Sara Lodge


On her book Inventing Edward Lear

Cover Interview of May 30, 2019

In a nutshell

Edward Lear, the author of ‘The Owl and the Pussy-cat’ and ‘The Quangle Wangle’s Hat,’ is rightly beloved as a nonsense poet. But few people know that he was also a brilliant musician, who sang and played the piano, the flute, the accordion and the small guitar, and a composer, who published twelve beautiful settings of his friend Tennyson’s poetry. Lear was also a naturalist, whose vivid lithographs of new species of animals and birds were consulted by Charles Darwin, and a landscape painter of surpassing skill, who taught Queen Victoria to draw. My book is the first study to examine Lear fully – as a musician, a visual artist, a naturalist, and a religious dissenter – relating all of these endeavours and identities to his writing. It places Lear firmly within the social, cultural, and intellectual life of his time.

Inventing Edward Lear crystallizes insights gained over six years of research, during which I transcribed over 10,000 pages of unpublished manuscript. It contains many pictures and writings by Lear that have not been seen before. Probably my most exciting realisation was that all of Lear’s poems are really songs. I recovered music for some of his re-settings of comic words to existing tunes by Thomas Haynes Bayly and Thomas Arne. I traced songs that we know from his diaries Lear regularly performed. And I began the process of recording, with the help of pianist David Owen Norris and various singers, the music that Lear wrote, parodied, sang and listened to throughout his long life. Readers of my book (and even those who don’t read it) can listen to these recordings at my website:

Lear performed all of his nonsense poems, and many other poems by Tennyson, Swinburne, and Shelley, to music. He also had a lively repertoire of contemporary comic songs, such as ‘Tea in the Arbour’, in which a town-bred visitor takes tea with country friends and is bothered by caterpillars in his tea and spiders in the butter, gets tar on his trousers, is peppered by birdshot, and is finally caught in a man-trap! Lear must have played this Harold Lloyd-style comic role to perfection, as friends forty years on still recalled him singing it. Lear was adept at transitioning, on improvised piano, from high tragedy to breathless comedy. Once we know that songs like ‘The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò’ are designed to sit uneasily – but brilliantly – between the sentimental yearning of drawing-room ballad and the cockney wordplay of Victorian musical-hall songs about foolish suitors, then it becomes easier to appreciate their genius. Lear creates a feedback loop between pathos and absurdity, where sentiment always threatens to be silly, yet the absurd frequently becomes moving. He makes us laugh and cry simultaneously.