Edward Lear and Tennyson

Tennyson and Edward Lear were both good friends and frequently exchanged letters and verse, with Lear even illustrating an edition of Tennyson’s poetry.

Tennyson and Edward Lear were both good friends and frequently exchanged letters and verse, with Lear even illustrating an edition of Tennyson’s poetry. Lear, famous for writing ‘The Owl and The Pussycat’ and ‘The Jumbilies’, had a wicked sense of humour and would often mock the lines that Tennyson sent him, such as these which Tennyson wrote to him from Greece.

‘Illyrian woodlands, echoing falls
Of water, sheets of summer glass,
The long divine Peneian pass,
The vast Akrokeraunian walls,

Tomohrit, Athos, all things fair,
With such a pencil, such a pen,
You shadow forth to distant men,
I read and felt that I was there:’

To which Lear replies:

‘Delirious Bulldogs; -- echoing calls
My daughter, -- green as summer grass; --
The long supine Plebeian ass,
The nasty crockery boring falls; --

Tom-Moory Pathos; -- all things bare, --
With such a turket! such a hen!
And scrambling forms of distant men,
O! ain't you glad you were not there!’

Despite this, Lear frequently turned to both Tennyson and his poetry for support, quoting Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ as a way of explaining his life’s ambition to travel. A mark of the strength of the relationship between Lear and Tennyson was his gift to the Tennysons on the Christmas of 1855, which was a large nonsense alphabet written by Lear and framed on the wall of the schoolroom at Farringford.

When Lear presented the alphabet to the Tennysons, Alfred Tennyson is reported to have grabbed the alphabet and run to the ironing board in order to paste the letters onto larger cards that could be framed, whilst the household staff looked on, amused and amazed to see their master ironing for the first time. 

H

H was a hat
Which was all on one side;
Its crown was too high,
And its brim was too wide.

h

Oh, what a hat!

However, despite a long and close friendship Lear and Tennyson had a large argument in the 1860s, and they never spoke again, with Lear refusing to revisit Farringford, the argument is reported to have been about the way Tennyson treated his sons, and interestingly Lear remained in contact with Emily Tennyson, despite being estranged from Tennyson himself, whom he described as acting with ‘harshness and egocentricity’.[1]

There are also suggestions that Lear blamed Tennyson for what has been described as the ‘breakdown’ of Emily Tennyson, who became ill after overworking herself acting as what could be described as Tennyson’s ‘manager’, and answering the enormous amounts of mail that came to Tennyson whilst he was living at Farringford.

  1. Pendlebury, Kathleen Sarah. ‘Reading Nonsense: A Journey through the Writing of Edward Lear’ (Master’s Thesis, Rhodes University, 2008).

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