Victorian Literature Edward Lear
by
Peter Swaab
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 October 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0020

Introduction

The long career of Edward Lear (b. 1812–d. 1888) included diversely creative achievements as a nonsense poet, ornithological draftsman, landscape painter, and travel writer. Enduringly known as a genius of comic verse, he was also at a young age a pioneer of ornithological illustration (the greatest in the history of Western art, in the view of Philip Hofer) and in his middle and later years was a powerful landscape painter (especially in his watercolors) and a vivid, imaginative, adventurous travel writer. Biographical writing has been able to give attention to all these activities, but critical commentary has, with very few exceptions, considered his cultural activities in these distinct fields separately. There have been only two Monographs on Lear as a writer, both focused on the nonsense poems for which he is best known. As yet, there has been little attention to his travel journals except in the introductions to recent editions of reprinted and hitherto unpublished writings. Critical interest in the imperial dimensions of Victorian travel may provide a new framework for appreciation of Lear. His reputation as a painter was slow to develop, but it was given impetus by the major exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1985. This led to subsequent catalogues, exhibitions, and scholarly research into his paintings and drawings at a number of stages of his life and travels. In 1888 Sir Edmund Strachey marked the death of Edward Lear with an essay on “Nonsense as a Fine Art,” but literary criticism has had limited success in doing justice to nonsense writing, as to other forms of comedy. A good deal of the writing about Lear has seen him in the context of wider considerations of Victorian nonsense literature, often in tandem with the great children’s writer of the next generation, Lewis Carroll. However, Lear has attracted less commentary than Carroll, as less congenial to the semiotic and philosophical concerns of literary theory. Literary criticism has given more attention so far to his limericks, and to their interplay between word and image, than to his longer poems and other nonsenses.

Primary Works

Lear’s nonsense writings are inexpensively and readily available in various editions, notably Noakes 2001 (cited under Nonsense Writings), but his travel writings and zoological illustrations remain difficult to access.

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