restricted access Edward Lear and Modern Poetry
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

828 ] Edward Lear and Modern Poetry1 Mr. Eliot began with the remark that the subject was essentially too difficult and abstruse a one for him, and that he could offer only a tentative suggestion of hardly more than the problem itself (SCW ). His lecture, he announced, was not to be a difficult lecture on a simple subject, but a simple lecture on a difficult subject. Edward Lear’s poetry is not as childish or meaningless as it is commonly considered (WCN ). The poetry of Edward Lear should not be treated as “children’s” poetry, but distinctly for adult minds (BEN ). He used as the key note of his lecture the words of Walter Pater: “All art consciously aspires towards the condition of music,” so that perfection of poetry “seems to depend, in part, on a certain suppression . . . of mere subject , so that the meaning reaches us through ways not directly traceable by the understanding” (Scr).2 In quoting Pater’s essay . . . Mr. Eliot made a defense for this sonic, musical, somewhat unintelligible poetry, which makes no pretense at sense, but pleases the ear, or creates an emotional effect (BCE ). Eliot told his audience that there are two types of poetry, one in which the words are used simply to give meaning, the other in which the words are used for their sonic effect, but in great poetry the words do both (BCE). His talk was an exposition of the parts played by pure meaning, sound and word association in poetry, and he used Edward Lear as his chief example (NYHT). Of the poetry of Lear, he said: “It matters little what the meaning is, so long as I have enjoyed it and so long as it has stirred me.” “The important thing about a poem is not what it means, but rather what it says” (CSM). One of his themes was that modern “unintelligible” poetry derives from Lear as one of its sources. Lear, a contemporary of Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland, was a writer of light verse, in which there was more nonsense than sense, and in which the words were chosen not to convey ideas,butemotionaleffects−theemotionbeingofthewhimsicalsort(BCE). Edward Lear, author of Nonsense Songs and Stories (1870), is different from other nonsense poets, such as W. S. Gilbert and Lewis Carroll. Lear and Carroll wrote [not only] for children, but for particular friends of [ 829 Edward Lear and Modern Poetry theirs. Children like their works, but this is only incidental; our adult enjoyment is what really matters (SCW). There were a few neatly juggled observations − about the more adult appeal of Lear’s nonsense in comparison with Carroll’s, and about the probability that a child who prefers Lear’s verse to Carroll’s has a sense of poetic appreciation − about the relative merits of Lear, who says something poetic even when he expresses an intent to make no sense, and Swinburne, who expresses an implied intent to make sense, but says nothing poetic about the emotional conception of poetry as “musings”; art in contrast with the more detached conception of poetry as a resolving of emotional and critical functions (NYEP). Both poets suppress some elements which we ordinarily expect in “normal” poetry, in order to enhance our enjoyment of other elements. All “obscure” poets such as those of today always isolate some element. Carroll isolates the intellectual elements while Lear isolates the pure poetry, or musical element, and appeals to the child in the adult. Carroll is metaphysical while Lear is romantic (SCW). Eliot defined four classes of poets where the question of meaning arises: those who mean something, those who think they mean something, those who don’t mean anything, and the obscure poets. He then read selections from and drew comparisons between Lear and Tennyson, Swinburne, Mallarmé, W. H. Auden, and Lewis Carroll (Scr), pointing out that in each was the important problem of meaning (SCW). It is extremely difficult to determine whether there is more poetical quality in poetry of the serious type than in poetry of the nonsense type, he told his audience. To illustrate his point, he compared one of Tennyson’s poems with verse, similar in structure, written by Lear (BEN). Mr. Eliot’s attention was caught by Aldous Huxley’s statement of the similarity between Tennyson’s poem to Catullus and Lear’s verses on the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.3 This observation aroused speculation in Mr. Eliot’s mind as to the relative merits of the two...


pdf