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  • Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense by Jenny Uglow
  • James Williams (bio)
Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense by Jenny Uglow. Faber & Faber, 2017. £25. ISBN 9 7805 7126 9549

Edward Lear died in San Remo, Italy, on 29 January 1888 at the age of 75. The house in which he died, Villa Tennyson, was the second he had commissioned in the town. Lear moved into its precursor, Villa Emily, in 1871, and probably envisioned, as he was then nearly 60, that this would be his final home. In 1877, however, building work began on the land between Villa Emily and the sea. As it rose from the ground this new building threatened to block Lear's light and his view, and by 1879 it became clear that 'The Enemy', as he called it in his diaries, was to be a large four-storey hotel. An unhappy state of affairs for anyone but, as a professional landscape painter, light and a view mattered to Lear more than to most: [End Page 387] his continued residence in Villa Emily now seemed unimaginable. Lear had, in fact, long foreseen that this might happen, and had hoped to buy up the land to prevent such a development. To his rage and disappointment, then, was added frustration at not having managed to act on his fears.

In 1879 Lear returned to one of his earlier nonsense poems, the story of 'Mr and Mrs Discobbolos', who made a perilous, unlikely home for themselves and their children on the top of a high wall. At least since 'Humpty Dumpty' a 'wall' in English verse has presaged a 'fall', and Lear now composed a 'Second Part', narrating the calamitous fall that, in the earlier poem, Mrs Discobbolos had feared. It turns out to be more terrible than she had imagined:

Suddenly Mr Discobbolos      Slid from the top of the wall;   And beneath it he dug a terrible trench, –   And filled it with Dynamite gunpowder gench, –      And aloud began to call, –'Let the wild bee sing and the blue bird hum!For the end of our lives has certainly come!'      And Mrs Discobbolos said,      'O! W! X! Y! Z!      We shall presently all be dead,   On this ancient runcible wall, –         Terrible Mr Discobbolos!'1

Mr Discobbolos lights a match, and blows both wall and family to pieces.

Lear once comically imagined his own death as a 'brutal & harmonious occurrence'2 and wondered in a letter 'is there not a brutal balance to all satisfactions?'3 'Mr and Mrs Discobbolos' is a brutal and harmonious poem, balancing contradictory impulses with a satisfaction at the same time more ambivalent, beautiful, and funny than what it describes. 'O! W! X! Y! Z!' serves up a mix of emotion and compulsion both tenderly pedantic and mildly flustered (perhaps it is the fact that 'W', a single block capital letter among others on the page but three tripping syllables when spoken aloud, sets rhythmic patter gently at odds with printed form). The breathless non sequitur 'Let the wild bee sing and the blue bird hum!' comes in one sense out of the collective unconscious of Romantic poetry, and in [End Page 388] another sense out of the blue: chill with the thrill of emotional apartness. The poem's adverbs–'suddenly . . certainly . . presently'–dance between precision and imprecision, agency and inevitability, and among its adjectives a line of half-rhymes–'terrible . . . runcible . . . terrible'–trips a course between nonsense and horror. This might be anthologised as 'light verse', but the label sits poorly: the acts of murder and suicide are neither accorded the emotional sincerity their weight seems to demand nor exactly given the knockabout treatment required to make light of them.

All of this might be offered as a formal analysis of the poem's effects, but it does not account for the intimate way in which it is entangled in the circumstances of its composition in 1879: the frustrated desire for a settled home, the ruining of Villa Emily, the hotel ('The Enemy'), and the delirious fantasy of the 'Dynamite gunpowder gench' that blasts the whole thing sky high. For that understanding...


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