Saturday, November 25, 2017

`He Is No Pedant nor Bookworm'

“It is hard to discern the oak in the acorn, or a temple like St. Paul's in the first stone which is laid . . .”

Or to see in the child if he will prove father to the man. Charles Lamb is writing on this date, Nov. 25, 1819, to Dorothy Wordsworth, describing a visit by her nephew, William Jr., the poet’s son, who is nine years old. Based on Lamb’s observations, Willy, as the essayist calls him, is smart and quick-witted, and probably better company than his father. Ever a bachelor, ever without spawn, Lamb writes:

“Till yesterday I had barely seen him,--Virgilium tantum vidi; but yesterday he gave us his small company to a bullock’s heart, and I can pronounce him a lad of promise. He is no pedant nor bookworm; so far I can answer. Perhaps he has hitherto paid too little attention to other men's inventions, preferring, like Lord Foppington, the ‘natural sprouts of his own.’ But he has observation, and seems thoroughly awake.”

The Latin tag is from Ovid’s Tristia and Lamb gives its sense, if not a literal translation, in the preceding English phrase. Lord Foppington is a character in The Relapse, or, Virtue in Danger, a 1696 play by John Vanbrugh. Lamb will use the same phrase as the epigraph to “Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading.” Further on, Lamb refers to his sister, matricidal Mary Lamb, as a “she-Aristotle,” which made me laugh out loud. Lamb takes Willy for a visit to William Cross’ Exeter Exchange, which included an early zoo. The next section of the letter is worth quoting at length:

“William’s genius, I take it, leans a little to the figurative; for being at play at tricktrack (a kind of minor billiard-table which we keep for smaller wights, and sometimes refresh our own mature fatigues with taking a hand at), not being able to hit a ball he had iterate aimed at, he cried out, `I cannot hit that beast.’ Now, the balls are usually called men, but he felicitously hit upon a middle term,--a term of approximation and imaginative reconciliation; a something where the two ends of the brute matter (ivory) and their human and rather violent personification into men might meet, as I take it,--illustrative of that excellent remark in a certain preface about imagination, explaining `Like a sea-beast that had crawled forth to sun himself!’ Not that I accuse William Minor of hereditary plagiary, or conceive the image to have come ex traduce. Rather he seemeth to keep aloof from any source of imitation, and purposely to remain ignorant of what mighty poets have done in this kind before him; for being asked if his father had ever been on Westminster Bridge, he answered that he did not know!”

The OED tells us “tricktrack” (or “tric-trac”) is “an old variety of backgammon.” Lamb paraphrases lines from Wordsworth’s “Resolution and Independence”: Like a sea-beast crawled forth, that on a shelf / Of rock or sand reposeth, there to sun itself.” The crack about Westminster Bridge is a reference to the boy’s father’s sonnet “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802.” And so on. Lamb is a wildly associative writer, with everything reminding him of something else – a gift he has in common with most of the best essayists. In his great three-volume edition of Lamb’s letters, published in 1935, E.V. Lucas writes of this letter:

“This letter, which refers to a visit paid to the Lambs in Great Russell Street by Wordsworth’s son, William, then nine years old [the poet’s longest-lived child, Willy died in 1883], is remarkable, apart from its charm and humour, for containing some of the absolute method of certain of Lamb’s Elia passages than anything he had yet written.”

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