lear: The Life of a Wanderer, first published in 1968 and lasting through three editions. Both draw us into the purview of a guarded Victorian. Lear slips two unfunny lines into his pleasant self-portrait: “He weeps by the side of the ocean,/He weeps on the top of the hill.”

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