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A bit on Lamb: Perfect and Imperfect Solitude

Continuing with the so-called 'minor' Romantics (currently reading John Thelwall's Peripatetic), recently read Charles Lamb. There was a lot I found interesting - the literary and dramatic criticism, obviously, but also the strong sense of embodied, rhythmic existence in essays like 'The Superannuated Man' (on the cessation of work) or 'The Convalescent' (on illness) which strikingly contrasts with his apparent preference for disembodied aesthetics (e.g. the famous assertion that Hamlet is better read than performed).

However, perhaps because I've been thinking in my own research about the trope of retirement in Cowper, the text I found most interesting was the 1821 essay 'A Quaker's Meeting'. Nominally, it is about one thing: the redefinition of solitude into 'imperfect' and 'perfect' forms. The former is the solitude of classically conceived religious retirement: that of the hermit, for instance, or lone meditation ('to pace alone in the cloisters, or side aisles of some cathedral, time-stricken', p.528).* The latter, more experimental, is found in an 'agreeing spirit of incommunicativeness', found in monastic communities, fireside/evening reading and, above all, in the meetings of the Quaker movement which are 'frequently broken up without a word having been spoken' (p.531).

This is interesting in itself, since it attempts to square one of the long eighteenth-century's perennial circles: the relationship between withdrawal into the self and the values of sociability. However, I think there are a series of other dimensions to the essay.

Firstly, I'd like to read it alongside something like Leigh Hunt's Christianism (later, and more famously, reprinted in the Victorian era as The Religion of the Heart), which attempted to navigate a radically (post?-)Protestant future for religion: relocating spiritual experience, as Schleiermacher has already done, in the emotional promptings of the individual mind, whilst trying to understand where ritual and community would figure. The problem with something like Christianism was that its insistent rationalism necessarily failed to visualise a viable world of religious practice. Although Lamb was not a Quaker himself, the value of Quaker faith as one that did not lose touch with intersubjectivity, tradition or emotional force. Lamb is careful to array Quakerism within a Christian history, and to note 'the dove sat brooding' (p.530) over their primitive assemblies. In the time of Quaker silence, therefore, is a strangely post-ritualistic ritualism.

Secondly, I think Quaker space is interestingly poised in relation to Romanticism. It is clear that by the early nineteenth-century, what Phyllis Mack calls 'heart religion' (Evangelism, both inside and outside of the Church of England) had cross-fertilised with Romantic literature and aesthetics. Lamb's vertically-dominated description of deep silence, night, wilderness etc. chimes with Romantic tropes, particularly when framed in terms of sublime paradoxes: 'deeps, that call unto deeps. Negation itself hath a positive' (p.528). There are quotations from the Romantics, and references to antique deserts, storm-tossed seas and overhanging mountains. Yet, Lamb is implicitly interrogating such Wordsworthian raptures in nature as solipsism - as 'imperfect solitude' - and speaking instead of the more humble, radical, urban space of the Quaker meeting as the site of a fuller transcendence (one, interestingly, which is also gender-equal).

It is, I think, important to note that this 'counter-Romantic' impulse does not resolve down to a preference for inner experience (wherever experienced) to outer experience. The Quaker space as a physical assembly - as a real, external location - is central to Lamb. These are not just silent individuals enwrapped in their own prayers, but individuals joined together, creating a sacral bond that is between and above individuality. Central to this is how Lamb co-opts the (still potent) discourse of sympathy (literally sym-pathos, feeling-with-others): 'can there be no sympathy without the gabble of words?...This is the loneliness 'to be felt'' (p.528). There has been a sermon, he avows, albeit 'not made with hands' (p. 531). Tranquil, refreshing, even pastoral: the essay avows silence as a consciously chosen and thus significant piece of language: indeed, precisely because the silence must be socially constructed, it is far more profound than the contingent or 'accidental' silence of nature and natural retreat: 'what is the stillness of the desert, compared with this place? what the uncommunicating muteness of fishes?' (p.527). Not least, this final insistence on a communicating muteness as opposed to an uncommunicating muteness gives added edge to the essay's subtly politicised paradoxes: 'convocation without intrigue! parliament without debate!' (p.529). Although Lamb was not proselytising for the Quakers, their radical silences are evoked as a subversive deconstruction of his society's institutions of language - and power.

* Charles Lamb, 'A Quaker's Meeting' in The Works of Charles Lamb: Miscellaneous Prose, Elia, Last Essays of Elia, ed. Thomas Hutchinson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1908)

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