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How baffling to know Mr Lear
December 2018 / January 2019

Although now best known for his nonsense poetry and limericks, Lear was a quintessential polymath. Lodge works hard to convince her readers of Lear’s cultural and intellectual breadth, squarely resisting the reductive readings of critics such as George Orwell, who famously dismissed Lear’s “amiable lunacy”. More than once, Lodge reminds us that Lear was a voracious and eclectic reader with a “wide range of cultural influences — from Byron to Bird and Baylis to Beuler, from Turner to Thomas Hudson and Tennyson.” While still a teenager, Lear received commissions as a skilled zoological artist specialising in parrots — three species of which, including Anodorhynchus lear, otherwise known as Lear’s macaw, are named after him. Indeed, for much of his life, Lear made a living as a travelling landscape painter of foreign scenes for subscribers back in England. In addition, although not formally musically trained, Lear set the poetry of Shelley and Tennyson to music and was a popular pianist and performer in some of the smartest drawing rooms of the time. Lodge seeks to capture the multiple facets of Lear’s talent by avoiding the chronological structure of Jenny Uglow’s biography in favour of academic essay-based chapters dealing with various aspects of his life and art.

This structure has its benefits: the first chapter on “Music and Memory” reveals Lear as a passionate and gifted musician and sheds fascinating light on other aspects of his art, not least his distinctive use of evocative noises in his nonsense verse. This chapter also introduces us to Lear’s affinity with the deaf children of his friend, Sir Thomas Fairbairn, and the ways in which his drawings so often sought to convey sound in a visual way.

Similarly, Lodge’s second chapter, “Nonsense and Nonconformity”, outlining Lear’s furious rejection of biblical Christian orthodoxy, provides a novel and intriguing frame from within which to view rejection of authority in Lear’s work. As Lodge points out, while much Victorian children’s literature was didactically moralistic, Lear’s limericks and nonsense verse celebrate those who do not conform to societal norms. The “wayward old man of Kilkenny”, the “old Person of Chili/Whose conduct was painful and silly”, and the “old Person of Ischia/Whose conduct grew friskier and friskier”, are just three examples of unrestrainable unruliness in Lear’s work. Figures like these show how Lear, who could not bear sermons and exploded with rage at any suggestion of God as righteous judge, peoples his poems with characters who are prone to outbursts of inappropriate behaviour. “I am weary of restraint ever,” Lear wrote in his diary in 1860 and “Nonsense and Nonconformity” strikingly introduces us to Lear’s unrestrained anger at its sharpest edge. It is the chapter which brings us closest to the artist whose real character must at times have borne more resemblance to his “irascible old person of Bangor” than to his genial, bumbling self-portraits.
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