Saturday, April 14, 2018

`Under Gravestones of the Long Ago'

The Dictionary of National Biography compacts the life of Thomas Westwood (1814–1888) into a six-word epithet: “minor poet and bibliographer of angling.” We remember him, if at all, as a minor character in the life and letters of Charles Lamb (1774-1834), who retired with his sister Mary to Enfield in 1827 after leaving the East India Company. A more prominent role in the letters is given to an Enfield neighbor, Westwood’s father, also named Thomas and called “Gaffer” by Lamb.

Thomas Jr. was twelve when he first met Lamb, and the essayist permitted the boy to use his library. He read Lamb’s copy of Izaak Walton’s The Complete Angler, a glory of fishing lore and seventeenth-century prose. Westwood called the volume “my chief treasure, pearl of price.” He published his first volume of poems in 1840, carried on a correspondence with Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and was praised by Walter Savage Landor. In 1861, Westwood published his magnum opus, A new bibliotheca piscatoria, or, General catalogue of angling and fishing literature, with bibliographical notes and data. In sum, a commendable, productive life, and Westwood acknowledged the debt he owed Lamb and, in 1866 published a remembrance of Lamb in the journal Notes and Queries. Lamb, he writes, “turned me loose in his library, and initiated me into a school of literature.” That is, Lamb’s school: “Beaumont and Fletcher, Webster, Farquhar, Defoe, Fielding—these were the pastures in which I delighted to graze, in those early years.”

In 1884, Westwood published a second tribute, “Lamb’s Old Books,” in which he writes: “Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici, old Burton’s Anatomy, Drayton’s Polyolbion, Heywood’s Hierarchy of the Blessed Angels, the Duchess of Newcastle’s Sociable Letters, and a host of others, all wore the costume of their time and looked happy and at home in it. The general effect was harmonious, quaint, Elizabethan, and suited to the individuality of the owner. A dear old library, that, in which I passed most of my boyish leisure.”

In the 1866 recollection, Westwood makes it clear he understood Lamb better than most of his readers and critics. Lamb was no poseur or other-worldly nostalgist. He had superb taste in writing and no fear of being judged old-fashioned. Westwood writes:

“Charles Lamb was a living anachronism—a seventeenth century man, mislaid and brought to light two hundred years too late. Never did author less belong to what was, nominally, his own time; he could neither sympathize with it, nor comprehend it. His quaintness of style and antiquarianism of taste were no affectation. He belonged to the school of his contemporaries, but they were contemporaries that never met him in the streets, but were mostly to be found in Poet’s Corner, or under gravestones of the long ago.”

[Westwood’s memoirs are collected in Charles Lamb: His Life Recorded by His Contemporaries, edited by Edmund Blunden, The Hogarth Press, 1934.]

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