Today in Literary History – May 12, 1812 – Edward Lear is born

Edward Lear, the British poet and master of the limerick, was born on May 12, 1812. Lear began his career as an artist, specializing in natural history paintings. He made watercolour illustrations of birds for the British Museum and for private ornithologists and was compared favourably with John James Audubon.

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Later, he worked for the Earl of Derby, painting the exotic animals in his menagerie (private zoos being a Victorian obsession among the wealthy).

Lear’s first book, Nonsense Poems in 1846, was made up of limericks Lear concocted to entertain the Earl’s grand-children and his own friends and family with (wordplay being another Victorian obsession). He went on to produce more collections of limericks and nonsense poems, often featuring his own neologisms and primitive line drawings.

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Perhaps his most anthologized poem is The Owl and the Pussycat with its famous closing lines:

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.

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Lear was particularly drawn to the limerick form (May 12 is officially Limerick Day, with several competitions in Britain) such as:

There was a Young Person of Smyrna,
Whose Grandmother threatened to burn her;
But she seized on the cat,
And said, ‘Granny, burn that!
You incongruous Old Woman of Smyrna!’

and

There was a Young Person of Crete,
Whose toilette was far from complete;
She dressed in a sack,
Spickle-speckled with black,
That ombliferous person of Crete.

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His limericks often had a tinge of sadness or humorous menace to them. Lear himself, despite his good humour and charm suffered from depression throughout his life.

He spent most of his later life traveling throughout Europe painting landscapes. He was gay, but never developed any longterm attachments. Lear died in 1888 at the age of 75.

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