It is not by chance, or without a deep ground in his nature, common to all his qualities, both affirmative and negative, that Lamb had an insensibility to music more absolute than can have been often shared by any human creature, or perhaps than was ever before acknowledged so candidly. The sense of music — as a pleasurable sense, or as any sense at all other than of certain unmeaning and impertinent differences in respect to high and low, sharp or ﬂat — was utterly obliterated as with a sponge by nature herself from Lamb’s organization. It was a corollary, from the same large substratum in his nature, that Lamb had no sense of the rhythmical in prose composition. Rhythmus, or pomp of cadence, or sonorous ascent of clauses, in the structure of sentences, were effects of art as much thrown away upon him as the voice of the charmer upon the deaf adder. We ourselves, occupying the very station of polar opposition to that of Lamb, being as morbidly, perhaps, in the one excess as he in the other, naturally detected this omission in Lamb’s nature at an early stage of our acquaintance. Not the fabled Regulus, with his eyelids torn away, and his uncurtained eye-balls exposed to the noon-tide glare of a Carthaginian sun, could have shrieked with more anguish of recoil from torture than we from certain sentences and periods in which Lamb perceived no fault at all.
– Thomas De Quincey on Charles Lamb
This excerpt of Thomas De Quincey’s operatically vicious takedown of the writing of fellow essayist Charles Lamb’s work is a treasure for three reasons. The first is the deliciously tight braiding of critical acumen and epic meanness. The second is the sheer melodrama of it all – Nature’s sponge !, the tearing of Regulus’s eyelids, shrieking in the noon-tide glare of a Carthaginian sun. Unhinged. But. There is art and wisdom buried in this empurpled soufflé of brainy spite. It has, nested in the middle, one of the most eloquent formulations of the mechanics of excellent writing. – Rhythmus, or pomp of cadence, or sonorous ascent of clauses… the structure of sentences… an indispensable sketch of the the engine that brings art to language.