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Happy Birthday, Dear Edward

2012 May 12

by Victoria Ford Smith
Rice University

As celebrations of Charles Dickens’s bicentenary continue past the great author’s February 7th birthday, I find myself turning from the parties and panels, the symposia and biographies, to find Edward Lear. He’s 200 this year, too, after all. Today, in fact. I suspect that he is not a man to make a fuss about his birthday, but surely I’ll find him somewhere at the edge of the crowd, sketching a parrot on a spare napkin.

Others have been dragging the reticent Lear into the limelight, as well. A collection of conferences, panels, and lectures—all over the world, from Chicago to Zurich to Liverpool— have cropped up around Lear’s birthday. Events honoring Lear celebrate him as a nonsense poet and an illustrator, as a painter of landscapes and birds, as a traveler and a man with truly remarkable facial hair. I am particularly taken, for example, with International Owl and Pussycat Day at the Newquay Zoo in Cornwall, where participants will not only write their own limericks but also don makeshift, frothy beards.

These events, of course, are dwarfed by the Dickens bicentenary. It is perhaps not surprising that Dickens’s birthday has been attended with grander celebrations than Lear’s. Although Lear’s legacy is palpable in everything from children’s literature to absurdist drama, I concede that he is not as familiar a household name (a household word?) as Dickens. And Lear is not alone. Other Victorian notables were born in 1812—Robert Browning, Geraldine Jewsbury, and Henry Mayhew, to name a few—and their bicentenaries have not reached the fever pitch that has attended Dickens’s big day. It was perhaps inevitable that Lear, along with the others, would drown in the great wave of love and celebration directed at Dickens.

But maybe Lear is a special case. For example, I could attribute the humbler fanfare attending his 200th birthday to his reputation as a lonely man, an author who escapes notice. He longs to join the party, but he is resigned to his role as runner-up, sidekick, or understudy. He began his career in nonsense under a pseudonym, publishing A Book of Nonsense in 1846 as Derry Down Derry, but even after his name had been published, many readers doubted that Edward Lear was a real person at all. He famously had to prove his identity to a doubting man on a train by doffing his hat and displaying his name written inside. Scholars and biographers—Ina Rae Hark, Ann Colley, and Vivien Noakes , among others—have teased out the themes of alienation and loneliness that thread through Lear’s verses. Some cite, for example, the antagonism of the crowd in Lear’s limericks—that ominous mob of “They” who, with blows and words, often smash, thump, and maim the vulnerable or the eccentric. Others mourn of the plight of Lear’s Dong with a Luminous Nose, a sad creature who falls in love with a Jumbly girl only to be abandoned to wander the seashore and watch the horizon.

Lear’s biography doesn’t help matters. It is rife with sadnesses, large and small, that correspond to the tragicomic nature of his writing. His family was divided by financial difficulties. He suffered his entire life from epilepsy but hid the condition, which he called his “Demon,” from nearly everyone. He remained a lifelong bachelor, his personal life punctuated by unfulfilled relationships: a planned but unrealized engagement to Augusta Bethell, an unrequited love for his friend, the barrister Franklin Lushington. When Foss, Lear’s much loved cat, died in September 1887, Lear followed a few months later.[1]

While Lear’s life and work certainly were not all misery and isolation—he was the “Adopty Nuncle” of many a lucky young person, and, really, I cannot imagine that he did not chuckle happily to himself as he sketched the noble Biscuit Tree[2]—it is nevertheless tempting to think that Lear is always passed over. Always dejectedly waiting for a cab. In the rain. Without an umbrella. And it is this Lear, the lonely poet writing lovesick nonsense, who comes to mind when I consider how Lear’s bicentenary is so overshadowed by Dickens’s birth. It was just Lear’s luck, I find myself musing, that he was born the same year as Dickens. Faced with Lear the underdog, Lear the persecuted, I want to volunteer as his champion.

Then again, I am not particularly interested in comparing the public displays of affection directed toward Dickens to the perhaps quirkier remembrances arranged in honor of Lear. I doubt the two authors are peering through the pearly gates to watch the festivities below, trying for an accurate head count of their admirers. Instead, I find it useful to consider how Lear’s reputation as a lonely outsider, his tendency to season the bouncing rhythms of his nonsense with a little melancholy, might speak to the complicated nature of birthday bicentenaries in a way that the high teas and plenary talks marking Dickens’s day might not.

Lear, a poet known for his uneasy juxtaposition of joy and dejection, companionship and alienation, makes visible how celebrations of birth are necessarily implicated in death and loss. Lear was born the twentieth of twenty-one children, many of whom did not survive infancy, and the cruel correspondence between birthdays and leave-takings is evident now and then in his verses. Consider, for example, “To Miss Lear on her Birthday” (1826), a poem Lear wrote for his sister Anne’s 35th. Within the poem—comprised of 112 lines, each ending in “-ation”—Lear rhymes the merry “celebration” with the illnesses and accidents he hopes Anne does not encounter in her remaining years, including “emaciation,” “amputation,” and “disease’s contamination.” While the poem’s catalog of maladies and catastrophes, in its sheer volume, is comical, it remains an ode to birthdays as triumphs against an inevitable end. Lear ends the poem with a prayer that Anne will

descend[] by slow gradation

Unto [her] final destination—

The long last home of all creation.[3]

Lear frames his poem to Anne as a “presentation” in honor of her safe arrival at another birthday. He is, in a sense, offering her a remembrance—a word comfortable in the context of both life and loss. And as we cut into “Happy Birthday, Dickens!” cakes and strap on our handcrafted Learian beards, we are doing the same. We are recognizing not only the lives of Lear and Dickens and how they changed our own—how Bleak House convinced us to go to graduate school or how “The Owl and the Pussycat” lulled us to sleep—but also how the deaths of those authors have necessarily limited the words with which they can speak to us. Neither Lear nor Dickens, certainly, can attend their 200th birthday parties. While the events scheduled in their honor are in happy recognition of their entrances into the world, they are also a reminder that the days of anticipating the next installment of a Dickens serial, the next book of Queery Leary nonsense, are quite long past.

It is because I find the birthday bicentennial an ambivalent celebration that I was reminded of Lear’s 200th birthday a few days early, on May 8th. I awoke that morning to a New York Times article announcing the death of Maurice Sendak. In the days since Sendak’s death, readers who have journeyed with Max to the island of the Wild Things or snacked with Mickey in the Night Kitchen have struggled to narrate the loss of Sendak, and the memories that have emerged are uniquely Sendakian: rumpusing children who loved Sendak so much that they ate his letters, others planning summer vacations to Max’s island. While the outpouring of love for Sendak more immediately resembles the tributes to Dickens at his bicentenary, the sense of loss, the clear desire to recognize in a unique way an author who was simultaneously beloved and, somehow, an odd man out—that’s a little more Lear.

I can’t help but sense a kinship between Lear and Sendak. Sendak has, in fact, illustrated some of Lear’s verses. More importantly, however, both are author-illustrators who were attentive to the frightening yet fantastic images bouncing around inside children’s skulls, to the proximity of life and loss.


[1] I draw much of my information on Lear’s biography from Anderson, Celia Cartlett. “Edward Lear.” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 163: British Children’s Writers, 1800-1880. Ed. Meena Khorana. The Gale Group, 1996. 167-176.

[2] “When the flowers fall off, and the tree breaks out in biscuits, the effect is by no means disagreeable, especially to the hungry,” explains Lear. “If the Biscuits grow in pairs, they do not grow single, and if they never fall off, they cannot be said to remain on.” Lear, [Nonsense Trees]. Edward Lear: The Complete Verse and Other Nonsense. Ed. Vivien Noakes. New York: Penguin, 2001. 439.

[3] Lear, “To Miss Lear on her Birthday.” Edward Lear: The Complete Verse and Other Nonsense. Ed. Vivien Noakes. New York: Penguin, 2001. 5–8.

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Pamela J. Francis permalink
    May 12, 2012

    Edward Lear is a lucky man–despite his self-conception–to have a champion in you, Dr. Ford Smith. A beautiful reflection on a man you so rightly describe as “somewhere on the edge of the crowd, sketching a parrot on a spare napkin.”

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