Tuesday, 18 July 2006

Roast Lamb

Writing about roast pork a few months ago, I found myself diverted to lamb: Charles Lamb, that is. Then, after reading the essay on roast pig, I was inspired to re-read some of his other essays, and was reminded not only what a marvellous writer he was, but how I have been trying for years—without much success—to mimic his style. I would have liked to have been described, as Lamb has been, in these terms*: [
…A gentle, amiable and tender-hearted misanthrope.
…His jokes would be the sharpest things in the world, but that they are blunted by his good-nature.
…His bantering way with strangers was often employed by him as a mode of trying their powers of mind.
…[His essay ‘The superannuated man’] looks charming on the surface and is beautifully written and is really perfectly horrible and disgusting.
…Lamb's combination of levity and seriousness …a challenge to the flexibility and sense of nuance in his readers
…The forgiving friendliness of his manner …and the odd combination of the colloquial and the erudite in his prose style
…His impressions against religion are unaccountably strong, and yet he is by nature pious.

Typically, in an essay called “Imperfect Sympathies”, he examines his own wide-ranging racial and religious prejudices with a frank and disarming apologia:
…I confess that I do feel the differences of mankind, national or individual, to an unhealthy excess ...In a certain sense, I hope it may be said of me that I am a lover of my species. I can feel for all indifferently, but I cannot feel towards all equally. …I can be a friend to a worthy man, who upon another account cannot be my mate or fellow. I cannot like all people alike.
…I have been trying all my life to like Scotchmen, and am obliged to desist from the experiment in despair.
…I have, in the abstract, no disrespect for Jews. They are a piece of stubborn antiquity, compared with which Stonehenge is in its nonage. They date beyond the pyramids. But I should not care to be in habits of familiar intercourse with any of that nation. I confess that I have not the nerves to enter their synagogues.
…In the Negro countenance you will often meet with strong traits of benignity. I have felt yearnings of tenderness towards some of these faces that have looked out kindly upon one in casual encounters in the streets and highways. I love what Fuller beautifully calls these "images of God cut in ebony." But I should not like to associate with them, to share my meals and my good-nights with them—because they are black.
…I love Quaker ways, and Quaker worship. I venerate the Quaker principles. It does me good for the rest of the day when I meet any of their people in my path. …But I cannot like them …"to live with them." I am all over sophisticated—with humours, fancies, craving hourly sympathy. I must have books, pictures, theatres, chit-chat, scandal, jokes, ambiguities, and a thousand whim-whams, which their simpler taste can do without. I should starve at their primitive banquet.

One can see why he was admired and loved, though not by everyone. Who could be unmoved by this confession, from an 1815 letter to Southey?
"Anything awful makes me laugh. I misbehaved once at a funeral."

*Source: Peter Swaab, ‘Lamb, Charles (1775–1834)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/15912, accessed 16 July 2006]

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