Sunday, December 09, 2012

`Humble Mutability of Tone'

In his preface to Wayfaring: Essays Pleasant and Unpleasant (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2010), Alan Jacobs writes of what attracts him to the essay as a form, its “humble mutability of tone, a willingness to acknowledge and accept the vagaries of the mind, with its habit of following its own pathways in serene disregard of what we would have it do.” His example is Charles Lamb’s “Poor Relations” (Last Essays of Elia, 1833), and he quotes from the start of that essay’s second paragraph:  

“He is known by his knock. Your heart telleth you `That is Mr. ----.’ A rap, between familiarity and respect; that demands, and, at the same time, seems to despair of entertainment. He entereth smiling, and -- embarrassed. He holdeth out his hand to you to shake, and draweth it back again. He casually looketh in about dinner time -- when the table is full. He offereth to go away, seeing you have company -- but is induced to stay. He filleth a chair, and your visitor's two children are accommodated at a side table.” 

Jacobs nicely identifies Lamb’s “typical wry brightness of tone.” I would also note the muted suspense Lamb creates in his account of the knock on the door.  How does he feel about this unannounced visitor and his children? Is this an imposition or a welcome get-together? The title suggests his guest may be a familiar type of sponger, the parasite who preys on familial ties. Lamb leaves it for the moment and goes on to anatomize types of poor relations. Then he remembers a boy he knew at Christ’s Hospital, the London school where he and Coleridge met. The unnamed boy was poor and later left Oxford without graduating. He joined the Army and was killed in his first engagement. Lamb pauses to write:     

“I do not know how, upon a subject which I began with treating half seriously, I should have fallen upon a recital so eminently painful; but this theme of poor relationship is replete with so much matter for tragic as well as comic associations, that it is difficult to keep the account distinct without blending.” 

Jacobs lauds Lamb’s artful elasticity and has already noted his willingness to follow the “vagaries of the mind,” and I would add the vagaries of human existence. Lamb’s seemingly casual narrative, his flitting from one blossom of memory to another, mirrors our lives and the way we incrementally come to understand them by turning them into story. A good essay is true to its etymological roots, neither definitive nor conclusive but an attempt, a trial or experiment, with the outcome, if there even is one, a mystery from the start. It’s not paint-by-numbers or a coloring book with the outlines in place. It makes room, like a seasoned sensibility, for shifts of mood and corresponding shifts of tone. Max Beerbohm does this with comparable grace in some of his essays. See “Something Defeasible” (And Even Now, 1920).

I’ve occasionally written of a longtime reader in Dallas who sends me emails and postcards, often unsigned, but after almost seven years I recognize his draftsman-like handwriting. He shipped me some of Myles na gCopaleen’s columns and I replied with Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. He’s a lawyer and takes pleasure in language. He has an eye for deadpan silliness in print. Our relations have always been respectfully jocular. I might call him a friend if I knew him better, in person. Lately he’s been reading A Dance to the Music of Time. He wrote this week to say his wife of thirty-three years had died. She was fifty-eight. The note is terse and factual, without sentiment and with nothing of the police blotter about it: “She had been ill for about ten months, eight of which she spent in hospital or rehabilitation. It’s been a long, hard year, whose details I don’t presently have the stamina to recount.”

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