Sunday, July 27, 2014

`His Step was Plantigrade'

Early One Morning in the Spring trails one of those long, extravagantly explicit subtitles more characteristic of books today and in the eighteenth century than in 1935: Chapters on Children and on Childhood as It Is Revealed in Particular in Early Memories and in Early Writing. The contents of the volume are likewise anachronistic by contemporary standards. One can hardly imagine a publisher in 2014 bringing out a light-hearted but serious six-hundred-page anatomy of childhood combining elements of essay, encyclopedia, anthology and literary criticism. Walter de la Mare’s book is a ramble, not a treatise. The Faber and Faber edition I borrowed from the library is the sixth impression, from 1949, and the book remains in print. Someone has been reading it (though, in my library edition, not since 1956, the year of de la Mare’s death). He takes children seriously, as few adults do. The obvious explanation for his gift is that the poet retained some essential child-like component in his adult nature, a component that passes away in most of us, like baby teeth or a cowlick. He published thirteen volumes of poetry for children and some thirty story collections. In his introduction to Early One Morning, de la Mare writes: 

“Most adults...are at least friendly to childhood and to children. With a benevolent eye they watch their gambols, are amused at their primitive oddities, give what they suppose to be the countersign, and depart. A few take children as they take one another, just as they come, welcome them for what they are, refrain from making advances, and are gladly admitted on these terms into the confraternity. The very few—as few in books as in life—have the equivalent of what the born gardener is blessed with—a green thumb. He can pluck up a plant and without the least danger examine its roots. However delicate his specimen may be, his cloistered wizardry will succeed in bringing it into flower.” 

De la Mare frequently skirts sentimentality, the obvious risk a writer runs when writing about children. But sentimentality is merely the obverse of contempt, a quality almost absent in de la Mare. He likes kids, often understands them, and would seem to enjoy their company. He accepts that some children are nearly as rotten as adults. He devotes a chapter to “Bullies,” a familiar feature of every childhood (and adulthood) from every era, a type as abidingly human as liars and thieves. He begins: “Queer-looking or eccentric children, of looks or ways, that is, not acceptable to their contemporaries—long noses, shock-hair, `carrots,’ prominent ears, tallow skin, the knock-kneed, the bow-legged, the splay-footed—are liable to a preliminary handicap.” In our newly sensitive era, we’re not supposed to notice that some people, including children, are peculiar or unpleasant looking. We’ve outgrown all that. After he notes that Oliver Goldsmith was “jeered at for his ugliness,” de la Mare continues: 

“Charles Lamb was in this respect, at least, an exception. He had a peculiar plantigrade walk, eyes differing in colour, and what has become the most famous stutter in literature. But he was also amiable, sensible and keenly observant, and was indulged on account of his stutter by both boys and masters.” 

De la Mare senses a kinship with Lamb, another benevolent, child-like soul (a sort that shows up frequently in English literary history), though childless and a lifelong bachelor. The letters and Elia essays are laced with children and childhood memories. As a boy he attended Christ’s Hospital in Newgate Street, where he befriended Coleridge. In “Christ’s Hospital Five-and-Thirty Years Ago,” he describes the whipping of a boy by a master, “after the old Roman fashion, long and stately.” Lamb is neither bitter nor nostalgic, and even corporal punishment, justly applied or not, is chronicled with a hint of comedy: 

“These solemn pageantries were not played off so often as to spoil the general mirth of the community. We had plenty of exercise and recreation after school hours; and, for myself, I must confess, that I was never happier, than in them.” 

In his description of Lamb, de la Mare borrows “plantigrade” from zoology and anatomy. The term refers to mammals (bears, badgers, raccoons) that walk on the soles of their feet. In Origin of the Species, Darwin refers in passing to “the plantigrades or bear family.” They are distinguished from mammals (cats, dogs, weasels, mongooses, ballet dancers) that walk on their toes and are known as “digitigrades.” The word evolved a more mundane meaning in the human realm: flat-footed. A school mate of Lamb’s, Valentine La Grice, told the essayist’s friend and biographer Thomas Talfourd (Final Memorials of Charles Lamb, 1849-50): 

“Lamb was an amiable, gentle boy, very sensitive and keenly observing, indulged by his schoolfellows and by his master on account of his infirmity of speech. His countenance was mild, his complexion clear brown, with an expression which might lead you to think that he was of Jewish descent. His eyes were not each of the same colour, one was hazel, the other had specks of grey in the iris, mingled as we see red spots in the bloodstone. His step was plantigrade, which made his walk slow and peculiar, adding to the staid appearance of his figure.”

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