Word Cloud: NONSENSE


If we look behind the mask of Comedy, we will find the face of Tragedy. Laughter may be humanity’s greatest survival skill, a potent weapon against despair and the Unfairness of Life.

Today, people in “industrialized nations” take it for granted that children will outlive their parents, and call it a tragedy when they don’t. We seldom think about the rest of the world, or about the whole world before the 20th century — all the people who would consider a family extremely fortunate if only half their children died before the age of five.

Edward Lear (1812–1888) was the twentieth of twenty-one pregnancies endured by his mother Ann Skerrett Lear, wife of Jeremiah Lear, a stockbroker. He was their youngest child to survive. There had already been several infant deaths, and his health was delicate: his eyesight was poor, and he suffered from chronic respiratory ailments. His parents waited three years before arranging for Edward to be baptized.

Then his father’s financial reverses forced the family to rent out their home, and Edward was sent to live with his eldest sister, twenty-five-year-old Ann. But when financial stability returned, his mother left him in his sister’s care. Ann never married, devoting herself to her brother as long as she lived, but he never forgot the hurt of his mother’s rejection.

At the age of five he had his first epileptic seizure. Lear called this his “Demon.” He was so ashamed of the affliction that he would go to great lengths to hide it, even from people who had real affection for him.


But the child Edward was “tenacious of life” as Charlotte Brontë put it, and grew into adulthood. Here is a poem in which Lear satirizes his adult self, with a bird-like caricature he drew of himself with his cat Foss:

How Pleasant to Know Mr. Lear

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

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

He has ears, and two eyes, and ten fingers,
(Leastways if you reckon two thumbs);
He used to be one of the singers,
But now he is one of the dumbs.

He sits in a beautiful parlour,
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 waterproof white,
The children run after him so!
Calling out, “He’s gone 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 does not speak, Spanish,
He cannot abide ginger beer;
Ere the days of his pilgrimage vanish,
How pleasant to know Mr. Lear!



There was no money for school fees, so Ann tutored Edward as best she could, and encouraged his talent for drawing and painting. When Jeremiah Lear retired and the rest of the family moved out of London in 1828, Edward and Ann remained in lodgings in the city. Lear, now 16, became the bread-winner by selling miscellaneous sketches, then advancing to anatomical drawings and illustrations for natural history books. His skill as an illustrator led to the publication in 1832 of his volume of twelve folio lithographic prints of parrots, Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae. 

This publication brought Edward Stanley, later thirteenth Earl of Derby, into Lear’s life. Stanley wanted an artist to draw the animals in his menagerie at Knowsley, the Derby estate in Lancashire. Lear accepted his offer of residency at Knowsley Hall while the work was in progress; he stayed there off and on from 1832 to 1837.  While at Knowsley, Lear became close friends with Chichester Fortescue, later Lord Carlingford. Their correspondence, compiled in two volumes by Lady Strachey, is the largest collection of Lear letters published to date.

This first time away from London would shape the rest of his life.

He began making poems, drawings, stories and alphabets for the entertainment of the children at Knowsley; these “nonsenses”— and Lear’s witty conversation and piano improvisations — soon ingratiated him with the adults as well. In 1846 he gathered together some of his limericks, and had them published with his own illustrations in A Book of Nonsense under the pseudonym Derry down Derry. Reprints of a later edition of A Book of Nonsense with his original illustrations are still readily available, 171 years after its first printing.

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!


In 1837, his failing eyesight and laboring lungs forced Lear to abandon the detailed work of natural history draftsmanship and the English winters. The Earl remained his unflagging patron, providing funds and introductions to establish him in Rome, so Lear could paint landscapes. He remained in Rome for ten years, where he was widely known as a nonsense poet and formed several of the deepest of his close friendships, including one with Thomas Baring, later Lord Northbrook.

It was also the beginning of his wanderings. He would travel to Greece and Albania, and then even farther afield. In 1873 and 1874, Lear would journey to India and Ceylon as Lord Northbrook’s guest.

Temple at Bassae by Edward Lear – Northern Greece, 1849


Lear’s most ardent and painful friendship was with Franklin Lushington. He met the young barrister in Malta in 1849 and then toured Greece with him. Lear became  passionately devoted to him, a passion Lushington did not reciprocate. Although they remained friends for almost forty years, the disparity of their feelings tormented Lear.

Returning to England later in 1849, he met Alfred and Emily Tennyson. Lear admired Tennyson’s poetry, and set several of his poems to music.

In 1850 Lear elected to remain in England, enrolling in the ten-year painting course at the Royal Academy Schools to improve his untrained technique in oils and figure drawing. He also had the first two of the three illustrated journals of his travels published.

But the English climate was too cold and wet, and his eyesight was worsening. He suffered from depression too, which he referred to as “the Morbids.” After three and a half years, he had to return to the Mediterranean. In October of 1855, he found a home on Corfu, where Lushington’s government position had stationed him. It was a unsettled time, when he traveled often, including eight short visits back to England. He seriously considered asking “Gussie” Bethell, a much younger woman he had known since she was a child, to marry him, but his sister Emma advised against it. Lear was never to find the loving companion he longed for.


Lear did not have any new nonsense published for fifteen years following the appearance of A Book of Nonsense. Then in 1861, a new, expanded edition was brought out under his own name. An enthusiastic reception surprised but perplexed Lear, who hoped to win fame as a painter. Nonsense was only for fun and money. Its success did encourage him to compose more complex nonsenses, which first appeared in Nonsense Songs in 1871, after he had resettled, this time in San Remo, Italy.

The Duck and the Kangaroo


Said the Duck to the Kangaroo,
‘Good gracious! how you hop!
Over the fields and the water too,
As if you never would stop!
My life is a bore in this nasty pond,
And I long to go out in the world beyond!
I wish I could hop like you!’
Said the duck to the Kangaroo.


‘Please give me a ride on your back!’
Said the Duck to the Kangaroo.
‘I would sit quite still, and say nothing but “Quack,”
The whole of the long day through!
And we’d go to the Dee, and the Jelly Bo Lee,
Over the land and over the sea;–
Please take me a ride! O do!’
Said the Duck to the Kangaroo.


Said the Kangaroo to the Duck,
‘This requires some little reflection;
Perhaps on the whole it might bring me luck,
And there seems but one objection,
Which is, if you’ll let me speak so bold,
Your feet are unpleasantly wet and cold,
And would probably give me the roo-
Matiz!’ said the Kangaroo.


Said the Duck ,’As I sate on the rocks,
I have thought over that completely,
And I bought four pairs of worsted socks
Which fit my web-feet neatly.
And to keep out the cold I’ve bought a cloak,
And every day a cigar I’ll smoke,
All to follow my own dear true
Love of a Kangaroo!’


Said the Kangaroo,’I’m ready!
All in the moonlight pale;
But to balance me well, dear Duck, sit steady!
And quite at the end of my tail!’
So away they went with a hop and a bound,
And they hopped the whole world three times round;
And who so happy, — O who,
As the duck and the Kangaroo?

The Broom, the Shovel, the Poker and the Tongs


The Broom and the Shovel, the Poker and the Tongs,
They all took a drive in the Park,
And they each sang a song, Ding-a-dong, Ding-a-dong,
Before they went back in the dark.
Mr. Poker he sate quite upright in the coach,
Mr. Tongs made a clatter and clash,
Miss Shovel was all dressed in black (with a brooch),
Mrs. Broom was in blue (with a sash).
Ding-a-dong! Ding-a-dong!
And they all sang a song!


‘O Shovel so lovely!’ the Poker he sang,
‘You have perfectly conquered my heart!
‘Ding-a-dong! Ding-a-dong! If you’re pleased with my song,
‘I will feed you with cold apple tart!
‘When you scrape up the coals with a delicate sound,
‘You encapture my life with delight!
‘Your nose is so shiny! your head is so round!
‘And your shape is so slender and bright!
‘Ding-a-dong! Ding-a-dong!
‘Ain’t you pleased with my song?’


‘Alas! Mrs. Broom!’ sighed the Tongs in his song,
‘O is it because I’m so thin,
‘And my legs are so long — Ding-a-dong! Ding-a-dong!
‘That you don’t care about me a pin?
‘Ah! fairest of creatures, when sweeping the room,
‘Ah! why don’t you heed my complaint!
‘Must you needs be so cruel, you beautiful Broom,
‘Because you are covered with paint?
‘Ding-a-dong! Ding-a-dong!
‘You are certainly wrong!’


Mrs. Broom and Miss Shovel together they sang,
‘What nonsense you’re singing to-day!’
Said the Shovel, ‘I’ll certainly hit you a bang!’
Said the Broom, ‘And I’ll sweep you away!’
So the Coachman drove homeward as fast as he could,
Perceiving their anger with pain;
But they put on the kettle and little by little,
They all became happy again.
Ding-a-dong! Ding-a-dong!
There’s an end of my song!


Calico Pie


    Calico Pie, 
    The little Birds fly
Down to the calico tree,
    Their wings were blue,
    And they sang ‘Tilly-loo!’
    Till away they flew,–
        And they never came back to me!
            They never came back!
            They never came back!
        They never came back to me!


    Calico Jam,
    The little Fish swam,
Over the syllabub sea,
        He took off his hat,
    To the Sole and the Sprat,
    And the Willeby-Wat,–
But he never came back to me!
    He never came back!
    He never came back! 
He never came back to me!


    Calico Ban,
    The little Mice ran,
To be ready in time for tea,
    Flippity flup,
    They drank it all up,
    And danced in the cup,–
But they never came back to me!
    They never came back!
    They never came back!
They never came back to me!


    Calico Drum,
    The Grasshoppers come,
The Butterfly, Beetle, and Bee,
    Over the ground,
    Around and around,
    With a hop and a bound,–
But they never came back to me!
    They never came back!
    They never came back!
They never came back to me!

No profile of Edward Lear would be complete without Lear’s best known poem, “The Owl and the Pussy Cat.”

The Owl and the Pussycat


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.


Lear’s health continued to decline, and he spent his last years in San Remo, dying of heart disease on January 29, 1888. He was attended only by a servant. None of his friends traveled to Italy for his funeral.

He is buried in the Cemetery Foce in San Remo. On his headstone are inscribed these lines about Albania’s Mount Tomohrit from Tennyson’s poem for him, To E.L., On His Travels in Greece:

                              all things fair.
With such a pencil, such a pen.
You shadow’d forth to distant men,
I read and felt that I was there.

Undoubtedly, Edward Lear would be astonished that his ‘nonsenses’ have endured, and all most of us know of his art are the charming little pen-and-ink drawings which illustrate his poems, not his lovely watercolors or his other more polished and demanding work.

Yet his books of Nonsense are still in print, to make us smile, and laugh, while far more serious works of the 19th century have been utterly forgotten. It is not the Fame he hoped for, but Lear longed to be remembered, and that grace he has been given.



Selected Bibliography

  • Illustrations of the Family of the Psittacidae, or Parrots (1832)
  • Views in Rome and its Environs (1841)
  • Gleanings from the Menagerie at Knowsley Hall (1846)
  • A Book of Nonsense (1846)
  • Illustrated Excursions in Italy (1846)
  • Mount Timohorit, Albania (1848)
  • Journal of a Landscape Painter in Greece and Albania (1851)
  • The falls of the Kalama Albania (1851)
  • Journal of a Landscape Painter in Southern Calabria (1852)
  • Poems and Songs by Alfred Tennyson(1853, 1859, 1860) Twelve total musical settings published, each being for a Tennyson poem
  • Journal of a Landscape Painter in Corsica (1870)
  • Nonsense Songs and Stories (1870, dated 1871)
  • Tortoises, Terrapins, and Turtles (1872), introduction by J.E. Gray
  • More Nonsense Songs, Pictures, etc. (1872)
  • Laughable Lyrics (1877)
  • Nonsense Alphabets
  • Argos from Mycenae (1884), now in Trinity College, Cambridge collection
  • Nonsense Botany (1888)
  • Tennyson‘s Poems, illustrated by Lear (1889)
  • Facsimile of a Nonsense Alphabet (1849, but not published until 1926)
  • The Quangle-Wangle’s Hat (unknown)
  • Edward Lear’s Parrots by Brian Reade, Duckworth (1949), including 12 coloured plates from Lear’s Psittacidae
  • The Scroobious Pip, unfinished at his death, but completed by Ogden Nash and illustrated by Nancy Ekholm Burkert (1968)
  • “Edward Lear: The Corfu Years” (1988)


  • All drawings are Lear’s original illustrations from his nonsense books, except the watercolor, Temple at Bassae, from his travel journal

Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud


About wordcloud9

Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for over 50 years, spending much of that time commuting on the 405 Freeway. After Hollywood failed to appreciate her genius for acting and directing, she began a second career managing non-profits, from which she has retired. Nona has now resumed writing whatever comes into her head, instead of reports and pleas for funding. She lives in a small house overrun by books with her wonderful husband.
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2 Responses to Word Cloud: NONSENSE

  1. RABI ROY says:

    fantastic !!!

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