Sunday, June 22, 2008

Lamb & Jerome

I've been reading essays, an endeavour that (hopefully) will improve my own writing. I've heard that Hazlitt, Lamb and Carlyle are especially good. I plan also to take a look at Burke and Macaulay. Masters of English prose!

I've begun with Lamb's Essays of Elia. I'm enjoying my leisurely stroll along his rambling lines.

I saw in a bookstore a new copy of Jerome K. Jerome's collection, Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow (issued by Hesperus in 2007). I didn't know much about Jerome. I'm glad I purchased his book, but his reflections are more uneven than Lamb's. Even though Jerome's works appeared about sixty years after Elia, it's in the former writings that outmoded attitudes preponderate with disturbing effect. Several of Jerome's articles are blighted by his smug sexism.

While Jerome sinks lower in places than Lamb, he also rises higher on occasion (so far), particularly in 'On Being Shy' and 'On Cats and Dogs'. In the latter case, we find the now cliche contrasts (cats are clever, dogs are stupid but more affable, etc.), but encounter also some nice remarks on rats ('They are ... so cruel, so secret'). Then, in the midst of his brief bestiary, Jerome breaks his humorist's pose to plumb the depths with some reflections on the Pied Piper. The children, says Jerome, "hear the weird, witched music and must follow." He continues,

"One day the sweet, sad strains will sound out full and clear, and then we too shall ... follow. The loving hands will be stretched out to stay us, and the voices we have learned to listen for will cry to us to stop. But we shall push the fond arms gently back and pass out through the sorrowing house and through the open door. For the wild, strange music will be ringing in our hearts, and we shall know the meaning of its song by then." (p. 76)

His other reflections on this fairy-tale bring out its 'uncanniness' (a term that he applies to rats).

Here are a couple of passages in which Lamb and Jerome advance similar ideas in their very different ways.

"Antiquity! thou wondrous charm, what art thou? that, being nothing, art every thing! When thou wert, thou wert not antiquity -- then thou wert nothing, but hadst a remoter antiquity, as thou calld'st it, to look back to with blind veneration; thou thyself being to thyself flat, jejune, modern! What mystery lurks in this retroversion? or what half Januses are we, that cannot look forward with the same idolatry with which we for ever revert! The mighty future is as nothing, being every thing! the past is every thing, being nothing!" -- Charles Lamb, 'Oxford in the Vacation' in Essays of Elia (c. 1820)

"It is this glamour of the past, I suppose, that makes old folk talk so much nonsense about the days when they were young. The world appears to have been a very superior sort of place then, and things were more like what they ought to be. Boys were boys then, and girls were very different. Also, winters were something like winters, and summers not at all the wretched things we get put off with nowadays. ... [T]he young folk of today will drone out precisely similar nonsense for the aggravation of the next generation." -- Jerome K. Jerome, 'On Memory' in The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow (1886)

Incidentally, here's a neat site that includes many classical essays with recent commentaries.


Anonymous said...

Excellent books - I bought Essays of Elia earlier this year having read a paean of praise in Anne Fadiman's essay on him in At Large and Small. I particularly liked A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig - particularly having seen Giles Coren and Sue Perking tackle such a dish on tv recently, during their series on historical diets

praymont said...

Hi, Tom. Yes, his Dissertation Upon Roast Pig was a tour de force (though rather harsh from the pig's perspective).

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Speaking for myself, I doubt that Lamb or Carlyle are much help to a writer today. Their voices are too idiosyncratic, maybe even too eccentric. This is one reason we still read them, but I don't know how they work as models.

Hazlitt, though - Hazlitt seems very useful. Precise prose, clear arguments, logical structure. Some of his writing feels almost contemporary, while Lamb and Carlyle look back to the great 17th and 18th century prose writers.

I'll be interested to hear what you think.

praymont said...

I find Lamb helpful in spite of his odd vocabulary and grammatical quirks. I like the rhythm of his prose and his subtle touch (although this last was not much in evidence in his Diss Upon Roast Pig). Also instructive is the way in which some of these old essayists circle around their topic, doubling back to paraphrase or illustrate, as opposed to the more straight-ahead, seriatim treatment of ideas that one finds in much modern writing.