Tuesday, February 11, 2014

`The Thither Side of Innocence'

When I’m in the country, surrounded by green and brown, near placid blue water, where the soundtrack is wind and birdsong, I resolve someday to live there, to retire to a more pastoral setting. And at a friend’s house in the city, where I can walk to the bookstore and grocery, and still harvest tomatoes from the garden and have my trash carted off, I promise to move there someday. Instead, I live in a suburb-like sub-division in Houston, thick with trees and trash collection, not quite city and certainly not country, indecisively perfect for a perennially conflicted man. That’s another quality I share with Charles Lamb: 

“Lamb was old-fashioned in nothing so much as in this: that he thought London a very good place to live in, and at the same time loved the country—in fact, loved both without giving either a cause for jealousy.” 

The commentator is the poet Edward Thomas in his lesser-known role as pen-for-hire in A Literary Pilgrim in England, published in 1917, the year he was killed in the Battle of Arras. Thomas devotes eleven pages to Lamb’s contradictory paeans to rustic and urban living, gleaning the letters and essays and not neglecting the dreadful poetry. Thomas is a gifted quoter, mining even the non-Elia, essay-like letter he wrote to the editor of The Reflector in 1802: 

“Every man, while the passion is upon him, is for a time at least addicted to groves and meadows and purling streams. During this short period of my existence, I contracted just familiarity enough with rural objects to understand tolerably well ever after the poets, when they declaim in such passionate terms in favor of a country-life.” 

So far, standard-issue Romantic boilerplate (albeit better written than most). Now for the punch line: 

“For my own part, now the fit is past, I have no hesitation in declaring, that a mob of happy faces crowding up at the pit-door of Drury Lane Theatre, just at the hour of six, gives me ten thousand sincerer pleasures, than I could ever receive from all the flocks of silly sheep that ever whitened the plains of Arcadia or Epsom Downs.” 

“The fit” cinches it for me, though I part company when Lamb says he has a “passion for crowds.” My reaction is closer to anaphylaxis. I can’t breathe. Thomas dutifully charts the ever-changing London lodgings of Lamb and Mary, his sister. He notes Lamb’s regular Wednesday evening get-togethers, alcoholically lubricated, with such friends and colleagues as Coleridge, Hazlitt and Wordsworth, and adds: “Mary could walk fifteen miles a day in 1817, and at this rate she and her brother must have explored far round Brighton.” In 1823, the year he published Essays of Elia, the Lambs “mov[ed] entirely out on to the country margin of London.—He took a cottage at Colebrook Row, Islington,” Thomas writes, and after four years they moved to another still-rural area near London, Enfield. Lamb wrote acrostics and complained of the dullness of country living. In a Jan. 22, 1830, letter to Wordsworth, he writes: 

“O let no native Londoner imagine that health, and rest, and innocent occupation, interchange of converse sweet and recreative study, can make the country any thing better than altogether odious and detestable. A garden was the primitive prison till man with promethean felicity and boldness luckily sinn’d himself out of it. Thence followed Babylon, Nineveh, Venice, London, haberdashers, goldsmiths, taverns, playhouses, satires, epigrams, puns—these all came in on the town part, and the thither side of innocence.” 

The catalogue comically details the spawn of cities, while closely reflecting Lamb’s values and pleasures, the things that helped make his life worth living. Thomas, a native of Lambeth, London, understands that Lamb the writer, despite his complaints, heartfelt and faux, is a celebrator by nature. He closes his chapter on Lamb like this: 

“He was a good Londoner, but a good Hertfordshireman too, a lover of pure, gentle country—cornland, copse, and water—and of gardens refined out of it. What he saw he put down almost exactly, a little enriched, perhaps, certainly a great deal touched by the pathetic that comes of looking backward, and never more so than when he wrote of the country, because he had never known it except as a place deliberately resorted to for rest and change of air, since he was a child at Newington, at Blakesware, near Widford, at Mackery End, near Wheathampstead.”

1 comment:

Guy Walker said...

Patrick, I like 'Lamb....is a celebrator' Dabbling in a range of modern poets I often weary of the wry, knowing, tired, oblique even cynical and over-smart tone of much of the material produced.It's very rare to encounter unalloyed joy and the celebration of being alive that Lamb obviously exhibited in abundance.