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How baffling to know Mr Lear
December 2018 / January 2019


Other chapters are less successful. A focus on “Queer Beasts” has Lodge ruminate confusingly, and ultimately fruitlessly, on whether inter-species love in Lear’s poems might provide insights into the vexed question of his sexuality. However, this chapter also draws our attention to the extraordinary scientific context in which Lear, who spent many hours sketching at the London Zoo, lived. Lear was both a member of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and a keen, if late, reader of Charles Darwin’s contemporary writing. As a result, Lear’s work, especially his drawings of animals and his beautiful Nonsense Botany, appears to both salute and parody the feverish scientific discovery and taxonomy of his day. Even as Darwin’s theory of evolution suggested how, over time, one species might change into another, Lear was drawing fictional mutations of his own. Lodge perceptively comments how “[Lear’s] pen catches life at the quick edge of change”, life in which people and animals are not so different after all.

Indeed, many of Lear’s sketches of human-animal hybrids consist of less than flattering versions of himself, as an irritating bee, surreal snail or portly partridge. Even when Lear sketched himself as human, he was prone to distort or exaggerate at least one of his fairly average physical features. Time and time again, Lear depicted himself as clumsier and more grotesque than he actually was. Lodge describes Lear’s self-caricature as “a celebration of a character whose every quality is ambiguously delightful and repulsive”, the work of a man whose “self-fashioning was insistently performative”. Given what Lear’s diary and letters reveal about his spells of acute depression — or what he called his “morbidiousness” — it seems natural to make links between the constant distortions of his self-image and his mental illness. Lear’s collaborative autobiographical verse with Miss Bevan continues:

His mind is concrete and fastidious,
His nose is remarkably big,
His visage is uncommonly hideous
And his beard it resembles a wig.

The great achievement of Lodge’s richly illustrated and carefully researched and referenced work is to convey the reach and rigour of Lear’s “concrete and fastidious” mind alongside his discomfiting combination of dazzling self-confidence and intense self-loathing. Lodge compellingly contends that Edward Lear’s greatest creation was not the Scroobius Pip or The Owl and The Pussycat or even his sweeping oil landscape of the Marble Rocks at Jabalpur in India, but Edward Lear himself. Like the Romantic poets, whose melodramatic style and self-regard he both admired and slyly parodied, Edward Lear was his own favourite subject.

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