Friday, April 24, 2009
"There was an old man..."
There was an old person of Ickley,
Who could not abide to ride quickly;
He rode to Karnak on a tortoise's back,
That moony old person of Ickley.
Well, it's official: I've switched camps. For the longest time if anyone asked me to name the greatest artist of all time, I had to say William Blake. His paintings were literally out of this world, and no poet but Blake could really capture the essence of the microcosm and the macrocosm -- "To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a flower..." -- or aesthetics -- "Exuberance is beauty." You just can't top that. Or so I thought.
That was until last night, when I discovered the early illustration work of Edward Lear. Yes, that Edward Lear, the poet best known for "The Owl and the Pussy-cat." Before all his nonsense limericks came about, though, Lear was a celebrated painter. His first publication, at 20, was Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots, a collection of 12 amazing prints of the colorful birds. This got the attention of a patron who gave Lear work painting the animals at a private menagerie in Derby. His second book was Tortoises, Terrapins, and Turtles, published by J.E. Gray, Zoologist for the British Museum. Of course, that book alone would have converted me, but there's even more to love about Lear. He went on to produce 11 books of animals and landscapes during his life, but failing eyesight led him to abandon painting for his now better-known work of nonsense rhymes.
There was an old man of th' Abruzzi,
So blind that he couldn't his foot see;
When they said, "That's your toe," He replied, "Is it so?"
That doubtful old man of th' Abruzzi.
You see, Blake flared and flamed so much in life that that is how he will always be remembered. But with Edward Lear, it's a different story. He did his most incredible illustration work right off the bat, and then when he couldn't do that, he went on to make a career out of limericks and simple little drawings.
Still, it's hard to write him off as capitalizing on "kid's stuff." The Lear limericks are usually about somebody who stands out from the crowd. Maybe their nose is too long, or they sit in a boat on dry land and insist that they're at sea. The more I learn about Lear's life, the more touching the poems become, because many of them seem so personal. Lear's poems celebrate what made him different and, by extension, the eccentric in all of us.
There was an old person in gray,
Whose feelings were tinged with dismay;
She purchased two parrots, and fed them with carrots,
Which pleased that old person in gray.