Wednesday, February 23, 2011

How Pleasant to Know Mr. Lear by Edward Lear

This poem, at first glance, hardly seems serious enough to be included in such a volume as Vendler’s, but subsequent readings –and the context of this chapter on social identity- show it to be an interesting and thoughtful approach to self-characterization. Though belied by apparent self-effacement, this is a very self-affirming poem which manages to honor its subject without being grandiose. It does this by creating the speaker’s social identity in modest and humble ways, and by pairing it with a light-hearted style and a wry, mocking tone. This author, full of nonsense rhymes, still addresses serious subjects in this poem. In the last stanza he discuses his death; “ere the days of his pilgrimage vanish,” but he ends with the refrain, “how pleasant to know Mr. Lear.” This poem is definitely not devoid of sorrow –“[h]e weeps by the side of the ocean”- but it is balanced by the idea that any regrets he has are a result of taking himself too seriously. This poem seems to want to reform such tendencies. The recognitions of his shortcomings are plentiful: “Some think him ill-tempered and queer, But a few think him clever enough.” These shortcomings are balanced by the assertion that it was pleasant to know him. This is a modest claim, and might seem as though it were covering-up a general dissatisfaction, but it really seems to be a recognition of realistic expectations. His playful tone and nursery rhymes treat fondly his “many friends, laymen and clerical.” He seems to have experienced dissatisfaction, due perhaps to his awkwardness, as a young man, but is enjoying his Mediterranean retirement greatly. He now “drinks a great deal of Marsala” but has come to terms with his “spherical” body. His trips to the ocean to weep merely seem like recognition of a human need for catharsis.

All in all the tone is one of great humility. He sees that hoping for more than he has out of life will only lead one to greater dissatisfaction. The poem is hopeful, but the objects of his aspirations are modest; he merely hopes that a few think pleasant enough.

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