Charles Lamb.

Charles Lamb's essays online

. (page 22 of 32)
Online LibraryCharles LambCharles Lamb's essays → online text (page 22 of 32)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

taste the sea breezes. I always know the date of
their arrival. It is easy to see it in their countenance.
A day or two they go wandering on the shingles, pick-
ing up cockle-shells, and thinking them great things ;
but, in a poor week, imagination slackens : they
begin to discover that cockles produce no pearls, and
then O then ! if I could interpret for the pretty
creatures (I know they have not the courage to con-
fess it themselves) how gladly would they exchange
their sea-side rambles for a Sunday walk on the green-
sward of their accustomed Twickenham meadows !

I would ask of one of these sea-charmed emigrants,
who think they truly love the sea, with its wild usages,


what would their feelings be, if some of the unsophis-
ticated aborigines of this place, encouraged by their
courteous questionings here, should venture, on the
faith of such assured sympathy between them, to re-
turn the visit, and come up to see London. I must
imagine them with their fishing-tackle on their back,
as we carry our town necessaries. What a sensation
would it cause in Lothbury ? What vehement laughter
would it not excite among

The daughters of Cheapside, and wives of Lombard-street.

I am sure that no town-bred, or inland-born sub-
jects, can feel their true and natural nourishment at
these sea-places. Nature, where she does not mean
us for mariners and vagabonds, bids us stay at home.
The salt foam seems to nourish a spleen. I am not
half so good-natured as by the milder waters of my
natural river. I would exchange these sea-gulls for
swans, and scud a swallow for ever about the banks of


A PRETTY severe fit of indisposition which, under
the name of a nervous fever, has made a prisoner of
me for some weeks past, and is but slowly leaving me,
has reduced me to an incapacity of reflecting upon
any topic foreign to itself. Expect no healthy con-
clusions from me this month, reader ; I can offer you
only sick men's dreams.

And truly the whole state of sickness is such ; for
what else is it but a magnificent dream for a man to
lie a- bed, and draw day- light curtains about him ;
and, shutting out the sun, to induce a total oblivion
of all the works which are going on under it? To
become insensible to all the operations of life, except
the beatings of one feeble pulse ?

If there be a regal solitude, it is a sick bed. How
the patient lords it there ! what caprices he acts with-
out control ! how king-like he sways his pillow tum-
bling, and tossing, and shifting, and lowering, and
thumping, and flatting, and moulding it, to the ever
varying requisitions of his throbbing temples.


He changes sides oftener than a politician. Now
he lies full length, then half-length, obliquely, trans-
versely, head and feet quite across the bed ; and
none accuses him of tergiversation. Within the four
curtains he is absolute. They are his Mare Clausum.

How sickness enlarges the dimensions of a man's
self to himself! he is his own exclusive object.
Supreme selfishness is inculcated upon him as his
only duty. 'T is the Two Tables of the Law to him.
He has nothing to think of but how to get well.
What passes out of doors, or within them, so he hear
not the jarring of them, affects him not.

A little while ago he was greatly concerned in the
event of a law -suit, which was to be the making or
the marring of his dearest friend. He was to be seen
trudging about upon this man's errand to fifty quarters
of the town at once, jogging this witness, refreshing
that solicitor. The cause was to come on yesterday.
He is absolutely as indifferent to the decision, as if it
were a question to be tried at Pekin. Peradventure
from some whispering, going on about the house, not
intended for his hearing, he picks up enough to make
him understand, that things went cross-grained in
the Court yesterday, and his friend is ruined. But
the word " friend," and the word " ruin," disturb him
no more than so much jargon. He is not to think of
any thing but how to get better.

What a world of foreign cares are merged in that
absorbing consideration !


He has put on the strong armour of sickness, he is
wrapped in the callous hide of suffering ; he keeps
his sympathy, like some curious vintage, under trusty
lock and key, for his own use only.

He lies pitying himself, honing and moaning to
himself; he yearneth over himself; his bowels are
even melted within him, to think what he suffers ; he
is not ashamed to weep over himself.

He is for ever plotting how to do some good to
himself; studying little stratagems and artificial alle-

He makes the most of himself; dividing himself,
by an allowable fiction, into as many distinct indi-
viduals, as he hath sore and sorrowing members.
Sometimes he meditates as of a thing apart from
him upon his poor aching head, and that dull pain
which, dozing or waking, lay in it all the past night
like a log, or palpable substance of pain, not to be
removed without opening the very scull, as it seemed,
to take it thence. Or he pities his long, clammy, at-
tenuated fingers. He compassionates himself all over ;
and his bed is a very discipline of humanity, and
tender heart.

He is his own sympathiser ; and instinctively feels
that none can so well perform that office for him.
He cares for few spectators to his tragedy. Only
that punctual face of the old nurse pleases him, that
announces his broths, and his cordials. He likes it


because it is so unmoved, and because he can pour
forth his feverish ejaculations before it as unreservedly
as to his bed-post.

To the world's business he is dead. He under-
stands not what the callings and occupations of
mortals are ; only he has a glimmering conceit of
some such thing, when the doctor makes his daily
call : and even in the lines of that busy face he reads
no multiplicity of patients, but solely conceives of
himself as the sick man. To what other uneasy
couch the good man is hastening, when he slips out
of his chamber, folding up his thin douceur so care-
fully for fear of rustling is no speculation which
he can at present entertain. He thinks only of the
regular return of the same phenomenon at the same
hour to-morrow.

Household rumours touch him not. Some faint
murmur, indicative of life going on within the house,
soothes him, while he knows not distinctly what it is.
He is not to know any thing, not to think of any
thing. Servants gliding up or down the distant stair-
case, treading as upon velvet, gently keep his ear
awake, so long as he troubles not himself further
than with some feeble guess at their errands. Ex-
acter knowledge would be a burthen to him : he can
just endure the pressure of conjecture. He opens
his eye faintly at the dull stroke of the muffled
knocker, and closes it again without asking " who


was it ? " He is flattered by a general notion that
inquiries are making after him, but he cares not to
know the name of the inquirer. In the general
stillness, and awful hush of the house, he lies in
state, and feels his sovereignty.

To be sick is to enjoy monarchal prerogatives.
Compare the silent tread, and quiet ministry, almost
by the eye only, with which he is served with the
careless demeanour, the unceremonious goings in and
out (slapping of doors, or leaving them open) of the
very same attendants, when he is getting a little
better and you will confess, that from the bed of
sickness (throne let me rather call it) to the elbow
chair of convalescence, is a fall from dignity, amount-
ing to a deposition.

How convalescence shrinks a man back to his
pristine stature ! where is now the space, which he
occupied so lately, in his own, in the family's eye?
The scene of his regalities, his sick room, which
was his presence chamber, where he lay and acted
his despotic fancies how is it reduced to a com-
mon bed-room ! The trimness of the very bed has
something petty and unmeaning about it. It is
made every day. How unlike to that wavy, many-
furrowed, oceanic surface, which it presented so short
a time since, when to make it was a service not to
be thought of at oftener than three or four day
revolutions, when the patient was with pain and


grief to be lifted for a little while out of it, to submit to
the encroachments of unwelcome neatness, and de-
cencies which his shaken frame deprecated ; then
to be lifted into it again, for another three or four
days' respite, to flounder it out of shape again, while
every fresh furrow was a historical record of some
shifting posture, some uneasy turning, some seeking
for a little ease ; and the shrunken skin scarce told
a truer story than the crumpled coverlid.

Hushed are those mysterious sighs those groans

so much more awful, while we knew not from
what caverns of vast hidden suffering they proceeded.
The Lernean pangs are quenched. The riddle of
sickness is solved ; and Philoctetes is become an
ordinary personage.

Perhaps some relic of the sick man's dream of
greatness survives in the still lingering visitations of
the medical attendant. But how is he too changed
with every thing else ! Can this be he this man
of news of chat of anecdote of every thing
but physic can this be he, who so lately came be-
tween the patient and his cruel enemy, as on some
solemn embassy from Nature, erecting herself into
a high mediating party ? Pshaw ! 't is some old

Farewell with him all that made sickness pompous

the spell that hushed the household the desart-
like stillness, felt throughout its inmost chambers


the mute attendance the inquiry by looks the
still softer delicacies of self-attention the sole and
single eye of distemper alonely fixed upon itself
world-thoughts excluded the man a world unto
himself his own theatre

What a speck is he dwindled into !
In this flat swamp of convalescence, left by the
ebb of sickness, yet far enough from the terra firma
of established health, your note, dear Editor, reached
me, requesting an article. In Articulo Mortis,
thought I j but it is something hard and the
quibble, wretched as it was, relieved me. The sum-
mons, unseasonable as it appeared, seemed to link
me on again to the petty businesses of life, which I
had lost sight of; a gentle call to activity, however
trivial ; a wholesome weaning from that preposterous
dream of self-absorption the puffy state of sick-
ness in which I confess to have lain so long, in-
sensible to the magazines and monarchies, of the
world alike ; to its laws, and to its literature. The
hypochondriac flatus is subsiding ; the acres, which
in imagination I had spread over for the sick man
swells in the sole contemplation of his single suffer-
ings, till he becomes a Tityus to himself are wast-
ing to a span ; and for the giant of self-importance,
which I was so lately, you have me once again in
my natural pretensions the lean and meagre figure
of your insignificant Essayist.


So far from the position holding true, that great
wit (or genius, in our modern way of speaking),
has a necessary alliance with insanity, the greatest
wits, on the contrary, will ever be found to be the
sanest writers. It is impossible for the mind to
conceive of a mad Shakspeare. The greatness of
wit, by which the poetic talent is here chiefly to be
understood, manifests itself in the admirable balance
of all the faculties. Madness is the disproportionate
straining or excess of any one of them. " So strong
a wit," says Cowley, speaking of a poetical friend,

" did Nature to him frame,

As all things but his judgment overcame,

His judgment like the heavenly moon did show,

Tempering that mighty sea below."

The ground of the mistake is, that men, finding in
the raptures of the higher poetry a condition of
exaltation, to which they have no parallel in their


own experience, besides the spurious resemblance
of it in dreams and fevers, impute a state of dreami-
ness and fever to the poet. But the true poet dreams
being awake. He is not possessed by his subject,
but has dominion over it. In the groves of Eden
he walks familiar as in his native paths. He ascends
the empyrean heaven, and is not intoxicated. He
treads the burning marl without dismay; he wins
his flight without self-loss through realms of chaos
"and old night." Or if, abandoning himself to that
severer chaos of a " human mind untuned," he is
content awhile to be mad with Lear, or to hate man-
kind (a sort of madness) with Timon, neither is
that madness, nor this misanthropy, so unchecked,
but that, never letting the reins of reason wholly
go, while most he seems to do so, he has his better
genius still whispering at his ear, with the good ser-
vant Kent suggesting saner counsels, or with the
honest steward Flavius recommending kindlier reso-
lutions. Where he seems most to recede from hu-
manity, he will be found the truest to it. From
beyond the scope of Nature if he summon possible
existences, he subjugates them to the law of her con-
sistency. He is beautifully loyal to that sovereign
directress, even when he appears most to betray and
desert her. His ideal tribes submit to policy ; his
very monsters are tamed to his hand, even as that
wild sea-brood, shepherded by Proteus. He tames,


and he clothes them with attributes of flesh and
blood, till they wonder at themselves, like Indian
Islanders forced to submit to European vesture.
Caliban, the Witches, are as true to the laws of their
own nature (ours with a difference), as Othello,
Hamlet, and Macbeth. Herein the great and the
little wits are differenced ; that if the latter wander
ever so little from nature or actual existence, they
lose themselves, and their readers. Their phantoms
are lawless ; their visions nightmares. They do not
create, which implies shaping and consistency. Their
imaginations are not active for to be active is to
call something into act and form but passive, as
men in sick dreams. For the super-natural, or some-
thing super-added to what we know of nature, they
give you the plainly non-natural. And if this were
all, and that these mental hallucinations were dis-
coverable only in the treatment of subjects out of
nature, or transcending it, the judgment might with
some plea be pardoned if it ran riot, and a little
wantonized : but even in the describing of real and
every day life, that which is before their eyes, one
of these lesser wits shall more deviate from nature
show more of that inconsequence, which has a
natural alliance with frenzy, than a great genius
in his "maddest fits," as Withers somewhere calls
them. We appeal to any one that is acquainted
with the common run of Lane's novels, as they


existed some twenty or thirty years back, those
scanty intellectual viands of the whole female read-
ing public, till a happier genius arose, and expelled
for ever the innutritious phantoms, whether he has
not found his brain more " betossed," his memory
more puzzled, his sense of when and where more
confounded, among the improbable events, the in-
coherent incidents, the inconsistent characters, or
no-characters, of some third-rate love intrigue
where the persons shall be a Lord Glendamour and
a Miss Rivers, and the scene only alternate between
Bath and Bond-street a more bewildering dreami-
ness induced upon him, than he has felt wandering
over all the fairy grounds of Spenser. In the pro-
ductions we refer to, nothing but names and places
is familiar ; the persons are neither of this world nor
of any other conceivable one ; an endless string of
activities without purpose, of purposes destitute of
motive : we meet phantoms in our known walks ;
fantasques only christened. In the poet we have
names which announce fiction; and we have abso-
lutely no place at all, for the things and persons of
the Fairy Queen prate not of their "whereabout."
But in their inner nature, and the law of their speech
and actions, we are at home and upon acquainted
ground. The one turns life into a dream ; the other
to the wildest dreams gives the sobrieties of every
day occurrences. By what subtile art of tracing the


mental processes it is effected, we are not philoso-
phers enough to explain, but in that wonderful epi-
sode of the cave of Mammon, in which the Money
God appears first in the lowest form of a miser, is
then a worker of metals, and becomes the god of all
the treasures of the world ; and has a daughter,
Ambition, before whom all the world kneels for fa-
vours with the Hesperian fruit, the waters of Tan-
talus, with Pilate washing his hands vainly, but not
impertinently, in the same stream that we should
be at one moment in the cave of an old hoarder of
treasures, at the next at the forge of the Cyclops,
in a palace and yet in hell, all at once, with the
shifting mutations of the most rambling dream, and
our judgment yet all the time awake, and neither
able nor willing to detect the fallacy, is a proof of
that hidden sanity which still guides the poet in his
widest seeming-aberrations.

It is not enough to say that the whole episode is a
copy of the mind's conceptions in sleep ; it is, in
some sort but what a copy ! Let the most ro-
mantic of us, that has been entertained all night
with the spectacle of some wild and magnificent
vision, recombine it in the morning, and try it by
his waking judgment. That which appeared so shift-
ing, and yet so coherent, while that faculty was pas-
sive, when it comes under cool examination, shall
appear so reasonless and so unlinked, that we are


ashamed to have been so deluded; and to have
taken, though but in sleep, a monster for a god.
But the transitions in this episode are every whit as
violent as in the most extravagant dream, and yet
the waking judgment ratifies them.


AMONG the deaths in our obituary for this month, I
observe with concern "At his cottage on the Bath
road, Captain Jackson." The name and attribution
are common enough ; but a feeling like reproach
persuades me, that this could have been no other in
fact than my dear old friend, who some five-and-
twenty years ago rented a tenement, which he was
pleased to dignify with the appellation here used,
about a mile from Westbourn Green. Alack, how
good men, and the good turns they do us, slide out
of memory, and are recalled but by the surprise of
some such sad memento as that which now lies
before us !

He whom I mean was a retired half-pay officer,
with a wife and two grown-up daughters, whom he
maintained with the port and notions of gentle-
women upon that slender professional allowance.
Comely girls they were too.

And was I in danger of forgetting this man?
his cheerful suppers the noble tone of hospitality,


when first you set your foot in the cottage the
anxious ministerings about you, where little or noth-
ing (God knows) was to be ministered. Althea's
horn in a poor platter the power of self-enchant-
ment, by which, in his magnificent wishes to enter-
tain you, he multiplied his means to bounties.

You saw with your bodily eyes indeed what seemed
a bare scrag cold savings from the foregone meal
remnant hardly sufficient to send a mendicant from
the door contented. But in the copious will the
revelling imagination of your host the " mind, the
mind, Master Shallow," whole beeves were spread
before you hecatombs no end appeared to the

It was the widow's cruse the loaves and fishes ;
carving could not lessen nor helping diminish it
the stamina were left the elemental bone still
flourished, divested of its accidents.

"Let us live while we can," methinks I hear the
open-handed creature exclaim ; " while we have, let
us not want," "here is plenty left;" "want for
nothing" with many more such hospitable sayings,
the spurs of appetite, and old concomitants of smoak-
ing boards, and feast-oppressed chargers. Then
sliding a slender ratio of Single Gloucester upon his
wife's plate, or the daughter's, he would convey the
remnant rind into his own, with a merry quirk of
" the nearer the bone," &c., and declaring that he


universally preferred the outside. For we had our
table distinctions, you are to know, and some of us
in a manner sate above the salt. None but his
guest or guests dreamed of tasting flesh luxuries at
night, the fragments were vcre hospitibus sacra. But
of one thing or another there was always enough,
and leavings : only he would sometimes finish the
remainder crust, to show that he wished no savings.

Wine we had none ; nor, except on very rare oc-
casions, spirits ; but the sensation of wine was there.
Some thin kind of ale I remember " British bev-
erage," he would say! "Push about, my boys;"
" Drink to your sweethearts, girls." At every meagre
draught a toast must ensue, or a song. All the forms
of good liquor were there, with none of the effects
wanting. Shut your eyes, and you would swear a
capacious bowl of punch was foaming in the centre,
with beams of generous Port or Madeira radiating to
it from each of the table corners. You got flustered,
without knowing whence ; tipsy upon words ; and
reeled under the potency of his unperforming Bac-
chanalian encouragements.

We had our songs "Why, Soldiers, Why"
and the "British Grenadiers" in which last we
were all obliged to bear chorus. Both the daughters
sang. Their proficiency was a nightly theme the
masters he had given them the " no-expence "
which he spared to accomplish them in a science


"so necessary to young women." But then they
could not sing "without the instrument."

Sacred, and by me, never-to-be violated, Secrets
of Poverty ! Should I disclose your honest aims at
grandeur, your makeshift efforts of magnificence?
Sleep, sleep, with all thy broken keys, if one of the
bunch be extant ; thrummed by a thousand ances-
tral thumbs ; dear, cracked spinnet of dearer Louisa !
Without mention of mine, be dumb, thou thin ac-
companier of her thinner warble ! A veil be spread
over the dear delighted face of the well-deluded
father, who now haply listening to cherubic notes,
scarce feels sincerer pleasure than when she awak-
ened thy time-shaken chords responsive to the twit-
terings of that slender image of a voice.

We were not without our literary talk either. It
did not extend far, but as far as it went, it was good.
It was bottomed well ; had good grounds to go upon.
In the cottage was a room, which tradition authenti-
cated to have been the same in which Glover, in his
occasional retirements, had penned the greater part
of his Leonidas. This circumstance was nightly
quoted, though none of the present inmates, that I
could discover, appeared ever to have met with the
poem in question. But that was no matter. Glover
had written there, and the anecdote was pressed into
the account of the family importance. It diffused
a learned air through the apartment, the little side


casement of which (the poet's study window), open-
ing upon a superb view as far as to the pretty spire
of Harrow, over domains and patrimonial acres, not
a rood nor square yard whereof our host could call
his own, yet gave occasion to an immoderate expan-
sion of vanity shall I call it? in his bosom, as
he showed them in a glowing summer evening. It
was all his, he took it all in, and communicated
rich portions of it to his guests. It was a part
of his largess, his hospitality; it was going over
his grounds; he was lord for the time of showing
them, and you the implicit lookers- up to his mag-

He was a juggler, who threw mists before your
eyes you had no time to detect his fallacies. He
would say " hand me the silver sugar tongs ; " and,
before you could discover it was a single spoon, and
\h&\. plated, he would disturb and captivate your im-
agination by a misnomer of " the urn " for a tea
kettle ; or by calling a homely bench a sofa. Rich
men direct you to their furniture, poor ones divert
you from it ; he neither did one nor the other, but
by simply assuming that everything was handsome
about him, you were positively at a demur what you
did, or did not see, at the cottage. With nothing to
live on, he seemed to live on everything. He had
a stock of wealth in his rnind ; not that which is
properly termed Content, for in truth he was not to

Online LibraryCharles LambCharles Lamb's essays → online text (page 22 of 32)