Obituary: Professor Laurence Lerner

Laurence Lerner, who taught English at Sussex from 1962 to 1984, died on 19 January at the age of 90.

Professor Laurence LernerA Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a poet, novelist and playwright as well as a literary critic, he published more than 30 books. Born in South Africa, he studied at the University of Cape Town and at Cambridge and came to Sussex as one of the early appointments in English after teaching at the University College of the Gold Coast and Queen’s University Belfast.

He will be remembered as an inspiring teacher with a gift for lucid analysis and exposition. He was lively and cheerfully argumentative, stimulated by the interdisciplinary excitements of Sussex which encouraged him to range well beyond the traditional confines of English Literature in his teaching and writing. He translated Baudelaire (Spleen, 1967) and wrote a chapter on him for the Sussex-based series French Literature and its Background.

His book on pastoral poetry, The Uses of Nostalgia (1972), acknowledges his debt to vigorous and critical debate in the Sussex Renaissance Seminar. The prizewinning study Love and Marriage: Literature and its Social Context (1979) is perhaps one of his best books, and evolved from his lectures and seminars and discussion with colleagues. The Victorians (1978), a collaborative work which he edited, arose from interdisciplinary teaching and a different set of discussions with Sussex colleagues.

At a time when computer technology and Artificial Intelligence were developing rapidly at Sussex and elsewhere he responded with a collection of witty poems under the title A.R.T.H.U.R. The Life and Opinions of a Digital Computer(1974). A later collection, Chapter and Verse: Bible Poems (1984), was dedicated to his friend and Sussex colleague Gabriel Josipovici who shared his interest in the Bible as literature. His long experience as an accessible and successful practising poet made him not just a shrewd and sensitive poetry critic but an excellent teacher of poetry, as reflected in his student text An Introduction to English Poetry: Fifteen Poems Discussed (1975).

A well-travelled teacher, he lectured in Africa, India and North America as well as in France, Germany and Austria, experiences he vividly recalled in his book Wandering Professor (1999). He left Sussex for Vanderbilt University, Tennessee, in 1984, but he renewed his connection with the area and the university when he retired to Lewes. Even in retirement he continued to teach: he was for many years a popular lecturer at the Friends Centre in Brighton, in association with Sussex’s Centre for Continuing Education, and was much involved with the local branch of the University of the Third Age.

A funeral service will take place at 1.00pm in Clayton Wood Natural Burial Ground, Clayton, on 8 February 2016. Everyone is welcome at the funeral and/or at a wake at 3.00pm at Christ Church Hall, Lewes. No flowers, but donations to Emmaus are welcome. A memorial service will be held at a later date.