Barker and Lear: A posthumous double act

British artist and writer Edward Lear (1812-88) – whose bicentenary nonsensical people are celebrating – wrote limericks for children. British comedian Ronnie Barker (1929-2005) thought the endings dull and rewrote them.

The limerick was popularized by Edward Lear (left) in his Book of Nonsense (1845) and Laughable Lyrics (1877). Lear wrote 212 limericks, accompanied by absurd illustrations that he drew himself. Usually the final line of the limerick was a variant of the first line and ending in the same word, such as:

“There was a Young Person of Smyrna
Whose grandmother threatened to burn her.
But she seized on the cat,
And said ‘Granny, burn that!
You incongruous old woman of Smyrna!’”

Today limericks are invariably typeset as four plus one lines, but Lear wrote them to fit the space available beneath the picture, so they were published in a variety of formats. The cover of one edition bears an entire limerick typeset in two lines: “There was an Old Derry down Derry, who loved to see little folks merry; So he made them a book, and with laughter they shook at the fun of that Derry down Derry.”

Ronnie Barker (right), whose linguistic puns and dexterity were legendary, was disappointed with lines that lacked punch and were inevitably clean. The following anonymous verse highlights his frustration:

“The limerick packs laughs anatomical
In space that is quite economical.
But the good ones I’ve seen
So seldom are clean
And the clean ones so seldom are comical.”

After his much lamented retirement and four years before his death, Barker wrote his own versions of the poems alongside Lear’s in a volume signed and dated November 2001. Nearly all the book’s 112 illustrated limericks were annotated, with most having Lear’s last line crossed out and replaced. The title page reads:

“There was an old fossil named Lear, whose verses were boring and drear. His last lines were worse – just the same as the first! So I’ve tried to improve on them here.”

The book was sold at auction yesterday for £3,600 – a collector’s item if ever there were one.

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One comment on “Barker and Lear: A posthumous double act

  1. tillyv says:

    I was named Tilly because I loved a Lear poem which had the line “the little birds flew and they cried Tilly-loo”. I bought an old book of Lear limericks in Hay on Wye recently and have to agree with Ronnie!

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