Anniversary: Happy bicentennial, Edward Lear!

SATURDAY, MAY 12: “There once was an old man from …” If those words remind you of limericks, then you have the artist, humorist and poet Edward Lear to thank! If you love nonsense words and fanciful funny tales that make you laugh—but defy logic—then you have Edward Lear to thank! Millions have chuckled over the countless renditions of The Owl and the Pussycat from music to cartoons to picture books—even one by Monty Python’s Eric Idle that now unfortunately is out of print—and, for that tale, we all have Edward Lear to thank!

We just marked the 160th birthday of the “real” Alice in Wonderland. Decades before Lewis Carroll would publish his Alice masterpiece, Edward Lear already was popular with English families for his crazy twists of verse and funny little ink sketches. But let’s dispell a myth about Lear: He actually was a talented artist who began his career making painstaking color illustrations of birds for the Zoological Society of London. British art critics wrote that he could rival the famous French-American wildlife painter James Audubon (1785-1851). Unfortunately, Lear suffered due to multiple disorders, ranging from epileptic seizures to failing eyesight. Nevertheless, even as he suffered, he maintained a defiant good humor.

If you care to read about Lear’s life, Wikipedia has a good overview. Earlier this week, we reported on the bicentennial of the poet Robert Browning’s birth. Unlike the hoopla surrounding Charles Dickens’ bicentennial, these other giants of English literature have few fans left to plan birthday bashes. Browning’s milestone will pass with little notice in the U.S. Unlike Browning, however, some Americans are paying attention to Lear. The Audubon Society website just published an overview of a bicentennial salute to Lear at Harvard. The Audubon post includes several other sketches of birds by Lear in preparations for finished works like the one with our story, today.


EDWARD LEARThe original odd couple has been celebrated in high-brow music by Igor Stravinsky, served as a folk-music staple for artists like Burl Ives and has been revived for contemporary audiences by Laurie Anderson. Because Lear’s work is now in public domain, there is no way to count the print versions, digital versions and cartoon versions. The characters are referenced in Disney’s Winnie the Pooh adventures and Mister Rogers reportedly included an owl and a pussycat in his beloved neighborhood as an homage to Lear’s tale.
To celebrate Edward Lear’s 200th birthday, here is that poem …


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.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
“O lovely Pussy, O Pussy, my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
You are,
You are!
What a beautiful Pussy you are!”

Pussy said to the Owl, “You elegant fowl,
How charmingly sweet you sing!
Oh! let us be married; too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?”
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the bong-tree grows;
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood,
With a ring at the end of his nose,
His nose,
His nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.

“Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?” Said the Piggy, “I will.”
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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