I must apologise to all subscribers for their having received notification last week of a blog post that had no text in it! This was the result of human error, aka Aussie Flu. Unfortunately, when I did write the text for the post, WordPress would not allow me to repeat the notification to subscribers, just as it won’t allow me to lay out limericks properly below. Well, the lost post is viewable below this one as ‘So what IS biography?’, and the real point of it (beneath the parrot) is Jenny Uglow’s biography of Edward Lear.
To what extent should one expect a biographer to be intimately acquainted with their subject’s specialism? Is it reasonable to expect the biographer of Nelson to know the finer points of sailing? Or the biographer of Marie Curie to be thoroughly conversant with nuclear physics? I think not, but obviously they should have acquired a good working knowledge of these important areas of their subjects’ lives.
For readers who feel they have never ‘got’ Lear’s limericks, Uglow’s is the book. She explains that ‘the key quality of the nonsense rhymes is surprise: this is what makes us laugh’ (p. 154). There surely never was a writer so able to produce the unexpected as Edward Lear. A vital part of the power of Lear’s limericks is also the interplay between the verse and the inimitably wonky (‘unexpected’) drawing that goes with it. Essentially, Uglow sees Lear’s limericks as proto-modernist Kafkan allegories of non-conformity, persecution, rebellion, violence, escapism and agony; yet theirs is a ‘cartoon’ world in which nobody ‘really’ gets hurt… All this, if a weeny bit old hat in literary terms (like her gratuitous reference to ‘carnival’), is valid and helpful and stimulating and accompanied by excellent discussions of Lear’s rhymes and the play of sounds in his limericks.
But there is a statement she makes about limericks on p. 310 that appears (and I hope I am wrong) to open a chasm of literary ignorance:
For a while, because of Lear, limericks were all the rage. Poets of Lear’s generation and the next had a go: Rossetti, Lewis Carroll, later Kipling, and even, allegedly, Tennyson. Making up a limerick seemed so easy, old or young, drunk or sober, and it proved a perfect form of pornographic jollity in clubs and mess rooms across the empire.
The popularity of Lear’s published limericks may well have raised the profile of limericks generally, but the limerick of ‘pornographic jollity’ that all these Victorian lads found so irresistible was not the Lear form of limerick. If my memory serves me, I have only ever seen one Lear-form limerick inscribed in a Victorian/Edwardian Visitors Book or album; all the rest have been in the classical limerick form which long pre-dates Edward Lear. George Calderon himself wrote a masterly limerick for his hosts Evey and Violet Pym on his and Kittie’s visit to Foxwold in 1912 — and it’s in the pre-Lear form. (I am deeply indebted to John Pym for permitting me to publish it in my biography.)
Afficionados, addicts and inveterate composers of the ‘classical’ (scatological) limerick hate Edward Lear’s limericks.
The reason, if I can put it as briefly as possible, is that they deplore his having destroyed the epigrammatic punch of a clever new last rhyme-word and replaced it with mere repetition of the last word of the first or second line. They see him as having produced a crashing anticlimax that is the very antithesis of the art of the ‘classical’ limerick. This is true, but I think Lear’s intention is to suggest his characters are trapped in this world of the ever-recurring rhyme-word; the ‘clever’ punch of his limerick is always one extraordinary word in the last line (‘borascible Person’, ‘propitious Old Person’, ‘smashed that Old Man’), or even earlier (‘casually’ in the example I give below).
Limerickians can bore for England about why Lear’s limericks are so awful, and if there are any out there who want to do so as Comments, please feel free. But personally I will limit myself to four examples that illustrate — I intend — (a) the glories of both forms of limerick and (b) why to write a good classical limerick you have to understand the form, and why to write a Lear limerick you have…er…to be Edward Lear:
1. Perfect ‘classical’ limerick [warning: scatological]
There was a young Fellow of Wadham
Who asked for a ticket to Sodom.
When they said, ‘We prefer
Not to issue them, sir,’
He said, ‘Don’t call me sir, call me modom.’
2. Perfect ‘Lear’ limerick [warning: absurd]
There was an old man, who when little
Fell casually into a kettle;
But, growing too stout,
He could never get out,
So he passed all his life in that kettle.
3. Dud ‘classical’ limerick by J. Brodsky, 1969
Our Russia’s a country of birches
and axes and ikons and churches
without any priest
and crosses; at least
our Russia’s a country of searches.
4. Dud ‘Lear’ limerick by P. Miles, 1974
There was a young Russian cried, ‘How
Can I inculcate Marx in this cow?
Whatever I say
She bleats a loud neigh,
Whilst objectively staying a cow!’
(These limerick-critters don’t like intellectuals trying to ride ’em.)