Parakeet In Flight

lear parakeetEdward Lear was the twentieth of twenty-one children, many of whom did not survive past infancy, and when his father was in danger of debtor’s prison the family house was rented out and he was relinquished to the care of an older  sister.

From the age of five he suffered grand mal epileptic seizures, bronchitis and asthma, and in later life partial blindness. His first seizure scared and embarrassed him. His adult diaries indicate that afterward he always sensed the onset of a seizure in time to remove himself from public view. Indeed, much of his self-imposed isolation from those he loved derived from his need to hide his condition from them.

His sister tutored him at home, and while he was still very young his draughtsmanship provided some of their income. When he was nineteen his Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae was published, and attracted Edward Stanley, later thirteenth earl of Derby, who wanted an artist to draw the animals in his menagerie at Knowsley. Living on the estate Lear produced poems, drawings, alphabets, and menus for the entertainment of the children, and charmed the adults with his conversation and piano improvisations. And when his frail lungs and deteriorating eyesight made the detailed work of natural history illustration too difficult, the earl helped him to go abroad to paint topographical landscapes.

Lear admired Tennyson’s poetry, setting several pieces to music and leaving a projected volume of illustrations of the laureate’s works unfinished at his death; Tennyson addressed a poem “To E. L., on His Travels in Greece.” His love for a traveling companion was unrequited, and offers of marriage to an acquaintance of long standing somehow never concluded. In fact his friendship seemed frequently to be taken relatively lightly, while his own feelings were more fervent–even passionate, and because of his almost constant travels -relationships were often sustained entirely by correspondence.

His only steady companions became his Albanian Suliot manservant, Giorgis Kokali, a faithful friend and, as Lear complained, ‘a thoroughly unsatisfactory chef’ from 1856 to 1883, and his cat Foss from 1871 to 1887, who was buried with some ceremony in a garden at Villa Tennyson.

“Lear was a wandering nonsense minstrel, never completely free of physical and emotional pain. His health steadily deteriorated until he died, alone except for a servant, on 29 January 1888. His last words expressed gratitude for the kindnesses of all his absent friends.”


Poetry Foundation

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