Sunday, October 12, 2014

`Every Word, Every Line, is Just Like Him'

At age nineteen, Thomas De Quincey met Charles Lamb for the first time. It was 1804, De Quincey was just launching his career as the English Opium Eater, and Lamb, at age twenty-nine, was not yet Elia. De Quincey later admitted he had sought out Lamb as a way to meet Coleridge, Lamb’s friend from childhood. Their relations remained cautious and prickly, never intimate, but in 1838, four years after Lamb’s death, De Quincey serialized a three-part “Recollections of Charles Lamb” in Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine, collected in Vol. X of The Works of Thomas De Quincey (Pickering & Chatto, 2003). De Quincey apologizes for his mercenary “networking” as a young man and produces a lengthy apologia for Lamb the man and writer. He defends the essayist against charges of “intemperance.” With a finicky weighing of words he says Lamb “made many powerful resistances to temptation,” and “he often succeeded for long seasons in practising entire abstinence.” He continues: 

“When he did yield to the mingled temptation of wine, social pleasure, and the expansion of his own brotherly heart, that prompted him to entire sympathy with those around him, (and it cannot be denied that, for any one man to preserve an absolute sobriety amongst a jovial company, wears too much the churlish air of playing the spy upon the privileged extravagances of festive mirth) – whenever this did happen, Lamb never, to my knowledge, passed the bounds of an agreeable elevation. He was joyous, radiant with wit and frolic, mounting with the sudden motion of a rocket into the highest heaven of outrageous fun and absurdity; then bursting into a fiery shower of puns, chasing syllables with the agility of a squirrel bounding amongst the trees, or a cat pursuing its own tail; but, in the midst of all this stormy gaiety, he never said or did anything that could by possibility wound or annoy.” 

Lamb was, in other words, a very entertaining drunk, neither lachrymose nor bellicose, though presumably, on occasion, comatose. And, of course, this account is written by a man who resorted to opium, sometimes daily, for more than half a century. As a writer, De Quincey likens Lamb’s place in English literature to La Fontaine’s in French. He suggests a useful critical category: 

“Every literature possesses, besides its great national gallery, a cabinet of minor pieces, not less perfect in their polish, possibly more so. In reality, the characteristic of this class is elaborate perfection – the point of inferiority is not in the finishing, but in the compass and power of the original creation, which (however exquisite in its class) moves within a smaller sphere.” 

What De Quincey proposes is a generous definition of the great minor writer. We have Shakespeare, Dr. Johnson and George Eliot; we also have Walter Savage Landor, Max Beerbohm and Stevie Smith, and no one would risk sacrificing the pleasure of their charms in the name of critical rectitude. De Quincey calls Lamb’s essays “amongst the most elaborately-finished gems of literature; as cabinet specimens which express the utmost delicacy, purity, and tenderness.” 

In A Gallery of Literary Portraits (1845), the Scottish poet and critic George Gilfallin (1813-1878), who befriended De Quincey, writes of Lamb: 

“From the beaten track of authorship he turned aside into a narrow zig-zag footpath, where he has, hitherto, had no follower. He shunned aerial heights of speculation, and vertigo raptures of passion; he cut no Gordian knots; he winked hard at all abstruse questions; he babbled not about green fields; he detested politics; he had small sympathies with the spirit and literature of his age; but he sat still in his study, with Ben Jonson and Webster, or he puffed out poetry with his inseparable pipe—or he looked into Mary’s face till quiet tears bedimmed his eyelids—or he mounted the old Margate hoy, and enjoyed its strange humours—or he strolled forth alone in the `sweet security of streets’—or he bent over a book-stall, rather in search of his former self than to read—or he threw in puns like small crackers between the cannonades of Coleridge’s talk—or he shook poor Hazlitt by the hand till the blood was like to ooze out at his finger nails—or he threw forth the deepest strokes of sense and sagacity, as if he were ashamed of them—or he blurted out the strangest, wildest paradoxes till he made people take him for a madman, and others for an atheist—or he revelled like a Rabelais in the regions of abysmal nonsense. Lamb’s works excel all men’s in this, that they fully reflect and embalm his own singular character. Every word, every line, is just like him.”

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