DREAM-CHILD: A LIFE OF CHARLES LAMB by Eric G. Wilson, Reviewed by Adam Neikirk

By Eric G. Wilson
(Yale, 2022) 521 pp.
Reviewed by Adam Neikirk on 2022-07-19.

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"I had a vague sense of worldly trouble, and of great and serious change in my condition; besides which, I had to quit my old cloisters, and my playmates, and long habits of all sorts ... ." (Leigh Hunt, qtd. 38)

This sentiment resonates, not only with those who read Romantic writers, or watch old (or new) movies for the sense of nostalgia they bring; it likewise seems to bear forward daily on the conditions that encircle our collective lives. Something of worldly trouble has arrived a bit vaguely, and behind it, one's personal past, old cloisters, and playmates glimmer like a pile of treasure guarded from reach.

After quoting the above passage from Leigh Hunt's "Recollections of an Author's Life" in his biographical work, Lord Byron (1827), Wilson, who attributes this sentiment in a sidewise fashion to Lamb's "exile" (38) from gentle life, gives us Lamb's own pithier response:

"I don't know how it is, but I keep my rank in fancy still since school days. I can never forget I was a deputy Grecian! ... Alas! what am I now? What is a Leadenhall clerk, or India pensioner, to a deputy Grecian? How art thou fallen, O Lucifer!" (qtd. 38)

Lamb's humorous--one might say ridiculous--accounting of his lot as an adult belies what I see as Wilson's driving question behind Dream-Child: "Once exiled to Eden's east, is there a portal back to the garden?" (40)

Enclosed in the grasp of this question, Charles Lamb becomes a kind of everyman, albeit a beloved, unusual one, "light, and vain, and humorsome; a notorious *** [sot?]; addicted to *** [gin?] ..." (Lamb, qtd. 40). One could slot in different words and change the author's name; as Horace quipped long ago: mutato nomine de te fabula narrator (change but the name and the story is about you). Lamb, it seems, did not love himself. "But the child, Elia," writes Wilson, "that 'other me,' he can love" (40).

Wilson tells Lamb's story compellingly. To use a now hackneyed term, his prose is sinuous and varied, and somewhat tauter than Lamb's, which is interspersed throughout. Wilson's style creates a kind of mold around the old writing, inviting a comparison which--especially if you are reading an e-book, where page justifications are sometimes lost--makes the reading experience emerge from the author and his subject's unknowing partnership, which Wilson calls "the collapse of meaningful differences" (48).

Words and phrases in proximity take on a likeness, and the force of Lamb's prose vivifies his life before we've altogether finished with it. By the time we mount to an understanding of biographical history, we're tantalized by the way the fiction outnumbers the truths, and Lamb's stories stand open to us like peculiar doorways to a gently mysterious elsewhere.

But Wilson also knows that Lamb, unlike Wordsworth or Coleridge, chose to live and work among drudgery and realism as a clerk for the exploitative East India Company. Wilson balances this harsh reality against the hazier figments of reminiscence. "Imagine," he writes, "Jonathan Franzen ... writing ads for a drug company experimenting on animals" (58). Why don't we denounce Lamb for his complicity? In Lamb's time, Wilson points out, the stigma attached to clerking for the Company would have been far less damning than it would be today. But rather than providing a compelling excuse for Lamb, Wilson reboots his complicity: "Elia is his work" (62). The desk job is simply that, and Lamb becomes a prototype of the downtrodden working-class Londoner whose "antics" become "portals of hope" (64).

Wilson describes Lamb's beloved "Salutation & Cat" thusly: "... the closeness of the cozy wooden walls, the affections of familiar friends, and the sweet pressure of poetry made and in the making" (71). Wilson's words suggest a wooden box containing the energies of madness, and to this quaintly vibrant box he joins an observation quoted from Lamb's "Sanity of True Genius." "The poetic talent," wrote Lamb, "manifests itself in the admirable balance of all the faculties" (qtd. 72), which either echoes or is echoed by Coleridge's more famous essay on "Shakespeare's Judgment." Sanity, which Wilson defines as "the ability to flourish amid the hurly-burly" (73), stands behind Wilson's close reading of Lamb's 1818 sonnets, "Effusions," where he finds "movement without progression" (77). It is delightful to find a close reading of Lamb's verse here, and it breaks up an otherwise very long prose book.

In Wilson's former biography, Coleridge's Melancholia ((2004), which is very much in the background of this new book, the title character is said to feel "persistent pressure to attend the intricacies of outer events" (5). Wilson's Coleridge dwells in Limbo: his depression (melancholia) arises from the pressure of an outward attention that produces no action or actionable thought ("movement without progression"). Wilson's Lamb seems a species of this type as well, and the "Salutation & Cat" tavern--in reality or in the ideal--is his Limbo. Mary Lamb, whose madness is discussed at length in the chapter "Day of Horrors," has her own Limbo in Charles himself. After murdering her own mother in 1796, she is not committed to an asylum for life but rather attended by Charles, a melancholic keeper in search of calm moods. Being so populated, the new biography feels often to be straining star-like between interpersonal chaos and the tranquility of an idiosyncratic art.

Much of this chaos takes the form of mutable relations among Lamb, Coleridge, Charles Lloyd, and Robert Southey, at least in the biography's first half. The writing sometimes cons Cowper's "divine chit-chat" as Wilson takes us through the twists and turns of cooled friendships, parodied poems, and the bruised egos of literary men (even offering a point-by-point interpretation of the accusatory "Theological Propositions" sent by Lamb to Coleridge, lest we overlook how deeply Lamb could cut when he wanted to). Many readers will enjoy the Richard Holmesian flavor of gossip that permeates these pages, but sometimes we lose the forest of Lamb's life in the trees of archival detail. Lamb then becomes, sadly, a footnote to Coleridge's selfishness, his physical distance from London, and his misplaced hero-worship of William Wordsworth. Perhaps there is a subtext, but it is left largely unexplored.

Nevertheless, Wilson clearly grapples with Lamb's life in chapters such as 17, "Anatomy of Melancholy," which I especially enjoyed. Noting that "Lamb is a melancholy man" whom "today we would call . . . clinically depressed" (173), this chapter takes Andrew Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy as Lamb's own melancholy and highlights the turn to his mature style. More than that, it indirectly probes some of the difficult questions surrounding Romantic and particularly Lambean life-writing.

First, how are we supposed to write and read with interest about a man "whose spirits sink regardless of circumstance" (173)? What are we to make of the fact that "[h]e drinks heavily, a futile effort to ease the pain" (173)? Lamb is clearly an alcoholic who cannot stop drinking, no matter how hard he tries. But literature is Lamb's "therapy" (173). The impetus for the Elia essays is coming into focus.

Secondly, how can we know that what we've learned about or from Lamb is even reliable? What value for posterity can such an Elia have? In 1800, spurred on by Coleridge and others, Lamb wrote forgeries of Burton, "Curious Fragments," which no one wanted to publish. At the same time, Wilson argues, he gained an insight central to his creation of Elia: that "all we have is artifice," that "the melancholy of the world" leaves nothing "alive, nothing significant, ... behind the shroud" (175). As Burton, Wilson says, Lamb "finds a new literary voice" centered in "play" (176), one which will go into the Elia essays. At his worst, a drink-besotted Lamb, in the words of Carlyle, "wriggles hither and thither with an incessant painful fluctuation" (qtd. 180). As Joseph E. Riehl once pointed out in That Dangerous Figure: Charles Lamb and the Critics (1998), we don't like an author we can't really trust, and no one ever quite knows what Lamb is up to.

Yet Wilson insists on finding value in this literary duplicity. "If Elia allowed Lamb to explore ideas he himself found repellant," Wilson writes, "Elia also enabled Lamb to articulate desires he otherwise, most likely, would not have" (190). The Janus-facedness of Lamb/Elia takes all manner of city life within its purview. In a letter written to his friend Thomas Manning on November 28, 1800, when he was 25 years old, Lamb writes: "Streets, streets, streets, markets, theatres, churches, Covent Gardens, Shops sparkling with pretty faces ... neat sempstresses, Ladies cheapening, Gentlemen behind counters lying, Authors ... George Dyers ... Lamps lit at night, Pastry-cooks & Silver smith shops, Beautiful Quakers of Pentonville, noise of coaches ..." (qtd. 194). The list goes on; there isn't anything that Lamb the flaneur won't eat. Wilson calls this "urban Romanticism" (195, 197). Lamb's memorable phrase for London is "life awake, if you awake" (qtd. 197).

Wilson's biography reflects this eclecticism, and I sometimes felt as if I was being led away from the narrated events of Lamb's life into a more Elian experience of speculation. This style has its ups and downs. At its worst, you feel detained by explanations and digressions that lack conversational charm. Sometimes Wilson will digress simply to restate something Lamb already said or wrote. But more often, Wilson's ability to write about Lamb's writing reminds us of the sheer literary wealth to be mined from Lamb, and why we should never discount him as a major Romantic writer: perhaps British Romanticism's most tragicomic poet and prose essayist.

Wilson's chapter on "Puns" offered many pleasant examples of Lamb's love of diversion from forward motion. "If the adult Lamb can't go back to the gardens," Wilson speculates in response to his own central question, "he can at least imagine portals to where nothing happens, nothing matters" (47). Lamb's solution to adulthood, with its "superfoetation of dirt" (46), is to "float from if to if to if" (47). Puns represent a bridge between the ambiguous "'if'" and the real world; puns "blur word and thing" and induce a "belly laugh, spontaneous as a sneeze" (226). These are Wilson's words, not Lamb's. For Lamb, the pun still "limps, ashamed, in the train and retinue of humour" (226). The point of a pun, for Lamb, was to be as bad as possible. After overhearing that a man had 'lampooned' him, Lamb quipped, "I'll Lamb-pun him!" (qtd. 227)

But what can we learn from Lamb? Can we learn anything that we could not also learn from a favorite, drink-inclined uncle? Maybe this is not the right question. Wilson's magisterial biography, the first on Lamb in a century, abolishes didacticism with variety and ambiguity: seeing everything, making neither heads nor tails of it, we absorb but do not categorize. We live in what Coleridge once called "past passion with pleasure" (Collected Notebooks I, §786).

Elia's essays, which get slowly more attention in the second half of the book, feature a crepuscular array of half-seen figures, both beautiful and sad. Wilson quotes a number of Lamb's telling phrases: the "roguish grin" of a chimneysweep (242); the beggar "not under the measure of property" (244); the "superficially ... omniscient" schoolmaster (253); the money "borrower ... free from causality" (283); "lone[ly] sempstresses" with a "thousand thumbs" for reading old books "far into midnight" (290); the "owner" of bookstalls "with his hard eye, casting envious looks" (290); the "serpentine contortions" of "disgruntled theater-goers" (309); the tailor who sits "with his legs crosswise ... [in] the posture of malediction" (330); the eccentric "Mr. Lamb [Charles's brother John]... a right courteous and communicative collector" (368); the Scotsman--somewhat later--who "cannot compromise, or understand middle actions" (391); a "child angel" who is "the Tutelar Genius of Childhood upon Earth" (402); and, nearing the end, a prison inmate who is released from prison (Lamb after retirement), "lifted up into a vast revenue" and wanting a "judicious bailiff, to manage [his] estates in Time" (413).

Toward the end of this biography we are treated to a chapter titled "Three Portraits." Here we first read about, and then view, portraits of Lamb painted by Thomas Charles Wageman, Henry Meyer, and Brook Pulham:

After Thomas Charles Wageman, Portrait of Charles Lamb (1836).

Stipple and etching print by William Finden. London, British Museum.

After Henry Meyer, Charles Lamb (1826). Oil on canvas. London, National Portrait Gallery.

Brook Pulham, Charles Lamb (1825). Etching. London, National Portrait Gallery.

All three portraits show us something of the man Lamb was: the Wageman, straight-faced, distant, melancholic, and incomplete; the Meyer, presiding over literary production, relaxed, and maybe in the flush of drinking (and good spirits); and the Pulham, showing at some distance a small, lithe body and a large head in profile, making together one ponderous figure, standing with arms stubbornly crossed, staring to the side of the frame, toward something we cannot see. We can look at all three portraits and imagine Lamb coming to life in each; we can peer at these Lambs, and prod them from differing angles. But for all this prodding and poking, we can only disturb the idea of Lamb, without bringing him to life, and we enforce his endless elusions.

But this is something Wilson manages to do in his biography; in his passion for uncertainty and for quotidian urban life, and in his intimate concentration on Lamb's quiet and sometimes desperate sadness, he pins Lamb down by becoming Lamb-like himself. His biography is important because it is written in this spirit of becoming; it goes therefore a little headlong, almost beyond the genre; and it urges us, in sum, to explore for ourselves the twilit streets of the London of Lamb's spirit, bedimmed with the dark shapes of sanity, and the softer shadows of insanity that stalk his peculiar but enduring genius.

Adam Neikirk (Twitter: @tweets4thedead) is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Essex (UK) and is the Communications Officer of the Charles Lamb Society.

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