Copyright
Charles Lamb.

Charles Lamb's essays online

. (page 9 of 32)
Online LibraryCharles LambCharles Lamb's essays → online text (page 9 of 32)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


or who had made it a condition of his prey, that
Guyon must take assay of the glorious bait we have
no guess. We do not know the laws of that country.
From my childhood I was extremely inquisitive
about witches and witch-stories. My maid, and more
legendary aunt, supplied me with good store. But I
shall mention the accident which directed my curi-
osity originally into this channel. In my father's
book-closet, the History of the Bible, by Stackhouse,
occupied a distinguished station. The pictures with
which it abounds one of the ark, in particular, and
another of Solomon's temple, delineated with all the
fidelity of ocular admeasurement, as if the artist had
been upon the spot attracted my childish attention.
There was a picture, too, of the Witch raising up
Samuel, which I wish that I had never seen. We
shall come to that hereafter. Stackhouse is in two
huge tomes and there was a pleasure in removing
folios of that magnitude, which, with infinite straining,
was as much as I could manage, from the situation
which they occupied upon an upper shelf. I have
not met with the work from that time to this, but I



136 WITCHES, AND OTHER NIGHT-FEARS.

remember it consisted of Old Testament stories,
orderly set down, with the objection appended to each
story, and the solution of the objection regularly
tacked to that. The objection was a summary of
whatever difficulties had been opposed to the credi-
bility of the history, by the shrewdness of ancient or
modern infidelity, drawn up with an almost compli-
mentary excess of candour. The solution was brief,
modest, and satisfactory. The bane and antidote
were both before you. To doubts so put, and so
quashed, there seemed to be an end for ever. The
dragon lay dead, for the foot of the veriest babe to
trample on. But like as was rather feared than
realised from that slain monster in Spenser from
the womb of those crushed errors young dragonets
would creep, exceeding the prowess of so tender a
Saint George as myself to vanquish. The habit of
expecting objections to every passage, set me upon
starting more objections, for the glory of finding a
solution of my own for them. I became staggered
and perplexed, a sceptic in long coats. The pretty
Bible stories which I had read, or heard read in
church, lost their purity and sincerity of impression,
and were turned into so many historic or chronologic
theses to be defended against whatever impugners.
I was not to disbelieve them, but the next thing to
that I was to be quite sure that some one or other
would or had disbelieved them. Next to making a



WITCHES, AND OTHER NIGHT-FEARS. 137

child an infidel, is the letting him know that there are
infidels at all. Credulity is the man's weakness, but
the child's strength. O, how ugly sound scriptural
doubts from the mouth of a babe and a suckling !
I should have lost myself in these mazes, and have
pined away, I think, with such unfit sustenance as
these husks afforded, but for a fortunate piece of ill-
fortune, which about this time befel me. Turning
over the picture of the ark with too much haste, I
unhappily made a breach in its ingenious fabric
driving my inconsiderate fingers right through the
two larger quadrupeds the elephant, and the camel
that stare (as well they might) out of the two last
windows next the steerage in that unique piece of
naval architecture. Stackhouse was henceforth locked
up, and became an interdicted treasure. With the
book, the objections and solutions gradually cleared
out of my head, and have seldom returned since in
any force to trouble me. But there was one im-
pression which I had imbibed from Stackhouse, which
no lock or bar could shut out, and which was destined
to try my childish nerves rather more seriously.
That detestable picture !

I was dreadfully alive to nervous terrors. The
night-time solitude, and the dark, were my hell. The
sufferings I endured in this nature would justify the
expression. I never laid my head on my pillow, I
suppose, from the fourth to the seventh or eighth year



138 WITCHES, AND OTHER NIGHT-FEARS.

of my life so far as memory serves in things so long
ago without an assurance, which realised its own
prophecy, of seeing some frightful spectre. Be old
Stackhouse then acquitted in part, if I say, that to
his picture of the Witch raising up Samuel (O that
old man covered with a mantle!) I owe not my
midnight terrors, the hell of my infancy but the
shape and manner of their visitation. It was he who
dressed up for me a hag that nightly sate upon my
pillow a sure bed- fellow, when my aunt or my maid
was far from me. All day long, while the book was
permitted me, I dreamed waking over his delineation,
and at night (if I may use so bold an expression)
awoke into sleep, and found the vision true. I durst
not, even in the day-light, once enter the chamber
where I slept, without my face turned to the window,
aversely from the bed where my witch-ridden pillow
was. Parents do not know what they do when they
leave tender babes alone to go to sleep in the dark.
The feeling about for a friendly arm the hoping for
a familiar voice when they wake screaming and
find none to soothe them what a terrible shaking it
is to their poor nerves ! The keeping them up till
midnight, through candle-light and the unwholesome
hours, as they are called, would, I am satisfied, in
a medical point of view, prove the better caution.
That detestable picture, as I have said, gave the
fashion to my dreams if dreams they were for



WITCHES, AND OTHER NIGHT-FEARS. 139

the scene of them was invariably the room in which I
lay. Had I never met with the picture, the fears
would have come self-pictured in some shape or

other

Headless bear, black man, or ape

but, as it was, my imaginations took that form. It
is not book, or picture, or the stories of foolish ser-
vants, which create these terrors in children. They
can at most but give them a direction. Dear little
T. H. who of all children has been brought up with
the most scrupulous exclusion of every taint of super-
stition who was never allowed to hear of goblin or
apparition, or scarcely to be told of bad men, or to
read or hear of any distressing story finds all this
world of fear, from which he has been so rigidly ex-
cluded ab extra, in his own " thick-coming fancies ; "
and from his little midnight pillow, this nurse-child of
optimism will start at shapes, unborrowed of tradition,
in sweats to which the reveries of the cell-damned
murderer are tranquillity.

Gorgons, and Hydras, and Chimaeras dire stories
of Celaeno and the Harpies may reproduce them-
selves in the brain of superstition but they were
there before. They are transcripts, types the arche-
types are in us, and eternal. How else should the
recital of that, which we know in a waking sense to
be false, come to affect us at all ? or

Names, whose sense we see not,

Fray us with things that be not ?



140 WITCHES, AND OTHER NIGHT-FEARS.

Is it that we naturally conceive terror from such
objects, considered in their capacity of being able to
inflict upon us bodily injury ? O, least of all ! These
terrors are of older standing. They date beyond
body or, without the body, they would have been
the same. All the cruel, tormenting, defined devils
in Dante tearing, mangling, choking, stifling, scorch-
ing demons are they one half so fearful to the
spirit of a man, as the simple idea of a spirit unem-
bodied following him

Like one that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turn'd round, walks on,
And turns no more his head ;
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread *.

That the kind of fear here treated of is purely
spiritual that it is strong in proportion as it is ob-
jectless upon earth that it predominates in the
period of sinless infancy are difficulties, the solu-
tion of which might afford some probable insight into
our ante-mundane condition, and a peep at least into
the shadow-land of pre-existence.

My night- fancies have long ceased to be afflictive.
I confess an occasional night-mare ; but I do not, as
in early youth, keep a stud of them. Fiendish faces,
with the extinguished taper, will come and look at

* Mr. Coleridge's Ancient Mariner.



WITCHES, AND OTHER NIGHT-FEARS. 141

me ; but I know them for mockeries, even while I
cannot elude their presence, and I fight and grapple
with them. For the credit of my imagination, I am
almost ashamed to say how tame and prosaic my
dreams are grown. They are never romantic, seldom
even rural. They are of architecture and of buildings
cities abroad, which I have never seen, and hardly
have hope to see. I have traversed, for the seeming
length of a natural day, Rome, Amsterdam, Paris,
Lisbon their churches, palaces, squares, market-
places, shops, suburbs, ruins, with an inexpressible
sense of delight a map-like distinctness of trace
and a day-light vividness of vision, that was all but
being^ awake. I have formerly travelled among the
Westmoreland fells my highest Alps, but they are
objects too mighty for the grasp of my dreaming
recognition ; and I have again and again awoke with
ineffectual struggles of the inner eye, to make out a
shape in any way whatever, of Helvellyn. Methought
I was in that country, but the mountains were gone.
The poverty of my dreams mortifies me. There is
Coleridge, at his will can conjure up icy domes, and
pleasure-houses for Kubla Khan, and Abyssinian
maids, and songs of Abara, and caverns,

Where Alph, the sacred river, runs,

to solace his night solitudes- when I cannot muster
a fiddle. Barry Cornwall has his tritons and his



142 WITCHES, AND OTHER NIGHT-FEARS.

nereids gamboling before him in nocturnal visions,
and proclaiming sons born to Neptune when my
stretch of imaginative activity can hardly, in the night
season, raise up the ghost of a fish-wife. To set my
failures in somewhat a mortifying light it was after
reading the noble Dream of this poet, that my fancy
ran strong upon these marine spectra ; and the poor
plastic power, such as it is, within me set to work, to
humour my folly in a sort of dream that very night.
Methought I was upon the ocean billows at some sea
nuptials, riding and mounted high, with the customary
train sounding their conchs before me, (I myself, you
may be sure, the leading god,) and jollily we went
careering over the main, till just where Ino Leucothea
should have greeted me (I think it was Ino) with a
white embrace, the billows gradually subsiding, fell from
a sea-roughness to a sea-calm, and thence to a river-
motion, and that river (as happens in the familiariza-
tion of dreams) was no other than the gentle Thames,
which landed me, in the wafture of a placid wave or
two, alone, safe and inglorious, somewhere at the foot
of Lambeth palace.

The degree of the soul's creativeness in sleep might
furnish no whimsical criterion of the quantum of poet-
ical faculty resident in the same soul waking. An old
gentleman, a friend of mine, and a humorist, used to
carry this notion so far, that when he saw any stripling
of his acquaintance ambitious of becoming a poet,



WITCHES, AND OTHER NIGHT-FEARS. 143

his first question would be, " Young man, what
sort of dreams have you? " I have so much faith in
my old friend's theory, that when I feel that idle vein
returning upon me, I presently subside into my proper
element of prose, remembering those eluding nereids,
and that inauspicious inland landing.



MY RELATIONS.



I AM arrived at that point of life, at which a man may
account it a blessing, as it is a singularity, if he have
either of his parents surviving. I have not that felicity
and sometimes think feelingly of a passage in
Browne's Christian Morals, where he speaks of a man
that hath lived sixty or seventy years in the world.
" In such a compass of time," he says, " a man may
have a close apprehension what it is to be forgotten,
when he hath lived to find none who could remember
his father, or scarcely the friends of his youth, and
may sensibly see with what a face in no long time
OBLIVION will look upon himself."

I had an aunt, a dear and good one. She was one
whom single blessedness had soured to the world.
She often used to say, that I was the only thing in it
which she loved ; and, when she thought I was quitting
it, she grieved over me with mother's tears. A par-
tiality quite so exclusive my reason cannot altogether
approve. She was from morning till night poring
over good books, and devotional exercises. Her



MY RELATIONS. 145

favourite volumes were Thomas a Kempis, in Stan-
hope's Translation ; and a Roman Catholic Prayer
Book, with the matins and complines regularly set
down, terms which I was at that time too young to
understand. She persisted in reading them, although
admonished daily concerning their Papistical ten-
dency ; and went to church every Sabbath, as a good
Protestant should do. These were the only books
she studied ; though, I think, at one period of her
life, she told me, she had read with great satisfaction
the Adventures of an Unfortunate Young Nobleman.
Finding the door of the chapel in Essex-street open
one day it was in the infancy of that heresy she
went in, liked the sermon, and the manner of worship,
and frequented it at intervals for some time after.
She came not for doctrinal points, and never missed
them. With some little asperities in her constitution,
which I have above hinted at, she was a steadfast,
friendly being, and a fine old Christian. She was a
woman of strong sense, and a shrewd mind extra-
ordinary at a repartee ; one of the few occasions of
her breaking silence else she did not much value
wit. The only secular employment I remember to
have seen her engaged in, was, the splitting of French
beans, and dropping them into a China basin of fair
water. The odour of those tender vegetables to this
day comes back upon my sense, redolent of soothing
recollections. Certainly it is the most delicate of
culinary operations.

10



146 MY RELATIONS.

Male aunts, as somebody calls them, I had none
to remember. By the uncle's side I may be said to
have been born an orphan. Brother, or sister, I never
had any to know them. A sister, I think, that should
have been Elizabeth, died in both our infancies.
What a comfort, or what a care, may I not have
missed in her ! But I have cousins, sprinkled about
in Hertfordshire besides two, with whom I have
been all my life in habits of the closest intimacy, and
whom I may term cousins par excellence. These
are James and Bridget Elia. They are older than
myself by twelve, and ten, years ; and neither of them
seems disposed, in matters of advice and guidance, to
waive any of the prerogatives which primogeniture
confers. May they continue still in the same mind ;
and when they shall be seventy-five, and seventy-three,
years old (I cannot spare them sooner), persist in
treating me in my grand climacteric precisely as a
stripling, or younger brother !

James is an inexplicable cousin. Nature hath her
unities, which not every critic can penetrate ; or, if
we feel, we cannot explain them. The pen of Yorick,
and of none since his, could have drawn J. E. entire
those fine Shandian lights and shades, which make
up his story. I must limp after in my poor antithet-
ical manner, as the fates have given me grace and
talent. J. E. then to the eye of a common observer
at least seemeth made up of contradictory princi-



MY RELATIONS. 147

pies. The genuine child of impulse, the frigid phi-
losopher of prudence the phlegm of my cousin's
doctrine is invariably at war with his temperament,
which is high sanguine. With always some fire-new
project in his brain, J. E. is the systematic opponent
of innovation, and crier down of every thing that has
not stood the test of age and experiment. With a
hundred fine notions chasing one another hourly in
his fancy, he is startled at the least approach to the
romantic in others ; and, determined by his own sense
in every thing, commends you to the guidance of
common sense on all occasions. With a touch of
the eccentric in all which he does, or says, he is only
anxious that you should not commit yourself by doing
any thing absurd or singular. On my once letting
slip at table, that I was not fond of a certain popular
dish, he begged me at any rate not to say so for
the world would think me mad. He disguises a pas-
sionate fondness for works of high art (whereof he
hath amassed a choice collection), under the pretext
of buying only to sell again that his enthusiasm
may give no encouragement to yours. Yet, if it were
so, why does that piece of tender, pastoral Domin-
ichino hang still by his wall ? is the ball of his sight
much more dear to him? or what picture- dealer
can talk like him?

Whereas mankind in general are observed to warp
their speculative conclusions to the bent of their



148 MY RELATIONS.

individual humours, his theories are sure to be in
diametrical opposition to his constitution. He is
courageous as Charles of Sweden, upon instinct ; chary
of his person, upon principle, as a travelling Quaker.
He has been preaching up to me, all my life, the
doctrine of bowing to the great the necessity of
forms, and manner, to a man's getting on in the
world. He himself never aims at either, that I can
discover, and has a spirit, that would stand upright
in the presence of the Cham of Tartary. It is pleasant
to hear him discourse of patience extolling it as the
truest wisdom and to see him during the last seven
minutes that his dinner is getting ready. Nature never
ran up in her haste a more restless piece of workman-
ship than when she moulded this impetuous cousin
and Art never turned out a more elaborate orator
than he can display himself to be, upon his favourite
topic of the advantages of quiet, and contentedness
in the state, whatever it be, that we are placed in.
He is triumphant on this theme, when he has you safe
in one of those short stages that ply for the western
road, in a very obstructing manner, at the foot of
John Murray's street where you get in when it is
empty, and are expected to wait till the vehicle hath
completed her just freight a trying three quarters
of an hour to some people. He wonders at your
fidgetiness, " where could we be better than we are,
thus sitting, thus consulting?" "prefers, for his



MY RELATIONS. 149

part, a state of rest to locomotion," with an eye all
the while upon the coachman till at length, waxing
out of all patience, at your want of it, he breaks out
into a pathetic remonstrance at the fellow for detain-
ing us so long over the time which he had professed,
and declares peremptorily, that " the gentleman in the
coach is determined to get out, if he does not drive
on that instant."

Very quick at inventing an argument, or detecting
a sophistry, he is incapable of attending you in any
chain of arguing. Indeed he makes wild work with
logic ; and seems to jump at most admirable conclu-
sions by some process, not at all akin to it. Conso-
nantly enough to this, he hath been heard to deny,
upon certain occasions, that there exists such a faculty
at all in man as reason ; and wondereth how man
came first to have a conceit of it enforcing his
negation with all the might of reasoning he is master
of. He has some speculative notions against laughter,
and will maintain that laughing is not natural to him
when peradventure the next moment his lungs shall
crow like Chanticleer. He says some of the best
things in the world and declareth that wit is his
aversion. It was he who said, upon seeing the Eton
boys at play in their grounds What a pity to think,
that these fine ingenuous lads in a few years will all be
changed into frivolous Members of Parliament !

His youth was fiery, glowing, tempestuous and



150 MY RELATIONS.

in age he discovereth no symptom of cooling. This
is that which I admire in him. I hate people who
meet Time half-way. I am for no compromise with
that inevitable spoiler. While he lives, J. E. will
take his swing. It does me good, as I walk towards
the street of my daily avocation, on some fine May
morning, to meet him marching in a quite opposite
direction, with a jolly handsome presence, and shin-
ing sanguine face, that indicates some purchase in
his eye a Claude or a Hobbima for much of
his enviable leisure is consumed at Christie's, and
Phillips' s or where not, to pick up pictures, and
such gauds. On these occasions he mostly stoppeth
me, to read a short lecture on the advantage a person
like me possesses above himself, in having his time
occupied with business which he must do assureth
me that he often feels it hang heavy on his hands
wishes he had fewer holidays and goes off West-
ward Ho ! chanting a tune, to Pall Mall perfectly
convinced that he has convinced me while I proceed
in my opposite direction tuneless.

It is pleasant again to see this Professor of Indiffer-
ence doing the honours of his new purchase, when he
has fairly housed it. You must view it in every light,
till he has found the best placing it at this distance,
and at that, but always suiting the focus of your sight
to his own. You must spy at it through your fingers,
to catch the aerial perspective though you assure



MY RELATIONS. 151

him that to you the landscape shows much more
agreeable without that artifice. Wo be to the luckless
wight, who does not only not respond to his rapture, but
who should drop an unseasonable intimation of pre-
ferring one of his anterior bargains to the present !
The last is always his best hit his " Cynthia of the
minute." Alas ! how many a mild Madonna have I
known to come in a Raphael! keep its ascen-
dancy for a few brief moons then, after certain in-
termedial degradations, from the front drawing-room
to the back gallery, thence to the dark parlour,
adopted in turn by each of the Carracci, under suc-
cessive lowering ascriptions of filiation, mildly break-
ing its fall consigned to the oblivious lumber-room,
go out at last a Lucca Giordano, or plain Carlo
Maratti ! which things when I beheld musing
upon the chances and mutabilities of fate below, hath
made me to reflect upon the altered condition of great
personages, or that woful Queen of Richard the
Second

set forth in pomp,

She came adorned hither like sweet May.
Sent back like Hollowmass or shortest day.

With great love for you, J. E. hath but a limited
sympathy with what you feel or do. He lives in a
world of his own, and makes slender guesses at what
passes in your mind. He never pierces the marrow of



152 MY RELATIONS.

your habits. He will tell an old established play-goer,
that Mr. Such-a-one, of So-and-so (naming one of
the theatres) , is a very lively comedian as a piece
of news ! He advertised me but the other day of
some pleasant green lanes which he had found out for
me, knowing me to be a great walker, in my own im-
mediate vicinity who have haunted the identical
spot any time these twenty years ! He has not
much respect for that class of feelings which goes by
the name of sentimental. He applies the definition
of real evil to bodily sufferings exclusively and re-
jecteth all others as imaginary. He is affected by
the sight, or the bare supposition, of a creature in
pain, to a degree which I have never witnessed out
of womankind. A constitutional acuteness to this
class of sufferings may in part account for this. The
animal tribe in particular he taketh under his especial
protection. A broken-winded or spur-galled horse is
sure to find an advocate in him. An over-loaded ass
is his client for ever. He is the apostle to the brute
kind the never- failing friend of those who have
none to care for them. The contemplation of a
lobster boiled, or eels skinned alive, will wring him
so, that " all for pity he could die." It will take the
savour from his palate, and the rest from his pillow,
for days and nights. With the intense feeling of
Thomas Clarkson, he wanted only the steadiness of



MY RELATIONS. 153

pursuit, and unity of purpose, of that "true yoke-
fellow with Time," to have effected as much for the
Animal, as he hath done for the Negro Creation.
But my uncontrollable cousin is but imperfectly
formed for purposes which demand co-operation.
He cannot wait. His amelioration-plans must be
ripened in a day. For this reason he has cut but an
equivocal figure in benevolent societies, and combina-
cions for the alleviation of human sufferings. His
zeal constantly makes him to outrun, and put out, his
coadjutors. He thinks of relieving, while they
think of debating. He was black-balled out of a



Online LibraryCharles LambCharles Lamb's essays → online text (page 9 of 32)