Wednesday, May 29, 2013

By Way Of

Most people meet Edward Lear in a children's picture book, I should think.  This is not entirely as he would have wished.  He was a fine artist, after all, and earned his living from the age of fifteen by means of his pencils, pens and brushes.  Few now will ever have seen his exquisitely detailed studies of birds and beasts, let alone the giant, exotic landscape-paintings and watercolor studies from which he made his rather meager living.  Like most artists who dare contemplate the posterity of their work, he might have been shocked at the neglect of everything of his he thought important.  He would I think, nonetheless, be both delighted and astonished to find the audience for his silliness larger now than ever.  It is largely by his nonsense we now know him.  His nonsense comes in many forms; from botanical and beastly alphabets to his most familiar limericks and poems, and nearly none of it but there's a corresponding drawing, every bit the nonsensical equal of the words.  Any child might delight in his pictures even before knowing his rhymes. One is inextricable from the other, and all of it inspired.

To the adult reader of Edward Lear -- or, to this one anyway -- there really is no graver sin than the separation of his words from his pictures, unless it is the presumption of all subsequent and invariably inferior illustrators and the bowdlerizing fussbudgets who would replace or alter his pictures to "improve" them.  (To contemplate, for example the vulgar, mewling, milquetoast kitties made to illustrate his already masterfully illustrated poem, "The Owl and the Pussycat", is to despair of the taste and sense of all modern publishers everywhere.  I can't even think of the edition of his limericks I saw once with his drawings "refined" without feeling the want of a match.)

 Most people getting better acquainted with Mr. Lear in the past half century or better, have probably done so with one edition or another of, The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear, "collected and introduced by" the delightful Holbrook Jackson.  Dover Publications has not, to my knowledge, let this wonderful book go out of print since they first published the paperback in the United States in 1951.  There have been many collections of Edward Lear's nonsense, before and since, and I own not a few, but this may well still be my favorite.  (I do prefer the original Dover cover to the less thoughtfully designed version on the present edition, but the interior is blessedly unchanged.)

Holbrook Jackson, for them what don't know, was the last of the jolly English socialists.  True, Wells & Shaw were much more important literary and political figures, and continue far more famous.  George Bernard Shaw, Jackson's senior by a generation -- and the subject of more than one of Jackson's own books -- even outlived him by a couple of years.  Holbrook Jackson, if encountered at all in a bookstore nowadays, even a used bookstore, is likely to be found only in his still excellent introduction to his anthology of Edward Lear.  This is both a wonder and a shame; first, because there are very few journalists, critics or essayists of Jackson's generation with anything still in print, and fewer still are there writers from the most productive and expansive generation of the Progressive Era, and finally because Holbrook Jackson may well have been the last funny English socialist.  (Just in case the thought crosses any one else's mind, I can't at this moment think of a single American socialist, of Jackson's time to ours, with so much as a sense of humor.  Emma Goldman?  Still, a bit of a stretch.  Anyway, nobody ever said Eugene V. Debs was a riot and meant funny.)  The modern Labour Party has produced more than one MP, like Michael Foot, capable of wit, at least on the page, and even an PM in Roy Jenkins who might justly be called a charming, and very good writer, but the list of still readable English socialists and genuinely amusing former members of the Fabian Society tapers off to naught, I should think, after the end of the Second World War.

Had he turned away entirely from socialism and the artistic bohemianism that defined his earliest efforts as a writer and editor of progressive magazines, as more than one writer of his time and after certainly did, Jackson might be better remembered, if less admirable.  No-one ever loved an apostate of the Left like the English-speaking Right.  Conversely, had he been a good Party man, for a time at least he might have survived in some damp socialist reading room or as a text to teach  comrades to parse popular English for the coming Socialist triumph over the decadent West.  Instead, Jackson beavered away on one doomed, leftist publication after another, producing a substantial shelf of clever criticism, thoroughly enjoyable essays and books, and ultimately, sadly now, a few healthy pages of otherwise unattributed Internet quotes.  To wit:

"Man is a dog's idea of what God should be."

"The poor are the only consistent altruists; they sell all they have and give it to the rich."

Oh, and this one book, not his own.

Reading my way through all sorts in preparation for the upcoming reading of Edward Lear's nonsense and letters, etc., at the bookstore, I find that even with those passages of mid-century psychology and rather Edwardian naivete regarding Lear's lifelong bachelorhood and romantic, if one-sided male friendships, I can think of no better, more concise introduction to Lear's life and magic, than Holbrook Jackson's.  In just shy of twenty pages, the reader can learn pretty much whatever's necessary to have a proper appreciation of Lear's life, which can only add to the adult pleasure of rediscovering Lear's nonsense.  Pretty good, that.

Imagine any other writer of the true Left, nearly seventy years ago or since, producing such a volume of so completely apolitical, and runcible a figure as Edward Lear!  Try not to think, however briefly of the hideous contortions necessary to make the nonsense of Lear an acceptable subject for proper Marxist critical theory.  Picture Slovoj Zizek on "The Dong with a Luminous Nose".  Terry Eagleton might be entertaining for the first hour or two, discussing "The Broom, the Shovel, the Poker and the Tongs", but not in a way that would encourage the reader to go on.  (No need to look all that far for what such seriousness might look like, as the far trickier and hence more intellectually complicated nonsense of Lewis Carroll has indeed suffered just such analysis here and there, from all sorts of humorless boobies.)

The English Tory has always allowed for intellectual eccentricities and enthusiasms outside politics -- at least before the triumph of Thatcher primitivism -- and so there is actually a fairly rich literature of otherwise upright, right-thinking, Anglican moralists from Swift to Waugh, cutting literary capers and snapping jokes, and even the likes of "Uncle" Harold Wilson going all giggly at some Mitfordism, or while mixing at the Drones Club.  On the Left, among the English, and likewise for the all too brief and anomalous occasions when America has allowed for even the suggestion of socialism as a legitimate, if insignificant political force, there is no such aristocratic allowance for riding the hobbyhorse in one's off hours.  (The nearest I think we've come to being purposefully silly on the left in the US, has to have been the anarchic political stand-up of the early Sixties, and even that was a way for Lenny Bruce to financially support his wife and mother.)

Here we have Holbrook Jackson, admittedly more of the William Morris than the Marxist/Leninist branch of the movement, but nevertheless a believer, yet this same man wrote books on bibliomania, letter-press and typography, and yes, even "compiled and introduced" The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear.

We may not see his like again.

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