Last & Least
The title of the article may sound strange. The strangeness is intentional. It is intended to signify the strangeness of a great humorist, Edward Lear, a 19th century poet. He was a master of limericks. He wrote countless limericks all full of life. Thus I have entitled them “Learicks”, attributing an honorific speciality to his formidable creations.
Lear wrote poems in the particular literary genre called 'nonsense rhyme'. Nonsense is meant to entertain audience by imparting innocent fun. There can be a slight resemblance between Lear and Sukumar Ray, the noted humorous Bengali poet of early twentieth century. Both of them loved to make people laugh with their verses. Both of them introduced exotic characters and affairs, all original and mind-stirring. Moreover, both of them loved to juxtapose their verses with comical illustrations, which made the imageries vivid and lively. Ray's funny verses are relished by the Bengali readers. Who can forget the funny characters like Ram Gorurer Chhana, Hukomukho Hangla, Bombagorer Raja, Katukutu Buro, and Hasojaru.
The characters in Lear's poetry are all familiar to us, but they bear unfamiliar, sometimes bizarre features. Some features are only expected to appear in dreams. We come across the hair-tearing angry man from Peru, the square-headed young person of Ayr, the old person of Hurst who drinks heavily only to be globular, the old man of Apulia who feeds his twenty sons nothing but buns, the plague-infested old person of Prague whose disease is cured by consumption of butter, the old man of Melrose who walks on his toes, the foolish lady who tears her dress by thorns, and the old man from Hong Kong who lies on his back putting his head in a sack. Consider the impact of the eyes of the young lady:
“There was a Young Lady whose eyes,
Were unique as to colour and size;
when she opened them wide,
People all turned aside,
and started away in surprise.”
Many of Lear's limericks use the shape of a human nose for comic effect. They may be clustered as 'nosy poems'. In one of them we meet a lady whose nose hangs down to her leg and she hires a woman to carry it. On the long nose of a man, various birds repose all daylong. An old man who has an exceedingly large nose puts light on it while fishing at night sitting on barge. The old person of Cassel has an elongated nose which looks like a bell while the nose of the old man of Dunrose is seized by a parrot. And read this lady's problem with a growing nose:
“There was a young lady, whose nose,
Continually prospers and grows;
When it grew out of sight,
She exclaimed in a fright,
'Oh! Farewell to the end of my nose!'”
Lear had a powerful faculty of imagination with which he created out of the ordinary stuff in poetry. The old man of Nepaul falls from his horse and is split into two but the two parts are joined back with glue. The old man of the North falls into a basin of broth and a laudable cook fishes him out with a hook. The old man of Peru is, however, unfortunate; his wife bakes him on a stove by mistake while cooking stew. The old person from Berlin faces the same fate; he is so thin that he is mistakenly mixed up in cake and baked. The old man of Port Grigor, whose actions are noted for vigour, stands on his head till his waistcoat turns red. And there is the post-riding mania:
“There was an Old Man of the coast,
Who placidly sat on a post;
But when it was cold
He relinquished his hold
And called for some hot buttered toast.”
Lear's ideas testify his ingenuity. The old person of Rheims, who is troubled with horrible dreams, is given cake to chew so that he will remain awake. An old person drinks warm brandy and soy with a spoon under moonlight in the sight of the city of Troy.
As his literary technique, Lear opted for exaggeration to create a hilarious effect on the readers' minds. Exaggeration acts on the fringe of human-beast relation. There is a limit to what men can teach other animals. But Lear finds the possibility limitless. The old man of Dumbree teaches little owls to drink tea while the old lady of France teaches little ducklings to dance. Lear extends the interaction matrix to new territories. The young lady of Bute plays flute to her uncle's pigs; the old disorderly man on the Border dances with the cat and makes tea in his hat; the old man of Hove studies his books with the wrens and the rooks in a grove and the old man of Whitehaven dances with a raven.
Lear's mind was specially fitted for limericks, five line poems having a particular rhyming scheme. He wrote several hundred limericks. The speciality of his limericks is that part of the first line is usually repeated in the last line so that the first and the last line end with the same word. In a few cases the second and the fifth lines end with the same word. If the first, second and the fifth lines rhyme with different words, that is exceptional for Lear, though this is the norm of limerick in modern times where no word is repeated for rhyming.
Lear's characters found in limericks come from different locations around the world. They come from east, west, north and south from places ancient and modern, familiar and unfamiliar. The phonic characteristics of the places play an important role in shaping up the rhyme and rhythm of the poems along with constraining the thematic content. Lear was acquainted with Indian subcontinent and its different place names. In one of his poems, the name 'Madras' appears and in another 'Calcutta' (now Kolkata). The old man of Madras rides on cream-coloured ass; he is so afraid by the length of the animal that he dies. Witness the Calcutta gourmet:
“There was an Old Man of Calcutta,
Who perpetually ate bread and butter,
Till a great bit of muffin,
On which he was stuffing,
Choked that horrid Old Man of Calcutta.”
Lear is one of the funniest poets in the history of English literature. He created fun in his rhymes using simple diction along with simple subjects. One cannot but laugh reading his delightful verse-lines.
(The writer is Assistant Professor and Head, Department of English, Daffodil International University.)