Magazine article American Scientist

Serious Nonsense

Magazine article American Scientist

Serious Nonsense

Article excerpt

Edward Lear's natural-history illustration won him scientific credibility. Now his nonsense verse may do the same

"How pleasant to know Mr. Lear," begins one of Edward Lear's poems. His bicentermary last year helped many people know him better, with multiple exhibits of his natural-history paintings and drawings.

Lear gained acclaim as an illustrator at age 19 for his work on parrots. Shortly thereafter, The Earl of Derby invited Lear to his estate near Liverpool to make portraits of specimens in his vast collection of exotic animals and plants. "Lear was somewhat lonely at Knowsley Hall," says Robert Peck, a Lear scholar and senior fellow of Drexel University's Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. "He was overwhelmed at times by the English social class structure." To overcome this, he began making drawings and verses for the Earl's grandchildren. Later he published the verses, but he used a pseudonym for many years. "He was concerned that the frivolous nature of his limericks would undercut his credibility as a scientific illustrator," Peck says.

Those verses have recently come to seem a bit less frivolous. Margaret Wallace Nilsson, now a Ph.D. candidate in history at Linnaeus University, took up the question of how Lear's poems might help children learn. "All children like repetitive rhyme sounds," she says. "I thought, why not apply this to Swedish students of English? It might help them improve their pronunciation and, later on, be able identify new words with the same phonetical patterns. …

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