Making the Best of It

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‘One day there appeared at luncheon sitting opposite to us a rosy, gray-bearded, bald-headed, gold-spectacled old gentleman who captivated my attention . . . Something seemed to bubble and sparkle in his talk and his eyes twinkled benignly.’ This was one small American girl’s first meeting with Edward Lear in 1870. At about the same time he was writing of himself in his diary: ‘Broken down with a hideous load of sorrow – the blinding accumulation of now nearly 60 years.’

When Vivien Noakes’s biography, Edward Lear: The Life of a Wanderer, was first published in 1968, the cartoonist Ronald Searle hailed it as ‘magnificent . . . as constantly fascinating as Lear himself’. This was deserved praise for the woman who devoted herself to revealing the many talents of the man too often seen simply as runner-up to Lewis Carroll as the great Victorian children’s writer. Her work continued. In 1985 she curated an important exhibition at the Royal Academy that was a revelation of the full range of Lear’s achievement as a landscape artist, and in 1988 she edited both a selection of his extensive correspondence and The Complete Nonsense and Other Verse for Penguin Classics.

I never read Lear as a child and was only introduced to what he called his ‘nonsense’ when I read his poems to my daughter, then aged 7. Now, thirty years later, I find myself reading them to my granddaughter, aged 5. The long poems, such as ‘The Owl and the Pussy-cat’ and ‘The Dong with the Luminous Nose’, continue to work their magic, though some of the limericks can be a little difficult to explain:

There was a Young Lady in White,
Who looked at the depths of the night:
But the birds of the air,
Filled her heart with despair,
And oppressed that Young Lady in White.

This, like a lot of Lear, has a grown-up melancholy, and if you read it to a young child you may be met with an enquiring upward look, as if to say

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About the contributor

William Palmer latest novel, The Devil Is White, was published in 2013. A collection of his poetry, Endland, was published by Rack Press in 2017.

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