No writer has occupied more of my time and thought in recent months than Charles Lamb, whom I first read, indifferently, more than 35 years ago. The memory is dim but I think I found Lamb too quaint to be compelling for a young reader already seduced by Joyce and Beckett. Lamb was sold as a humorist, Robert Benchley’s English cousin, with the whispered implication that his essays were amusing but fly-weight trifles. Oxymoronically, his Essays of Elia (1823) are seriously charming or charmingly serious, and written in some of the most freely associative prose you’ll ever enjoy. He fools earnest readers. Consider this aside in “All Fool’s Day,” an essay consisting of nothing but asides:
“The more laughable blunders a man shall commit in your company, the more tests he giveth you, that he will not betray or overreach you. I love the safety, which a palpable hallucination warrants; the security, which a word out of season ratifies. And take my word for this, reader, and say a fool told it you, if you please, that he who hath not a dram of folly in his mixture, hath pounds of much worse matter in his composition.”
This is dancing, cavorting, punning prose: “a palpable hallucination.” Lamb helped turn English prose into a flexible, discursive medium, responsive to the shifts and digressions of consciousness. A professor once warned a student that his fiction was abjectly derivative of Laurence Sterne’s, and that imitating Tristram Shandy was a fatal undertaking. The same holds for Lamb’s essays, though we can always find inspiration in his bottomless, self-replenishing sense of invention.
Lamb identified himself with a patchwork tradition of English writers, especially Browne and Burton, but I hear echoes of another master, Montaigne, even in the passage cited above which lightly carries a burden of moral insight and self-knowledge worthy of the French master. Lamb, like Montaigne, invented a new way of looking at the self, especially with the freedom granted by his adopted persona, Elia. One of Lamb’s biographers, the literary journalist E.V. Lucas, in 1934, the centenary of the essayist’s death, published a curious little tribute, At the Shrine of St. Charles. In a chapter titled “The Evolution of Whimsicality,” Lucas writes:
“Lamb’s great discovery was that he himself was better worth laying bare than obscuring: that his memories, his impressions, his loyalties, his dislikes, his doubts, his beliefs, his prejudices, his enthusiasms, in short, everything that was his, were suitable material for literature. Pope said that the proper study of mankind was man; Lamb amended this to – the proper study of man is himself. If you know yourself and have confidence in your moods and general sagacity, a record is worth making.”
Of course, without the qualifications Lucas adds in the final sentence – confidence and sagacity – you’re left with narcissism, the lingua franca of the blogosphere and most contemporary memoirs. Lucas continues:
“Before Elia, no one writing for print had assumed that his own impressions of life, grave and gay, were a sufficient or even suitable subject. Such self-analytical authors as there had been had selected and garnished according to the canons of taste of their time. Lamb came naturally to his task and fondled and displayed his ego with all the ecstasy of a collector exhibiting bric-à-brac or first editions; and ever since then, acting upon his sanction, others have been doing it. But what has at the moment the most interest to me is that part of Lamb’s legacy which embodies his freakish humour; it was his willingness to be naturally funny that has benefited so many heirs. I should say that his principal service to other writers lay in giving them, by his example, encouragement to be their age (as the American slang has it), to mix their comic fancies with their serious thoughts as they are mixed in real life.”
This, about the man who referred to a Quaker meeting as a “Nothing-plotting, nought-caballing, unmischievous synod!” Who said of roast pig: “Of all the delicacies in the whole mundus edibilis, I will maintain it to be the most delicate—princeps obsoniorum.” And who wrote of a library:
“It seems as though all the souls of all the writers, that have bequeathed their labours to these Bodleians, were reposing here, as in some dormitory, or middle state. I do not want to handle, to profane the leaves, their winding-sheets. I could as soon dislodge a shade. I seem to inhale learning, walking amid their foliage; and the odour of their old moth-scented coverings is fragrant as the first bloom of those sciential apples which grew amid the happy orchard.”
Most prose sounds anemic after reading Lamb’s iron-rich sentences. I prescribe a wholesome diet of roast pig, sciential apples and Lamb.