Monday, March 12, 2018

`Fulness of Joy at So Much Life'

Charles Lamb was a city man, a species new in his day, who favored crowds, noise and stench to the charms of country living. He was the dedicated urbanite among the English Romantics, the emotional and aesthetic opposite of John Clare. Lamb died in 1834, two years before Dickens, the first significant city novelist, published Pickwick Papers. Passages in this novel, in their exuberant absurdity, might have been written by Lamb. Here’s an exchange between Alfred Jingle and Mr. Pickwick from the second chapter:

“`Heads, heads--take care of your heads!’ cried the loquacious stranger, as they came out under the low archway, which in those days formed the entrance to the coach-yard. `Terrible place-- dangerous work--other day--five children--mother--tall lady, eating sandwiches--forgot the arch--crash--knock--children look round—mother’s head off--sandwich in her hand--no mouth to put it in--head of a family off--shocking, shocking! Looking at Whitehall, sir?--fine place--little window--somebody else’s head off there, eh, sir?--he didn't keep a sharp look-out enough either--eh, Sir, eh?’”       

This could have been lifted from one of Lamb’s letters. Consider the one he wrote to Wordsworth on Jan. 30, 1801. Wordsworth, who was living with his sister Dorothy at Dove Cottage, Gramere, had sent Lamb the second edition of Lyrical Ballads. Lamb offers a detailed reading, largely sympathetic, of several poems in the collection. There’s a sense that Lamb is being careful of Wordsworth, who is thirty-one and already a self-styled sage. Lamb is twenty-five, and the Essays of Elia won’t be published for another twenty years. Tactfully, Lamb distinguishes his sensibility from Wordsworth’s:    

“Separate from the pleasure of your company, I don't much care if I never see a mountain in my life. I have passed all my days in London, until I have formed as many and intense local attachments as any of you mountaineers can have done with dead Nature.”

Heresy, of course, to Romantics and their admirers. But Lamb isn’t so much denigrating the rural as celebrating the urban. In his reply to Wordsworth, he anticipates Gogol, Balzac, Dostoevsky, Zola, Joyce and Bellow in his London revelry:

“The lighted shops of the Strand and Fleet Street; the innumerable trades, tradesmen, and customers, coaches, waggons, playhouses; all the bustle and wickedness round about Covent Garden; the very women of the Town; the watchmen, drunken scenes, rattles; life awake, if you awake, at all hours of the night; the impossibility of being dull in Fleet Street; the crowds, the very dirt and mud, the sun shining upon houses and pavements, the print shops, the old bookstalls, parsons cheapening books, coffee-houses, steams of soups from kitchens, the pantomimes - London itself a pantomime and a masquerade - all these things work themselves into my mind, and feed me, without a power of satiating me.”

Lamb has turned himself into a precursor of the flâneur:

“The wonder of these sights impels me into night-walks about her crowded streets, and I often shed tears in the motley Strand from fulness of joy at so much life. All these emotions must be strange to you; so are your rural emotions to me.  But consider, what must I have been doing all my life, not to have lent great portions of my heart with usury to such scenes?”

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