[Home] [Table of Contents] [Lear's Nonsense Books] [Posthumous Works]
[Queery Leary Nonsense] [Introduction] [Note] [Coloured Birds] [Sketches] [Verses]

Edward Lear Home Page

Queery Leary Nonsense: Introduction


PERHAPS the best monument to the memory of Edward Lear is to be found in the merry laughter which his works and drawings have excited amongst children whom he loved so well. He lives, and will continue to live, in the minds of the public as one of the great classical authors of nonsense. It is said that Dickens was wont to peruse carefully the record of births, deaths and marriages, in order to find names suitable to the characters in his novels. That he was singularly successful in the assortment of his names cannot be doubted. Although it would perhaps be difficult to assign any good reason for our opinion, we all feel that the character of the immortal Winkle could not, with any degree of onomatopoeic propriety have been assigned to a man who spoke and conducted himself like Tapman, and that Mr. and Miss Murdstone would have behaved quite differently if their names had been Trotwood. Who, againto put some extreme caseswould suggest that the names of Micawber and Heep, of Pecksniff and Tapley, or of Chadband and Bucket could be transposed without wholly altering the impression of the characters which we derive from the nomenclature? Similarly, the genius of the great nonsense authorsLear and Lewis Carollis shown in their choice of nonsense words.Who can describe a "Scroobious," or "Runcible" bird? Yet the man who does not at once grasp the fact that the outward appearance and special characteristics of {5} these two birds must of necessity differ widely, will be wholly wanting in imagination. More, indeed, may be said. A man of well-balanced mind, when he sees Lear's pictures, will forthwith say to himself: "Such is the appearance which I should naturally attribute to the Scroobious Bird. The Runcible Bird can, obviously be like nothing else than that which is here depicted." Nothing, I should add, amused Lear more than the failure of some people to appreciate the utter absence of sense in his nonsense. He used to relate that some one once wrote to him to say that he had marched various botanical and other works without finding any allusion to a "Bong-tree."* Where, his correspondent, asked, did the "Bong-tree" grow?

Like Dickens in search of names, Lear was constantly manufacturing nonsense words. Practice made him proficient in the art. Here is a letter which he once wrote to me:


I hasten to add, for the benefit of any one possessed, of the mental endowments of him who asked for information about the "Bong-tree" that I believe "Slusshypipp" to be a wholly imaginary individual.

A poet who wrote in that language with which Lear's acquaintance was, indeed, imperfect, but the literature of which, nevertheless, whether in its ancient or modem form, constituted one of the delights and solaces of his life, once said that Poverty alone awoke the arts, and was the teacher of labour:

It is to that chill penury against which Lear's life was one continuous and arduous struggle, that we probably owe productions which have been the delight of so many nurseries. He perhaps occasionally felt some slight disappointment that his fame rested not so much on his merits as an artist, as on the fact that he was known throughout the child-world as the author of "Dumbledownderry." But neither his impecuniosity nor his disappointment could sour his essentially lovable nature, or tinge with the least shade of cynicism a humour, which was above all things kindly and genial. He was too warm-hearted to be satirical. His laughter was, indeed, akin to tears. I have known him. sit down to the piano and sob whilst he played and sang: "Tears, Idle Tears," which he had himself set to music, and the next morning send me the subjoined sketch:


accompanied by the following literary production, in which he poked fun at his favourite poet and devoted friend:

"Nluv, fluv bluv, ffluv biours,
Faith nunfaith kneer beekwl powers
Unfaith naught zwant a faith in all."

I give the following letters, which I have preserved and which are illustrative of Lear peculiar epistolary style:



Thank you for your note. I will come to His Excellency to-morry. Meanwhile, please give him the accompanying Note & Book, which I hope he & you & Strahan will like.

Give my love to Strahan.*



Disgustical to say, I must beg you to thank His Excellency from me, & to relate that I cannot come. I was engaged to dine with the De Vere's, but am too unwell with awful cold in the head & eyes to go out at all.


I have sent for 2 large tablecloths to blow my nose on, having already used up all my handkerchiefs. And altogether I am so unfit for company that I propose getting into a bag and being hung up to a bough of a tree till this tyranny is overpast. Please give the serming I send to His Excellency.

Yours sincerely,




I ain't been out yet, but nevertheless will come to His Excellency to-morrow eveningif snuffling & snorting & shivering may be overlooked. If I had been out, I should have written my name at the Palace, which, as yet, I haven't had the possibility of doing as decent folk should.

Did you ever see such a lot of brutal sno as is on Salvador?* Ain't {12} it beastly. Generally speeking, I have been wrapped up like this all the week in a

wholly abject and incapable state. . . .

Will you like to read "Le Maudit"?3 vols.

Yours sincerely,



On one occasion, in conversation with Lear, one or other of us quoted the well-known lines in "Hudibras," in which allusion is made to "the learned Tabacotius" and the surgical operation which is connected with his name. We were neither of us quite sure whether we had quoted the last lines correctly.


On the following morning Lear sent me this letter:

Correction for the last lines of the quotation from Hewdybrass.

'But when the porter's life waned out
Off dropt the sympathetic snout.'"


15, Stratford Place, W.
30 June, 1864.




You see by the above that the Trunk has at last arrived:and queer enoughit had never been opened! so that every one of my letters was just as it was, & everythink elsefrom 2 chocolate drops to an ounce of flea powderwas as it was before the fathers fell asleep.

So, my dear boy, you are really off tomorrow!* I wish you heartily a pleasant trip, and shall much like to hear from you. Now don't get shot, & don't marry a squaw. You'd better take out "Viscount Kirkwall's" book to amuse you on the way. I meant to have got a portemonnaie or a cigar case to leave at 11, Berkeley Sqr. as a memorial of old {17} Corf{ daysbut I fear I shan't have time now. But I shall hope to see you when you come backbefore Septbr. is outor earlier. For myself, I am all undecided as yet about winter plans.

The Treasurer & Mrs. Boyd & Charlie were with me to-day, all flourishing. She is a kind-hearted woman. Boyd showed me letter which you told me of.

You were a good boy to write. Some day we may all meet at Mollter. Goodbye.

Yours sincerely,

When my eldest son was about three years old, his mother expressed a wish that he should acquire some knowledge of colour. Lear, with his usual kindness at once sent twenty drawings of birds of various coloursincluding, of course, his favourites, the Scroobious and the Runcible birds. I had these bound in a book. They are reproduced in this work.

Many of the stories which Lear used to relate of his travels were extremely amusing. I give one of them. It may possibly have been already included in one of his published works, but, in any case, it will bear repetition.

Some fifty years ago, Lord Palmerston, by reason of the support he afforded to constitutional forms of government, was extremely unpopular amongst all those, on the Continent of Europe, who favoured the continuance of autocratic rule. This unpopularity gave rise to the well-known coupletI think of Viennese manufacture:

"Hat der Teufel einen Sohn
So ist er sicher Palmerston."*


Nowhere was he more unpopular than in the Kingdom of Naples, then ruled, or perhaps it would be more correct to say misruled, by Ferdinand II. (Bomba). Lear was on one occasion sketching near a village in some remote part of Calabria. He was accosted by a gendarme, who requested him to show his passport. On seeing the signature of Palmerston at the bottom of the document, the gendarme thought that he had made an important capture. He arrested Lear and marched him into the Village waving the passport which he carried in his hand, and shouting "Ho preso Palmerstone!"


[Home] [Table of Contents] [Lear's Nonsense Books] [Posthumous Works]
[Queery Leary Nonsense] [Introduction] [Note] [Coloured Birds] [Sketches] [Verses]

There was an Old Derry down Derry...
Edward Lear's Nonsense Poetry and Art

Page layout © Marco Graziosi