Thursday, December 31, 2020

Revisiting Mr. Lear


This blog began on a March evening in 2008 when it suddenly occurred to me that it would be fun to write some limericks. That same fateful night I ordered the famous collection of limericks that popularized the form, A Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear. 

First published in 1846, the book is in the public domain. The copy that I purchased was the absolute worst - a hack job wherein someone copy and pasted the poems (probably from Project Gutenburg) into a self-publishing template. I read it once and put it on the shelf. The first humble step in my exploration of poetry.

About a decade later, my wife Claire was at a thrift store and found the beautiful hardback edition of A Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear pictured here, which she kindly purchased for me. It actually collects all five of Mr. Lear's books of nonsense, and most shocking of all - they were all fully illustrated by the author!

This fact completely altered (elevated!) my appreciation of Lear's limericks, and rereading them was a transformative experience for me. So much of my exploration of poetry (and indeed the contents of this blog) has been trying to figure out what type of poetry I enjoy, and here, finally, was the answer: I enjoy poems that are illustrated!

Looking back through my poetry reviews, this rule never misses: Ogden Nash, W.S. Gilbert, Don Marquis, collections of Nonsense Verse, Children's Poetry. These are the poems I have enjoyed the most, and all are heavily illustrated. None of those poets take themselves too seriously, and know that a clever drawing can enhance the humor of a poem. Yet another combination of words and pictures that floats my boat. All the other poetry anthologies and collections I slogged through took themselves too seriously and failed to connect. Now I know what to look for in the poetry section of used book stores - pictures!

Anyway, Lear literally drew a small pen and ink illustration for every single one of his limericks. If, like I did, you have an unadorned copy, I beseech you to replace it with a proper illustrated copy. Reading all of this work again, and seeing all those ink drawings, I felt a strange kinship with Mr. Lear, spanning across 170+ years.

Then, last year, out of the blue, my mother sent me Mr. Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense by Jenny Uglow, a meticulously researched biography of the man himself. I was shocked to learn that Lear's main profession was painting animals and landscapes. The humorous poems (and drawings!) that he is remembered for a century later were dashed off to amuse the children of his many friends. Literally just a bit of "nonsense" to help pass the time.

There were so many aspects of Lear's life, as a freelance artist and self-publisher, that I could relate to - running around town trying to get enough patrons to commission a book (Victorian Kickstarter!), or painting dozens of small watercolors to try and sell to make his rent. Like so many other authors throughout the history of publishing, he signed away all the rights to his poems for some quick money, and they have been in print ever since. The more things change, the more they stay the same, I guess.

Anyway, I have a much deeper appreciation for the man after all this reading and revisiting. I can't help but feel that if I could go back to his time, or he could come forward to mine, that we'd get along famously.

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