Edward Lear: Escape

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Citizens of Paradise: Lear’s Nonsense Escapes

In Nonsense Songs (1870) and Laughable Lyrics (1876), Edward Lear eschewed the constricted limerick structure of A Book of Nonsense. Embracing the Romanticism he once shunned, the poet’s Calibans are set free, blessed with transformation and transcendence. In 1859, J.S. Mill had argued that, “when a person’s conduct affects the interests of no persons besides himself … in all such cases there should be perfect freedom, legal and social.” [150] This is all the freedom that the inhabitants of Lear’s nonsense isles desire. Yet they must run away to find it.

“The Owl and the Pussy-cat” is a tale of star-crossed lovers. [151] Owls and pussycats, after all, make as likely a romantic pair as Montagues and Capulets. One expects less serenading, and more carnage. Yet defying custom and nature alike, Lear’s lovers set sail in their “beautiful pea-green boat,” become engaged, and are married by a Turkey in the “land where the Bong-tree grows.” Like the protagonists of Lear’s limericks, the radical individuality of the Owl and Pussy-cat sets them apart from Victorian society, yet these romantic rogues do not die the deaths of their grim counterparts.

Escaping persecution, they sail instead to distant shores. As Christ taught the scribe: “birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man hath not where to lay his head.” [152] Lear’s lovers and adventurers burn with a spark of the divine, as, in the name of love, the Owl and Pussy-cat transcend nest and home.

In Lear’s nonsense songs marriage becomes not a sexual union, but the union of free spirits. Yet there are sexual undertones. As Anthony Burgess writes, “the marriage is forbidden, the union of a bird and a mammal is denied by nature, like the union of a man and a man.” [153] On four occasions Lear states that the Piggy-wig is male, yet neither the Owl nor Pussy-cat is gendered. On the one hand, this ambiguity further locates Lear’s poem in a distinctly pre-sexual world, whilst on the other, leaving open the possibility of a queer reading of the poem. Indeed, unlike the Owl and the Pussy-cat, the Daddy Long-Legs and Fly are both definitely male.

Lear never married, and, with the exception of Emily Tennyson and his sister, Ann, his intimacies were mostly with men. Although the weight of opinion holds that Lear was gay, Peter Levi has argued that Lear was merely a “frustrated man, who tried to marry but failed, and that is all – there is no evidence whatever of homosexuality in his life.” [154] Sadly, Franklin Lushington – Lear’s literary executor, and the man widely perceived to be his lover – destroyed most of Lear’s letters and papers after the poet’s death. [155] The standard reading of Lear’s life –  shared by biographers Vivien Noakes and Jackie Wullschlager – holds that Lear was “confused by his own conflict between homosexual longing and the pressure to marry” in Victorian society. [156] Unable to live openly, the peripatetic artist and poet escaped to foreign shores, where he found comfort in the arms of male companions, and solace in the company of children (and cats). For many gay men of Lear’s time, the dictum was not so much “Go West” as “Go East”.

As James Eli Adams writes, “sympathetic constructions of unorthodox sexualities, which would attempt to transform stigma into affirmation” were rare in Victorian literature. [157] This is precisely what Lear offered his readers. Yet Lear’s vision was not a wholly new one. The most obvious antecedent of Lear’s nonsense lovers is “Hey Diddle Diddle,” in which a dish runs away with a spoon. Lear had himself illustrated the famous nursery rhyme. [158] Such mismatched relationships were also, to some extent, Biblical, and emerge from a “nonsense” tradition stretching back to the Old Testament. Imagining a day when “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord,” [159] Isaiah foresaw that “the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together … and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” [160]

This anti-Darwinian reconciliation of warring beasts is central to Lear’s vision of paradise, as love overcomes the inevitability of kind: cats and birds may wed, and daddy long-legs and flies become life partners. “The Owl and the Pussy-cat” also celebrates the unification of the two most important creatures in Lear’s life, the birds he was so famous for drawing as a young draughtsman, and his beloved cat Foss. Only in nonsense could these two aspects of Lear’s persona, one emblematic of his professional self, the other his private and domestic, be reconciled.

Recreation Revolution

Unlike the solitary amusements of A Book of Nonsense, the pleasures of the nonsense songs are social. The Quangle Wangle, for instance, finds happiness in the childlike company that joins him atop the Crumpetty Tree, where “at night by the light of the Mulberry moon / They danced to the Flute of the Blue Baboon.” [161] In each instance, rapture is revealed in almost childish recreation: the Duck and Kangaroo hop, the Owl and Pussy-cat dance, the Nutcrackers and the Sugar-tongs gallop, and the Daddy long-legs and Fly “play for evermore / At battlecock and shuttledore.” Freed like nonsense Crusoes from the trappings of civilisation, Lear’s lovers escape to a comic iteration of Rousseau’s state of nature. [162] Unlike the adult world, in which “happiness” is sought through wealth, title, power and prestige, the happiness of Lear’s new nonsense domain is found in intellectual and spiritual liberation, a rediscovery of nature, and in re-creative play with like-minded spirits. The few glimpses of “civilisation” in the songs are negative. For instance, the Cups, Saucers, Plates and Pans in “The Nutcrackers and the Sugar-tongs” are obsessed with order, propriety and domesticity, trapped in the roles demanded of them by society, and so demand the same of others. [163]

As Lear was writing, Britons were enjoying a recreation revolution. Ships and railways granted new and broader access to activities previously the preserve of a ruling elite. As Peter Bailey writes:

“[B]y the early [eighteen] fifties the major lines in the British rail system were completed or under construction … rail travel both stimulated a general public curiosity and helped to break down regional insularities of mind and practice.” [164]

Centuries of English parochialism were eroding in a cloud of steam and possibility. Not surprisingly, suspicions were soon aroused about the consequences of this steam-fuelled liberty. Undermining the fabric of the social contract, and destabilising time-honoured distinctions between the classes, this transformation had granted the individual a “mobility and anonymity which removed him from that supervision by his fellows … [Supervision was] still regarded as a desirable … constraint upon individual conduct.” [165] Emphasising the motley character of the Victorian traveller, Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass features “a very queer carriage-full of passengers altogether,” including a goat, beetle, gnat and a gentleman in white paper. [166] Whilst we never learn where they are from, we certainly know where they are going, forward, the only direction possible in the Looking Glass world, and – perhaps – in the new age that was dawning.

Lear’s 1870 limerick about the Old Man at a Junction, “wrung with compunction,” leaves the reader under no illusions as to why such flight might be desirable. [167] Although the reason for the Man’s “compunction” is left unstated, the accusatory stance of his companion points to some secret shame. Devastated to have missed his train, the Old Man is unable to move, and, throwing his arms in the air “remained on the rails of the Junction.” Whether he remains suicidally upon the rails, Lear does not specify, but his point is clear: the railway equals escape. To miss the train equals entrapment, or worse, death. [168]

Just as the longing for unsupervised “mobility and anonymity” led the Nutcrackers and the Sugar-tongs to the “beautiful shore,” [169] and Edward Lear himself to the Mediterranean, so were the vulnerable or demented denizens of his limericks trapped in an endless Victorian nightmare of “supervision by [their] fellows.” [170] But by the time Lear published Nonsense Songs in 1870, escape finally seemed a possibility. And not, as in 1861, just for the solitary Old Person of Basing.

Transformative Topographies

Despite his poor health, Lear was an avid traveller, and quickly tired of England. To Emily Tennyson in 1865 Lear wrote:

“I loathe London by the time [I] have been here a month. The walking – sketching – exploring – noveltyperceiving and beautyappreciating part of the Landscape painter’s life is undoubtedly to be envied … the contrast of the moneytrying to get, smokydark London life – fuss – trouble & bustle is wholly odious, & every year more so.” [171]

Keen to indulge the “beautyappreciating” part of his character, Lear journeyed through Italy, Malta, Corfu, Albania, Egypt, Greece, Palestine and Lebanon, always sketching, painting and writing. If London was the “smokydark” seat of a “moneytrying to get” Empire of Sense, and the city Rousseau’s “abyss of the human species,” [172] then the Mediterranean and Levant exposed Lear to a “noveltyperceiving” Republic of Nonsense.

Like many Englishmen drawn by the lure of the exotic, Lear was struck by the Turkish tolerance of the peculiar, writing:

“[T]hey never stare or wonder at anything … if you chose to take your tea while suspended by your feet from the ceiling, not a word would be said, or a sign of amazement betrayed.” [173]

This desire to find transformative topographies of wonder and acceptance drives the nonsense songs, and it was in such lands that they mostly emerged from Lear’s pen. “The Owl & the Pussy-cat,” for instance, was written in Cannes, and in 1870 Lear purchased a property in San Remo, where he spent his final years writing and sketching.

Although Lear’s limericks are also nonsense poetry, it is in his songs that he unleashes his most famous nonce words and neologisms, and claims his final triumph over Victorian conventionality. To his contemporary readers, “Grambleamble,” [174] “the Zemmery Fidd,” [175] “the Jelly Bo Lee,” [176] and the “great Gromboolian plain,” [177] would have sounded as remote and exotic as the Orient through which Lear trekked. When the Jumblies return home, they recall their journey to “the Torrible Zone / And the hills of the Chankly Bore.” [178] One can imagine Victorian children searching for such glorious places on a map.

In Emile, Rousseau argued that travel “completes the job of making [man] good or bad. Whoever returns from roaming the world is, upon his return, what he will be for the rest of his life.” [179] For some, this was a process to embrace. For others, it was something feared. As James Buzard writes, despite the institution of the Grand Tour, there was:

“[W]orry lest exposure to the outside world [would] squander the potential of the young ruling-class Englishman, encouraging him to ape outlandish manners rather than perfect his own English ones.” [180]

Emigration from Great Britain led to concerns at home that the foreign would dilute the stability of nation upon the wanderers’ return. Yet transformation was precisely what Lear and many other fugitive expatriates desired. Only by swimming the Channel does the Pobble learn that “it’s a fact the whole world knows / That Pobbles are happier without their toes.” [181] He is not so strange and disordered after all.

The Jumblies’ wanderlust burns in opposition to the obscurantism of a closed society. [182] Like the Nutcrackers and Sugar-tongs, derided for “awful delusion” by the Frying-pan, [183] the Jumblies depart “in spite of all their friends could say.” Juxtaposed against the hissing Heideggerian “they” of the limericks, the Jumblies board their sieve even when “everyone cried, ‘You’ll all be drowned!’” The sieve-as-boat forms a perfect metaphor for the impossible dream made possible by the sheer determination of the dreamer. When they return home, the Jumblies’ society is transformed, and soon others cry: “We too will got to sea in a Sieve, / To the hills of the Chankly Bore!” It is a glorious validation of their escape. The revolution, impossible in Lear’s limericks, is at last fulfilled.

Although much of Lear’s own travel in the east was facilitated by connections to the British state abroad, [184] there is something distinctly anti-imperialist about Lear’s travellers, and they – mostly – rise above Victorian Orientalism. The Jumblies are wanderers, not settlers. They return from foreign lands, not with colonies, loot or slaves, but self-knowledge. [185] Uninterested in land or empire, the Owl and the Pussy-cat set to sea for love, and the Daddy Long-legs and Fly depart for games of “battlecock and shuttledore.”

The Duck and the Kangaroo

Written for Sir Edward Strachey’s children, [186] “The Duck and the Kangaroo” is Lear’s earliest nonsense song. [187] The Duck, that quintessentially English and bucolic bird, meets Kangaroo, that quintessentially foreign and undomesticated beast. Lamenting that “my life is a bore in this nasty pond,” Duck yearns to see the world, and longs to leap and hop “as if you never would stop!” Itinerary devised, Duck says “we’d go to the Dee, and the Jelly Bo Lee / Over the land, and over the sea.” As Montaigne once exclaimed: “good heavens, how I should chafe if I were reduced to the condition of so many people … riveted to a district of the kingdom.” [188]

For the chafing Duck, the muscular bounding of the kangaroo becomes a symbol of escape. Kangaroo’s unlikely apparition in the English countryside makes Duck’s dreams possible at last. Somewhat unexpectedly perhaps, the humble bird masterminds this extravagant scheme, with the Kangaroo an initially reluctant accomplice. Unlike Duck, who thinks only of liberty, the Kangaroo shares the reader’s scepticism about their unlikely match. Although, like the Owl and Pussy-cat, neither animal is gendered, they are superficially incompatible. Not only do the animals look so strikingly dissimilar – the Kangaroo drawn towering over the tiny bird – but, as the marsupial remarks: “there seems but one objection / Which is, if you’ll let me speak so bold / Your feet are unpleasantly wet and cold.” It is the terror of all lovers that their bodies will repulse their beloved and be rejected. At the heart of Lear’s nonsense is an aching meditation on that sense of otherness, and the attendant longing for transcendence, that all prospective lovers feel. But the amorous Duck persists. Duck responds to Kangaroo’s objections with cool exhortation:

I have thought over that completely,

And I have bought four pairs of worsted socks

Which fit my web-feet neatly.

And to keep out the cold I’ve bought a cloak,

And every day a cigar I’ll smoke,

All to follow my own dear true

Love of a Kangaroo!

Duck’s love triumphs over biology, and annihilates the restrictive taxonomy of phylum, genus, species. Persuaded by Duck’s devoted rhetoric, the Kangaroo proceeds to balance the bird upon his tail “in the moonlight pale”:

So away they went with a hop and a bound,

And they hopped the whole world three times round;

And who so happy, – O who,

As the Duck and the Kangaroo?

It is a triumphant image. Duck, once a citizen of a lonely pond, is now a citizen of the world. The poem begins with Duck’s yearning cry, “I wish I could hop like you.” By the end, balanced on his lover’s tail, he does not need to.

Byronic Wanderers

Despite the exuberance of “The Quangle Wangle’s Hat,” many of the poems in Laughable Lyrics explore the sadder dimensions of escape, thus adding nuance and complication to the more triumphant themes of Nonsense Songs. Rather than trace the adventures of more mismatched lovers, “The Pelican Chorus,” for instance, focuses upon the parents of a Pelican princess, named Dell, who has fallen in love with the Crane King. [189] Rather than follow the lovers to foreign shores – the Gromboolian Plain and Chankly Bore back again – the poem remains at home with the King and Queen. For the first time, Lear deals with the consequences of escape for those left behind, and portrays the sadness of those whose loved-ones have – quite literally – flown the roost. The triumph of Dell’s escape is merely counterpoint to their loss. And yet, although the Pelicans realise “we probably never shall meet again,” the song concludes with the nonsense refrain:

Ploffskin, Pluffskin, Pelican jee!

We think no Birds so happy as we!

Plumpskin, Ploshkin, Pelican jill!

We think so then, and we thought so still!

The Pelicans are “happy” again, but only after resigning themselves to the fact that escape and loss are intimately linked, and by turning, like Lear, to the healing power of the absurd.

Engaging dialectically with his earlier songs, Lear’s last great poem, “The Dong with a Luminous Nose,” is a beautiful meditation upon lost love. [190] It tells the story of the Dong, who falls in love with a Jumbly Girl “who came to those shores one day.” The fourth stanza (and half of the fifth) read like Nonsense Songs, the merry mismatched lovers singing and dancing, with the “lively Dong … always there / By the side of the Jumbly Girl so fair.” But theirs is a doomed love. For the Jumblies to return triumphantly home – as we know they must – the Dong must be left behind. Lear repeats the reprise from “The Jumblies,” only now it is the song of the lonely Dong, “gazing forever more” at the horizon that brought him such bliss, and now such sorrow. From that “hateful day,” the topography of the Chankly Bore, so exotic and inviting in “The Jumblies,” becomes instead a darkened landscape, a “cruel shore” over which “storm-clouds brood on the towering heights.” It is a dark Romantic landscape, and recalls the “waste / And solitary places” of Shelley’s “Julian and Maddalo” (1819). [191]

Significantly, the poem asks the question: where are Mr Daddy Long-legs and Mr Floppy Fly, who, we were told in Nonsense Songs, “play for evermore / At battlecock and shuttledore” on the great Gromboolian plain? And where are Dell and the Crane King? Once a ludic paradise of Virgilian bliss, now, in the time of the Dong “awful darkness and silence reign” over those same lands. Thus abandoned, the romantically impotent Dong applies the titular apparatus to his face:

A nose as strange as a Nose could be!

Of vast proportions and painted red,

And tied with cords to the back of his head.

– In a hollow rounded space it ended

With a luminous Lamp within suspended

Guided by the light of his nose, “ever he seeks, but seeks in vain / To meet with his Jumbly Girl again.” Wullschlager likens him to a nonsense Byron, [192] trapped by Romantic delusion, and Noakes to Demeter. [193] And yet, even in his sadness, the Dong’s strange protuberance transforms him from something base and ruined, into something transcendent and celestial, “a fiery spark,” likened by those who watch from the tower to a “meteor bright / Moving along through the dreary night.” Like Lear, whose only hope of marriage had finally failed by then, [194] the Dong carries his moment of lost happiness within him evermore, like a poem written for a child, or the light at the end of a glorious nose. Even as the sun finally sets on the Gromboolian plain, with the Daddy long-legs and Fly, like Dell, the Crane and Jumblies, gone away, the Dong’s light shines in the darkness. It is a potent symbol of Lear’s enduring genius.

God is Nonsense

Little has been written about Edward Lear, and much that is written is out of print, or of modest value. Yet his poetry is extraordinary, and has justly attracted the interest of writers as diverse as Tennyson, Ruskin, Chesterton, Burgess, Auden, Orwell and Huxley, gathered together in sympathy and song like the motley crew atop the Quangle Wangle’s hat. And millions of children have joined them there.

If A Book of Nonsense and More Nonsense used limericks to expose and condemn the destructive forces in Victorian Britain, then Lear’s nonsense songs transcended them. Anthony Burgess, reflecting upon “The Owl and the Pussy-cat,” encapsulated the triumph of the Learean escape thus:

“[Its] joy is unqualified … the grace of a great light in the sky and an eternal ocean – on whose verge the bridal pair dare to dance – sanctifies all impossibilities. Life is bigger than Victorian England. Nonsense means what we cannot understand. God is nonsense.” [195]

Lear’s greatest triumph was to take two dangerous ideas – that society can be cruel, destructive and unjust, and that, given enough imagination, compassion, love and courage, the individual may yet find happiness – and make them both ridiculously funny. English language children’s literature would never be the same again.


[150] Mill, On Liberty, p.139.

[151] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.238.

[152] St. Matthew 8:20.

[153] Burgess, Homage, p.303.

[154] Levi, Edward Lear, p.31.

[155] Wullschlager, Inventing Wonderland, p.81.

[156] Ibid, p.83.

[157] James Eli Adams, “Victorian Sexualities,” in Herbert F. Tucker, ed. A Companion to Victorian Literature & Culture, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999) p.135.

[158] Iona & Peter Opie (eds.), The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, 2nd Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), p.240-242.

[159] Isaiah 11:9.

[160] Isaiah 11:6.

[161] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.392.

[162] Rousseau, Emile, Book Two, p.87.

[163] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.272-273.

[164] Bailey, “The Victorian Middle Class & The Problem of Leisure”, p.16.

[165] Ibid, p.20-21.

[166] Carroll, Annotated Alice, p.180.

[167] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.328.

[168] It may well be that this is another suicide limerick, and timely too. Anderson writes that: “the early Victorian years … were not the first age of railway suicide … trains were hardly ever used as a means of self-destruction until 1868. In that year a total of 20 men threw themselves under trains … suddenly this became the fashionable method.” Anderson, Suicide in Victorian and Edwardian England, p.371-2.

[169] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.273.

[170] Bailey, “The Victorian Middle Class & The Problem of Leisure”, p.21.

[171] Noakes (ed.), Selected Letters, p.204-5.

[172] Rousseau, Emile, Book One, p.59.

[173] Edward Lear, quoted in Noakes, Life of a Wanderer, p.92.

[174] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.193

[175] Ibid, p.423

[176] Ibid, p.207.

[177] Ibid, p.248.

[178] Ibid, p.255.

[179] Rousseau, Emile, Book Five, p.455.

[180] James Buzard, “Then on the Shore of the Wide World: The Victorian Nation and its Others”, in Herbert F. Tucker, ed. A Companion to Victorian Literature & Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), p.446.

[181] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.398.

[182] Ibid, p.253-6.

[183] Ibid, p.273

[184] Noakes, Life of a Wanderer, p.86.

[185] See Chloe Chard for an excellent introduction to Victorian conceptions of “the tourist.” Chloe Chard, Pleasure and Guilt on the Grand Tour (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), p.11.

[186] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.500.

[187] Ibid, p.207-9.

[188] Montaigne, Michel de, The Essays of Montaigne, Volume One, trans. E.J. Trenchman (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1927), p.548

[189] Noakes (ed.), Complete Verse, p.413-4.

[190] Ibid, p.422.

[191] Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Major Works, Zachary Leader & Michael O’Neill, eds. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p.213.

[192] Wullschlager, Inventing Wonderland, p.88.

[193] Noakes, Life of a Wanderer, p.227

[194] Ibid, p.219.

[195] Burgess, Homage, p.303.

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