Wednesday, September 14, 2011

`No One Relishes a Recondite Beauty More'

In 1934 the poet Edmund Blunden published Charles Lamb: His Life Recorded by his Contemporaries (Hogarth Press), a collection of recollections, anecdotes, letters and diary entries devoted to Elia’s alter ego. I only learned of the volume on Tuesday, and begrudged my job for keeping me from reading it, though not entirely.

Then Dave Lull sent a link to Lamb’s page at LibraryThing. I wasn’t familiar with this site and still don’t understand its purpose, but someone has enrolled Lamb as a member and writes in his voice about the books he owned. The device is corny but I appreciate the effort to recreate the contents of Lamb’s library and catalog it online. Also posted is this observation, attributed to Lamb’s friend Henry Crabb Robinson:

“Mr. Lamb's taste in books is also fine and it is peculiar. It is not the worse for a little idiosyncrasy. He does not go deep into the Scotch novels, but he is at home in Smollett or Fielding. He is little read in Junius or Gibbon, but no man can give a better account of Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy or Sir Thomas Brown's Urn Burial or Fuller's Worthies or John Bunyan's Holy War. No one is more unimpressible to a specious declamation, no one relishes a recondite beauty more.”

In fact, the excerpt is from William Hazlitt’s The Spirit of the Age (1825), but “recondite beauty” is an apt description of Lamb’s bookish tastes. Born in the eighteenth, he was at home in the seventeenth century. In an 1829 letter to Bryan Waller Procter, after an editor had turned down one of his sonnets, Lamb writes: “Damn the Age! I will write for antiquity” – a fitting fight song for any serious writer. Lamb dwelled at the intersection of books and life, on the corner where the two were indistinguishable.

Blunden quotes the recollections of Thomas Westwood, a poet who was a schoolboy when he first met Lamb. In Note and Queries (1866), Westwood writes:

“Charles Lamb was a living anachronism—a seventeenth century man, mislaid and brought to light two hundred years too late. Never did author less belong to what was, nominally, his own time; he could neither sympathize with it, nor comprehend it. His quaintness of style and antiquarianism of taste were no affectation. He belonged to the school of his contemporaries, but they were contemporaries that never met him in the streets, but were mostly to be found in Poet’s Corner, or under gravestones of the long ago.”

In a passage Blunden quotes from The Angler’s Notebook (1884), Westwood reports Lamb never “gave a book to the binder,” instead having his dilapidated volumes mended by a cobbler. Westwood writes:

“Elia’s library, in consequence, was of a pervading brownness. Whatever `tooling’ his books might have possessed in former centuries, had been rubbed down to the vanishing point, and was not missed. Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici, old Burton’s Anatomy, Drayton’s Polyolbion, Heywood’s Hierarchy of the Blessed Angels, the Duchess of Newcastle’s Sociable Letters, and a host of others, all wore the costume of their time and looked happy and at home in it. The general effect was harmonious, quaint, Elizabethan, and suited to the individuality of the owner. A dear old library, that, in which I passed most of my boyish leisure.”

Reading these recollections of Lamb, my long fondness for him and his essays and letters makes reassuring sense. His charm, learning and humor, his humanity undiluted by the nastiness and egotism of his brilliant friends Hazlitt and Coleridge, make him a proper model for writers working to balance life and literature. The only dissenter I’ve come upon in Blunden’s collection is Thomas Carlyle, a notably unpleasant human being in the manner of twenty-first century public intellectuals, who describes Lamb and his sister Mary as “a very sorry pair of phenomena.” Let’s conclude with the loving portrait of Lamb sketched by John Forster, friend to Dickens and his first biographer:

“When you entered his little book-clad room, he welcomed you with an affectionate greeting, set you down to something, and made you at home at once. His richest feasts, however, were those he served up from his ragged-looking books, his ungainly and dirty folios, his cobbled-up quartos, his squadrons of mean and squalid-looking duodecimos.”

[Dave also sent me the link to Samuel Johnson’s LibraryThing entry.]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hadn't seen a reference to Blunden in a long time. I first read Undertones of War when I was young... seems to hold up pretty well.