Thursday, April 26, 2018

`What Soothes the Frailty of Human Nature'

“He does not march boldly along with the crowd, but steals off the pavement to pick his way in the contrary direction. He prefers bye-ways to highways.”

And who doesn’t? Crowds are noisy and block the scenery. They induce claustrophobia and discourage thought. How much thinking is accomplished at a rock concert, street protest or political convention? Crowds erase us. For some, that’s the attraction.

“When the full tide of human life pours along to some festive shew, to some pageant of a day, Elia would stand on one side to look over an old book-stall, or stroll down some deserted pathway in search of a pensive inscription over a tottering door-way, or some quaint device in architecture, illustrative of embryo art and ancient manners.”

“Elia” gives it away. This is Hazlitt writing about his unlikely friend Charles Lamb in The Spirit of the Age (1825). “Unlikely” because for Lamb anything might prove fodder for comedy, while Hazlitt had a broad earnest streak. He wasted his final years writing a four-volume biography of Napoleon. One of his finest essays is “On the Pleasure of Hating.” Two such contrasting friends turned themselves into the most charming essayists in the language, along with Dr. Johnson, whose style Hazlitt described as “always upon stilts.”

“Mr. Lamb has the very soul of an antiquarian, as this implies a reflecting humanity; the film of the past hovers for ever before him. He is shy, sensitive, the reverse of every thing coarse, vulgar, obtrusive, and common-place.”     

Lamb was tougher than Hazlitt implies. For thirty-eight years he cared for his mentally ill sister, “Mad” Mary Lamb, who had fatally stabbed their mother with a kitchen knife. About the nature of Lamb’s soul, Hazlitt is correct. When an editor declined to publish his sonnet, Lamb wrote: “Damn the age; I will write for Antiquity!” His favorite genre was old.

“He has none of the turbulence or froth of new-fangled opinions. His style runs pure and clear, though it may often take an underground course, or be conveyed through old-fashioned conduit-pipes. Mr. Lamb does not court popularity, nor strut in gaudy plumes, but shrinks from every kind of ostentatious and obvious pretension into the retirement of his own mind.”

Lamb assumed that any popular opinion was not only wrong but probably dangerous. Few writers are so indifferent to fashion, and fewer are so militantly themselves.

“Mr. Lamb rather affects and is tenacious of the obscure and remote: of that which rests on its own intrinsic and silent merit; which scorns all alliance, or even the suspicion of owing any thing to noisy clamour, to the glare of circumstances. There is a fine tone of chiaro-scuro, a moral perspective in his writings. He delights to dwell on that which is fresh to the eye of memory; he yearns after and covets what soothes the frailty of human nature. That touches him most nearly which is withdrawn to a certain distance, which verges on the borders of oblivion:— that piques and provokes his fancy most, which is hid from a superficial glance.”

Typically, when Lamb played the parlour game described in Hazlitt’s “Of Persons One Would Wish to Have Seen,” he chose to meet two seventeenth-century savants, Sir Thomas Browne and Fulke Greville, who might show up on my short list as well. Here is Lamb on the author of Caelica:

“`As to Fulke Greville, he is like nothing but one of his own `Prologues spoken by the ghost of an old king of Ormus,’ a truly formidable and inviting personage: his style is apocalyptical, cabalistical, a knot worthy of such an apparition to untie; and for the unravelling a passage or two, I would stand the brunt of an encounter with so portentous a commentator!’ `I am afraid, in that case,’ said Ayrton, `that if the mystery were once cleared up, the merit might be lost;’ and turning to me, whispered a friendly apprehension, that while Lamb continued to admire these old crabbed authors, he would never become a popular writer."

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