Edward Lear drawing

Edward Lear (1812-1888). Illustration by Wilhelm Marstrand (1810-1873), 1840. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Edward Lear
Occupation Ilustrator, Writer (poet)
Nationality English
Writing period 19th century
Genres Children's literature
Literary movement Literary nonsense

Edward Lear (12 May 1812 - 29 January 1888) was an English poet, artist, and illustrator, renowned primarily for his nonsense verse and prose, and especially for his limericks, a form that he popularised.



Lear was born in London, and settled in Rome as a landscape painter. He was an indefatigable traveller, and wrote accounts, finely illustrated, of his journeys in Italy, Greece, and Corsica. His best page 233known works are, however, his Book of Nonsense (1840) (full of wit and good sense), More Nonsense Rhymes (1871), and Laughable Lyrics (1876). Lear had also a remarkable faculty for depicting birds.[1]

Youth and educationEdit

Lear was born into a middle-class family in the village of Holloway, the 21st child of Ann and Jeremiah Lear. He was raised by his eldest sister, also named Ann, 21 years his senior. Ann doted on Lear and continued to mother him until her death, when Lear was almost 50 years of age.[2] Due to the family's failing financial fortune, at age four he and his sister had to leave the family home and set up house together.

Lear suffered from health problems. From the age of six he suffered frequent grand mal epileptic seizures, and bronchitis, asthma, and in later life, partial blindness. Lear experienced his first seizure at a fair near Highgate with his father. The event scared and embarrassed him. Lear felt lifelong guilt and shame for his epileptic condition. His adult diaries indicate that he always sensed the onset of a seizure in time to remove himself from public view. How Lear was able to anticipate them is not known, but many people with epilepsy report a ringing in their ears or an "aura" before the onset of a seizure. In Lear's time epilepsy was believed to be associated with demonic possession, which contributed to his feelings of guilt and loneliness. When Lear was about seven he began to show signs of depression, possibly due to the constant instability of his childhood. He suffered from periods of severe depression which he referred to as "the Morbids." [3]

Lear travelled widely throughout his life and eventually settled in Sanremo, on his beloved Mediterranean coast, in the 1870s, at a villa he named "Villa Tennyson." The closest he came to marriage was two proposals, both to the same woman 46 years his junior, which were not accepted. For companions he relied instead on a circle of friends and correspondents, and especially, in later life, on his Suliot chef, Giorgis, a faithful friend and, as Lear complained, a thoroughly unsatisfactory chef.[4] Another trusted companion in Sanremo was his cat, Foss, who died in 1886 and was buried with some ceremony in a garden at Villa Tennyson. After a long decline in his health, Lear died at his villa in 1888, of the heart disease from which he had suffered since at least 1870. Lear's funeral was said to be a sad, lonely affair by the wife of Dr. Hassall, Lear's physician, not one of Lear's many lifelong friends being able to attend.[5]

Lear is buried in the Foce Cemetery in Sanremo. On his headstone are inscribed these lines from Tennyson's To E.L. [Edward Lear], On His Travels in Greece:

  ... all things fair.
  With such a pencil, such a pen.
  You shadow forth to distant men,
  I read and felt that I was there.[6]

Edward Lear was known to introduce himself with his long name: "Mr Abebika kratoponoko Prizzikalo Kattefello Ablegorabalus Ableborinto phashyph" or "Chakonoton the Cozovex Dossi Fossi Sini Tomentilla Coronilla Polentilla Battledore & Shuttlecock Derry down Derry Dumps" which he based on Aldiborontiphoskyphorniostikos.[7]

Artist Edit

File:Masada (or Sebbeh) on the Dead Sea, Edward Lear, 1858.jpg

Lear was already drawing "for bread and cheese" by the time he was aged 16 and soon developed into a serious "ornithological draughtsman" employed by the Zoological Society and then from 1832-36 by the Earl of Derby, who had a private menagerie. His first publication, published when he was 19, was Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots in 1830. His paintings were well received and he was favourably compared with Audubon.

Lear travelled for three years in Italy from 1837 and published two volumes of illustrations, Illustrated Excursions in Italy, the first of many such books. Lear briefly gave drawing lessons to Queen Victoria, who had been pleased by the Excursions and summoned him to court, leading to some awkward incidents when he failed to observe proper court protocol. Lear then returned to the Mediterranean, wishing to illustrate all points along the coast of that sea. Among other trips, he visited Greece and Egypt in 1848-49, and toured the length of India and Ceylon in 1873-75. While travelling he produced large quantities of coloured wash drawings in a distinctive style, which he worked up back in his studio into oils and watercolours, as well as prints for his books.[8] His landscape style often shows views with strong sunlight, with intense contrasts of colour.

Throughout his life he continued to paint seriously. He had a lifelong ambition to illustrate Tennyson's poems; near the end of his life a volume with a small number of illustrations was published, but his vision for the work was never realized.

Writer Edit

File:Lear petra wadi bushes sketch 1858.jpg

In 1846 Lear published A Book of Nonsense, a volume of limericks that went through three editions and helped popularize the form. In 1865 The History of the Seven Families of the Lake Pipple-Popple was published, and in 1867 his most famous piece of nonsense, The Owl and the Pussycat, which he wrote for the children of his patron Edward Stanley, 13th Earl of Derby. Many other works followed.

Lear's nonsense books were quite popular during his lifetime, but a rumour circulated that "Edward Lear" was merely a pseudonym , and the books' true author was the man to whom Lear had dedicated the works, his patron the Earl of Derby. Supporters of this rumour offered as evidence the facts that both men were named Edward, and that "Lear" is an anagram of "Earl".[9]

Writing Edit

Lear's nonsense works are distinguished by a facility of verbal invention and a poet's delight in the sounds of words, both real and imaginary. A stuffed rhinoceros becomes a "diaphanous doorscraper". A "blue Boss-Woss" plunges into "a perpendicular, spicular, orbicular, quadrangular, circular depth of soft mud". His heroes are Quangle-Wangles, Pobbles, and Jumblies. His most famous piece of verbal invention, a "runcible spoon" occurs in the closing lines of The Owl and the Pussycat, and is now found in many English dictionaries:


They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
    Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
    They danced by the light of the moon,
          The moon,
          The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

Though famous for his neologisms, Lear employed a number of other devices in his works in order to defy reader expectations. For example, "Cold Are The Crabs",[10] adheres to the sonnet tradition until the dramatically foreshortened last line.

Lear's limericksEdit

Yonghy-bonghy-bo (Edward Lear)

Lear almost single-handedly created the popular limerick form with the Book of Nonsense. However, he did not use the term 'limerick,' nor did he write only in limerick form. The limerick is a five-line form, but Lear's verses were published in a variety of forms. Apparently Lear wrote them in manuscript in as many lines as there was room for beneath the picture. In the first three editions most are typeset as, respectively, two, five, and three lines. The cover of one edition[11] bears an entire limerick typeset in two lines:

  There was an Old Derry down Derry, who loved to see little folks merry;
  So he made them a book, and with laughter they shook at the fun of that Derry down Derry.

In Lear's limericks the first and last lines usually end with the same word rather than rhyming. For the most part they are truly nonsensical and devoid of any punch line or point. They are completely free of the off-colour humour with which the verse form is now associated. A typical thematic element is the presence of a callous and critical "they". An example of a typical Lear limerick:

  There was an Old Man of Aôsta,
  Who possessed a large Cow, but he lost her;
  But they said, 'Don't you see,
  she has rushed up a tree?
  You invidious Old Man of Aôsta!'

Lear's self-portrait in verse, How Pleasant to know Mr. Lear, closes with this stanza, a reference to his own mortality:

  He reads but he cannot speak Spanish,
    He cannot abide ginger-beer;
  Ere the days of his pilgrimage vanish,
    How pleasant to know Mr. Lear!



A memorial stone to Lear was unveiled on 6 June 1988 in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey.[12]

In popular cultureEdit

5 of Lear's limericks from the Book of Nonsense, in the 1946 Italian translation by Carlo Izzo, were set to music for choir a cappella by Goffredo Petrassi, in 1952.

A Beach Full of Shells, the 20th album by singer-songwriter Al Stewart, pays tribute in the song “Mr. Lear”, celebrating Foss and many events from Lear’s life.



  • A Book of Limericks. Boston: Little, Brown, 1888.


  • Illustrated Excursions in Italy, 1846. London: Thomas McLean, 1846.


  • A Book of Nonsense. London: Thomas McLean, 1846.
    • new edition, "with many new pictures and verses". London: Routledge, Warne, & Routledge, 1862.
    • new edition, "to which is added more nonsense". London & New York: Frederick Warne, [187?]
    • 27th edition. London & New York: Frederick Warne, 1889.
  • Lear's Shilling Book of Nonsense. London: Frederick Warne, 1866.
  • Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany, and Alphabets. London: Robert John Bush, 1871; Boston: James R. Osgood, 1871.
  • More Nonsense: Pictures, rhymes, botany, etc. London: Robert John Bush, 1871.
  • The Owl and the Pussycat, and other nonsense songs. London: Cundall, 1872.
  • Laughable lyrics: A fourth book of nonsense poems, songs, botany, music, &c. London: Robert John Bush, 1877.
  • Ye Book of Sense: A companion to the "Book of Nonsense". Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1878.
  • Nonsense Books. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1881.
  • Nonsense Songs and Stories. London & New York: Frederick Warne, 1888.
  • Nonsense Books by Edward Lear. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1888; Boston: Little, Brown, 1902.
  • Nonsense botany, and nonsense alphabets, etc. etc. London & New York: Frederick Warne, 1888.
  • More Nonsense. London & New York: Frederick Warne, 1888.
  • Nonsense Drolleries: The owl and the pussycat, and The duck and the kangaroo. London & New York: Frederick Warne, 1889.
  • A Nonsense Birthday Book. London & New York: Frederick Warne, [1893?]
  • Nonsense Songs. London & New York: Frederick Warne, [1894?]
    • (illustrated by Bee Willey). London: Dolphin, 1997; New York: McElderry, 1997.
  • Nonsense Songs and Laughable Lyrics. Boston: Little, Brown, 1899.
  • The Nonsense Blue-Book (The London Letter "Learics"}. London: London Letter Publishing, 1899.
  • Calico Pie. London & New York: Frederick Warne, 1910.
  • The Jumblies, and other nonsense verses (illustrated by L. Leslie Brooke). London & New York: Frederick Warne, 1910.
  • A Nonsense Alphabet. London & New York: Frederick Warne, 1926.
  • The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear. New York: Dover, 1951.
  • An Edward Lear Alphabet (illustrated by Carol Newsom). New York: Lothrop, Lee, & Shepherd, 1983.
  • The Nonsense Verse of Edward Lear (illustrated by
  • The Nonsense Poems of Edward Lear (illustrated by L. Leslie Brooke). New York: Clarion, 1981.


  • Views in Rome and its Environs. London: Thomas McLean, 1841.
  • Gleanings from the Menagerie and Aviary at Knowsley Hall (text by John Edward Gray). Knowsley, UK: privately printed, 1846.
  • Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots: The greater part of them species hitherto unfigured: Containing forty-two lithographic plates, drawn from life, and on stone. London: privately printed, 1832.
  • Views in the Seven Ionian Islands. London: privately printed, 1863.
    • facsimile edition. Oldham, Lancashire, UK: Hugh Broadbent, 1979.
  • Tortoies, Terrapins, and Turtles: Drawn from life. London, Paris, & Frankfort: H. Sotheran, J. Baer & Co., 1872.
  • One Hundred Illustrations to Tennyson. Boston: Estes & Lauriat, 1895.

Letters and journalsEdit

  • Journals of a Landscape Painter in Albania, &c. London: Richard Bentley, 1851.
  • Journal of a Landscape Painter in Southern Calabria &c. London: Richard Bentley, 1852.
  • Journals of a Landscape Painter in Corsica. London: Robert John Bush, 1870.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[13]

The Jumblies by Edward Lear - a new animation

The Jumblies by Edward Lear - a new animation

Poems by Edward LearEdit

  1. The Owl and the Pussy-Cat

See alsoEdit


  1. John William Cousin, "Lear, Edward," A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London: Dent / New York: Dutton, 1910, 232-233. Wikisource, Web, Feb. 5, 2018.
  2. Holbrook, Jackson (ed). The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear. Dover Publications, 1951. Page xii.
  3. Lear, Edward (2002). The Complete Verse and Other Nonsense. New York: Penguin Books. pp. 19–20. ISBN 0142002275. 
  4. Levi, Peter. Edward Lear, a Biography.
  5. Strachie, Lady Constance Braham. Later Letters of Edward Lear: Author of "The Book of Nonsense." 1911: Duffield and Company. P. 332
  7. Pendlebury, Kathleen Sarah (November 2007). "Reading Nonsense: A Journey through the writing of Edward Lear". A thesis submitted in fulfilment of the Requirements for the degree of MASTERS OF ARTS of RHODES UNIVERSITY. RHODES UNIVERSITY. pp. 20–21. Retrieved 14 February 2011. 
  8. Andrew Wilton & Anne Lyles, The Great Age of British Watercolours (1750-1880), p. 318, 1993, Prestel, ISBN 3791312545
  9. Lear, Edward (1894). "Introduction". More Nonsense Pictures, Rhymes, Botany, etc.. 
  10. Cold Are The Crabs
  11. Edward Lear, A Book of Nonsense
  12. Edward Lear, People, History, Westminster Abbey. Web, July 12, 2016.
  13. Search results = au:Edward Lear, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Sep. 21, 2013.

External linksEdit

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