Wednesday, June 26, 2013

`An Utter Want of Parade in Everything He Said'

A sturdy volume published in 1866: Charles Lamb: A Memoir by Barry Cornwall, the pseudonym of Bryan Waller Procter (1787-1874), to whom Thackeray dedicated Vanity Fair. I borrowed the first American edition, put out by Roberts Brothers of Boston. The title page bears the stamp of Mrs. J.H. McCulloch. According to the circulation card, the volume entered the Fondren Library collection in 1966, the centenary of its publication, and has never been borrowed. Procter is writing his remembrance of Lamb, whom he met 1817 or 1818, at the age of seventy-seven. I taxonomize writers into Hazlitts or Lambs, and Procter helps clarify the distinction: 

“…Lamb’s pleasures (except, perhaps, from his pipe) [and gin] lay amongst the books of the old English writers. His soul delighted in communion with ancient generations, more especially with men who had been unjustly forgotten. Hazlitt’s mind attached itself to abstract subjects; Lamb’s was more practical, and embraced men.” 

Procter’s memoir is fond and familiar, with little to surprise seasoned Lamb hands. What pleases is Procter’s prose, which for its time is notably concise. He strives for precision. Procter’s assessment of the Essays of Elia – “genial, delicate, terse, full of thought and full of humor” – suggests the flavor of his own work. Procter knows his man, challenges his reputation as a trifling humorist and confirms my sense of Lamb’s peculiar charm: 

“Lamb’s studies were the lives and characters of men; his humors and tragic meditations were generally dug out of his own heart; there are in them earnestness and pity, and generosity, and truth; and there is not a mean or base thought to be found throughout all.” 

A sampler of Procter’s apothegms: 

“His own sentences were compressed and full of meaning; his opinions independent and decisive; no qualifying or doubting.” 

“There was an utter want of parade in everything he said and did, in everything about him and his home.” 

“From reading he speedily rose to writing; from being a reader he became an author.” 

“In conversation he loved to discuss persons or books, and seldom ventured upon the stormy sea of politics; his intimates lying on the two opposite shores, Liberal and Tory.” 

“Without doubt, Lamb’s taste on several matters was peculiar; for instance, there were a few obsolete words, such as arride, agnize, burgeon, &c., which he fancied, and chose to rescue from oblivion.”

Procter cites three obsolete words that apply to Lamb with poignant exactitude. Arride, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (which cites a usage by Lamb), means “to please, gratify, delight.”  Agnize (with another Lamb citation) means “to recognize the existence, fact, or validity of; to acknowledge, accept, confess to,” and burgeon is “to bud or sprout; to begin to grow.” Lamb as essayist and letter writer is the most pleasing of authors. He acknowledged the mental illness of his sister, who fatally stabbed their mother, and cared for Mary for the remainder of his life.  He began to compose his masterpiece, the Elia essays, when already in middle age, and after more than twenty years working as a clerk in the accounting office of the British East India Company. Procter writes in his postscript: 

“Like all persons of great intellectual sensibility, Lamb responded to all impressions. To sympathize with Tragedy or Comedy only, argues a limited capacity. The mind thus constructed is partially lame or torpid. One hemisphere has never been reached.”

1 comment:

Sarang said...

But they get a lot more abstract than Hazlitt! Coleridge and Shelley for example.