Magazine February 10, 2020, Issue

Living Virtuously and Writing Well

Detail of a portrait of English essayist and poet Charles Lamb, 1775–1834 (Leemage/UIG via Getty Images)

Skepticism about the cult of the loutish writer goes back at least to the first century b.c. Horace, who was no prig himself, wrote that just because great poets prize alcohol for inspiration, mediocre aspirants think sousing is all-sufficient; but, the author of the Roman Odes insists, drinking contests at night and the leftover stench of them in the daytime don’t make anyone a genius, any more than adopting Cato the Younger’s high-minded scowl, scanty toga, and bare feet would give the wearer Cato’s probity and exemplary way of life. 

Over the centuries, nobody listened to Horace, apparently. The modern era has even deeper delusions about writers’ bad behavior as a contributor to literary success. To qualify at all, the movies instruct us, you have to blow off your parents, any teacher who doesn’t think you’re a perfect natural, and any inconvenient standards of taste and decency. Anything, in fact, that occurs to you on your own to do will get you farther than reading, studying a language, or correcting the grammar of a draft. 

The new mythology goes as far as to turn the party animal into a sort of devoted inventor whose “raw material” is his own depravity. This isn’t pure bunk. A few significant talents, such as François Villon, were violent felons; a few more, such as Byron, were cruel libertines. Excitements (of pretty much any kind) in a life can enliven a life’s work. But to put too much stock in that formula is to be Norman Mailer, and finish (if not start) a career as an unreadable, sociopathic clown. 

The Mailer ethos has splattered around the entry hall of the 21st century, as the work of Internet trolls and chaos artists: These took one more logical step and concluded that destruction itself is beauty. It’s baffling how we got here, when the beauty in a virtuous forbearance of life’s trials is so plain. In the realm of writing, particularly, a crummy life, made the best of, tends to endow talent with thoughtfulness and ingenuity. How helpful can it be, after all, for a writer not to have to listen, to adapt, to please?   

For example (and the examples are innumerable), at the height of the Romantic intoxication with individualistic rebellion, Charles Lamb (1775–1834) demonstrated the benefits of self-denial. He had bouts of mental illness, but it wasn’t he who was rescued and cared for; it was his sister Mary, who had killed their mother with a kitchen knife during a fit. Charles laid down his hopes for a freestanding literary career in order to earn money clerking, make a home for her, and keep her from being locked up and forgotten. He was not just a dutiful minder but also a loving companion and respectful collaborator. They wrote Tales from Shakespeare together.

As a charity pupil, Lamb had been an inmate of Christ’s Hospital, a Dickensian institution that could have given him a Dickensian outlook. But instead of outrage, Lamb deals in complex irony; instead of sentimentality, in — there is no better word for it — joy. Countless times, he shows the cause of the difference: an almost silly gratitude. 

He rhapsodizes over his surname and the privilege of bearing an epithet of Christ. Working in an office all day, he protests, doesn’t stop a fellow from writing in his free time. Being sick can be kind of a lark. His job proves exhausting and dispiriting over the years, but his kindly boss comes through with a retirement pension. A card-playing old lady, a spark of his own wit in literary society, an inanity of Fleet Street opportunism could each satisfy his pinched hunger for delight and become a generous gift to readers, a gift wrapped in the exquisite, playfully archaic Lamb style.

My favorite Lamb essay is “Imperfect Sympathies.” It treats a normally poisonous subject, the inward workings of what’s commonly called prejudice, with so much tenderness, both for himself and for the objects of his annoyance, that offense dwindles and charm blossoms. The effect depends on a delicate frankness; such an essay probably couldn’t be written in this era — which is a tremendous pity. As a Quaker, I chortle over his account of one direction in which persecution can take a collective personality. Members of the sect could seem — because they were, he implies (and believe me, they still are) — sly, casuistic, and pig-headed. Zeroing in on William Penn’s cuteness and not mentioning his major contributions to religious freedom and legal reform (topics that there are always plenty of dull writers to cover), Lamb cites the way Penn handled a hostile judge: 

 “You will never be the wiser, if I sit here answering your questions till midnight,” said one of those upright Justicers to Penn, who had been putting law cases with a puzzling subtlety. “Thereafter as the answers may be,” retorted the Quaker.

As a Caledonophile, I treasure the essay’s account of a gathering at which Robert Burns’s son was expected: Lamb had remarked that he would rather have the father than the son, to which four of the Scotsmen present responded “that ‘that was impossible, because he was dead.’” 

Christina Rossetti (1830–1894) endured an even tighter, female version of a writer’s limitations. Her parents were cultured and her homeschooling excellent, but her abilities were of less interest to her circle than were her large, brooding eyes, lips with an arresting bow shape, and body like a champagne flute melting gracefully. She figures in many Pre-Raphaelite paintings, some by her brother Dante Gabriel. His poem and painting, both entitled “The Blessed Damozel,” which depict a sweet, fanciful, yearning angel doomed to heartbreak, could be said to sum up her life.

But Christina herself better expresses her disappointments — failed love affairs, relative literary obscurity, loneliness, poverty — and what she learned from them. She had a steady core, but her mind seems to have moved all the more swiftly around it, in a sort of orbit. “Goblin Market,” a quirky fable of sexual temptation, is as remarkable for its formal dance steps as for its fairy-tale propulsion. 

The imagery — delectable fruit, varmint goblins, elfin maidens, quaint farmhouse tasks, the lovely countryside, dragging erotic sickness, bitter moral medicine — is strung together in short lines of varying length, as short as four syllables, and with ad hoc meter, but without any impression of sloppiness:

One may lead a horse to water,
Twenty cannot make him drink.
Though the goblins cuff’d and caught her,
Coax’d and fought her,
Bullied and besought her,
Scratch’d her, pinch’d her black as ink,
Kick’d and knock’d her,
Maul’d and mock’d her,
Lizzie utter’d not a word;
Would not open lip from lip
Lest they should cram a mouthful in:
But laugh’d in heart to feel the drip
Of juice that syrupp’d all her face,
And lodg’d in dimples of her chin,
And streak’d her neck which quaked
like curd.

Social limits, a mold instead of a free-form splat, tend to do a great deal to develop a talent as well as a person. For most great writers, a hemmed-in life forced desires, knowledge, principles, and aesthetics to move in tandem, speak in appealing patterns, and make their case, communicating to the world’s much greater power. How can writers even contemplate such an achievement when they are used to pressing a button and getting the thing they want, and to understanding art as solipsistic fantasy and wish fulfillment? Amid all the conversations we’re supposed to be having, let’s have the old one again about the connection between taste and ethics.

This article appears as “Virtue’s Rewards” in the February 10, 2020, print edition of National Review.

Sarah Ruden’s most recent work is a translation of Augustine’s Confessions.

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