Copyright
Charles Lamb.

Charles Lamb's essays : as first published in the London magazine : 1820-1825 online

. (page 27 of 33)
Online LibraryCharles LambCharles Lamb's essays : as first published in the London magazine : 1820-1825 → online text (page 27 of 33)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Magna. " Johannes, Jilius Hahakuk et Rebeccce Liston, Dissentientium,
natus quinto Decembri 1780, baptizatus sexto Februarii sequentis;
Sponsoribus J. et TV. Woollaston, una. cum Maria Merry weather." The
singularity of an Anabaptist minister conforming to the child rites of the
church, would have tempted me to doubt the authenticity of this entry,
had I not been obliged with the actual sight of it, by the favour of Mr.
Minns, the intelligent and worthy parish clerk of Lupton. Possibly
some expectation in point of worldly advantages from some of the
sponsors, might have induced this unseemly deviation, as it must have
appeared, from the practice and principles of that generally rigid sect.
The term Dissentientium was possibly intended by the orthodox clergy-
man as a slur upon the supposed inconsistency. What, or of what
nature, the expectations we have hinted at, may have been, we have
now no means of ascertaining. Of the Wollastons no trace is now
discoverable in the village. The name of Merry weather occurs over the
front of a grocer's shop at the western extremity of Lupton.

Of the infant Liston we find no events recorded before his fourth
year, in which a severe attack of the measles bid fair to have robbed the .
rising generation of a fund of innocent entertainment. He had it of
the confluent kind, as it is called, and the child's life was for a week or
two despaired of. His recovery he always attributes (under Heaven) to
the humane interference of one Doctor .Wilhelm Richter, a German
empiric, who, in this extremity, prescribed a copious diet of Satir Kraut,
which the child was observed to reach at with avidity, when other food
repelled him; and from this change of diet his restoration was rapid and
complete. We have often heard him name the circumstance with
gratitude ; and it is not altogether surprising, that a relish for this kind
of aliment, so abhorrent and harsh to pommon English palates, has
accompanied him through life. When any of Mr. Liston's intimates;



1825.] MEMOIR OF MR. LISTON. 19

invite him to supper, he never fails of finding, nearest to his knife and'
fork, a dish of Saur Kraut.

At the age of nine we find our subject under the tuition of the Rev.
Mr. Goodenough (his father's health not permitting him probably to
instruct him himself), by whom he was inducted into a competent portion
of Latin and Greek, with some mathematics, till the death of Mr.
Goodenough, in his own seventieth, and Master Listen's eleventh year,
put a stop for the present to his classical progress.

We have heard our hero with emotions, which do his heart honour,
describe the awful circumstances attending the decease of this worthy
old gentleman. It seems they had been walking out together, master
and pupil, in a fine sunset, to the distance of three quarters of a mile
west of Lupton, when a sudden curiosity took Mr. Goodenough to look
down upon a chasm, where a shaft had been lately sunk in a mining specu-
lation (then projecting, but abandoned soon after, as not answering the
promised success, by Sir Ralph Shepperton, Knight, and member for the
county). The old clergyman leaning over, either with incaution, or
sudden giddiness (probably a mixture of both), suddenly lost his footing,
and, to use Mr. Liston's phrase, disappeared ; and was doubtless broken
into a thousand pieces. The sound of his head, &c. dashing successively
upon the projecting masses of the chasm, had such an effect upon the
child, that a serious sickness ensued, and even for many years after his
recovery he was not once seen so much as to smile.

The joint death of both his parents, which happened not many months
after this disastrous accident, and were probably (one or both of them)
accelerated by it, threw our youth upon the protection of his maternal great
aunt, Mrs. Sittingbourn. Of this aunt we have never heard him speak but
with expressions amounting almost to reverence. To the influence of
her early counsels and manners, he has always attributed the firmness
with which, in maturer years, thrown upon a way of life, commonly not
the best adapted to gravity and self-retirement, he has been able to
maintain a serious character, untinctured with the levities incident to his
profession. Ann Sittingbourn (we have seen her portrait by Hudson)
was stately, stiff, tall, with a cast of features strikingly resembling the
subject of this memoir. Her estate in Kent was spacious and well-
wooded; the house, one of those venerable old mansions which are
so impressive in childhood, and so hardly forgotten in succeeding years.
In the venerable solitudes of Chamwood, among thick shades of the oak
and beech (this last his favourite tree), the young Liston cultivated those
contemplative habits which have never entirely deserted him in after
years. Here he was commonly in the summer months to be met with,
witk a book in his hand — not a play-book — meditating. Boyle's Reflec-
tions was at one time the darling volume, which in its turn was
superseded by Young's Night Thoughts, which has continued its hold
upon him through life. He carries it always about him j and it i« no

C2



20 MEMOIR OF MR. LISTON. |^Jan.

uncommon thing for him to be seen, in the refreshing intervals of his
occupation, leaning against a side scene, in a sort of Herbert of Cherbury
posture, turning over a pocket edition of his favourite author.

But the solitudes of Charnwood were not destined always to obscure
the path of our young hero. The premature death of Mrs. Sittingbourn,
at the age of 70, occasioned by incautious burning of a pot of charcoal
in her sleeping chamber, left him in his 19th year nearly without
resources. That the stage at all should have presented itself as an
eligible scope for his talents, and, in particular, that he should have
chosen a line so foreign to what appears to have been his turn of mind,
may require some explanation.

At Charnwood then we behold him thoughtful, grave, ascetic. From
his cradle averse to flesh meats, and strong drink; abstemious even
beyond the genius of the place ; and almost in spite of the remonstrances
of his great aunt, who, though strict, was not rigid; water Was his
habitual drink, and his food little beyond the mast, and beech nuts, of his
favourite groves. It is a medical fact, that this kind of diet, however
favourable to the contemplative powers of the primitive hermits, &c., is
but ill adapted to the less robust minds and bodies of a later generation.
Hypochondria almost constantly ensues. It was so in the case of the
young Liston. He was subject to sights, and had visions. Those arid
beech nuts, distilled by a complexion naturally adust, mounted into an
occiput, already prepared to kindle by long seclusion, and the fervour of
strict Calvinistic notions. In the glooms of Charnwood he was assailed
by illusions, similar in kind to those which are related of the famous
Anthony of Padua. Wild antic faces would ever and anon protrude
themselves upon his sensorium. Whether he shut his eyes, or kept them
open, the same illusions operated. The darker and more profound were
his cogitations, the droller and more whimsical became the apparitions.
They buzzed about him thick as flies, flapping at him, flouting him,
hooting in his ear, yet with such comic appendages, that what at first was
his bane, became at length his solace ; and he desired no better society
than that of his merry phantasmata. We shall presently find in what
way this remarkable phenomenon influenced his future destiny.

On the death of Mrs. Sittingbourn, we find him received into the
family of Mr. Willoughby, an eminent Turkey merchant, resident in
Birchin-lane, London. We lose a little while here the chain of his
history ; by what inducements this gentleman was determined to make
him an inmate of his house. Probably he had had some personal kind-
ness for Mrs. Sittingbourn formerly ; but however it was, the young man
was here treated more like a son than a clerk, though he was nominally
but the latter. Different avocations, the change of scene, with that
alternation of business and recreation, which in its greatest perfection is
to be had only in London, appear to have weaned him in a short time
from the hypochondriacal affections which had beset him at Charnwood.



1825.]] M*:^OIR OF MR. LI5T0N. 21

In the three years which followed his removal to Birchin-lane, we find
him making more than one voyage to the Levant, as chief factor for Mr.
Willoughby, at the Porte. We could easily fill our biography with the
pleasant passages which we have heard him relate as having happened
to him at Constantinople, such as his having been taken up on suspicion
of a design of penetrating the seraglio, &c. ; but with the deepest coii-
vincement of this gentleman's own veracity, we think that some of the
stories are of that whimsical, and others of that romantic nature, which,
however diverting, would be out of place in a narrative of this kinc^,
which aims not only at strict truth, but at avoiding the very appearance
of the contrary.

We will now bring him over the seas again, and suppose him in the
counting-house in Bii*chin-laue, his protector satisfied with the returns of
his factorage, and all going on so smoothly that we may expect to find
Mr. Liston at last an opulent merchant upon 'Change, as it is called. But
see the turns of destiny ! Upon a summer's excursion into Norfolk, in the
year 1801, the accidental sight of pretty Sally Parker, as she was called
(then in the Norwich company), diverted his inclinations at once from
commerce ; and he became, in the language of common-place biography,
stage-struck. Happy for the lovers of mirth was it, that our hero took
this turn; he might else have been to this hour that unentertaining
character, a plodding London merchant.

We accordingly find him shortly after making his debut, as it is called,
upon the Norwich boards, in the season of that year, being then in the
22d year of his age. Having a natural bent to tragedy, he chose the
part of Pyrrhus in the Distressed Mother, to Sally Parker's Hermione.
We find him afterwards as Barnwell, Altamont, Chamont, &c. ; but, as if
nature had destined him to the sock, an unavoidable infirmity absolutely
discapacitated him for tragedy. His person at this latter period, of which
I have been speaking, wa& graceful, and even commanding; his coun-
tenance set to gravity ; he had the power of arresting the attention of an
audience at first sight almost beyond any other tragic actor. But he
could not hold it. To understand this obstacle we must go back a few
years to those appalling reveries at Chamwood. Those illusions, which
had vanished before the dissipation of a less recluse life, and more free
society, now in his solitary tragic studies, and amid the intense calls upon
feeling incident to tragic acting, came back upon him with tenfold vivid-
ness. In the midst of some most pathetic passage, the parting of Jaffier
with his dying friend, for instance, he would suddenly be surprised witk
a fit of violent horse laughter. While the spectators were all sobbing
before him with emotion, suddenly one of those grotesque faces would
peep out upon him, and he could not resist the impulse. A timely excuse
once or twice served his purpose, but no audiences could be expected to
bear repeatedly this violation of the continuity of feeling. He describes
them (the illusions) as so many demons haunting him, and paralysing



THE FALLEN STAR.



CJan.



every efFect. Even now, I am told, he cannot recite the famous soliloquy
in Hamlet, even in private, without immoderate bursts of laughter.
However, what he had not force of reason sufficient to overcome, he had
good sense enough to turn into emolument, and determined to make a
commodity of his distemper. He prudently exchanged the buskin for
the sock, and the illusions instantly ceased ; or, if they occurred for a
short season, by their very co-operation added a zest to his comic vein ;
some of his most catching faces being (as he expresses it) little more than
transcripts and copies of those extraordinary phantasmata.

We have now drawn out our hero's existence to the period when he
was about to meet for the first time the sympathies of a London audience.
The particulars of his success since have been too much before our
eyes to render a circumstantial detail of them expedient. I shall only
mention that Mr. Willoughby, his resentments having had time to
subside, is at present one of the fastest friends of his old renegado factor ;
and that Mr. Liston's hopes of Miss Parker vanishing along with his
unsuccessful suit to Melpomene, in the autumn of 1811 he married his
present lady, by whom he has been blest with one son, Philip ; and two
daughters, Ann, and Angustina.




1825.3 A VISION OP HOHNa. 29



A VISION OF HORNS.

My thoughts had been engaged last evening in solving the problem,
why in all times and places the horn has been agreed upon as the symbol,
or honourable badge, of married men. Moses' horn, the horn of Ammon,
of Amalthea, and a cornucopia of legends besides, came to my recol-
lection, but afforded no satisfactory solution, or rather involved the
question in deeper obscurity. Tired with the fruitless chase of inexplicant
analogies, I fell asleep, and dreamed in this fashion.

Methought certain scales or films fell from my eyes, which had hitherto
hindered these little tokens from being visible. I was somewhere in the
Cornhill (as it might be termed) of some Utopia. Busy citizens jostled
each other, as they may do in our streets, with care (the care of making
a penny) written upon their foreheads ; and something else, which is
rather imagined, than distinctly imaged, upon the brows of my own
friends and fellow-townsmen.

In my first surprise I supposed myself gotten into some forest — Arden,
to be sure, or Sherwood; but the dresses and deportment, all civic,
forbade me to continue in that delusion. Then a scriptural thought
crossed me (especially as there were nearly as many Jews and Christians
among them), whether it might not be the children of Israel going up to
besiege Jericho. I was undeceived of both errors by the sight of many
faces which were familiar to me. I found myself strangely (as it will
happen in dreams) at one and the same time in an unknown country, with
known companions. I met old friends, not with new faces, but with
their old faces oddly adorned in front, with each man a certain corneous
excrescence. Dick Mitis, the little cheesemonger in St. * *' * *'s Passage,
was the first that saluted me, with his hat off — you know Dick's way to
a customer — and, I not being aware of him, he thrust a strange beam
into my left eye, which pained and grieved me exceedingly ; but, instead
of apology, he only grinned and fleered in my face, as much as to say
" it is the custom of the country," and passed on.

I had scarce time to send a civil message to his lady, whom I have
always admired as a pattern of a wife, — and do indeed take Dick and
her to be a model of conjugal agreement and harmony, — when I felt an
ugly smart in my neck, as if something had gored it behind, and turning
round, it was my old friend and neighbour. Dulcet, the confectioner,
who, meaning to be pleasant, had thrust his protuberance right into my
nape, and seemed proud of his power of offending.

Now I was assailed right and left, till in my own defence I was obliged
to walk sideling and wary, and look about me, as you guard your eyes in
London streets ; for the horns thickened, and came at me like the ends
of umbrellas poking in one's face.

I soon found that these towns-folk were the civiUest best-mannered
people in the world, and that if they had offended at all, it was entirely



Xi^ ^^^^^m^^^f^^^i^'^-n^



' ^^'.Ais.^



so A VISION OP HORNS. [^Jatl.

owing to their blindness. They do not know what dangerous weapons
they protrude in front, and will stick their best friends in the eye with
provoking complacency. Yet the best of it is, they can see the beams on
their neighbours* foreheads, if they are as small as motes, but their own
beams they can in no wise discern.

There was little Mitis, that I told you I just encountered — ^he has
simply (I speak of him at home in his own shop) the smoothest forehead
in his own conceit — he will stand you a quarter of an hour together
contemplating the serenity of it in the glass, before he begins to shave
himself in a morning — yet you saw what a desperate gash he gave me.

Desiring to be better informed of the ways of this extraordinary
people, I applied myself to a fellow of some assurance, who (it appeared)
acted as a sort of interpreter to strangers — ^he was dressed in a military

uniform, and strongly resembled Colonel , of the guards ; — and

" pray. Sir," said I, '^ have all the inhabitants of your city these trouble-
some excrescences } I beg pardon, I see you have none. You perhaps
are single." '^ Truly, Sir," he replied with a smile, " for the most part
we have, but not all alike. There are some, like Dick, that sport but one
tumescence. Their ladies have been tolerably faithful — have confined
themselves to a single aberration or so — these we call Unicorns. Dick,
you must know, is my Unicorn. |^He spoke this with an air of invincible
assurance.]] Then we have Bicorns, Tricorns, and so on up to Mille-
corns. [|Here methought I crossed and blessed myself in my dream.]
Some again we have — there goes one— you see how happy the rogue
looks — ^how he walks smiling, and perking up his face, as if he thought
himself the only man. He is not married yet, but on Monday next he
leads to the altar the accomplished widow Dacres, relict of our late
sheriff."

" I see. Sir," said I, " and observe that he is happily free from the
national goitre (let me call it), which distinguishes most of your coun-
trymen."

" Look a little more narrowly," said my conductor.

I put on my spectacles, and observing the man a little more diligently, ,
above his forehead I could mark a thousand little twinkling shadows
dancing the horn-pipe, little hornlets, and rudiments of horn, of a soft
and pappy consistence (for I handled some of them), but which, like
coral out of water, my guide informed me would infallibly stiffen and
grow rigid within a week or two from the expiration of his bachelorhood.

Then I saw some horns strangely growing out behind, and my inter-
preter explained these, to be married men, whose wives had conducted
themselves with infinite propriety since the period of their marriage, but
were thought to have antedated their good men's titles, by certain liberties
they had indulged themselves in, prior to the ceremony. This kind of
gentry wore their horns backwards, as has been said, in the fashion of the
old pig-tails ; and as there was nothing obtrusive or ostentatious in them,
nobody took any notice of it.



i^,;5M'



1825.]3 A VISION OF HORNS. Si

Some had pretty little budding antlers, like the first essays of a young
faun. These, he told me, had wives, whose affairs were in a hopeful
way, but not quite brought to a conclusion.

Others had nothing to show, only by certain red angry marks and
swellings in their foreheads, which itched the more they kept rubbing
and chafing them ; it was to be hoped that something was brewing.

I took notice that every one jeered at the rest, only none took notice of
the sea-captains ; yet these were as well provided with their tokens as the
best among them. This kind of people, it seems, taking their wives
upon so contingent tenures, their lot was considered as nothing but
natural, — so they wore their marks without impeachment, as they might
carry their cockades, and nobody respected them a whit the less for it.

I observed, that the more sprouts grew out of a man's head, the less
weight they seemed to carry with them ; whereas, a single token would
now and then appear to give the wearer some uneasiness. This shows
that use is a great thing.

Some had their adornings gilt, which needs no explanation; while
others, like musicians, went sounding theirs before them — a sort of music
which I thought might very well have been spared.

It was pleasant to see some of the citizens encounter between them-
selves; how they smiled in their sleeves at the shock they received from
their neighbour, and none seemed conscious of the shock which their
neighbour experienced in return.

Some had great corneous stumps, seemingly torn off and bleeding.
These, the interpreter warned me, were husbands who had retaliated upon
their wives, and the badge was in equity divided between them.

While I stood discerning of these things, a slight tweak on my cheek
unawares, which brought tears into my eyes, introduced to me my friend
Placid, between whose lady and a certain male cousin, some idle flirtations
I remember to have heard talked of ; but that was all. He saw he had
somehow hurt me, and asked my pardon with, that round unconscious face
of his, and looked so tristful and contrite for his no-offence, that I was
ashamed for the man's penitence. Yet I protest it was but a scratch. It
was the least little hornet of a horn that could be framed. " Shame on
the man," I secretly exclaimed, " who could thrust so much as the value
of a hair into a brow so unsuspecting and inoffensive. What then must
they have to answer for, who plant great, monstrous, timber-like,
projecting antlers upon the heads of those whom they call their friends,
when a puncture of this atomical tenuity made my eyes to water at this
rate. AU the pincers at Surgeons' Hall cannot pull out for Placid that '
little hair."

I was curious to know what became of these frontal excrescences, when
the husbands died ; and my guide informed me that the chemists in their
country made a considerable profit by them, extracting from them certain
subtle essences : — and then I remembered, that nothing was so efficacious
in my own for restoring swooning matrons, and wives troubled with the



^^^ ^ti»^.*:!aM^^ay^;^;g,.;^{4&^^^




3$ A VISION OF HORNS. [[Jail.



vapours, as a strong snifF or two at the composition, appropriately called
hartshorn — far beyond sal volatile.

Then also I began to understand, why a man, who is the jest of the
company, is said to be the butt — as much as to say, such a one butteth
with the horn*

I inquired if by no operation these wens were ever extracted ; and was
told, that there was indeed an order of dentists, whom they call canonists
in their language, who undertook to restore the forehead to its pristine
smoothness ; but that ordinarily it was not done without much cost and
trouble ; and when they succeeded in plucking out the offending part, it
left a painful void, which could not be filled up ; and that many patients
who had submitted to the excision, were eager to marry again, to supply
with a good second antler the baldness and deformed gap left by the
extraction of the former, as men losing their natural hair substitute for
it a less becoming periwig.

Some horns I observed beautifully taper, smooth, and (as it were)
flowering. These I understand were the portions brought by handsome
women to their spouses ; and I pitied the rough, homely, unsightly
deformities on the brows of others, who had been deceived by plain and
ordinary partners. Yet the latter I observed to be by far the most
common — the solution of wliich I leave to the natural philosopher.

One tribute of married men I particularly admired at, who, instead of
horns, wore, engrafted on their forehead, a sort of horn-book. " This,"
quoth my guide, " is the greatest mystery in our country, and well worth
an explanation. You must know that all infidelity is not of the senses.
We have as well intellectual, as material, wittols. These, whom you see
decorated with the Order of the Book — are triflers, who encourage about
their wives' presence the society of your men of genius (their good
friends, as they call them) — ^literary disputants, who ten to one out-talk
the poor husband, and commit upon the understanding of the woman a
violence and estrangement in the end, little less painfial than the coarser
sort of alienation. Whip me these knaves — [[my conductor here
expressed himself with a becoming warmth]] — whip me them, I say,
who with no excuse from the passions, in cold blood seduce the minds,
rather than the persons, of their friends' wives ; who, for the tickling
pleasure of hearing themselves prate, dehonestate the intellects of married
women, dishonouring the husband in what should be his most sensible
part. If I must be — [[here he used a plain word[] let it be by some



Online LibraryCharles LambCharles Lamb's essays : as first published in the London magazine : 1820-1825 → online text (page 27 of 33)