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Reviewed by:
  • Edward Lear and the Play of Poetry ed. by James Williams, Matthew Bevis
  • Lee Behlman (bio)
Edward Lear and the Play of Poetry, edited by James Williams and Matthew Bevis; pp. xix + 381. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2016, £72.00, $105.00.

It has been a propitious time for fans and students of the nonsense poet Edward Lear, with the publication of Jenny Uglow’s forceful new biography, Mr. Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense (2017), as well as a flurry of notable articles and book chapters. James Williams and Matthew Bevis’s Edward Lear and the Play of Poetry is the first collection devoted entirely to Lear, and it makes a convincing case for Lear’s enduring interest not just for Victorianists but for those who would seek to understand modernist and later twentieth-century innovations in poetic form.

There are pitfalls for any critic seeking to get a fix on Lear and his poetry. Lear himself warns us of the dangers of flat-footed readings in such poems as “How Pleasant to Know Mr. Lear!” (1879), which offers such wildly different tidbits of information about the poet that he convinces us that we do not know the man all that well at all. Or consider the lesson delivered to the coterie of animals who seek to nail down the precise nature of “The Scroobious Pip” (1935): “Are you Beast or Insect, Bird or Fish?” The Pip’s reply at this crude attempt at classification is “Plifatty flip—Pliffity flip— / My only name is the Scroobious Pip” (Edward Lear: The Complete Verse and Other Nonsense, edited by Vivien Nokes [Penguin, 2001], lines 62, 65–66). [End Page 684]

In one of the volume’s most thoughtful essays, the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips warns that “the experience of reading or hearing the poems all too easily makes interpretation sound like misapprehension. This could be the poems tempting the reader into the seriousness they distrust” (343). This is a challenge to which this collection’s authors rise beautifully. A key means of tackling it, adopted by one of the editors, Matthew Bevis, is by adopting one’s own ludic sensibility as critical method. His essay, “Falling for Edward Lear,” shifts between types of Learian falls, from comic pratfalls to falling meter to the exile from paradise, in a performance of critical legerdemain that is at once dazzling and a little exhausting.

Lear’s relentless performativity also draws the attention of several contributors. This is very much the case with Hugh Haughton on Lear’s self-presentation as fool in his correspondence. Haughton is a superb guide to the intricate calisthenics of Lear’s comic voice and his idiosyncratic forms, such as a letter written entirely on the whorls of an illustrated snail’s shell. Haughton unpacks portmanteau words with flair: “The ‘bibble’ is reminiscent of ‘scribblebibble,’ while ‘squibble’ suggests a cross between a ‘scribble’ and a ‘quibble,’ with perhaps a touch . . . of a ‘squabble’ and ‘babble’ (232). A little of this may seem like it goes a long way, but in context Haughton never wears out his welcome.

A major stream of nonsense literature scholarship concerns its philosophical implications, as established in such works as Susan Stewart’s Nonsense: Aspects of Intertextuality in Folklore and Literature (1979) and Jean-Jacques Lecercle’s The Philosophy of Nonsense: The Intuitions of Victorian Nonsense Literature (1994). Two essays here, by Daniel Brown and Anna Henchman, extend this tradition usefully. Brown’s essay on “Being and Naughtiness” describes the lasting ontological presence or thinginess of Learian nonsense language. Henchman places Lear in a Victorian philosophical context, drawing connections to the comparative anatomy of Richard Owen and Victorian treatments of the evolution of language as she demonstrates the ways in which the substitution of a wing for an arm suggests logics of both analogy and homology in Learian bodies. Like Brown, Henchman emphasizes the permanence of Lear’s nonsense words and other appendages: though each may be switched around interchangeably like the exterior parts of a Mr. Potato Head, they “retain a legible, logical, and recognizable shape” (192).

The collection’s finest essay, by Sara Lodge, places Lear in the nineteenth...