Bird Brains

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

Acclaimed British biographer Jenny Uglow has published a new study of Edward Lear, that eccentric Victorian whose playful verse has always delighted children, and the child in all of us. Lear was also an ornithologist. As a teenager he was already working at illustrations; John James Audubon encountered him in London and became a friend and mentor. In 1832 the twenty-year-old Lear published Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots, distinguished both by its excellence and by being the first such edition limited to a single species. A lifelong wanderer, he used proceeds from the edition to begin financing his travels. According to Uglow,

Birds gave Lear joy all his life, not in cages but in the freedom of the skies, lakes and rivers, forests and gardens. Every journey he made was crowned with birds.

In a review of Uglow’s Mr. Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense, Jonathan Cott took that idea and ran with it:

Birds appear everywhere in Lear’s limericks, stories and songs, and in his drawings and doodles he would often portray himself as a hybrid avian-human, with his arms feathering out into wings and his nose curving into a beak. . . . [Uglow] presents the arc and trajectory of Lear’s life, the many journeys and returns, as those of a migratory bird. It is clear that Lear fully embraced William Blake’s notion that “ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way / Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five.”

Reading Cott, I couldn’t help thinking of Olivier Messiaen, another person for whom birds were not mere birds (see Issue 59 of Copper). As a philosophically inclined observer, I’d like to knit together a few more thoughts about the Sublime and the Ridiculous, vision and doggerel, Lear and Messiaen.

But first, back to Lear: if he himself identified with birds—positively aspired to birdness—ordinary humans more often identify him with absurdity, word play, “nonsense,” to echo Uglow. In a longer piece for the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik compared Lear’s approach with that of his contemporary, Lewis Carroll. Whereas Carroll famously took ordinary situations—a little tea party, perhaps—and rendered them absurd through his characters’ outlandish behavior, Lear took outlandish characters or situations and treated them as perfectly normal:

There was an Old Man on a hill,
Who seldom, if ever, stood still;
He ran up and down,
In his Grandmother’s gown,
Which adorned that Old Man on a hill.

Consider “The Owl and the Pussycat,” which Gopnik calls “one of the greatest love poems in the language.” That’s because, for starters, those two make a most unlikely pair of sweethearts. Nevertheless and furthermore, they experience an idyllic courtship (“O let us be married! too long we have tarried: But what shall we do for a ring?”). And everyone in Lear’s fanciful (= visionary, ideal) community wishes them well:

They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the Bong-Tree grows

And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood
With a ring at the end of his nose,
His nose,
His nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.

“Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?” Said the Piggy, “I will.”
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.

Perhaps we cherish Lear not merely because he’s silly but because he suggests the possibility of a more compassionate universe. Why can’t life, we ask, be more like “The Owl and the Pussycat”? Gopnik ends with this:

Nonsense suggesting sense is a familiar pattern. Nonsense suggesting the numinous is not. G. K. Chesterton once wrote that Lear’s rhymes “constitute an entirely new discovery in literature, the discovery that incongruity itself may constitute a harmony,” and that if “Lewis Carroll is great in this lyric insanity, Mr. Edward Lear is, to our mind, even greater.”

Uglow refers to “art and nonsense” as if they were separate categories, but Gopnik and Chesterton apparently disagree. What does any of this have to do with Messiaen’s music? We know that Messiaen often sounds otherworldly. Lear reminds us that odd sounds can mean a lot. We don’t often get to hear “nonsense suggesting the numinous.” Or perhaps we do, but we just don’t know how to listen for it. (Think of supertweeters. Or Shakti Stones.)

In Messiaen, Peter Hill and Nigel Simeone sought to illuminate Messiaen’s life not only through musical analyses but also by examining his life and times, friends and enemies. The result is not perfect—one suspects that his widow Yvonne Loriod, who worked with Hill and Simeone, managed to airbrush away some of her husband’s frailties—but it presents a fuller picture than what we had.

Alas, one thing it reveals is that Messiaen had no detectable sense of humor. Perhaps this is understandable given his spiritual leanings, but consider his remarks about Ravel and his “brand-new Piano Concerto”:

I think it’s inconceivable that Ravel could really have taken the Largo of his new concerto seriously, this Largo which turns a phrase reminiscent of Fauré-on-a-bad-day into Massenet. . . . The best model for French music today seems to me to be Albert Roussel—the Suite in F and some of the symphonies—and early Stravinsky. I say early because I still hear nothing in his later music. . . . Apollo still strikes me as like a piece by Lully with the wrong bass notes. (1931)

We do know that Messiaen loved Petrushka, Le Sacre du printemps and Les Noces. How could he have dismissed, even in 1931, all other Stravinsky? The neo-classic works abound in wit and in respectful play with the past, but apparently it takes someone witty and more respectful of all Western tradition to hear that. There’s much in Messiaen that’s fanciful and childlike, but I’m not sure you can find a single witty or humorous Messiaenic note anywhere. All of which makes it hard to go any further with our Lear-Carroll-numinous-Messiaen train of thought.

Or does it? Just for a moment, let’s go back to Chesterton, specifically to his discovery that “incongruity itself may constitute a harmony.” Hasn’t the celebration of incongruity in art become a hallmark of modernism? Think of the ways in which technology, marching ever onward, has encouraged artists to adopt incongruous themes, objects, or narratives. Think of the journalism and street photography practiced by dozens  of awakened creatives after the introduction of 35mm cameras—Cartier-Bresson and his “decisive moment,” of course, but also Weegee, Diane Arbus, even Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, who recast his famous celebrity-boxed-into-a-corner composition at least a dozen times, each subject suggesting a new subtext. Improvisation(s) of theme, form, and psychological import played significant roles.


But to what extent did incongruity actually feature in Messiaen’s art? We know he couldn’t resist criticizing neoclassicists as “false revolutionaries”; he mocked those who claimed rights as innovators because they “shifted a few bass lines in a Donizetti cavatina into the wrong place.” Yet he sought out fresh non-Western musics throughout his career and freely appropriated them (as today’s critics might put it) partly to shock listeners’ ears and hearts. Messiaen’s cosmology, his desire to evoke spiritual transcendence, depended heavily on the Other, on a shifting array of resources like Peruvian folk music. (Here I am thinking specifically of the song-cycle Harawi and its Andean influences.) One problem with cultural appropriation, though: eventually, appropriated objects become part of the un-shocking un-Other, even as their original significance is lost.

Musical playfulness—wit and humor—sidesteps the problem by refusing to take on such gargantuan responsibilities. Messiaen the four-year-old revealed his take on the transcendent when he discussed poetry and its effects with his mother. As she recalled later,

It’s for you, I said to him, with its bees and grasshoppers. Mummy, he said, you’re a poet just like Shakespeare. Like him, you have suns, planets, ants, frightening skeletons. I prefer things which are frightening.

He certainly did. I suppose we’ll have to leave musical play, especially the kind involving animals, in the hands of Lear’s slightly younger contemporary Saint-Saëns, with a sidelong glance at Messiaen’s colleagues Jean Françaix and Francis Poulenc.

One can’t help being reminded of the last words of Osgood Fielding III:

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