Edward Lear

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Edward Lear

Born: May 12, 1812
Highgate, London, England
Died: January 29, 1888
Occupation: Artist, Poet
Nationality: British
Writing period: 1830 - 1888
Literary movement: Nonsense literature
Debut works: Illustrations of the Family of the Psittacidæ (1832)
Eagle Owl, Edward Lear, 1837
Eagle Owl, Edward Lear, 1837
Another Edward Lear owl, in his more familiar style
Another Edward Lear owl, in his more familiar style

Edward Lear (12 May 1812 – 29 January 1888) was an English artist, illustrator and writer known for his literary nonsense, in poetry and prose, and especially his limericks, a form which he popularised.


  • 1 Biography
  • 2 Lear's limericks
  • 3 Works
    • 3.1 Others
  • 4 External links


He was born in Highgate, a suburb of London, the 20th child of his parents and was raised by his eldest sister, Ann, twenty-one years his senior. At the age of fifteen, he and his sister had to leave the family home and set up house together. He started work as a serious illustrator and his first publication, at the age of 19, was Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots in 1830. His paintings were well received and he was favourably compared with Audubon. Throughout his life he continued to paint seriously. He had a lifelong ambition to illustrate Tennyson's poems; near the end of his life a volume with a small number of illustrations was published, but his vision for the work was never realised. Lear briefly gave drawing lessons to Queen Victoria, leading to some awkward incidents when he failed to observe proper court protocol.

He did not keep good health. From the age of six until the time of his death he suffered frequent grand mal epileptic seizures, as well as bronchitis, asthma, and in later life, partial blindness. Lear experienced his first epileptic fit while sitting in a tree. Lear felt lifelong guilt and shame for his epileptic condition. His adult diaries indicate that he always sensed the onset of a fit in time to remove himself from public view. How Lear was able to anticipate his fits is not known, but many epileptics report a ringing in their ears or an itching in their fingers before the onset of a fit.

In 1846 Lear published A Book of Nonsense, a volume of limericks which went through three editions and helped popularise the form. In 1865 The History of the Seven Families of the Lake Pipple-Popple was published, and in 1867 his most famous piece of nonsense, The Owl and the Pussycat, which he wrote for the children of his patron Edward Stanley, 13th Earl of Derby. Many other works followed.

Lear's nonsense books were quite popular during his lifetime, but a rumour circulated that "Edward Lear" was merely a pseudonym, and the books' true author was the man to whom Lear had dedicated the works: his patron the Earl of Derby. Adherents of this rumour offered as evidence the facts that both men were named Edward, and that "Lear" is an anagram of "Earl".

Lear's limericks

Edward Lear's nonsense works are distinguished by a facility of verbal invention and a poet's delight in the sounds of words, both real and imaginary. A stuffed rhinoceros becomes a "diaphanous doorscraper". A "blue Boss-Woss" plunges into "a perpendicular, spicular, orbicular, quadrangular, circular depth of soft mud". His heroes are Quangle-Wangles, Pobbles, and Jumblies. His most famous piece of verbal invention occurs in the closing lines of The Owl and the Pussycat:

  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.

The "runcible spoon", a Lear neologism, entered the language and is now found in many English dictionaries.

Limericks are invariably typeset as five lines today, but Edward Lear's limericks were published in a variety of formats. It appears that Lear wrote them in manuscript basically in as many lines as there was room for beneath the picture. In the first three editions, most are typeset as, respectively, three, five, and three lines. The cover of one edition [1] bears an entire limerick typeset in only two lines, thus:

  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; there is nothing in them to "get". 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!'

Among Lear's tremble-bembles and the chippy-wippy-sikki-tees can be found some very felicitous turns of phrase. Lear's self-portrait in verse, How Pleasant to know Mr. Lear, closes with this stanza, a pleasant reference to his own mortality:

  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!

Edward Lear self portrait, illustrating a real incident in which he encountered a stranger who claimed that "Edward Lear" was merely a pseudonym. Lear (on the right) is showing the stranger (left) the inside of his hat, with his name in the lining.
Edward Lear self portrait, illustrating a real incident in which he encountered a stranger who claimed that "Edward Lear" was merely a pseudonym. Lear (on the right) is showing the stranger (left) the inside of his hat, with his name in the lining.


  • Illustrations of the Family of the Psittacidæ (1832)
  • Tortises, Terrapins, and Turtles by J.E. Gray
  • Views in Rome and its Environs (1841)
  • Gleanings from the Menagerie at Knowsley Hall (1846)
  • Illustrated Excursions in Italy (1846)
  • Book of Nonsense (1846)
  • Journal of a Landscape Painter in Greece and Albania (1851)
  • Journal of a Landscape Painter in Southern Albania (1852)
  • Book of Nonsense and More Nonsense (1862)
  • Views in the Seven Ionian Isles (1863)
  • Journal of a Landscape Painter in Corsica (1870)
  • Nonsense Songs and Stories (1871)
  • More Nonsense Songs, Pictures, etc. (1872)
  • Laughable Lyrics (1877)
  • Nonsense Alphabets
  • Nonsense Botany (1888)
  • Tennyson's Poems, illustrated by Lear (1889)
  • Facsimile of a Nonsense Alphabet (1849, but not published until 1926)
  • The Scroobious Pip, unfinished at his death, but completed by Ogden Nash and illustrated by Nancy Ekholm Burkert (1968)
  • The Quangle-Wangle's Hat (unknown)


  • Edward Lear's Parrots by Brian Reade, Duckworth (1949), including 12 coloured plates reproduced from Lear's Psittacidae
  • The 1970 Saturday morning cartoon Tomfoolery, based on the works of Lear and Lewis Carroll
  • Edward Lear's Books of Nonsense
  • Scans of illustrations from the Nonsense series of books
    • Edward Lear Home Page at nonsenselit.org
    • Reelyredd's Poetry Pages The Daddylonglegs and The Fly (audio file)
    • Phryne's list of pictures by Lear in accessible UK collections
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