Friday, November 25, 2011

Charles Lamb and the Lloyds!

Our book today is a little thing from 1898, Charles Lamb and the Lloyds by E. V. Lucas, and it illustrates how little has ever been needed in order to justify the appearance of a new book. In this case, a cache of letters discovered in 1894, letters between members of the prosperous Lloyd banking family (the imperious father, brother Charles the fourth-rate poet, sister Priscilla who married Christopher Wordsworth, Robert Lloyd the nonentity brother) and such luminaries as Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Southey. The Lloyds were intellectually undistinguished - when Coleridge took on young Charles as a student in 1796, he very quickly went from writing the boy's father about a communion of like-minded intellects to writing the boy's father apologizing that he wouldn't really have the time to instruct the boy in anything (and laying out very clearly the terms of his room and board). Coleridge demurred only partly because he was afraid of the enormous outlay of energy it takes to shepherd a young man to intellectual awareness (although that fear alone is usually what stops would-be preceptors in their tracks); the rest of it was the result of his up-close estimation of Charles: underneath the languid 'Romantic' pose of philosophical questing, there wasn't a whole lot going on ("no birdsong in the hedgerow," as one contemporary put it).

Still, Lucas didn't require much to justify writing about Lamb. Not only was Lamb a special favorite subject for him (his biography of the man is still eminently readable), but also: Lucas didn't require much to justify writing about anything. He wrote a book review of every book he read, new or old (his friends were forever commenting on the compulsion, but he claimed it kept him in fluid form), and he sold book and theater criticism to paying journals by the yard. The appearance of a new group of letters, no matter how inconsequential in the larger scholastic picture, was guaranteed to prompt him to write something new about it for the presses.

Luckily, he's a delightful companion on the page, as this little volume proves over and over. He has to be, since the only alternative is to watch almost all the leading lights of the age desperately try and fail to strike more than a passing flash from the flinty commonality of the Lloyd mind. Seventeen of these new letters are between Charles Lamb and Robert Lloyd, when the former was twenty-three and the latter nineteen, in the autumn of 1798. Lamb - that most patient of souls - did everything he could to encourage the boy, even when circumstances with Lamb's tragic sister were bringing him nothing but trouble:
My Dear Robert, I am a good deal occupied with a calamity near home, but not so much as to prevent me thinking about you with the warmest affection - you are among my dearest friends. I know you will feel very deeply when you hear that my poor sister is unwell again; one of her old disorders, but I trust it will hold no longer than her former illnesses have done. Do not imagine, Robert, that I sink under this misfortune, I have been season'd to such events, and I think I could bear anything tolerably well. My own health is left me, and my good spirits, and I have some duties to perform - these duties shall be my object. I wish, Robert, you could find an object. I know the painfulness of vacuity, all its achings and inexplicable longings. I wish to God I could recommend any plan to you. Stock your mind well with religious knowledge; discipline it to wait with patience for duties that may be your lot in life; prepare yourself not to expect too much out of yourself; read and think. That is all commonplace advice, I know. I think, too, that it is easy to give advice which in like circumstances we might not follow ourselves. You must depend upon yourself - there will come a time when you will wonder you were not more content.

Indeed, the main joy of this volume lies not in anything the Lloyds themselves have to say but rather in Lamb's sparse but characteristically wonderful contributions.
Let them talk of lakes and mountains and romantic dales - all that fantastic stuff; give me a ramble by night, in the winter nights of London - the Lamps lit - the pavements of the motley Strand crowded with to and fro passengers - the shops all brilliant, and stuff with obliging customers and obliged tradesmem - give me the old bookstalls of London - a walk in the bright Piazzas of Covent Garden. I defy a man to be dull in such places - perfect Mahometan paradises upon earth!

Lamb was never really one to attack a man's dreams - indeed, his congeniality shines through these pages just as it lives in every chapter of Lucas' biography - so there's a good deal of very tactful restraint in his dealings with young Charles Lloyd ("I don't know if you quite comprehend my low Urban Taste," Lamb tells him at one point, uttering the early Romantic version of "It's not you, it's me"). And not just the younger Lloyd, either! The book's most schadenfreudy chapter - fit to make just about anybody laugh out loud - details some of what happened when Charles' father decided to have published some of his translations of Homer, complete with the rhymes of Pope but lacking the actual talent of Pope. Even Lamb's tact had its limits - and Lucas' too.

Charles Lamb and the Lloyds will never be reprinted - its entire life now is to be a quick, inconsequential footnote in any soup-to-nuts biography of Charles Lamb and his literary circle. But in trifles we sometimes find fascinating details too small for inclusion in bigger, more ambitious works. Those works - biographies of Lamb, Coleridge, or Wordsworth - might tell us, for instance, that the latter two poets probably detested young Charles Lloyd's bumbling literary pretensions, but they would hardly pause to make a case for the defense (even though Lamb himself certainly always would have). And Lucas? Well, he tells us "Hypersensitive natures are apt to misconstrue ..." So maybe his tact is equal to the task after all.



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