Cultures, like caterpillars, crawl forward in contradictions, drawing back and then suddenly springing forward. The Victorians, famously puritanical, are also famous for providing the template of modern pornography—the words “Victorian classic” on a paperback have long meant a dirty book—while on the other side of that earnest, progressive Victorian rationality are the mad leaps of Victorian irrationality. All that sense, decorum, and propriety produced the first fully achieved literature of nonsense. Like the porn, it was amazingly generative, so that most works of Dada and Surrealism bear the marks of mid-Victorian Englishness, descending from Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, as much as modern erotica takes on those nineteenth-century disguises.
Of the two great makers of nonsense, Carroll rightly has received more attention, because of his twists and quirks, because of his photography and the ghost of pedophilia falsely supposed to cling to his obsessions. About Lear less has been written, perhaps because there does not seem as much to say. His classic love ballad, “The Owl and the Pussycat,” was voted the most popular British childhood poem in 2014, and has been set to music by everyone from Stravinsky to Laurie Anderson. And no history of the limerick, or of light verse, can escape his imposing presence. But his work seems so self-enclosed and self-evident that championing him has felt unnecessary, even impudent. Lear has a certain amount of nursery nationalism about him; if you read him when you’re a small child, as more Brits seem to than Americans, he becomes, as W. H. Auden wrote, an entire land.
No one would seem better qualified to write a biography of Lear than Jenny Uglow, and now she has, with “Mr. Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense” (Farrar, Straus Giroux). Uglow is a matchless popular historian of the British nineteenth century; her 2002 book, “The Lunar Men,” is among the best social histories of British life to have appeared in the past twenty or so years. It’s an account of the intermingling of art and science in the circle around Joseph Priestley and the young Erasmus Darwin at the dawn of the industrial revolution in the Midlands, and the book revealed a kind of mini-Enlightenment centered in Birmingham.
When it comes to Lear, Uglow’s disability, if there is one, is that she is such an enthusiast that her enthusiasm crowds out, a little, her urge to explication. That nursery nationalism kicks in. She takes Lear’s greatness for granted, piling on limericks and sketch drawings as though we, too, had known them since infancy. Her enthusiasm can become a velvet rope separating us from her subject, more than an invitation to the dance. (Enthusiasm, whatever they may say, is never actually “contagious.” Eloquence about an enthusiasm alone is.)
What is eloquent and astonishing in Uglow’s biography is her demonstration of how embedded Lear was in Victorian art and culture. Given the eccentricity of his tone and the sad, self-mocking little-Englishness of, for instance, his verse “Self-Portrait of the Laureate of Nonsense”—
He reads, but he cannot speak, Spanish,
He cannot abide ginger-beer:
Ere the days of his pilgrimage vanish,
How pleasant to know Mr. Lear!
—you might have expected a second William Blake, living as a recluse in a row house in Lambeth. Not a bit of it: the younger Lear was a social figure, a permanent house guest, as deep in his time as Truman Capote was in his.
He knew everyone. Reading his melodic nonsense lines, one might entertain the thought of Lear as a kind of comic Tennyson, with the same gift for murmuring sounds disguised as philosophy—and then, reading Uglow, one discovers that Lear and Tennyson were friends, sharing ideas and rhymes. (In fact, Lear set much of Tennyson’s verse to his own music.) A diligent student of Charles Darwin might be struck by how much the creatures in Lear’s verse—the Pobble Who Has No Toes, et al.—are part of a new vision of life that includes an expanded place for chance and oddity in nature, with the extra idea that animal happiness comes from nothing more than filling a precarious niche for a necessary moment. Then one discovers that Lear was an attentive and informed reader of Darwin; he worked with John Gould, the natural-history entrepreneur who had actually picked apart the varieties of finch that Darwin had brought back from the Galápagos Islands. Lear has Ruskinian notes of dense, worried aestheticism—and then, reading the biography, we get Ruskin weighing in on Lear’s lyrics. We find, in Lear, the immersive, overstuffed feel common to all Victoriana—and here is Victoria herself, getting a drawing lesson from him. Because Lear was lodged far more securely in Victorian society than the donnish Carroll was, his art mirrors and parodies it more precisely. Carroll was making jokes about Oxford; Lear about London and the world.
Throughout, Uglow patiently traces the contours of a closeted gay man’s life. Lear participated in the classic Victorian pantomime in which an older man supported or befriended or mentored younger ones, often handsome and foreign-born fellow-pilgrims and guides. The pantomime tends to fall into two orders: in one, the relationship was discreetly consummated; in the other, the pathos of yearning and missing feels overwhelming. All of Lear’s romances seem, with perhaps one exception, to belong to the second category.
We know Lear best as a befuddled middle-aged man, but he was a prodigy of printmaking, a sort of Victorian David Hockney, with a charming if odd manner that brought him early fame and easy access to the famous. Born in 1812, he rose from an erratically middle-class background as—it sounds like the beginning of one of his limericks—the twentieth of twenty-one children, by his own account. (Uglow thinks that he might have been the sixteenth of seventeen.) Epileptic, and seemingly what we would now call “on the spectrum,” he became known as an ornithological illustrator when still a teen-ager. Under the indirect influence, and then the firsthand mentoring, of the master John James Audubon himself—they met on one of Audubon’s fund-raising trips to Britain—the adolescent Lear had the brilliant idea of publishing a picture book about parrots, just parrots, and nothing but.
If he had published only his “Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots” (1832), Lear would still occupy a solid paragraph in the history of Victorian art. (A parrot watercolor, rather than a “nonsense” sketch, graces the cover of Uglow’s book.) Lear’s parrots, for all their exoticism, strike a distinctly English note, and are almost like Regency political cartoons in their airy, bright-colored clarity. In fact, the differences in style between Audubon’s and Lear’s birds suggest almost perfectly realized national types. Audubon was drawn to the democratic and the encyclopedic—birds of all kinds occupying a common space. Lear’s subject was the eccentric individual, poised on its perch. His parrots display plumage, fashion, and intelligence, mixed with aristocratic unself-consciousness. Where Audubon’s parrots gyrate and foreshorten themselves—one can almost hear them chattering as they press their beaks toward the picture plane—Lear’s are sphinxlike in their mysterious stillness. Audubon fixed a whole nation of birds in action in the wild, even when he had had their corpses wired and posed beforehand. Lear’s parrots, drawn from living captives in the newly opened London Zoo, are rich and self-sufficient on their perches. Their minimal movement—a feather astray here, a wing akimbo there—makes them look uncannily like Gainsborough’s feathery society beauties, who are equally silent, equally sure.
His animal illustrations made his reputation, if not a lot of money, and on the strength of it Lear began to travel. For the next forty years, he was mostly on the road, painting pictures—sometimes in watercolor, sometimes in oil—of exotic places for subscribers at home. Greece, Egypt, Italy, India, Ceylon: for most of his life, Lear was known primarily as an intrepid traveller and landscape painter. The sharply etched nonsense verse (first published under a pseudonym) and hard-edged cartoons that we know best were sidelines to his dreamy watercolors and oils, which occupy a stylistic space somewhere between late Turner and Holman Hunt—a Turner-like love of light effects married to a Pre-Raphaelite conscientiousness about details.
Nothing in the pictures would make you think that the two Edward Lears, picturesque and parodic, were related. If Victorian history were as muddled as that of early Renaissance art, generations of scholars would be puzzling their way through the coexistence of two distinct Lears. Occasionally, in the more exotic reaches of his travels—as in a beautiful view of Ceylon that he painted in the eighteen-seventies—some small note of significant strangeness intrudes, ravishing color and breeze-blown reeds too intense to quite credit as reportage. But for the most part his work is dutifully, if cosmetically, reportorial, placing him in the line of the great British travellers, like Laurie Lee and Bruce Chatwin. He was always going somewhere.
One of the odd things about Lear’s pensive wanderings is how often they tracked the sanctified wanderings of the British Romantic poets. He loved visiting Shelley’s and Byron’s haunts, Greek shores and Italian lakes, and he patronized the same class of locals, but he did it in a spirit that was self-consciously comical, rather than defiantly adventurous. This immersion inspired his deeper art. By recalling the Romantic voyaging that had preceded him, he could evade the straitlaced Victorianism that surrounded him. If Victorian nonsense was a response to unbending Victorian sense, the forms it borrowed for this mockery were typically Romantic. Carroll takes Wordsworth’s imposing poem “Resolution and Independence” as his model for the White Knight’s song, from “Through the Looking-Glass,” and Lear uses the legendary excursions of Byron and Shelley as models for the wanderings of Dongs and Pobbles.
Even relatively late in Lear’s career, he was set alight by memories of the Romantics. Uglow makes the suggestive point that Lear’s great ode “The Dong with a Luminous Nose,” published in 1876, must have been sparked by his surprising encounter, the previous year, with the Romantic wanderer Edward John Trelawny, the sailor and friend of Byron’s, who found Shelley dead and cremated his body on a beach in Italy. (Lear had presumed Trelawny to be as dead as the poet.) “The Dong, like Trelawny, is a Romantic relic roaming high Victorian terrain,” Uglow remarks. (One might add that the line about the Dong’s “weary eyes on / That pea-green sail” recalls Trelawny’s search for Shelley’s foundered boat.)
This residual Romanticism gives surprising pathos and dignity to the Dong’s ode. We learn the tale of how the graceful Jumblies once danced to his pipe, and of how one beautiful singer in particular, the Jumbly Girl, was the joy and fascination of his life but then took ship and sailed away. “For day and night he was always there / By the side of the Jumbly Girl so fair, / With her sky-blue hands, and her sea-green hair.”
In the Dong’s world, the dance is over.
And now each night, and all night long,
Over those plains still roams the Dong;
And above the wail of the Chimp and Snipe
You may hear the squeak of his plaintive pipe
While ever he seeks, but seeks in vain
To meet with his Jumbly Girl again;
. . .
And all who watch at the midnight hour,
From Hall or Terrace, or lofty Tower,
Cry, as they trace the Meteor bright,
Moving along through the dreary night,—
“This is the hour when forth he goes,
The Dong with a luminous Nose!”
It is significant that the luminous nose of the Dong is not biological, like Rudolph’s. It is hand-tooled, like a steampunk machine,
And tied with cords to the back of his head.
—In a hollow rounded space it ended
With a luminous Lamp within suspended,
All fenced about
With a bandage stout
To prevent the wind from blowing it out.
His nose is not his wound but his bow—an up-to-date device, like an iPhone flashlight, for finding Jumbly Girls in the dark.
Victorian nonsense showed that parody can be a vehicle for the renewal of feeling. The Dong is in one way a mockery of all those other lonely Byronic wanderers. Yet his pathos and his persistence are meant to touch us, and they do. This is not merely mock-Romantic verse; it is, in its own way, very good Romantic verse, comparable to Byron’s “So We’ll Go No More a Roving,” which must have been one of its inspirations. The Dong, longing for his Jumbly Girl, is certainly a more persuasive, and pensively dignified, image of longing than Tennyson’s poet moaning maudlinly for his Maud. Mockery cleanses clichés, and then restores emotion.