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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > May-18 > Serious nonsense

Serious nonsense

Edward Lear’s wild poetry is suffused with melancholy, finds Thomas Marks

As Edward Lear prepared to visit Palestine in 1857, he asked the painter William Holman Hunt for any introductions that might prove useful in Jerusalem. “Tell them you introduce a most irregular & uncomfortable fool,” wrote Lear, “partly swell—partly painter, who will never do any good—to himself or anybody else: & advise them parenthetically to stop his unpleasant rumblings by emptying a large bucket of water on his noddle.”

Lear was always ready to send himself up, and to play different parts, but rarely without a note of pensiveness or the shade of something far sadder. That “uncomfortable” insists on his social awkwardness but also hints at a figure who ultimately rebuffed the comfort of others. The character who emerges in Jenny Uglow’s sympathetic biography is that of a writer and artist dependent on a large social circle, and on its approval and patronage of his art, who could never quite bring himself to fit in.

He was a compulsive traveller who felt the need to move on as soon as he started to settle: “the less one stays in places one likes the better,” he wrote, “& so one escapes some pain. Therefore wander.” “From outside Lear appeared affable, interested, talented, funny,” writes Uglow, “but in his diary, late at night or waking ill in the mornings, the loneliness poured out.” Lear’s solitariness developed early in life, partly through the shame he perceived in his ill health: the “particular skeleton” of his epilepsy, which he endured from childhood, would cause him private suffering into old age.

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect’s May issue: More than a dozen writers critique the current state of economics, suggesting there are still lessons to learn more than a decade on from the financial crash. Howard Reed writes that the ideas we hold about the way economics works need to be ripped up. Ten of the world’s best living economists explain what, in their view, is the single most important lesson economics still has to learn, and Linda Yueh suggests what three of the past masters would think about economics today. Elsewhere in the issue: Vernon Bogdanor outlines why Brexit could cause a constitutional crisis in Britain; Jean H Lee explains why young South Koreans don’t want their country to reunify with their Northern neighbours; Sian Norris writes about the coming battle over abortion and shows where the UK ranks among its European peers; and Sonia Purnell profiles Jacob Rees-Mogg.
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