How to Read a Classic

[This is taken from Arnold Bennett's Literary Taste: How to Form It]

Let us begin experimental reading with Charles Lamb. I choose Lamb for various reasons: He is a great writer, wide in his appeal, of a highly sympathetic temperament; and his finest achievements are simple and very short. Moreover, he may usefully lead to other and more complex matters, as will appear later. Now, your natural tendency will be to think of Charles Lamb as a book, because he has arrived at the stage of being a classic. Charles Lamb was a man, not a book. It is extremely important that the beginner in literary study should always form an idea of the man behind the book. The book is nothing but the expression of the man. The book is nothing but the man trying to talk to you, trying to impart to you some of his feelings. An experienced student will divine the man from the book, will understand the man by the book, as is, of course, logically proper. But the beginner will do well to aid himself in understanding the book by means of independent information about the man. He will thus at once relate the book to something human, and strengthen in his mind the essential notion of the connection between literature and life. The earliest literature was delivered orally direct by the artist to the recipient. In some respects this arrangement was ideal. Changes in the constitution of society have rendered it impossible. Nevertheless, we can still, by the exercise of the imagination, hear mentally the accents of the artist speaking to us. We must so exercise our imagination as to feel the man behind the book.

Some biographical information about Lamb should be acquired. There are excellent short biographies of him by Canon Ainger in the Dictionary of National Biography, in Chambers’s Encyclopaedia, and in Chambers’s Cyclopaedia of English Literature. If you have none of these (but you ought to have the last), there are Mr. E.V. Lucas’s exhaustive Life (Methuen, 7s. 6d.), and, cheaper, Mr. Walter Jerrold’s Lamb (Bell and Sons, 1s.); also introductory studies prefixed to various editions of Lamb’s works. Indeed, the facilities for collecting materials for a picture of Charles Lamb as a human being are prodigious. When you have made for yourself such a picture, read the Essays of Elia the light of it. I will choose one of the most celebrated, Dream Children: A Reverie. At this point, kindly put my book down, and read Dream Children. Do not say to yourself that you will read it later, but read it now. When you have read it, you may proceed to my next paragraph.

You are to consider Dream Children as a human document. Lamb was nearing fifty when he wrote it. You can see, especially from the last line, that the death of his elder brother, John Lamb, was fresh and heavy on his mind. You will recollect that in youth he had had a disappointing love-affair with a girl named Ann Simmons, who afterwards married a man named Bartrum. You will know that one of the influences of his childhood was his grandmother Field, housekeeper of Blakesware House, in Hertfordshire, at which mansion he sometimes spent his holidays. You will know that he was a bachelor, living with his sister Mary, who was subject to homicidal mania. And you will see in this essay, primarily, a supreme expression of the increasing loneliness of his life. He constructed all that preliminary tableau of paternal pleasure in order to bring home to you in the most poignant way his feeling of the solitude of his existence, his sense of all that he had missed and lost in the world. The key of the essay is one of profound sadness. But note that he makes his sadness beautiful; or, rather, he shows the beauty that resides in sadness. You watch him sitting there in his “bachelor arm-chair,” and you say to yourself:

“Yes, it was sad, but it was somehow beautiful.” When you have said that to yourself, Charles Lamb, so far as you are concerned, has accomplished his chief aim in writing the essay. How exactly he produces his effect can never be fully explained. But one reason of his success is certainly his regard for truth. He does not falsely idealize his brother, nor the relations between them. He does not say, as a sentimentalist would have said, “Not the slightest cloud ever darkened our relations;” nor does he exaggerate his solitude. Being a sane man, he has too much common-sense to assemble all his woes at once. He might have told you that Bridget was a homicidal maniac; what he does tell you is that she was faithful. Another reason of his success is his continual regard for beautiful things and fine actions, as illustrated in the major characteristics of his grandmother and his brother, and in the detailed description of Blakesware House and the gardens thereof.

Then, subordinate to the main purpose, part of the machinery of the main purpose, is the picture of the children—real children until the moment when they fade away. The traits of childhood are accurately and humorously put in again and again: “Here John smiled, as much as to say, ‘That would be foolish indeed.’” “Here little Alice spread her hands.” “Here Alice’s little right foot played an involuntary movement, till, upon my looking grave, it desisted.” “Here John expanded all his eyebrows, and tried to look courageous.” “Here John slyly deposited back upon the plate a bunch of grapes.” “Here the children fell a-crying ... and prayed me to tell them some stories about their pretty dead mother.” And the exquisite: “Here Alice put out one of her dear mother’s looks, too tender to be upbraiding.” Incidentally, while preparing his ultimate solemn effect, Lamb has inspired you with a new, intensified vision of the wistful beauty of children—their imitativeness, their facile and generous emotions, their anxiety to be correct, their ingenuous haste to escape from grief into joy. You can see these children almost as clearly and as tenderly as Lamb saw them. For days afterwards you will not be able to look upon a child without recalling Lamb’s portrayal of the grace of childhood. He will have shared with you his perception of beauty. If you possess children, he will have renewed for you the charm which custom does very decidedly stale. It is further to be noticed that the measure of his success in picturing the children is the measure of his success in his main effect. The more real they seem, the more touching is the revelation of the fact that they do not exist, and never have existed. And if you were moved by the reference to their “pretty dead mother,” you will be still more moved when you learn that the girl who would have been their mother is not dead and is not Lamb’s.

As, having read the essay, you reflect upon it, you will see how its emotional power over you has sprung from the sincere and unexaggerated expression of actual emotions exactly remembered by someone who had an eye always open for beauty, who was, indeed, obsessed by beauty. The beauty of old houses and gardens and aged virtuous characters, the beauty of children, the beauty of companionships, the softening beauty of dreams in an arm-chair—all these are brought together and mingled with the grief and regret which were the origin of the mood. Why is Dream Children a classic? It is a classic because it transmits to you, as to generations before you, distinguished emotion, because it makes you respond to the throb of life more intensely, more justly, and more nobly. And it is capable of doing this because Charles Lamb had a very distinguished, a very sensitive, and a very honest mind.  His emotions were noble. He felt so keenly that he was obliged to find relief in imparting his emotions. And his mental processes were so sincere that he could neither exaggerate nor diminish the truth.

If he had lacked any one of these three qualities, his appeal would have been narrowed and weakened, and he would not have become a classic.  Either his feelings would have been deficient in supreme beauty, and therefore less worthy to be imparted, or he would not have had sufficient force to impart them; or his honesty would not have been equal to the strain of imparting them accurately. In any case, he would not have set up in you that vibration which we call pleasure, and which is super-eminently caused by vitalizing participation in high emotion. As Lamb sat in his bachelor arm-chair, with his brother in the grave, and the faithful homicidal maniac by his side, he really did think to himself, “This is beautiful. Sorrow is beautiful.  Disappointment is beautiful. Life is beautiful. I must tell them. I must make them understand.” Because he still makes you understand he is a classic. And now I seem to hear you say, “But what about Lamb’s famous literary style? Where does that come in?”





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