When you think of Edward Lear and The Owl and the Pussycat, you don’t think gay or the darker side of anything. You think nonsense books, because that’s what he’s best known for writing. Poems that comfort you come to mind, and words like “runcible” spoon make you smile.
Edward Lear (12 May 1812 – 29 January 1888) was an English artist, illustrator, author and poet, and is renowned primarily for his literary nonsense, in poetry and prose and especially his limericks, a form that he popularised. From childhood he suffered ill health, including epilepsy (of which he was ashamed) and depression. He travelled widely for much of his life, before settling in Sanremo. He never married, though he did propose it. Instead he suffered from an unreciprocated love affair with Franklin Lushington, who he had first met in Malta. He had many friends and a devoted pet cat. Yet when after a long decline in health, he died of heart disease, none of his friends were able to attend his funeral.
Lear developed an undoubtedly homosexual passion for him that Lushington did not reciprocate. Although they remained friends for almost forty years, until Lear’s death, the disparity of their feelings for one another constantly tormented Lear.
Of course all this was never established, not during Lear’s lifetime or after he passed away. Like so many others who created so many wonderful things in this world, the fact that he might have been gay would have brought negative images of him and no one wanted that to happen, especially Lear himself. And the problem with this is the fact that being gay is always so openly referred to as being dark…or wrong. When I found this article below
on the 100th anniversary of Lear’s birth last May, I was more than stunned to see that anyone would write something like this today.
Lear never married, and lived most of his unsettled life as a travelling landscape painter. Was he gay? Probably. The biographical evidence is not conclusive, but it points that way. Does it matter? It needn’t, if we prefer it not to; the poems can be well enough enjoyed without any darker intimations, especially by younger readers.
On the surface, for anyone who isn’t gay, that doesn’t sound too bad. I even tried re-reading it a few times to make sure I wasn’t getting the wrong impression and being overly sensitive. However, I don’t like the dismissive tone for one thing. Yes, it does matter if he was gay, Mr. Swaab. Because if he was gay that was the fundamental core of his being and it ruled his life. So don’t patronize your readers. I also take offense to the suggestion that we’d be better off pretending he wasn’t gay and make believe he was just a happy old bachelor who lived to write poems for the kiddies. But what bothers me the most about this article is the way Swaab suggests that Lear’s poems are better off being enjoyed, “without any darker intimations,” as if being gay automatically conjures up darkness and negativity.
I can live with stereotypes and being ignored by the mainstream media for the most part. I can live with being objectified and patronized sometimes. But I can’t, and won’t, live with being considered “darker” than someone who is straight because I am gay. I doubt Mr. Swaab even realized he was insulting millions of people when he wrote this article because that’s how we’ve all been conditioned to think about being gay. Even gay people feel this way and don’t even realize is most of the time, and that’s why it takes some so long to come out of the closet and embrace who they are.
What I’m talking about now goes beyond political correctness. Most people, even those who don’t support gay people, know it’s wrong to refer to gay people in negative stereotypical ways nowadays. But no one seems to mind when gay people are referred to in ways that tend to make them so different it takes on a meaning that suggests there’s something fundamentally wrong with them. Kind of like it’s okay to be gay, we like you and we don’t want to insult you, you poor thing. We understand. On the surface that sounds positive. But if you look at it deeper and grasp the full magnitude of what that means it’s saying that even though there’s something wrong with being gay we don’t really mind anymore. We can live with it. And that, most of all, has to change.
The father of the limerick form, Edward Lear (who was probably homosexual, largely repressed), wrote only one peripherally gay limerick, about a transvestite:
There was an Old Man on a hill,
Who Seldom, if ever, stood still;
He ran up and down,
In his Grandmother’s gown,
Which adorned that Old Man on a hill.
This article below about Lear
challenges a bio written about him by a woman, Vivien Noakes, who absolutely refused to even acknowledge the fact that Lear was probably gay. The author of this article nailed it in 2001 better than I can even begin to do now, in 2013.
In Noakes’s 1968 biography, after all, (subtitled The Life of a Wanderer) the question was merely what type of homosexual Lear was. She defended him then as someone longing to be wanted as his mother and father hadn’t wanted him (how much parental attention, though, can the twentieth child of a family count on?), finding a painful pleasure in his friendships with men, rather than ‘the philandering homosexual that some writers have made him out to be’.
Again, there it is. The mind set of Noakes that wants to turn Lear into a tortured artist, blame the fact that he never married on his parents, and compensate for what was probably the truth about him. And the “philandering homosexual” line is even more interesting, as if gay people run around looking for trouble and thinking of ways to misbehave. The bottom line is this: in the eyes of Noakes, Lear would have been better of as a tortured soul than a closeted gay man during a time when being gay was not allowed. It’s also a good example of the way the history police rewrites history. Think Thomas Jefferson, and how he made the bulk of his fortune breeding and selling slaves, which wasn’t even talked about until recently. I knew he had slaves, but never grasped the full concept of how he bred and sold them in order to keep his fortune flowing until I read about it in Smithsonian.
It would be interesting to see what Lear might have to say about his own life if he were to come back to present times and see how much the world has changed since his lifetime. The good thing is that it has changed, and Lear might have been able to be openly gay now, which would have made his life a lot simpler. But the bad thing is there are still people trying to portray being gay as something dark and something that should be hidden…or covered up for the sake of appearances. Which is just wrong.
And if what Lear wrote below is the darker side of gay, Peter Swaab, and this is the work of a man who can’t even be allowed his dignity 100 years after his birth, we have more problems than we realize.
The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
‘O lovely Pussy! O Pussy my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
What a beautiful Pussy you are!’
Pussy said to the Owl, ‘You elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married! too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?’
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the Bong-tree grows
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood
With a ring at the end of his nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.
‘Dear pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?’ Said the Piggy, ‘I will.’
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.