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Edward Lear's The New Vestments: the artistry of an extraordinary suit


A nonsensical poem about the defrocking of a proud old man provides narrative fun and psychological food for thought

This week's poem, The New Vestments by Edward Lear, provides, like all Lear's nonsense verse, beautifully written narrative fun for children and psychological food for thought for more analytically inclined readers.

It comes from his last collection of nonsense verse, Laughable Lyrics (1877), which contains some of his most expansive and ingenious narratives. But this poem is relatively uncomplicated in structure and plot. The tale it tells, and even its dactylic rhythm, recalls the limericks of Lear's earlier career, miniature fictions often featuring some bizarrely afflicted old man as the protagonist. At least one of these characters meets a fate not dissimilar to that of the wearer of the "new vestments".

The four-beat line requires plenty of verbal energy to keep it bouncing. Lear makes effective use of the metrical space to tell us in the opening quatrain that the old man has "invented a purely original dress", and doesn't leave the house until it's "perfectly made and complete" (my italics). These evaluations offer more than padding. While preparing us for amusements to come, they propose a not entirely satirical view of eccentricity. The man from Tess hasn't simply thrown together his unusual costume. He has deliberately created something entirely new, an elaborate one-man fashion statement. He's an artist, in fact.

All that layering of textures and flavours in the man's apparel suggests a kind of impasto. It's tempting to think of Lear himself, the successful landscape artist, hiding private vulnerabilities in a professional persona and through creative work that covers one bare surface with imagined, painted surfaces. But the mask itself is vulnerable, because creative excess – including excess of talent – threatens order and rationality.

The sartorial banquet disturbs adult good taste and offends the sense of taste itself. Sometimes, there's too much of the same, with jujubes, chocolate drops, pancakes, jam and biscuits all in unpalatable proximity, like a children's party gone mad. Not all is delicious confection, either. There are the disconcerting dead mice, the rabbit skins and the stockings also made of skins – "but it is not known whose". The "cloak of green Cabbage-leaves" is the final, incongruous touch, adding further concealment for an already heavily concealed figure – and another yuck factor to delight the nursery readership.

Whereas 12 lines are devoted to the man's costume, a further 24 narrate his undoing by the onslaught of "Beasticles, Birdlings and Boys". No doubt any little Victorian girl listening to the poem would have approved the reference to misbehaving "Boys" but, in the event, they steal only the sweets. All the Beasticles and Birdlings (or Beasts and Birdles) are rapacious, particularly the cats. It's a portrayal that probably doesn't reflect Lear's view of the species: he famously kept a much-loved cat called Foss. Lear's humour derives more from his coined words than rhymes, but an unusual pairing enhances the merriment in lines 25 and 26: "An army of Dogs in a twinkling tore up his /Pork Waistcoat and Trowsers to give to their Puppies". There's a Darwinian undertone to the vision of nature ruthlessly pursuing its survival instinct and triumphing over civilisation. Modern readers may judge the old man exploitative and greedy, as they no longer share Victorian convictions and uncertainties about mankind's position in the biological hierarchy. But we can't fail to sympathise with his defeat and final renunciation. His last words have all the melancholy sonority of the refrain sung by Poe's raven: "Nevermore".

Lear was as serious about his nonsense verse as his painting: he was delighted when John Ruskin wrote to the Pall Mall Gazette in 1886, nominating A Book of Nonsense Verse as first in his top 100 titles. While yielding plenty to the psychoanalytical reading, such poetry has a didactic element which, though heavily disguised as mischief, shouldn't be underestimated. Lear hated pretentiousness and pomposity. His choice of the grand word "vestments" rather than "clothes" in the title of this week's poem is a reminder of that. Both the qualifying terms mentioned earlier, "purely" and "perfectly", have pious associations: "original" reminds us of "original sin" as well as "the origin of species". The old man may not actually be a bishop, but, as an artist and inventor, he's a kind of god. The defrocking that ensues as he parades in unashamed finery suggests that any sort of pride – even the artist's – goeth before a fall. At least the birds and beasts got a good meal.

The New Vestments

There lived an old man in the Kingdom of Tess,
Who invented a purely original dress;
And when it was perfectly made and complete,
He opened the door, and walked into the street.

By way of a hat, he'd a loaf of Brown Bread,
In the middle of which he inserted his head; –
His Shirt was made up of no end of dead Mice,
The warmth of whose skins was quite fluffy and nice; –
His Drawers were of Rabbit-skins; - so were his shoes;
His Stockings were skins, but it is not known whose; –
His Waistcoat and Trowsers were made of Pork Chops; –
His Buttons were Jujubes, and Chocolate Drops; –
His Coat was all Pancakes with Jam for a border,
And a girdle of Biscuits to keep it in order;
And he wore over all, as a screen from bad weather,
A Cloak of green Cabbage-leaves stitched all together.

He had walked a short way, when he heard a great noise,
Of all sorts of Beasticles, Birdlings, and Boys; –
And from every long street and dark lane in the town
Beasts, Birdles, and Boys in a tumult rushed down.
Two Cows and a calf ate his Cabbage-leaf Cloak; –
Four Apes seized his Girdle, which vanished like smoke; –
Three Kids ate up half of his Pancaky Coat, –
And the tails were devour'd by an ancient He Goat; –
An army of Dogs in a twinkling tore up his
Pork Waistcoat and Trowsers to give to their Puppies; –
And while they were growling, and mumbling the Chops,
Ten boys prigged the Jujubes and Chocolate Drops; –
He tried to run back to his house, but in vain,
For Scores of fat Pigs came again and again; –
They rushed out of stables and hovels and doors, –
They tore off his stockings, his shoes, and his drawers; –
And now from the housetops with screechings descend,
Striped, spotted, white, black, and grey Cats without end,
They jumped on his shoulders and knocked off his hat, –
When Crows, Ducks, and Hens made a mincemeat of that; –
They speedily flew at his sleeves in a trice,
And utterly tore up his Shirt of dead Mice; –
They swallowed the last of his Shirt with a squall, –
Whereon he ran home with no clothes on at all.

And he said to himself as he bolted the door,
"I will not wear a similar dress any more,
"Any more, any more, any more, never more!"

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