“There once was a man named Lear
Who wrote poems that pleased the ear,
He lived long ago,
But his name we do know,
Because his work still brings us great cheer!”
Why do we love limericks? It might be the light language, the funny words, and the clever rhymes, all nicely pieced together with a happy bit of nonsense. But limerick-lovers today may not be immediately familiar with Edward Lear—though he is the man who championed the limerick over 150 years ago. (Believe it or not, there was a time before the creation of limericks, and it must have been a dark time at that.)
May 12th would be Lear’s 204th birthday, and each year in honor of this author/artist, this day is known as Limerick Day. To help you celebrate, we encourage you to read on and learn a bit about this man’s life (and maybe write a limerick or two—they’re oddly satisfying to compose since they don’t really have to make any sense whatsoever). So without further ado, here are seven things you didn’t know about Edward Lear (prepare for a rather heart-wrenching list).
He had a really big family—really, really big
When you think of really big families, maybe you think of that family from the now-canceled TLC show 19 Kids and Counting. Well, okay, yes, that is a big family, but the Lear family had them beat, boasting a whopping TWENTY. ONE. Children. Our favorite Lear, Edward, was the twentieth and second-youngest. Unsurprisingly, particularly during the 19th century, the family budget was stretched a little tight, and as a result, Edward and a couple other little sibs were sent away to live with their oldest sister, Ann (twenty-one years Edward’s senior).
Ann and Edward formed a tight bond, staying closely in touch until Ann’s death at the age of seventy-one.
He wasn’t the healthiest
Again, health troubles aren’t a particularly surprising phenomenon when discussing the 19th century, but Lear had it particularly tough. By the time he reached age five, Lear was already a diagnosed asthmatic with a severe and ongoing case of bronchitis. Not long into his fifth year of life, Lear began to suffer from grand mal seizures, and continued to suffer from epilepsy for the remainder of his life.
Lear was horribly embarrassed by his condition (though it was hardly uncommon in these days), and throughout his life learned how to identify the onset of a seizure, which he referred to as his “demons,” so as to take himself away from the company of others.
He wasn’t the happiest
There are many reasons that we can speculate on as to why Lear was unhappy, ranging from his illnesses, his partial blindness, and his separation from his parents at a young age, but cryptic entries in a childhood journal lend us the suspicion that as a young boy, Lear was subjected to sexual abuse from an older cousin.
Whatever the trigger, Edward suffered from chronic depression for the vast majority of his life (from childhood till death), in addition to his other health woes.
Yes, this post is *mildly* sad.
He initially made a name for himself as an illustrator
More specifically as an ornithological illustrator—in other words, Lear was a fantastic bird painter. By the age of twenty, Lear was commissioned by Lord Stanley (later known as the thirteenth earl of Derby) to draw the birds of the eventual earl’s aviary. Over time, the artist became friendly with his host’s children and entertained them with silly sketches and the nonsensical poems that people would one day know and love as limericks.
After a period of rapidly declining health, the earl sent Lear to a warmer climate to recuperate, and the man spent time traveling the Mediterranean. While perusing southern Europe, he spent the majority of his days sketching and painting the sites, and spent his “leisure time” reading and studying; by the end of his life, Lear had gained proficiency in no fewer than half a dozen languages. It is speculated that in addition to the interest he had in other cultures, this manic delving into study gave him peace of mind and a reprieve from the demons that haunted him.
He had the travel bug
From the moment the earl sent him southward, England ceased to be Lear’s home, at least in his heart. After almost immediately falling love with Italy, Lear apparently became restless and refused to stay in one place for long, preferring to travel to as many places as he could. Of course, he was not a particularly wealthy man, making only modest sums from his artwork (and at this juncture, nothing from his writing) and therefore he instead relied on the patronage of wealthier friends. When asked about his incessant traveling, Lear insisted that the influx of new sights spurred his creativity and allowed for more variability in his art and writing. Beyond that, it is inferred from journal entries, as well as the work he created in this time, that the gentleman legitimately enjoyed his travels and the escape they gave him from the isolating loneliness and depression he felt on a daily basis.
He never married, for a number of reasons
Lear never believed himself to be a popular man. Even as a child he suffered from a severe lack of self-esteem, considering himself too ugly and sickly to even deserve making true friends. As a result, the artist tried his hardest to become thoroughly independent, but his internal need for companionship kept him reaching out to friends, frequently writing as many as thirty letters before breakfast.*
There are a number of reasons we can draw upon as to why Lear never married and started a family. The first and perhaps most obvious was his previously discussed, warped self-image, but there is also the distinct possibility that Lear preferred the company of men. Many journal entries indicate a physical and emotional attraction to other men, none more obvious than the intimacy between Lear and his friend Franklin Lushington—though his feelings were not reciprocated in spite of their friendship.
*The truly ironic and sad part of this lack of self-esteem is that in reality, his friends adored him, often wondering why such a sweet and charming man never settled down to marry.
His work wasn’t realllllllly appreciated in his time
This can unfortunately be said about a great number of artists (though not Picasso, the lucky duck—people were enthralled by his work pretty much from the moment he started painting).
Part of Lear’s lack of fame and fortune can certainly be attributed to the fact that he never really sought out recognition for his work, instead accepting low sums for his truly talented work and initially creating his limericks for free, though later in his life he bound many of them into books and had them published. That being said, like so many artists, his genius wasn’t truly appreciated until he was gone and no more of his work could be created.
Lear died alone at age 76. He was mourned by his many friends and, eventually, by his many fans.