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  • Edward Lear's Tears
  • Jasmine Jagger (bio)

What poetry there is in human tears!

—Heinrich Heine, "Memoirs of Herr von Schnabelewopski" (1834)1

Heine's exclamation might well be reversed—for what human tears there are in poetry. In W. H. Auden's poem "Edward Lear" (1938), he illustrates Lear as someone who was "guided by" his "tears" to write:

Left by his friend to breakfast alone on the whiteItalian shore, his Terrible Demon aroseOver his shoulder; he wept to himself in the night,A dirty landscape-painter who hated his nose.

The legions of cruel inquisitive TheyWere so many and big like dogs; he was upsetBy Germans and boats; affection was miles away:But guided by tears he successfully reached his Regret.2

Auden draws on Angus Davidson's 1938 biography of Lear to suggest him as someone who was "upset" by people, dogs, Germans, and boats but pushed by this emotional discomfort into playful composition. Auden's dactylic rhythms slump or fall just as we feel they should kick up in the word choices of the verse: "cruel" (l. 5) and "miles" (l. 7), for example, are extended to the sadder "cru-el" (/ x) and "mi-les" (/ x); "wept" (l. 3) and "tears" (l. 8) are given stress; and the stress of "lone" in "breakfast alone on" (l. 1) is immediately followed by the unstressed "on" (/ x x / x) so that the sadness of being alone sounds more resigned than exclamatory—a sigh as opposed to a cry. According to the meter, "away" and "Regret" should both end on rising rhythms, but their sad meanings encourage the voice to fall down at the ends of both lines. Auden's melancholic tone moves through his poem about Lear as Lear's own nonsensical rhythms moved through the course of his weepy life. As well as drawing on Lear's personal life, Auden is also drawing on Lear's autobiographical poem "How [End Page 101] Pleasant to Know Mr. Lear!" (also featuring dactyls and falling rhythms), whose penultimate stanza famously characterizes him as a weeper:

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.

(CN, p. 428)

Here, as in Auden's poem, Lear's weeping is not necessarily for anything in particular—true, he hated his big nose and struggled with his exhausting and rarely lucrative profession as a landscape painter, but he was also upset by "big dogs" and "Germans," reflecting how, for Lear, tears were about both everything and nothing. As he himself well knew, especially as someone who suffered from depression, there is not always a clear rhyme and reason for our tears. One of Lear's unpublished rhymes from 1849 in "Ribands and pigs" (see fig. 1), for example, demonstrates how a weeper might be set off by the slightest and strangest of things: two herons keeping each other company; the silhouettes of chimney sweeps; affectionate pairs of turbans or sheep:

Herons & SweepsTurbans & SheepsSet him a weeping& see how he weeps

The sheer sensitivity of this lonely weeper recalls what Lear's best friend, Chichester Fortescue, called his "great & self-tormenting sensitiveness."3 Lear could quite easily and violently be moved by a landscape, for example, or a vivid memory from the past.

Lear was given to tears, as all of his biographers confirm. In Vivien Noakes's 1979 biography of Lear, the author describes how "[w]hen he was about seven, the strange turbulence of his childhood began to show itself in swings of mood and bouts of acute depression which he called 'the Morbids'" (qtd. in CN, p. xx). The first of these, she says, arose after "a rare happy evening with his father,"4 which he recollects in his diary many decades later while feeling "sad & depressed hideously":

[T]he heart-ache of many phases of life breaks one to pieces,

The earliest of all the morbidnesses I can recollect must have been somewhere about 1819—when my Father took me to a field near Highgate, [End Page 102] where was a rural performance of gymnastic clowns &c...


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