Saturday, July 16, 2011

'I Am in Love with This Green Earth'

Walking from the library back to my office, in the flickering shade of the live oaks, I thought about something a reader had written to me concerning Charles Lamb:

“It turns out that Lamb had in many ways a vexing life (again, few of us have a mad sister who knifes our mother to death). Lamb had to go to work at age fourteen. He labored up to ten hours a day for six days a week for thirty-six years. He worked in a counting house. He didn’t like the job. He explains all about his job in his essay `The Superannuated Man.’ I love the way this essay ends. Lamb was also an alcoholic.”

Yes, he was, but not in the familiar literary mold of John Berryman or Malcolm Lowry. As writer and man, Lamb was a charming, witty, frequently beneficent drunk, almost saintly in his devotion to Mad Mary Lamb. History has pegged him a humorist, and his essays and letters, even through the scrim of Elia, and largely because of the inspired unruliness of his language (“whim-whams” he called his archaisms and digressions), can make a twenty-first-century sophisticate laugh out loud. But almost always, even at his silliest and most pun-ridden, his words are suffused with the grimness of the indelibly funny. In this, he reminds us of a writer he much admired, Laurence Sterne. In “Confessions of a Drunkard,” included by my reader in his email, Lamb writes:

“Life itself, my waking life, has much of the confusion, the trouble, and obscure perplexity, of an ill dream. In the day time I stumble upon dark mountains.”

The metaphor mutes the melancholy. Had he written, “My life is terrible,” who would care? Who would wish to read it? The same is true of another essay, “New Year’s Eve.” It starts as a folksy look at the holiday, already associated two centuries ago with revelry, and modulates into a meditation on mortality:

“I am naturally, beforehand, shy of novelties; new books, new faces, new years,--from some mental twist which makes it difficult in me to face the prospective. I have almost ceased to hope; and am sanguine only in the prospects of other (former) years.”

Sensing that he skirts middle-aged self-pity, Lamb responds with a gesture of gratitude, celebrating the coming of the New Year:

“I am in love with this green earth; the face of town and country; the unspeakable rural solitudes, and the sweet security of streets. I would set up my tabernacle here.”

This back and forth, give and take, is typical of Lamb. His wavering lends the essays certainty. We must accept the whole man, contemptible and admirable, Jeremiah and joker, as we accept the world. He writes in the following paragraph:

“Sun, and sky, and breeze, and solitary walks, and summer holidays, and the greenness of fields, and the delicious juices of meats and fishes and society, and the cheerful glass, and candle-light, and fireside conversations, and innocent vanities, and jests, and irony itself -- do these things go out with life?”

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