Saturday, August 15, 2020

Lear and Limericks

There once was a writer named Lear
Whose limericks were exceedingly drear,
No humour, no wit,
Just poetic shit,
This boring old writer named  Lear.

That’s one of mine and actually it’s a lot better than those of Lear, although deliberately bad in his style.

Edward Lear:

Edward Lear (1812 – 1888) was an English artist, illustrator, musician, author and poet, now known mostly for his literary nonsense in poetry and prose and especially his limericks, a form he popularised. His principal areas of work as an artist were threefold:
-  as a draughtsman employed to illustrate birds and animals;
- making coloured drawings during his journeys, which he reworked later, sometimes as plates for his travel books;
-  as a (minor) illustrator of Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poems.
As an author, he is known principally for his popular nonsense collections of poems, songs, short stories, botanical drawings, recipes and alphabets. He also composed and published twelve musical settings of Tennyson's poetry.

Lear’s limericks:

Limericks existed long before Lear came on the scene, as this 1744 example shows:

Hickory, Dickory Dock,
A Mouse ran up the Clock,
The Clock Struck One,
The Mouse fell down,
And Hickory Dickory Dock.

From the website of the Edward Lear Society at:

Limericks are invariably typeset as four plus one lines today, but Lear’s limericks were published in a variety of formats. It appears that 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 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’

So, are you impressed with Mr Lear’s contribution to the art of the limerick?

Lear was impressed with himself, he wrote a self-portrait in verse, How Pleasant to know Mr. Lear, which closes with this stanza:

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


Lear’s limericks are out of touch with the form, style and content of the modern day limerick but we do owe him for making limericks popular, albeit that they weren’t very satisfying.

A well known limerick by an anonymous writer explains it:

The limerick packs laughs anatomical
Into space that is quite economical.
But the good ones I've seen
So seldom are clean
And the clean ones so seldom are comical.

Don Marquis said much the same:

It needn’t have ribaldry’s taint
Or strive to make everyone faint.
There’s a type that’s demure
And perfectly pure,
Though it helps quite a lot if it ain’t.

W S Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame) acknowledged both Lear’s contribution and the evolution of the form:

The limerick’s birth is unclear;
Its genesis owed much to Lear.
It started as clean,
But soon went obscene,
And this split haunts its later career.

Responses to Lear:

Lear’s limericks have inspired parodies, responses and variations, one being by Australian comedian John Clarke:

Lear’s limerick:

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, "It is just as I feared!
Two Owls and a Hen, four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard.

John Clarke:

There was an old man with a beard,
A funny old man with a beard
He had a big beard
A great big old beard
That amusing old man with a beard.

Another Lear limerick:

There was an Old Man of Madras
Who rode on a cream-coloured ass
But the length of its ears
So promoted his fears
That it killed that Old Man of Madras

. . . and an anonymous variation:

There was a young girl from Madras
Who had a most beautiful ass
Not rounded and pink
As you probably think
But gray, with long ears, and ate grass

Still another by Lear, a real side splitter this one (not):

There was an old man in a tree
Who was horribly bored by a bee
When they said, "Does it buzz?"
He replied, "Yes, it does!
It's a regular brute of a bee!"

. . . with a variation by W S Gilbert:

There was an old man of St. Bees
Who was horribly stung by a wasp
When they said, “does it hurt?”
He replied, “no, it doesn’t –
It’s a good job it wasn’t a hornet”

Some more about Lear:

Lear also wrote the famous nonsense children's rhyme The Owl and the Pussy-Cat which, with changes in language and society, has some amusing lines which bring to mind Donald Trump . . . 

The Owl and the Pussy-Cat went to sea
   In a beautiful pea-green boat:
They took some honey, and plenty of money
   Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
   And sang to a small guitar,
"O lovely Pussy, O Pussy, my love,
   What a beautiful Pussy you are,
            You are,
            You are!
   What a beautiful Pussy you are!"

Pussy said to the Owl, "You elegant fowl,
   How charmingly sweet you sing!
Oh! let us be married; too long we have tarried,
   But what shall we do for a ring?"
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the bong-tree grows;
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood,
   With a ring at the end of his nose,
            His nose,
            His nose,
   With a ring at the end of his nose.

"Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
   Your ring?" Said the Piggy, "I will."
So they took it away, and were married next day
   By the turkey who lives on the hill.
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.

What a man ahead of his time Lear was in this poem: a marriage that wasn't mixed race or same sex, this marriage was inter-species!

By the way, "runcible" is a nonsense word invented by Lear which he has used in other poems but never defined. 

As for the limericks . . . 

In conclusion:

By moi:

Mr Lear did limericks write
Their worth is only quite slight,
An end to his verse,
It couldn't be worse,
His limericks are all complete shite.

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