James’ paper, the first in a number of bicentenary celebrations of Lear which will occur at Oxford this year, examined Lear’s nonsense verse in the context of children’s language acquisition. Observing that Lear, like Carroll, is a great nonsense writer whose work springs from direct contact with children, James read Lear’s limericks as a form of what Wittgenstein referred to as ‘those games by means of which children learn their native language.’ James ranged over a number of writers on such language-games, from Henri Wallon to the Opies to Roman Jakobson, to explain aspects of the limerick as they relate to children: the limerick’s delight in coincidences of sound, for instance, mimicking children’s own pleasure and delight in sound patterning. James finished with an example of Lear’s direct address to children which is worth quoting at length. ‘You will excuse my familiar mode of addressing you,’ wrote Lear to Ruth Decie in September 1862, ‘because, you know,—you have as yet got no Christian name—;—& to say—“my dear Miss Decie” would be as much too formal, as “my dear Decie” would be too rude. But as your Grandmama has written to me that you are just born I will write to congratulate you, & possibly this is one of the first letters you have yet received.’ Lear’s letter eloquently answers, without condescension or staginess, the question of how adults should speak to children—and provided a charming conclusion to James’ paper.
James is organising a conference on Lear at Jesus College on the 21st and 22nd of September this year, with confirmed speakers including Gillian Beer, Hugh Haughton, and the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips. For more information, and to pre-register your place, please visit the conference website.
At left, the 'intrinsic Old Man of Peru'—James also pleasurably riffed on Lear's use of 'intrinsic' in this verse.