Friday, July 22, 2011

`What Any Man Can Write, Surely I May Read'

E.V. Lucas (1868-1938) was a remarkably industrious English writer and publisher, little remembered, who wrote and edited more than one-hundred books on subjects as various as cricket, Cowper, Constable and Charles Lamb. He published the first substantial biography of Lamb (1905), edited the seven-volume Works of Charles and Mary Lamb (1903-1905) and the three-volume Letters of Charles Lamb, to Which Are Added Those of His Sister Mary Lamb (1935), and on the centenary of Lamb’s death in 1934 published the charming At the Shrine of St. Charles (1934). On Thursday, library serendipity led me to a previously unknown Lamb/Lucas collaboration, The Charles Lamb Day Book (1925).

The format is simple: for each day of the year Lucas selects one or two passages from Lamb’s essays, reviews, poems or letters, and gives them a page and a title. Collecting the contents must have been almost effortless, and not only because Lucas was a scholar of his subject. Who in English, after Shakespeare, Milton, Johnson and the King James Bible, is so prolifically quotable as Lamb? Take today’s entry, July 22 (the only dog-eared page in the volume). The first passage is from a letter Lamb wrote to William Wordsworth on March 20, 1822:

“I had thought in a green old age (oh, green thought!) to have retired to Ponder's End,--emblematic name, how beautiful!,--in the Ware Road, there to have made up my accounts with Heaven and the Company, toddling about between it and Cheshunt, anon stretching, on some fine Izaak Walton morning, to Hoddesdon or Amwell, careless as a beggar; but walking, walking ever, till I fairly walked myself off my legs,--dying walking!”

One wonders what the notably humorless Wordsworth made of Lamb’s linguistic shenanigans. You can hear Lamb riffing on a theme, gratuitously embellishing when it pleases him (like Art Tatum), carried along by friendship, ebullience and bottomless verbal imagination. The same inspired silliness is evident in Lucas’ other selection for July 22, from another letter to Wordsworth, written Aug. 9, 1815:

“Did you ever read Charron on Wisdom? or Patrick’s Pilgrim? if neither, you have two great pleasures to come. I mean some day to attack Caryl on Job, six Folios. What any man can write, surely I may read.”

I can’t explain why I find this so funny, especially with Wordsworth as the recipient, except that I’ve known the sort of overweening pedant who would ask if you know Charron on Wisdom, and feign pity and chagrin when you admitted your ignorance. (Go here to learn that Charron, a follower of Montaigne, was “one of the twenty-five children of a bookseller.”) The rest of Lamb’s letter, not excerpted by Lucas, gets even sillier:

“If I do get rid of auditing Warehousekeepers Accts. and get no worse-harrassing task in the place of it, what a Lord of Liberty I shall be. I shall dance and skip and make mouths at the invisible event, and pick the thorns out of my pillow and throw ’em at rich men’s night caps, and talk blank verse, hoity toity, and sing `A Clerk I was in London Gay,’ ban, ban, Ca-Caliban, like the emancipated monster, and go where I like, up this street or down that alley. Adieu, and pray that it may be my luck. God be to you all.”

A reader has asked why I’m so fond of Lamb, why I share my affections for him with Dr. Johnson, when clearly he’s not so serious or important a writer. I’m under no obligation to be consistent in my bookish tastes, and feel no need to apologize for loving Tolstoy and P.G. Wodehouse, Yvor Winters and Kay Ryan. There’s no explaining affinity. In his preface to The Charles Lamb Day Book, Lucas writes (approvingly):

“Lamb belonged externally very little to his own time. He cared nothing for politics or public events, although he was not sorry when the death of a royal personage gave him a holiday. He preferred, as he put it, to `write for antiquity.’”

1 comment:

Ian Wolcott said...

Wonderful stuff, especially on a Friday. Thank you.