Knowing Edward Lear

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: English Faculty

Abstract

The proposed research will lead to a book entitled *Knowing Edward Lear* for Oxford University Press, as well as to a range of collaborations with the BBC, Harvard University, the Ashmolean Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Royal Society of Literature, The Tennyson Society/Lincolnshire County Heritage Service, and other institutions. I will offer the first comprehensive critical study of Lear, examining his nonsense poetry alongside his natural-history drawings, landscape paintings, travel writings, correspondence, and diaries. Throughout, I aim to study Lear's achievement in relation to a broad range of scientific, religious, socio-political and cultural contexts -- contexts which emerge from within, but which also extend well beyond, the nineteenth century.

My book's governing line of enquiry concerns Lear's conflicted relationships with different forms of knowledge, and his fascination with how knowledge itself might be conceived and valued. Although he sometimes laments his being in a state of 'knowingnothingatallaboutwhatoneisgoingtodo-ness', this predicament also becomes an ethical stance; elsewhere he writes that 'we ought to know and feel the uncertainty of life continually'. So while Lear often seeks confirmation, clarity, understanding, another part of him wants to escape from knowledge, or senses that knowingness might be an avoidance of the range of experiences that life has to offer. A life lived in and through art is often, for him, a negotiation between these two impulses, and also an attempt to reconcile them. Acts of pictorial, musical, and verbal composition become not so much artifacts, but rather forms of activity, spaces in which to nurture a different sense of knowledge -- a knowledge Iris Murdoch described as 'an attentive truthful patience with the contingent'.

A key feature of the research will be its combination of close reading with broader cultural enquiry. Sustained analysis of Lear's style and archival study of his manuscripts, draft pictures, unpublished letters, and diaries will be complemented by intensive historical research. I aim to show, for example, how the Lear family's dissenting background informed the poet's responses to contemporary debates about Original Sin, the Fall, and sexuality; how his early pioneering work as an ornithological draughtsman led him to ask searching questions about new forms of scientific and social taxonomy; how his chronic struggle with epilepsy and depression informed his interest in emerging medical debates about relations between mind and body; and how his travels across Europe, the Balkans, and the Middle East helped to shape his enquiries into the politics of empire. One particularly original aspect of the research is my revealing of connections across the tremendous range of Lear's work. His 'Book of Nonsense' has never been out of print since it was first published in 1846, but that year was significant for Lear in other ways too: he published an innovative travel book, and he was also chosen by Queen Victoria to be her personal drawing master. Lear was in touch with many luminaries of the age -- from Charles Darwin to the Viceroy of India, from Tennyson to Ruskin and the members of Pre-Raphaelite circle. My research breaks new ground by showing the effect these relationships had on his work.

My book's final section maps Lear's legacy, largely uncharted in previous scholarship, from the beginnings of the modernist experiment to the present moment -- roughly, from T. S. Eliot's telling Stravinsky that Lear should be read alongside Mallarmé, to John Ashbery's recent claim that Lear is his 'all-time favourite poet'. Lear's achievement and influence, I argue, is part of a larger story about how modern writers have been increasingly drawn to serio-comic tones and forms as a way of reflecting upon the place of art in the modern world.

Planned Impact

"Why do you like Edward Lear so much?" I ask. His response is unusually boisterous. "Doesn't everybody? Surely he is one of the most popular poets who ever lived? (Michael Glover, interviewing John Ashbery, New Statesman, 2005)
The bicentenary in 2012 saw a number of events raise Lear's profile even further. My project addresses questions about relations between artistic creativity and scientific, socio-political, pedagogical, and religious debates that are of vital importance beyond the academic community. It is my hope that research into Lear's achievement can provide a keyhole through which to explore these relations. The proposed series of initiatives has been developed in discussion with a number of key collaborators, all of whom are integral to the envisaged impact of the project:
I am in talks with Kevin Dawson (Head of Whistledown Productions) about a programme for Radio 4 entitled "Moonlighting with Edward Lear". This will offer new perspectives on Lear's early life, and will also seek to encourage debate about how marginalised categories of cultural expression -- "nonsense literature" or "children's literature", for example -- can provide insight into the larger cultural forces and pressures that shape them. Writers/experts from across the arts and sciences who have already agreed to be interviewed by me include David Attenborough, Adam Phillips, Christopher Ricks, Jenny Uglow, Michael Rosen, and Julia Donaldson. This programme should appeal to a large national public audience interested in biography, literature, and the arts more generally.
I will be a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Arts and Humanities Research at the Natural History Museum, and will give an interdisciplinary presentation on Lear for their "Nature Live" programme. This collaboration seeks to have an impact on public discussion of ways in which we can resist schematic divisions between "the two cultures". One objective will be to show how an understanding of debates in evolutionary science and psychology can affect the ways in which we construct and discuss sexual and social identities. I am also planning to work with the Museum's Schools Department to develop an initiative entitled "Wordplay" which will seek to inspire schoolchildren to write nonsense verses and to explore how linguistic experimentation can encourage creative thinking.
Jenny Uglow is keen for me to develop an idea for a symposium on Lear for the Royal Society of Literature. My aim here would be to raise awareness of how nonsense writing is centrally concerned with language acquisition and linguistic creativity, and to contribute to wider public debates about the role of play and surprise in childhood learning. As well as appealing to a literary audience, this event will also be targeted at parents and teachers.
My work on Lear's painting and poetry will lead to a talk at the Ashmolean showing how conversations between art historians and literary scholars can provide fresh impetus into public discussions about the role of art in civic life. I have also been invited to give the annual Tennyson Society public lecture in 2017, and which will explore how the Laureate and Lear engaged with debates about empire and about our relations with other cultures. This talk will be linked to a free online exhibition on Lear and Tennyson.
2 initiatives aimed at diverse international audiences: I will write four blog posts for the Houghton Library at Harvard. The library's blog site averages around 1000 visitors per week, and my posts will seek to promote insight into how Lear's work provides a model of understanding and negotiating geographic and national differences. Another web initiative is a series of four iTunes U podcasts on Lear for Oxford University. These podcasts will be available for free, and will capitalize on the tremendous popularity Oxford's iTunes U site (since its launch in 2008, it has reached an audience of more than 23 million downloads so far in 185 countries).

Publications

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BEVIS M (2017) Were you a tome? in London Review of Books

 
Description The award is not yet finished, so the Key Findings section will be completed once the award and the research is complete.
Exploitation Route See above -- award is not yet complete.
Sectors Creative Economy,Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

 
Description The award is not yet complete, so I will fill in this section at a later date.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Creative Economy,Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

 
Description Aspects of Edward Lear - blogs 
Organisation Harvard University
Department Houghton Library
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I have written four blog posts (approx 1000 words each) for the Houghton Library at Harvard. The library's blog site averages around 1000 visitors per week, and my posts promote insight into Lear's work (across his diaries, poetry, landscape paintings, natural history work, manuscripts, and letters).
Collaborator Contribution Houghton Library has assisted with the setting of text and image, hosting the blogposts on their website, proof-reading, advising on text submitted, and assisting with cross-referencing. Their expertise has been invaluable.
Impact Outputs are the blogs themselves. The collaboration is multi-disciplinary, involving art history, literary studies, cultural history, and history of science. Links here: https://blogs.harvard.edu/houghton/2017/11/30/aspects-of-edward-lear-part-i/ https://blogs.harvard.edu/houghton/2018/01/15/aspects-of-edward-lear-part-ii/ https://blogs.harvard.edu/houghton/2018/01/15/aspects-of-edward-lear-part-iii/ https://blogs.harvard.edu/houghton/2018/01/15/aspects-of-edward-lear-part-iv/
Start Year 2017
 
Description Edward Lear - Hits and Missives 
Organisation University of Oxford
Department Wolfson College
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I gave a talk on Edward Lear's letters at the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing at Wolfson college, and participated in a round-table discussion and Q&A with Prof Hermione Lee afterwards. The event was open to the general public as well as to academics, and was recorded and released as a free podcast. See here: https://resourcespace.wolf.ox.ac.uk/resourcespace/pages/view.php?ref=11597&k=4451071c5e
Collaborator Contribution Wolfson hosted the event, and Prof Lee organised the format and publicity.
Impact The output was the event itself, along with the podcast.
Start Year 2017
 
Description Edward Lear - Verbal and Visual Conversations 
Organisation University of Oxford
Department Ashmolean Museum
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Drawing on extensive work in the Ashmolean archives, I have developed a lecture which will be delivered to the general public in April 2018 on the relation between Lear's art-historical work and his writings. Lear's achievements - as a nonsense poet, scientific illustrator, and landscape painter - have often been studied in isolation from each other. This lecture explores the remarkable interconnections between them, and shows how he attempts to forge new conversations between paint and print, images and words.The lecture will be recorded and released to the general public via the following website in April: www.knowingedwardlear.co.uk
Collaborator Contribution The Senior Curator of European Art (Colin Harrison) and his team in the print room have provided advice and expertise, and the Ashmolean are hosting and publicising the event.
Impact The lecture itself, plus recording of it to be released free online and available to the general public.
Start Year 2018
 
Description Edward Lear and His Feelings -- Apple Podcasts for Oxford University (formerly iTunes U) 
Organisation University of Oxford
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Myself and my Research Assistant designed, wrote, and appeared in the podcasts. As well as appearing on http://podcasts.ox.ac.uk, the podcasts will also appear on a special website designed by myself and the RA, which will bring together multiple strands of the research for this award. Note: podcasts are released with an extra Creative Commons licence that allows the material to be republished and reused in any educational context worldwide.
Collaborator Contribution Oxford provided specialist IT services -- filming and hosting of the material, advice on structuring the series, and full technical support.
Impact The outputs are the podcasts themselves. The collaboration is multi-disciplinary (literary studies, cultural studies, art history).
Start Year 2018
 
Description Learical Tennysons -- website 
Organisation Lincolnshire County Council
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Myself and my Research Assistant designed, wrote, and edited an online exhibition. The exhibition is the result of an examination of the entire correspondence (around 200 letters) between Lear and the Tennyson family over 37 years. It features highlights from the letters between Lear and Emily, as well as letters exchanged between Lear and Hallam (as a boy, and as a young man), and previously unpublished letters from both Lear and Alfred. More generally, the exhibition explores current assumptions about the relationship between Tennyson and Lear, revealing how, despite their clashing temperaments, the laureate and his family loved, supported, and encouraged Lear throughout his life. Learical Tennysons re-focuses attention on these remarkable relationships, and outlines new avenues of enquiry for emerging scholarship. All images on the site may be enlarged and navigated for closer viewing, and all printed materials have been newly transcribed.
Collaborator Contribution The council and the Tennyson Society allowed myself and the RA access to their archive, and gave us access to their high-res scans of the images.
Impact The output is the online exhibition itself. The collaboration is multi-disciplinary (literary and cultural history), and involves consideration of text, image, and music.
Start Year 2017
 
Description Nonsense Colloquium -- run by Matthew Bevis and Michael Rosen 
Organisation Goldsmiths, University of London
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution This one-day colloquium brought together Masters students from Goldsmiths and Oxford Universities in order to study relations between nonsense and children's literature. The day began with a visit to Christ Church College, Oxford, the place that helped to inspire the Alice books, where the librarian showed students rare materials and discussed avenues for future research. The event was co-run by myself and the children's author and broadcaster Michael Rosen. The day involved two seminar sessions (based at Keble College, Oxford): 15 graduate students participated in discussion, gave presentations, etc.
Collaborator Contribution Michael Rosen and the Goldsmiths team on their MA in Children's Literature helped to publicise, plan, and organise the event.
Impact A main outcome of the event was the influence it had on the students' studies. Many of them are currently writing MA dissertations on nonsense poetry/children's literature.
Start Year 2018
 
Description Paintings, Parrots, and Poetry -- Edward Lear and Natural History 
Organisation Natural History Museum
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution I designed and planned the material -- both text and image-based -- for this Nature Live presentation to the general public at the Natural History Museum. The event drew on the NHM's rich archives to show how evolutionary debates about the behaviour of birds can provide a new perspective on both mid-Victorian and contemporary attitudes to social and sexual identities.
Collaborator Contribution The NHM provided the studio and IT support for the event, and they also provided the technicians to film it. Alastair Henry (Head of Science Communication) also helped to plan the event, and interviewed me on the day. Paul Martyn Cooper (Head Librarian) also provided crucial guidance on natural-history materials in the NHM library, and helped us to utilise these for the event itself.
Impact The output was the event itself -- and the public engagement it fostered. It was multi-disciplinary (art history, history of science, literary studies, cultural studies.)
Start Year 2017
 
Description Edward Lear and Happiness 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact I delivered at talk at Oxford University's Nineteenth-Century seminar (Faculty of English) on Edward Lear. Approximately 25 students and staff attended, and there was a lively Q&A afterwards.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Edward Lear and Happiness - Annual Philip Hofer Lecture at The University of Harvard 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact This was a talk organised by Harvard. I was invited to give their annual Philip Hofer lecture, and talked on findings arising out of my work on Edward Lear in their archives. Around 100 people attended the talk, and it produced a lively Q&A afterwards.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Edward Lear and Tennyson 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact I was invited to give the Annual Tennyson Lecture to the Tennyson Society in 2017. I spoke on findings arising from the Edward Lear project, and looked closely at the relations between Tennyson and Lear. The event was attended by academics and postgraduates, as well as by members of the general public. There was a lively Q&A after the talk.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Edward Lear and the Comedy of Youth -- Keynote lecture at symposium on Comedy & Children in Literature and Culture 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This keynote lecture, at the University of Vienna, focuses on Edward Lear's engagement with forms of youthfulness in his work, and relates it to wider cultural debates about children as sources of comedy in the nineteenth century.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Knowing Edward Lear 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The award is not yet finished, so I provide only brief details/listings here. For more details, see entries listed under 'Collaborations and Partnerships' with the Ashmolean Museum, The Tennyson Society, Lincolnshire County Council, Harvard University, the Natural History Museum, Oxford University, the London Review of Books, and Apple Podcasts (iTunes U). NOTE: ALL these outputs have been made available via a website designed by my RA and myself (URL below).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017,2018
URL https://www.knowingedwardlear.co.uk
 
Description Laughable Poetry: Keynote lecture at Queen Mary, London -- Conference on Comedy and Philosophy 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This keynote lecture -- Laughable Poetry -- uses Edward Lear's work (particularly his volume, Laughable Lyrics) to explore the relations between modern poetics and philosophy.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description New Work on Lear - graduate conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact This one-day symposium at the University of York showcased new work on Lear and featured papers by postgraduate and early career researchers on aspects of Lear's work, his influences and legacies. I contributed to discussion throughout the day, chaired a panel, and also helped to shape the next step: a special issue of the flagship, international academic journal, *Victorian Poetry*, devoted to work presented here. I will co-edit the volume (still under discussion with the editors of *Victorian Poetry*).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.york.ac.uk/modernstudies/events/2017-18/spring/lear-symposium/
 
Description Nonsense poetry 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact This event was a seminar, co-run by myself and the psychoanalyst and writer Adam Philips, for 'The Poet's Essay' series at Keble. The event focused on Kay Ryan's reading of Lear's work, and on the relations between nonsense, psychoanalysis and poetics.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL http://www.keble.ox.ac.uk/the-poets-essay