The greatest poems by Edward Lear selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Although he’s well-known as a pioneer of the poetic form known as the limerick, Edward Lear (1812-88) wrote a number of other classic poems which are among the finest examples of ‘nonsense verse’. Here are five of Edward Lear’s best poems, along with some information about each of them.
The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five-pound note …
This is probably Edward Lear’s most famous poem, and a fine example of Victorian nonsense verse. It was published in Lear’s 1871 collection Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany, and Alphabets, and tells of the love between the owl and the pussycat and their subsequent marriage, with the turkey presiding over the wedding. Edward Lear wrote ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ for a friend’s daughter, Janet Symonds (daughter of the poet John Addington Symonds), who was born in 1865 and was three years old when Lear wrote the poem.
On the Coast of Coromandel
Where the early pumpkins blow,
In the middle of the woods
Lived the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò.
Two old chairs, and half a candle, –
One old jug without a handle, –
These were all his worldly goods:
In the middle of the woods,
These were all the worldly goods,
Of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò,
Of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò …
Many of Edward Lear’s greatest poems fuse comical absurdity with a strain of pathos, and this poem is a good example. The Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo meets the woman of his dreams, but she is already betrothed to another, so they can only be friends. This pair of star-cross’d lovers then part at the lady’s insistence, and the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo rides a turtle across the ocean (as you do). Well, what else is there to do when you’ve just had your marriage proposal rejected? Like the Dong below, here we have a solitary male voyager who is unlucky in love.
When awful darkness and silence reign
Over the great Gromboolian plain,
Through the long, long wintry nights; —
When the angry breakers roar
As they beat on the rocky shore; —
When Storm-clouds brood on the towering heights
Of the Hills of the Chankly Bore …
Another story of lost love, this time involving the titular Dong, a creature with a long glow-in-the-dark nose (fashioned from tree-bark and a lamp), who falls in love with the Jumbly girl (see below for more on the Jumblies), only to be abandoned by her. Another classic Edward Lear poem that fuses absurd imagery with more than a tinge of melancholy.
They went to sea in a Sieve, they did,
In a Sieve they went to sea:
In spite of all their friends could say,
On a winter’s morn, on a stormy day,
In a Sieve they went to sea!
The Jumblies are also seafarers – they famously take to the sea in the sieve – but unlike the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo, they are a collective rather than a solitary traveller. Their heads, we learn, are green, and their hands are blue.
He weeps by the side of the ocean,
He weeps on the top of the hill;
He purchases pancakes and lotion,
And chocolate shrimps from the mill.
He reads, but he does not speak, Spanish,
He cannot abide ginger beer;
Ere the days of his pilgrimage vanish,
How pleasant to know Mr. Lear!
Not many other Victorian poets were prepared to write about themselves in such a bold and gently mocking way, and this humorous poem by Edward Lear about … Edward Lear is a joy. (T. S. Eliot would later turn the idea on its head in one of his ‘Five-Finger Exercises’.) We learn that Lear cannot abide ginger beer, and that Old Foss is the name of his cat, among other things.
Discover more of Edward Lear’s wonderful world of fantastical nonsense with The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear (Faber Children’s Classics).
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: The Owl and the Pussycat via sammydavisdog on Flickr.