Edward Lear’s A Book of Nonsense was first published in 1846 under the pseudonym ‘Derry down Derry’. The limericks and illustrations (which Lear himself drew) were adapted from those Lear produced to amuse the children of Lord Stanley while he was staying with the family at Knowsley. Lear was a professional artist and had been engaged to paint the animals in Lord Stanley’s menagerie. The verse and images he produced, however, are characterised by Lear’s fondness for nonsense: they are quirky, lively and fun to read or look at, but have no clear meaning. 

Lear is so strongly associated with the limerick that it is surprising to learn that he did not invent the form himself. The first known book of limericks is The History of Sixteen Wonderful Old Women (1820) published by John Harris. A year later, the publisher John Marshall brought out an imitation: Anecdotes and Adventures of Fifteen Gentlemen (1821), which inspired Lear to write his own comic rhymes using the same verse form. Lear continued to write limericks and published a second volume in 1855. The edition shown here is the third edition, published in time for Christmas in 1861 by Routledge, Warne and Routledge. It was enlarged with ‘with 42 new & enchanting subjects’ and this time Lear was credited as the author. The popularity of his limericks and other comic verses is a landmark in the acceptance of nonsense in writing for children.