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Latin, Greek, and Other Classical Nonsense in the Work of Edward Lear

Marian Makins

            The nonsense poetry of Edward Lear contains a wealth of classical material, both straightforward allusions and words patterned on, or even masquerading as, Latin or classical Greek. This paper explores the relationship between Lear’s use of classical material and his unorthodox educational background.

            A thorough knowledge of Latin and Greek would have been expected in the circles of Victorian society in which Lear moved. Most of his male friends were gentlemen who had attended elite public schools and universities. But Lear’s own background was different. Born into a large family of limited means, suffering from debilitating epilepsy, Lear was home-schooled by an elder sister. His illness, combined with his work as a landscape painter, led him to travel extensively throughout the Mediterranean as an adult. It was then that he began to study ancient Greek under a series of tutors. Lear liked to spend part of each day reading Greek, and complained bitterly when he was kept from it.

            As Lear’s letters show, his self-education in the classics did have a social dimension—he expresses a desire to read Plato with one friend, for example, and mentions discussing Aeschylus with a former headmaster—and he set himself challenges similar to the examinations dreaded by Victorian schoolboys everywhere. But the resemblance between Lear the autodidact and the classically educated gentlemen who surrounded him was superficial. Many young men emerged from the ‘gerund grind’ with only a cursory knowledge of the languages and cultures whose study they took for granted; for some, the study of grammar was forever bound up with memories of corporal punishment. In contrast, Lear’s engagement with the classics was conscious, joyful, and profound. And Lear could be critical of the educational system of his day. He wonders, on one occasion, how the thoughts of Plato could be “kept darkly away from the youths of the age (except they go to the universities, & then only as matters of language or scarcely more),” on account of Socrates’ paganism.

            Lear’s use of classical material in his poetry was motivated by the same unfettered enthusiasm that shines through in his letters. He was a person who reveled in wordplay, ever alert to the sound of the absurd or preposterous in the spoken and written language he encountered. To tag this delight in the sound of language as ‘childlike’ is not to demean, but to ennoble it: Lear felt at home in the company of children, considered them the primary audience for his nonsense, and even refers to himself as ‘this child’ in many of his later letters. Nor did Lear condescend to children. To be sure, the classical content of a poem like “Mr. and Mrs. Discobbolos” targets two distinct groups—those who recognize the name of the classical statue type of the discus-thrower, and those who hear only a funny-sounding name. But whereas some other Victorian authors used classical references to exclude, Lear’s letters show that he expected his young readers to acquire, in time, a knowledge and appreciation of the classics to rival his own. In other words, he anticipated that one of his audiences would mature into the other, experiencing in the process a new kind of delight in the nonsense they enjoyed as children.

            Lear’s work thus reveals an ingenuous engagement with Latin, Greek, and other classical nonsense such as could only have arisen in one never subjected to the ‘gerund grind’; a man who chose to study the classics, on his own, and on his own terms.

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