Edward Lear, who published comic poetry and limericks in the 1840s, did not begin to put on paper what has become known as his nonsense verse until the late 1860s. According to his biographer, we do not know when he began to write the kind of work for which he is famous.

Occasionally he mentioned in his diary that he had just written a new song or an alphabet, but generally we have to go by the earliest surviving manuscript copy that he made to give dway to his friends, and this could have been made days or even years after he had written the song. He "sang nonsense for the children" as far back as September 1860, seven years before the earliest of his nonsense songs appeared in manuscript form to be given away. . . . The earliest mention of anything more than limericks was in February 1865 when he wrote "The Story of the Seven Families from Lake Pipple-popple." In August 1866 came "Mr Lear, the Polly and the Pussybite," in December 1867 "The Owl and the Pussy-cat." By 1869 copies of other nonsense songs were in existence, and at the end of 1870 Nonsense Songs, Stones, Botany and Alphabets was published. [222/223]

Anyone interested in the history of children's literature or nonsense verse would like to know about the literary relations between Lear and Lewis Carroll. Unfortunately, although they probably read each other's books, neither man ever mentioned the other author or his work. As Noakes points out, Alice in Wonderland saw publication in 1865,

and the only nonsense we know for certain that Lear had written before then were the limericks and the "History of the Seven Families." Without this story it would have seemed likely that it was from Alice in Wonderland that Lear realised how much larger was the field of nonsense over which he could roam, for in Alice he would have discovered a new world of strangeness — the caterpillar smoking his hookah, the Mad Hatter's Tea Party, the game of croquet played with flamingoes and hedgehogs and the sad sad Mock Turthe with his Lobster Quadrille. But five months earlier — after Alice had been written but before it was published — Lear himself had created the Land of Gramblamble, the Lake Pipple-popple, Soffsky-Poffsky trees, the Plumpudding Flea, the Clangle-Wangle, the blue Bosswoss, the gardens full of Goose-berry bushes and Tiggory-trees. And so it really does seem that these two men were at this stage creating their nonsense at the same time but quite independently. [225]

Noakes classifies Lear's nonsense into "three overlapping groups," the first of which often has humor:

In other words, when Lear writes as a nonsense poet he acts like a true Victorian, inventing or further developing a literary form that permits him to draw upon his most private experience for a public purpose. Like the dramatic monologues of Tennyson and Browning, and like the multiple voices of In Memoriam, Lear's nonsense acts as a means of shielded expression of intensely personal concerns.


Noakes, Vivien. Edward Lear, The Life of a Wanderer. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1968.

Victorian Web Overview Children's Literature Edward Lear

Last modified 16 July 2007