by Peter Byrne
"Why must I sneeze and snuffle, groan and cough,
If my hat's on my head or if it's off?
Why must I sink all poetry in this prose,
The everlasting blowing of my nose?"
—Edward Lear, Eclogue
(Swans - November 19, 2012) 2012 marks the two-hundredth birthday of Edward Lear. He was a painter, travel writer, diarist, and author of immortal nonsense poetry illustrated by his own hand. Born seven years before Queen Victoria, he was a complete Victorian, safe with the children but morbid when left alone with his dark shadow. As we celebrate his white-as-milk nursery image, let's not forget the iron-gray history of his body.
That history began according to the rules the usual nine months before his birth. He found himself in a woman's worn frame that had already sheltered nineteen children. Her husband was a London stockbroker, a proven thruster, nouveau riche when the sun shone. Hers had been the better placed family, but by the time she carried baby Edward, such distinctions had faded like the fairytales of her childhood. Her body had become a pack animal. She staggered forward in life under the duress of events that fell on her like so many blows. There had been tragic-comic interludes when three successive girl babies were called Sarah and three boy babies Henry. The game was to stay with a name until an infant bearing it survived. At the end of the day, the count had been lost and there were two Catherines among her offspring.
When on May 12, 1812, in Highgate, London, Edward's flesh was separated from his mother's, she gave no cry of joy, only a round O of relief. She would play no part in his upbringing. The fresh little Lear body was feeble and undecided about sticking around to maintain his claim to the name of Edward. His middle-class home was like a railway station with all the benches full. In retrospect he would speak of escape to a little room set aside for painting and drawing. As an adult he also worked up nostalgia for an outing with his father when he was six or seven. For the grown-up Edward, this rare occasion signified a beam of pleasure. The stockbroker had presumably got his son's name right. There was no similar memory of his mother, forever unmentionable. Lear's nonsense spoke the language of childhood, though his own had crushed him. No wonder this sad, racked little being grew into a man who yearned to be born again, differently, without a vocation for pain.
I wish I were an egg and was going to be hatched.
—Letter of June 12, 1859.
But rebirth would have called for the intervention of a mother hen in heat and the appropriate organs, both of which the adult Lear was shy of. He would remain prenatally alone, solitude being the least of all evils and love of landscape less risky than love of individuals. He would make do with "well-behaved" cherubic servants and relegate his longing for the perfect friend to his moody hours of self-pity. The prospect of a wife, even neutered and angelic, he put off till the afterlife.
When I go to heaven, if indeed I go -- and am surrounded by thousands of polite angels -- I shall say courteously please leave me alone: -- you are doubtless all delightful, but I do not wish to become acquainted with you; -- let me have a park and a beautiful view of the sea and hill, mountain and river, valley and plain, with no end of tropical foliage: -- a few well-behaved cherubs to cook and keep the place clean -- and -- after I am quite established -- say for a million or two years -- an angel of a wife. Above all let there be no hens! No, not one! I give up eggs and roast chickens for ever. (Introduction to The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear, 1947, Faber & Faber.)
Despite, or perhaps because of, their conjugations, father and mother Lear failed to get on together. It's fair to ask whether it was a blessing or misfortune when their unhappy home disintegrated due to reverses on the stock exchange. For Edward, however, looking back as an adult, the event was a disaster second only to his birth. The denizens of the big, rackety house were dispersed to the four London winds. Edward's lot, at four, was to be taken into the care of his sister Ann who was twenty-four. She looked after him from then on, and they lived together like mother and son. Ann never married.
Lear's attachment to Ann was such that when she died, although he was by then middle-aged, he seemed to lose his taste for life. The bounds of affection between them had not been simple. As an adult Lear had become Ann's protector. At the same time, she was something of an encumbrance to him. Her world was, as his had been, that of the shabby genteel. In time he would live by the sale of his paintings. This meant he had to hobnob with the moneyed class -- often aristocrats -- who might buy them. He had perforce to climb socially, something he didn't entirely dislike. There was no place for Ann in this social sphere. Indeed the more callous rich made Lear himself feel there was no place for him, save as a clown who could sing his droll songs for his supper.
It has been suggested that Lear was so satisfied with his proxy mother Ann that he never wished to be so close to anyone else. That there was no room for another companion is a notion to consider. Yet he spent his life decrying his loneliness. More plausibly, the boy's fate had been decided by his mother's refusal to answer the door when he was delivered to Highgate. His ugliness hadn't been neutralized by maternal affection. In his self-portraits, he dwelt on his knobby appearance, scratching it like a sore. By the age of five he was epileptic. A boy's body could hardly give him a worse time.
His sister Jane's attack of the "falling sickness" had terrified him. He stood in a nearsighted trance while a bull whip cracked within her. He backed away. The next time it happened he wouldn't watch. The third time he took to his heels. It was like an electric storm and he ran for cover. But there was no shelter. He himself would soon have several attacks a day. His body would simply withdraw for some seconds and leave him and his mind quite alone. That was the signal and it hurt, like suddenly being emptied of everything but pain. Then his body would come back. But it brought that whip along with its cutting snap and another degree of pain. He would lose consciousness. When he came to, his body, as he used to say, had lost interest in him. He felt, moreover, that he had been a very wicked boy. This feeling was not assuaged by Harriet, an older sister, who served him a while as school mistress. She was convinced that epilepsy could be eliminated by self-control, quite like clumsiness with knife and fork.
It's best to burst through the swinging doors of the unanswerable question, was Lear's epilepsy psychosomatic? Either way, yes or no, we can be sure it hurt. The central chapter of his body's story takes place within those doors. Sister Harriet not only called for willpower as a specific against epilepsy, but outlawed self-fondling. Edward was not supposed to indulge in either, nor was either to be talked about. Both were acts of shame to be concealed. If his hapless mother had cast one die, Harriet cast another. In Lear's endless diary account of his bodily woes, epilepsy was unmentionable. At seventy he would still be noting his attacks by a secretive X, while boldly telling us all about his bowels and their movements.
The boy made sense of Harriet's obsessions. During a fit the body took over and produced a painful release. In onanism the body had to be coaxed before it went ahead on its own to deliver a pleasanter climax. In French a seizure is petit mal and an orgasm petite morte. But Edward had no doubt both eventualities were thoroughly evil. Didn't everyone know that the bad side of yourself -- his "demon," as he called it -- got the upper hand in an epileptic attack? Everyone also knew that playing with your penis made it fall off, hardly a benign outcome. In a Lear song a creature called the Pobble failed to look after his nose and consequently lost his toes. The unfortunate fellow had a thoroughly demented sister-Harriet think-alike who went by the name of Aunt Jobiska. She promoted the equation, masturbation + epilepsy = a disappearing penis, dropped off nose, or an absconding big toe.
The Pobble who has no toes
Had once as many as we;
When they said, "Some day you may lose them all;" --
He replied, -- "Fish fiddle de-dee!"
And his aunt Jobiska made him drink,
Lavender water tinged with pink,
For she said, "The world in general knows
There's nothing so good for a Pobble's toes!"
In another of Lear's songs, The Dong With A Luminous Nose trod the same path to perdition. He was an oblong creature with a crew cut and not much in the way of limbs. His body was practically crotchless, with no base for an operational organ. His trousers were apparently riveted on. In the upshot he lost the Jumbly Girl who chose to skip off with those of her own race. The Dong's response was to weave a great dildo which he strapped over his nose. The artifact had an illuminated donut at the end. So equipped and giving an occasional hoot on a horn that belonged to happier times, the Dong would roam about at night scaring people. But he was no more effectual than with an unlit nose.
And now each night, and all night long,
Over those plains still roams the Dong;
And above the wail of the Chimp and Snipe
You may hear the squeak of his plaintive pipe
While ever he seeks, but seeks in vain
To meet with his Jumbly Girl again;
Lonely and wild -- all night he goes, --
The Dong with the luminous Nose!
As for young Edward's penis, it did fall off in so far as he blamed masturbation for his failure to have some sort of love life. He also saw his fits and convulsions as originating in autoeroticism and feared it had also inclined him to homosexuality, the dreaded high Victorian crime of "love that dare not speak its name."
Lear at fifty-nine was still harking back to an incident of his life when he was ten. His nineteen-year-old cousin was visiting his family and the boys indulged in group sex play or, perhaps -- Lear pushing sixty was still so moved -- sodomy. In the 1870s he was still noting April 8 in his diary a somber commemoration of his loss of virginity in 1822! In India in 1874 he interrupted his reading of Plato's pleasantly pederastic Phaedo to recall his childhood self-abuse. That baleful practice, discovered in short pants, he still saw as the ruin of his whole life. O humanity, or as the father of the limerick put it:
There was an old person of Cassel,
Whose nose finished off in a tassel;
But they call'd out, "Oh well! -- don't it look like a bell!"
Which perplexed that old man of Cassel.
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