“My dear child, I’m sure we shall be allowed to laugh in Heaven!” — Edward Lear

Edward Lear (the “father of nonsense”) was born on this day in 1812 in London.

I could recite from memory a lot of his stuff when I was pretty close to the age I was in the “candid” photo above. The Big Golden Book Of Poetry was so read in our family that the cover faded completely, the binding fell apart, and I can still see all of the illustrations, and where they were placed on the page. (My mother still has the book.)

When I read those poems now, I hear in my father’s gravelly voice.

“The Owl and the Pussy-cat” is still a favorite. The verse rocks and sings.

The Owl and the Pussy-cat
by Edward Lear

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!
O 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.


Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets writes that Lear, and Lewis Carroll (Lear’s younger peer) wrote “nonsense verse” which

“[Lear] strays into the musical zones that Longfellow mapped with his self-propelling meters.”

Was Edward Lear the inventor of the term “snail mail” in this whimsical letter to Evelyn Baring? The letter itself reads, along the twists of the snail shell:

Feb. 19. 1864 Dear Baring Please give the enclosed noat to Sir Henry – (which I had just written:-& say that I shall have great pleasure in coming on Sunday. I have sent your 2 vols of Hood to Wade Brown. Many thanks for lending them to me – which they have delighted me eggstreamly Yours sincerely

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language:

Lear’s masterwork is his first volume, A Book of Nonsense (1846), replete with his unique limericks and his mysterious lyrics of visionary nonsense that fuse Shelley and Tennyson in quest-poems that are at once laments for lost love and yet weirdly boisterous.

Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, November 24, 1965:

The great Victorians for me are Tennyson, Browning, Lear, Fitzgerald, Arnold and Hopkins.

William Pitt:

“Don’t tell me of a man’s being able to talk sense; every one can talk sense. Can he talk nonsense?”

Carolyn Wells:

In regard to his verses, Lear asserted that “nonsense, pure and absolute,” was his aim throughout; and remarked, further, that to have been the means of administering innocent mirth to thousands was surely a just excuse for satisfaction. He pursued his aim with scrupulous consistency, and his absurd conceits are fantastic and ridiculous, but never cheaply or vulgarly funny.

George Orwell, “Funny But Not Vulgar”:

However, there are subtler methods of debunking than throwing custard pies. There is also the humour of pure fantasy, which assaults man’s notion of himself as not only a dignified but a rational being. Lewis Carroll’s humour consists essentially in making fun of logic, and Edward Lear’s in a sort of poltergeist interference with common sense. When the Red Queen remarks, “I’ve seen hills compared with which you’d call that one a valley”, she is in her way attacking the bases of society as violently as Swift or Voltaire. Comic verse, as in Lear’s poem “The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo”, often depends on building up a fantastic universe which is just similar enough to the real universe to rob it of its dignity. But more often it depends on anticlimax — that is, on starting out with a high-flown language and then suddenly coming down with a bump.

From Michael Sala, Lear’s Nonsense:

Edward Lear, a skillful illustrator of science books (botany, zoology), started his literary career by chance. As a matter of fact, “most of Lear’s limericks were not written with publication in mind, but rather as gifts for specific children” (Rieder 1998: 50). He was persuaded toward their publication by the enthusiastic reaction of his young audience.

There was an old person of Rimini
Who said, “Gracious! Goodness! O Gimini!
When they said, “Please be still!” she ran down a hill
And was never once heard of at Rimini.

There was an old person of Sestri
Who sat himself down in the vestry,
When they said “You are wrong!” – he merely said “Bong!”
That repulsive old person of Sestri.

This is a typical example of Lear’s limericks, and a perfect example of what is intended by nonsense, that is to say, “language lifted out of context, language turning on itself [a] language made hermetic, opaque” (Stewars 1979: 3), language that “resists contextualization, so that it refers to ‘nothing’ instead of to the word’s commonsense designation [and] refusing to work as conventional communication ” (Rieder 1998: 49). In other words, what happened to the old person of Rimini? What is wrong with the person of Sestri? It is impossible to answer, because, despite the perfectly grammatical use of the words, they don’t tell much. They are just bizarrely arranged so as to sound appealing. If there is a shadow of a story, usually it is nothing more than that: only a shadow of a story (without causes or consequences). In Lear’s limericks, words introduce “a number of possibilities, including dangerous and violent ones, and at the same time disconnect those possibilities from the real world, that is, from what goes on after the game is over” (Rieder 1996: 49).

Vivien Noakes:

In the limericks [. . .] to an extent difficult for us now to imagine, Lear offered children the liberation of unaffected high spirits [. . .]. Here are grown-ups doing silly things, the kind of things grown-ups never do [. . .]. for all their incongruity, there is in the limericks a truth which is lacking in the improving literature of the time. In an age when children were loaded with shame, Lear attempted to free them from it.

Robert Lowell, letter to Elizabeth Bishop, January 4, 1960:

Your poem [“Brazil, January 1, 1502”] is one of your most beautiful, I think–wonderful description, the jungle turning into a picture, then into history and the jungle again, with a practical, absurd, sad, amused and frightened tone for the Christians. I have been re-reading [Edward] Lear whom you like so much. I guess it would be far-fetched to find his hand here; yet I think he would have enjoyed your feeling, your disciplined gorgeousness, your drawing, your sadness, your amusement.

Susan Chitty on Lear’s ballads:

Like the limericks, they celebrate the outsider. Their principal characters are socially unacceptable.

Sir Edward Strachey:

Mr. Lear was delighted when I showed to him that this couple [the Owl and the Pussy-cat] were reviving the old law of Solon, that the Athenian bride and bridegroom eat a quince together at their wedding.

More information on Edward Lear here.

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15 Responses to “My dear child, I’m sure we shall be allowed to laugh in Heaven!” — Edward Lear

  1. Paul H. says:

    I always wanted a runcible spoon… *sigh*

  2. sheila says:

    Isn’t that such a great word?

  3. Paul H. says:

    It appears to be one of EL’s favorites, he used it quite often.

  4. Doc Horton says:

    There was an odd man with a beard
    who had 20 siblings – how weird
    It’s no wonder that he
    spouted nonsense for free
    That artistic odd man with a beard

  5. Will says:

    When I first read the Owl and the Pussycat, I had no ideas or knowledge about British money. I remember being very confused that their notepaper was so freaking heavy.

  6. Craig Burley says:

    I still want to go to the land where the Jumblies live, far and few though they may be. “…her sky-blue hands and her sea-green hair…”

  7. Melanie says:

    F was once a little fish,





    In a dishy

    Little fish.

    A new edition of
    An Edward Lear Alphabet

    Sheila, you and I have discussed before how lucky we are to have had parents who read these poems aloud to us as children. We share the joy of hearing their voices singing these familiar lines in memory. I always associate O&P with The Duel by Eugene Fields. I think they must have been adjacent in my book. The illustrations for both are also embedded in my mind. Thanks.

  8. Melanie says:

    Poet’s Biography

    How pleasant to know Mr. Lear!
    Who has written such volumes of stuff!
    Some think him ill-tempered and queer,
    But a few think him pleasant enough.

    His mind is concrete and fastidious,
    His nose is remarkably big;
    His visage is more or less hideous,
    His beard resembles a wig.

    He has ears, and two eyes, and ten fingers,
    Leastways if you reckon two thumbs;
    Long ago he was one of the singers,
    But now he is one of the dumbs.

    He sits in a beautiful parlor,
    With hundreds of books on the wall;
    He drinks a great deal of Marsala,
    But never gets tipsy at all.

    He has many friends, laymen and clerical;
    Old Foss is the name of his cat;
    His body is perfectly spherical,
    He weareth a runcible hat.

    When he walks in a waterproof white,
    The children run after him so!
    Calling out, “He’s come out in his night-
    Gown, that crazy old Englishman, oh!”

    He weeps by the side of the ocean,
    He weeps on the top of the hill;
    He purchases pancakes and lotion,
    And chocolate shrimps from the mill.

    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!

  9. Melanie says:

    I have now spent hours perusing my “One Thousand Poems for Children” where I found the previous autobiographical poem just after the “Pobble”. Such fun memories. #timenotwasted

  10. KathyB says:

    You were too adorable. I don’t remember book title for “young person’s poetry” or something like that my daughter had. A gift from my father and daggonit she took it with her when she grew up. Many favorites, but one started

    Lazy Mary will you get up, will you get up, will you get up….

    I would sometimes substitute Ursula and sing song it. She would smile and groan up through middle school years.

  11. Jessie says:

    I love these quotes! In particular the Lowell letters to Elizabeth Bishop, the way he draws Lear in as a point of comparison. Here’s my favourite of his limericks, maybe — the use of the word concluded is so thoroughly satisfying insofar as it is not nonsense that I had to rewrite it into my notebook–

    There was an Old Person of Cromer,
    Who stood on one leg to read Homer;
    When he found he grew stiff,
    He jumped over the cliff,
    Which concluded that Person of Cromer.

    His genteel, amused, lonely melancholy is so haunting. I don’t know if you know the anecdote about San Remo — Henry Strachey told his father in his villa Lear had a long frame on the wall full of pictures of his friends. When a friend died, Lear would take their photo out the frame and hang it up in his bedroom. Those were his last years. It knocks me out.

    • sheila says:

      This WEEK I tell ya … I can’t even visit my own site.

      Thank you Jessie – gathering together quotes is half of the fun of these posts. It appeals to my nerdy archivist side.

      and oh my God that limerick!! Lol!! “concluded” – brutal!

      and I had not heard that about the picture of his friends. wow.

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