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Runaway Studies
by [?]

In my edition of “Elia,” illustrated by Brock, whose sympathetic pen, surely, was nibbed in days contemporary with Lamb, there is a sketch of a youth reclining on a window-seat with a book fallen open on his knees. He is clad in a long plain garment folded to his heels which carries a hint of a cathedral choir but which, doubtless, is the prescribed costume of an English public school. This lad is gazing through the casement into a sunny garden–for the artist’s vague stippling invites the suspicion of grass and trees. Or rather, does not the intensity of his regard attest that his nimble thoughts have jumped the outmost wall? Already he journeys to those peaks and lofty towers that fringe the world of youth–a dizzy range that casts a magic border on his first wide thoughts, to be overleaped if he seek to tread the stars.

And yet it seems a sleepy afternoon. Flowers nod upon a shelf in the idle breeze from the open casement. On the warm sill a drowsy sunlight falls, as if the great round orb of day, having labored to the top of noon, now dawdled idly on the farther slope. A cat dozes with lazy comfort on the window-seat. Surely, this is the cat–if the old story be believed–the sleepiest of all her race, in whose dull ear the mouse dared to nest and breed.

This lad, who is so lost in thought, is none other than Charles Lamb, a mere stripling, not yet grown to his black small-clothes and sober gaiters, a shrill squeak of a boy scarcely done with his battledore. And here he sits, his cheek upon his palm, and dreams of the future.

But Lamb himself has written of this window-seat. Journeying northward out of London–in that wonderful middle age of his in which the Elia papers were composed–journeying northward he came once on the great country house where a part of his boyhood had been spent. It had been but lately given to the wreckers, “and the demolition of a few weeks,” he writes, “had reduced it to–an antiquity.”

“Had I seen those brick-and-mortar knaves at their process of destruction,” he continues, “at the plucking of every pannel I should have felt the varlets at my heart. I should have cried out to them to spare a plank at least out of that cheerful storeroom, in whose hot window-seat I used to sit and read Cowley, with the grass-plat before, and the hum and flappings of that one solitary wasp that ever haunted it about me–it is in mine ears now, as oft as summer returns….”

I confess to a particular enjoyment of this essay, with its memory of tapestried bedrooms setting forth upon their walls “the unappeasable prudery of Diana” under the peeping eye of Actaeon; its echoing galleries once so dreadful when the night wind caught the candle at the turn; its hall of family portraits. But chiefly it is this window-seat that holds me–the casement looking on the garden and its southern sun-baked wall–the lad dreaming on his volume of Cowley, and leaping the garden border for the stars. These are the things that I admit most warmly to my affection.

It is not in the least that I am a lover of Cowley, who seems an unpleasantly antiquated author. I would choose, instead, that the youthful Elia were busy so early with one of his favorite Elizabethans. He has himself hinted that he read “The Vicar of Wakefield” in later days out of a tattered copy from a circulating library, yet I would willingly move the occasion forward, coincident to this. And I suspect that the artist Brock is also indifferent to Cowley: for has he not laid two other volumes handy on the shelf for the sure time when Cowley shall grow dull? Has he not even put Cowley flat down upon his face, as if, already neglected, he had slipped from the lad’s negligent fingers–as if, indeed, Elia’s far-striding meditation were to him of higher interest than the stiff measure of any poet?