Tuesday, February 10, 2009

`The True Poetical Enthusiasm'

Today we celebrate the 234th birthday of the most loveably vulpine of writers, Charles Lamb, who, when a doctor instructed him to take a daily walk on an empty stomach, asked, “Whose?” In 1827, two years after retiring from his 33-year clerkship at the East India House, Lamb prepared a brief third-person autobiography, not published until after his death. In it, he claims “his true works may be found on the shelves of Leadenhall Street, filling some hundred folios” – meaning the ledgers he kept as an accountant. We can be thankful his “true works” also include his letters and Essays of Elia (1823), models of voluptuous prose, wit, strange learning, eccentricity and compassion. Even in his day Lamb was judged fustian, modeling his style on those of his favorite writers – Burton and Browne. In “Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading” he says:

“…I must confess that I dedicate no inconsiderable portion of my time to other people’s thoughts. I dream away my life in others’ speculations. I love to lose myself in other men’s minds. When I am not walking, I am reading; I cannot sit and think. Books think for me.”

Despite his charm and brilliance, most of us would be reluctant to exchange our lives with Lamb’s. In 1795, age 20, he spent six weeks in a mental hospital. In September of the following year, his sister Mary fatally stabbed their mother with a table knife, and attacked their father. Charles obtained Mary’s release from lifelong imprisonment on the condition he take legal responsibility for her, and they lived together until his death, even collaborating on Tales from Shakespeare, which has remained in print since 1807. Mary Lamb suffered psychotic episodes for the rest of her life and outlived her brother by 12 years. In “All Fool’s Day” he writes:

“I have never made an acquaintance since, that lasted; or a friendship, that answered; with any that had not some tincture of the absurd in their characters. I venerate an honest obliquity of understanding. The more laughable blunders a man shall commit in your company, the more tests he giveth you, that he will not betray or overreach you. I love the safety, which a palpable hallucination warrants; the security, which a word out of season ratifies. And take my word for this, reader, and say a fool told it you, if you please, that he who hath not a dram of folly in his mixture, hath pounds of much worse matter in his composition.”

Unlike his friends Coleridge, Hazlitt, Wordsworth and Hunt – who often made fools of themselves as a result -- Lamb had no interest in the momentous events of his day. About “Boney” – Napoleon Bonaparte – he wished only to know the dictator’s height (Lamb was built like a jockey). In a letter to his friend Thomas Manning (a mathematician who became a Chinese scholar and the first Englishman to enter Lhasa, where he met the ninth Dalai Lama, age 5), Lamb writes, “Public affairs – except as they touch upon me, and so turn into private – I cannot whip up my mind to feel any interest in.” This admirable sentiment would profit many a contemporary writer. For Lamb, to be civic-minded was to care for one’s family, friends and often strangers. He was a lifelong bachelor and so far as we know a celibate, though he once proposed marriage to the wonderfully named actress Fanny Kelly. His instinct for family, like Chekhov’s, was fierce. In “A Complaint of the Decay of Beggars in the Metropolis” he writes:

“Shut not thy purse-strings always against painted distress. Act a charity sometimes. When a poor creature (outwardly and visibly such) comes before thee, do not stay to inquire whether the `seven small children,’ in whose name he implores thy assistance, have a veritable existence. Rake not into the bowels of unwelcome truth, to save a halfpenny. It is good to believe him. If he be not all that he pretendeth, give, and under a personate father of a family, think (if thou pleasest) that thou hast relieved an indigent bachelor. When they come with their counterfeit looks, and mumping tones, think them players. You pay your money to see a comedian feign these things, which, concerning these poor people, thou canst not certainly tell whether they are feigned or not.”

His compassion and charity were instinctive, not ideological. Nor were they rooted in a sense of religious obligation, which in Lamb’s case was rudimentary at best. In a March 9, 1822, letter to his childhood friend Coleridge, Lamb displays a sophisticated appreciation of moral complexity when he writes:

“One of the bitterest pangs of remorse I ever felt was when a child – when my kind old aunt had strained her pocket-strings to bestow a sixpenny whole plum-cake upon me. In my way home through the Borough, I met a venerable old man, not mendicant, but thereabouts – a look-beggar, not a verbal petitionist [Mayhew and Dickens would have savored this]; and in the coxcombry of taught-charity I gave away the cake to him. I walked on a little in all the pride of an Evangelical peacock, when of a sudden my old aunt’s kindness crossed me – the sum it was to her – the pleasure she had a right to expect that I – not the old impostor – should take in eating her cake – the cursed ingratitude by which, under the colour of Christian virtue, I had frustrated her cherished purpose. I sobbed, I wept, and took it to heart so grievously, that I think I never suffered the like – and I was right. It was a piece of unfeeling hypocrisy, and proved a lesson to me ever after. The cake has long been masticated, consigned to the dunghill with the ashes of that unseasonable pauper.”

His assessment of the “look-beggar” is a form of applied psychology or theater criticism, disciplines at which Lamb excelled. How much writing on the theater remains readable even a week after publication, let alone two centuries? Lamb’s does. He was especially good when describing actors at work. Here he is in “On Some of the Old Actors,” remembering a Shakespearean:

“Of all the actors who flourished in my time -- a melancholy phrase if taken aright, reader – [Robert] Bensley had most of the swell of soul, was greatest in the delivery of heroic conceptions, the emotions consequent upon the presentment of a great idea to the fancy. He had the true poetical enthusiasm -- the rarest faculty among players. None that I remember possessed even a portion of that fine madness which he threw out in Hotspur's famous rant about glory, or the transports of the Venetian incendiary at the vision of the fired city. His voice had the dissonance, and at times the inspiriting effect of the trumpet.”

A dedicated reader of Lamb grows to love him as a friend. In this, he reminds us again of Chekhov. He amuses us while earning our trust, and charms us into respect. We indulge his eccentricities, his old-fashioned ways, because they are expressions of a genuinely gentle and wayward sensibility, not affectations. “Hang the age!” he writes. “I’ll write for antiquity.” He found solace in the past without entirely ignoring the present, which he dismissed in 1825 as “this whiffling century.” Happy birthday, Charles.


Levi Stahl said...

More than a century and a half after its publication, the Lambs' Tales from Shakespeare was my introduction to Shakespeare; I devoured it happily. It was only years and years later that I learned more of the Lambs' sad and fascinating story, and only recently that I've encountered more of Charles's prose. You make convincing case for my seeking out more of it.

Anonymous said...

Lamb enjoins certain themes Johnsonian: melancholia; charity; physically housing the mentally ill. Both suffered episodes of mental illness. Both were unwived (more or less for S.J.). Obviously, though, S.J. was very much in the thick of things, in London, both political and cultural. I wonder if you do not appreciate both Lamb and S.J., for their similiar sensibility?