Copyright
Charles Lamb.

The Best Letters of Charles Lamb online

. (page 10 of 20)
Online LibraryCharles LambThe Best Letters of Charles Lamb → online text (page 10 of 20)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


I was a month out), and you cannot conceive the degradation I felt at
first, from being accustomed to wander free as air among mountains, and
bathe in rivers without being controlled by any one, to come home and
_work_. I felt very _little_. I had been dreaming I was a very great
man. But that is going off, and I find I shall conform in time to that
state of life to which it has pleased God to call me. Besides, after
all, Fleet Street and the Strand are better places to live in for good
and all than amidst Skiddaw. Still, I turn back to those great places
where I wandered about, participating in their greatness. After all, I
could not _live_ in Skiddaw. I could spend a year, - two, three years
among them; but I must have a prospect of seeing Fleet Street at the end
of that time, or I should mope and pine away, I know. Still, Skiddaw is
a fine creature.

My habits are changing, I think, - _i.e._, from drunk to sober. Whether I
shall be happier or not, remains to be proved. I shall certainly be more
happy in a morning; but whether I shall not sacrifice the fat and the
marrow and the kidneys, - _i.e._, the night, - glorious, care-drowning
night, that heals all our wrongs, pours wine into our mortifications,
changes the scene from indifferent and flat to bright and brilliant? O
Manning, if I should have formed a diabolical resolution, by the time
you come to England, of not admitting any spirituous liquors into my
house, will you be my guest on such shameworthy terms? Is life, with
such limitations, worth trying? The truth is, that my liquors bring a
nest of friendly harpies about my house, who consume me. This is a
pitiful tale to be read at St. Gothard; but it is just now nearest
my heart.

[1] Patterdale.


XXXIX.


TO COLERIDGE,

_October_ 23, 1802.

I read daily your political essays. I was particularly pleased with
"Once a Jacobin;" though the argument is obvious enough, the style was
less swelling than your things sometimes are, and it was plausible _ad
populum_. A vessel has just arrived from Jamaica with the news of poor
Sam Le Grice's death. He died at Jamaica of the yellow fever. His course
was rapid, and he had been very foolish; but I believe there was more of
kindness and warmth in him than in almost any other of our
schoolfellows. The annual meeting of the Blues is to-morrow, at the
London Tavern, where poor Sammy dined with them two years ago, and
attracted the notice of all by the singular foppishness of his dress.
When men go off the stage so early, it scarce seems a noticeable thing
in their epitaphs, whether they had been wise or silly in
their lifetime.

I am glad the snuff and Pi-pos's books please. "Goody Two Shoes" is
almost out of print. Mrs. Barbauld's stuff has banished all the old
classics of the nursery; and the shopman at Newberry's hardly deigned to
reach them off an old exploded corner of a shelf, when Mary asked for
them. Mrs. B.'s and Mrs. Trimmer's nonsense lay in piles about.
Knowledge insignificant and vapid as Mrs. B.'s books convey, it seems,
must come to the child in the _shape_ of _knowledge_, and his empty
noddle must be turned with conceit of his own powers when he has learned
that a horse is an animal, and Billy is better than a horse, and such
like; instead of that beautiful interest in wild tales which made the
child a man, while all the time he suspected himself to be no bigger
than a child. Science has succeeded to poetry no less in the little
walks of children than with men. Is there no possibility of averting
this sore evil? Think what you would have been now, if instead of being
fed with tales and old wives' fables in childhood, you had been crammed
with geography and natural history!

Hang them! - I mean the cursed Barbauld crew, those blights and blasts of
all that is human in man and child.

As to the translations, let me do two or three hundred lines, and then
do you try the nostrums upon Stuart in any way you please. If they go
down, I will bray more. In fact, if I got or could but get £50 a year
only, in addition to what I have, I should live in affluence.

Have you anticipated it, or could not you give a parallel of Bonaparte
with Cromwell, particularly as to the contrast in their deeds affecting
_foreign_ States? Cromwell's interference for the Albigenses,
B[onaparte]'s against the Swiss. Then religion would come in; and Milton
and you could rant about our countrymen of that period. This is a hasty
suggestion, the more hasty because I want my supper. I have just
finished Chapman's Homer. Did you ever read it? It has most the
continuous power of interesting you all along, like a rapid original, of
any, and in the uncommon excellence of the more finished parts goes
beyond Fairfax or any of 'em. The metre is fourteen syllables, and
capable of all sweetness and grandeur, Cowper's ponderous blank verse
detains you every step with some heavy Miltonism; Chapman gallops off
with you his own free pace. Take a simile, for example. The council
breaks up, -

"Being abroad, the earth was overlaid
With fleckers to them, that came forth; as when of frequent
bees
Swarms rise out of a hollow rock, repairing the degrees
Of _their egression endlessly, - with ever rising new_
From forth their sweet nest; as their store, still as it faded,
grew,

"_And never would cease sending forth her dusters to the spring_.
They still crowd out so: this flock here, that there, belaboring
The loaded flowers. So," etc.

What _endless egression of phrases_ the dog commands!

Take another. - Agamemnon, wounded, bearing hiss wound, heroically for
the sake of the army (look below) to a woman in labor: -

"He with his lance, sword, mighty stones, poured his heroic wreak
On other squadrons of the foe, whiles yet warm blood did break
Thro' his cleft veins: but when the wound was quite exhaust and crude,
The eager anguish did approve his princely fortitude.
As when most sharp and bitter pangs distract a laboring dame,
Which the divine Ilithiæ, that rule the painful frame
Of human childbirth, pour on her; the Ilithiæ that are
The daughters of Saturnia; with whose extreme repair
The woman in her travail strives to take the worst it gives;
With thought, _it must be, 'tis love's fruit, the end for which
she lives;
The mean to make herself new born, what comforts_ will redound!
So," etc.

I will tell you more about Chapman and his peculiarities in my next. I
am much interested in him.

Yours ever affectionately, and Pi-Pos's,

C. L.


XL.


TO MANNING.

_November_, 1802.

My Dear Manning, - I must positively write, or I shall miss you at
Toulouse. I sit here like a decayed minute-hand (I lie; _that_ does not
_sit_), and being myself the exponent of no time, take no heed how the
clocks about me are going. You possibly by this time may have explored
all Italy, and toppled, unawares, into Etna, while you went too near
those rotten-jawed, gap-toothed, old worn-out chaps of hell, - while I am
meditating a quiescent letter to the honest postmaster at Toulouse. But
in case you should not have been _felo de se_, this is to tell you that
your letter was quite to my palate; in particular your just remarks upon
Industry, cursed Industry (though indeed you left me to explore the
reason), were highly relishing.

I've often wished I lived in the Golden Age, before doubt, and
propositions, and corollaries, got into the world. _Now_, as Joseph
Cottle, a Bard of Nature, sings, going up Malvern Hills, -

"How steep, how painful the ascent!
It needs the evidence of _close deduction_
To know that ever I shall gain the top."

You must know that Joe is lame, so that he had some reason for so
singing. These two lines, I assure you, are taken _totidem literis_ from
a very _popular_ poem. Joe is also an epic poet as well as a
descriptive, and has written a tragedy, though both his drama and
epopoiea are strictly _descriptive_, and chiefly of the _beauties of
nature_, for Toe thinks _man_, with all his passions and frailties, not:
a proper subject of the _drama_. Joe's tragedy hath the following
surpassing speech in it. Some king is told that his enemy has engaged
twelve archers to come over in a boat from an enemy's country and
way-lay him; he thereupon pathetically exclaims, -

"_Twelve_, dost thou say? Curse on those dozen villains!"

Cottle read two or three acts out to as, very gravely on both sides,
till he came to this heroic touch, - and then he asked what we laughed
at? I had no more muscles that day. A poet that chooses to read out his
own verses has but a limited power over you. There is a bound where his
authority ceases.


XLI.


TO MANNING.

_February_ 19, 1803.

My Dear Manning, - The general scope of your letter afforded no
indications of insanity, but some particular points raised a scruple.
For God's sake, don't think any more of "Independent Tartary." [1] What
are you to do among such Ethiopians? Is there no _lineal descendant_ of
Prester John? Is the chair empty? Is the sword unswayed? Depend upon it,
they'll never make you their king as long as any branch of that great
stock is remaining. I tremble for your Christianity. They will certainly
circumcise you. Read Sir John Mandeville's travels to cure you, or come
over to England. There is a Tartar man now exhibiting at Exeter 'Change.
Come and talk with him, and hear what he says first. Indeed, he is no
very favorable specimen of his countrymen! But perhaps the best thing
you can do is to _try_ to get the idea out of your head. For this
purpose repeat to yourself every night, after you have said your
prayers, the words "Independent Tartary, Independent Tartary," two or
three times, and associate with them the _idea_ of oblivion ('t is
Hartley's method with obstinate memories); or say "Independent,
Independent, have I not already got an _independence_?" That was a
clever way of the old Puritans, - pun-divinity. My dear friend, think
what a sad pity it would be to bury such _parts_ in heathen countries,
among nasty, unconversable, horse-belching, Tartar people! Some say they
are cannibals; and then conceive a Tartar fellow _eating_ my friend, and
adding the _cool malignity_ of mustard and vinegar! I am afraid 't is
the reading of Chaucer has misled you; his foolish stories about
Cambuscan and the ring, and the horse of brass. Believe me, there are no
such things, - 't is all the poet's _invention_; but if there were such
darling things as old Chaucer sings, I would _up_ behind you on the
horse of brass, and frisk off for Prester John's country. But these are
all tales; a horse of brass never flew, and a king's daughter never
talked with birds! The Tartars really are a cold, insipid, smouchy set.
You'll be sadly moped (if you are not eaten) among them. Pray _try_ and
cure yourself. Take hellebore (the counsel is Horace's; 't was none of
my thought _originally_). Shave yourself oftener. Eat no saffron, for
saffron-eaters contract a terrible Tartar-like yellow. Pray to avoid the
fiend. Eat nothing that gives the heartburn. _Shave the upper lip_. Go
about like an European. Read no book of voyages (they are nothing but
lies); only now and then a romance, to keep the fancy _under_. Above
all, don't go to any sights of _wild beasts. That has been your ruin_.
Accustom yourself to write familiar letters on common subjects to your
friends in England, such as are of a moderate understanding. And think
about common things more. I supped last night with Rickman, and met a
merry _natural_ captain, who pleases himself vastly with once having
made a pun at Otaheite in the O. language. 'Tis the same man who said
Shakspeare he liked, because he was so _much of the gentleman_. Rickman
is a man "absolute in all numbers." I think I may one day bring you
acquainted, if you do not go to Tartary first; for you'll never come
back. Have a care, my dear friend, of Anthropophagi! their stomachs are
always craving. 'Tis terrible to be weighed out at fivepence a pound. To
sit at table (the reverse of fishes in Holland), not as a guest, but
as a meat!

God bless you! do come to England. Air and exercise may do great things.
Talk with some minister. Why not your father?

God dispose all for the best! I have discharged my duty.

Your sincere friend,

C. LAMB.

[1] Manning had evidently written to Lamb as to his cherished
project of exploring remoter China and Thibet.


XLII.


TO MANNING.

_February_, 1803.

Not a sentence, not a syllable, of Trismegistus shall be lost through my
neglect. I am his word-banker, his storekeeper of puns and syllogisms.
You cannot conceive (and if Trismegistus cannot, no man can) the strange
joy which I felt at the receipt of a letter from Paris. It seemed to
give me a learned importance which placed me above all who had not
Parisian correspondents. Believe that I shall carefully husband every
scrap, which will save you the trouble of memory when you come back. You
cannot write things so trifling, let them only be about Paris, which I
shall not treasure. In particular, I must have parallels of actors and
actresses. I must be told if any building in Paris is at all comparable
to St. Paul's, which, contrary to the usual mode of that part of our
nature called admiration, I have looked up to with unfading wonder every
morning at ten o'clock, ever since it has lain in my way to business. At
noon I casually glance upon it, being hungry; and hunger has not much
taste for the fine arts. Is any night-walk comparable to a walk from St.
Paul's to Charing Cross, for lighting and paving, crowds going and
coming without respite, the rattle of coaches, and the cheerfulness of
shops? Have you seen a man guillotined yet? is it as good as hanging?
Are the women _all_ painted, and the men _all_ monkeys? or are there not
a _few_ that look like _rational_ of _both sexes_? Are you and the First
Consul _thick_? All this expense of ink I may fairly put you to, as your
letters will not be solely for my proper pleasure, but are to serve as
memoranda and notices, helps for short memory, a kind of Rumfordizing
recollection, for yourself on your return. Your letter was just what a
letter should be, - crammed and very funny. Every part of it pleased me,
till you came to Paris, and your philosophical indolence or indifference
stung me. You cannot stir from your rooms till you know the language!
What the devil! are men nothing but word-trumpets? Are men all tongue
and ear? Have these creatures, that you and I profess to know _something
about_, no faces, gestures, gabble; no folly, no absurdity, no induction
of French education upon the abstract idea of men and women; no
similitude nor dissimilitude to English? Why, thou cursed Smellfungus!
your account of your landing and reception, and Bullen (I forget how you
spell it, - it was spelt my way in Harry the Eighth's time), was exactly
in that minute style which strong impressions INSPIRE (writing to a
Frenchman, I write as a Frenchman would). It appears to me as if I
should die with joy at the first landing in a foreign country. It is the
nearest pleasure which a grown man can substitute for that unknown one,
which he can never know, - the pleasure of the first entrance into life
from the womb. I daresay, in a short time, my habits would come back
like a "stronger man" armed, and drive out that new pleasure; and I
should soon sicken for known objects. Nothing has transpired here that
seems to me of sufficient importance to send dry-shod over the water;
but I suppose you will want to be told some news. The best and the worst
to me is, that I have given up two guineas a week at the "Post," and
regained my health and spirits, which were upon the wane. I grew sick,
and Stuart unsatisfied. _Ludisti satis, tempus abire est_; I must cut
closer, that's all. Mister Fell - or as you, with your usual
facetiousness and drollery, call him, Mr. Fell - has stopped short in the
middle of his play. Some _friend_ has told him that it has not the least
merit in it. Oh that I had the rectifying of the Litany! I would put in
a _Libera nos (Scriptores videlicet) ab amicis_! That's all the news. _A
propos_ (is it pedantry, writing to a Frenchman, to express myself
sometimes by a French word, when an English one would not do as well?
Methinks my thoughts fall naturally into it) -

In all this time I have done but one thing which I reckon tolerable, and
that I will transcribe, because it may give you pleasure, being a
picture of _my_ humors. You will find it in my last page. It absurdly is
a first number of a series, thus strangled in its birth.

More news! The Professor's Rib [1] has come out to be a disagreeable
woman, so much so as to drive me and some more old cronies from his
house. He must not wonder if people are shy of coming to see him because
of the _Snakes_.

C. L.

[1] Mrs. Godwin


XLIII.


TO WILLIAM GODWIN.

_November_ 10, 1803.

Dear Godwin, - You never made a more unlucky and perverse mistake than to
suppose that the reason of my not writing that cursed thing was to be
found in your book. I assure you most sincerely that I have been greatly
delighted with "Chaucer." [1] I may be wrong, but I think there is one
considerable error runs through it, which is a conjecturing spirit, a
fondness for filling out the picture by supposing what Chaucer did and
how he felt, where the materials are scanty. So far from meaning to
withhold from you (out of mistaken tenderness) this opinion of mine, I
plainly told Mrs. Godwin that I did find a _fault_, which I should
reserve naming until I should see you and talk it over. This she may
very well remember, and also that I declined naming this fault until she
drew it from me by asking me if there was not too much fancy in the
work. I then confessed generally what I felt, but refused to go into
particulars until I had seen you. I am never very fond of saying things
before third persons, because in the relation (such is human nature)
something is sure to be dropped. If Mrs. Godwin has been the cause of
your misconstruction, I am very angry, tell her; yet it is not an anger
unto death. I remember also telling Mrs. G. (which she may have _dropt_)
that I was by turns considerably more delighted than I expected. But I
wished to reserve all this until I saw you. I even had conceived an
expression to meet you with, which was thanking you for some of the most
exquisite pieces of criticism I had ever read in my life. In particular,
I should have brought forward that on "Troilus and Cressida" and
Shakspeare, which, it is little to say, delighted me and instructed me
(if not absolutely _instructed_ me, yet put into _full-grown sense_ many
conceptions which had arisen in me before in my most discriminating
moods). All these things I was preparing to say, and bottling them up
till I came, thinking to please my friend and host the author, when lo!
this deadly blight intervened.

I certainly ought to make great allowances for your misunderstanding me.
You, by long habits of composition and a greater command gained over
your own powers, cannot conceive of the desultory and uncertain way in
which I (an author by fits) sometimes cannot put the thoughts of a
common letter into sane prose. Any work which I take upon myself as an
engagement will act upon me to torment; _e.g._, when I have undertaken,
as three or four times I have, a school-boy copy of verses for Merchant
Taylors' boys, at a guinea a copy, I have fretted over them in perfect
inability to do them, and have made my sister wretched with my
wretchedness for a week together. The same, till by habit I have
acquired a mechanical command, I have felt in making paragraphs. As to
reviewing, in particular, my head is so whimsical a head that I cannot,
after reading another man's book, let it have been never so pleasing,
give any account of it in any methodical way, I cannot follow his train.
Something like this you must have perceived of me in conversation. Ten
thousand times I have confessed to you, talking of my talents, my utter
inability to remember in any comprehensive way what I read. I can
vehemently applaud, or perversely stickle, at _parts_; but I cannot
grasp at a whole. This infirmity (which is nothing to brag of) may be
seen in my two little compositions, the tale and my play, in both which
no reader, however partial, can find any story. I wrote such stuff about
Chaucer, and got into such digressions, quite irreducible into 1 1/5
column of a paper, that I was perfectly ashamed to show it you. However,
it is become a serious matter that I should convince you I neither slunk
from the task through a wilful deserting neglect, or through any (most
imaginary on your part) distaste of "Chaucer;" and I will try my hand
again, - I hope with better luck. My health is bad, and my time taken up;
but all I can spare between this and Sunday shall be employed for you,
since you desire it: and if I bring you a crude, wretched paper on
Sunday, you must burn it, and forgive me; if it proves anything better
than I predict, may it be a peace-offering of sweet incense between us!

C. LAMB.

[1] Godwin's "Life of Chaucer," - a work, says Canon Ainger, consisting
of "four fifths ingenious guessing to one fifth of material having any
historic basis."


XLIV.


TO MANNING.

_February_ 24, 1805.

Dear Manning, - I have been very unwell since I saw you. A sad depression
of spirits, a most unaccountable nervousness; from which I have been
partially relieved by an odd accident. You knew Dick Hopkins, the
swearing scullion of Caius? This fellow, by industry and agility, has
thrust himself into the important situations (no sinecures, believe me)
of cook to Trinity Hall and Caius College; and the generous creature has
contrived, with the greatest delicacy imaginable, to send me a present
of Cambridge brawn. What makes it the more extraordinary is, that the
man never saw me in his life that I know of. I suppose he has _heard_ of
me. I did not immediately recognize the donor; but one of Richard's
cards, which had accidentally fallen into the straw, detected him in a
moment, Dick, you know, was always remarkable for flourishing. His card
imports that "orders [to wit, for brawn] from any part of England,
Scotland, or Ireland, will be duly executed," etc. At first I thought of
declining the present; but Richard knew my blind side when he pitched
upon brawn. 'Tis of all my hobbies the supreme in the eating way. He
might have sent sops from the pan, skimmings, crumpets, chips, hog's
lard, the tender brown judiciously scalped from a fillet of veal
(dexterously replaced by a salamander), the tops of asparagus, fugitive
livers, runaway gizzards of fowls, the eyes of martyred pigs, tender
effusions of laxative woodcocks, the red spawn of lobsters, leverets'
ears, and such pretty filchings common to cooks; but these had been
ordinary presents, the everyday courtesies of dishwashers to their
sweethearts. Brawn was a noble thought. It is not every common
gullet-fancier that can properly esteem it. It is like a picture of one
of the choice old Italian masters. Its gusto is of that hidden sort. As
Wordsworth sings of a modest poet, "you must love him, ere to you he
will seem worthy of your love," so brawn, you must taste it, ere to you
it will seem to have any taste at all. But 'tis nuts to the
adept, - those that will send out their tongues and feelers to find it
out. It will be wooed, and not unsought be won. Now, ham-essence,
lobsters, turtle, such popular minions, absolutely _court you_, lay
themselves out to strike you at first smack, like one of David's
pictures (they call him _Darveed_), compared with the plain
russet-coated wealth of a Titian or a Correggio, as I illustrated above.
Such are the obvious glaring heathen virtues of a corporation dinner,
compared with the reserved collegiate worth of brawn. Do me the favour
to leave off the business which you may be at present upon, and go
immediately to the kitchens of Trinity and Caius, and make my most
respectful compliments to Mr. Richard Hopkins, and assure him that his
brawn is most excellent, and that I am moreover obliged to him for his
innuendo about salt water and bran, which I shall not fail to improve. I
leave it to you whether you shall choose to pay him the civility of
asking him to dinner while you stay in Cambridge, or in whatever other
way you may best like to show your gratitude to _my friend_. Richard
Hopkins, considered in many points of view, is a very extraordinary
character. Adieu. I hope to see you to supper in London soon, where we
will taste Richard's brawn, and drink his health in a cheerful but


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 10 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

Online LibraryCharles LambThe Best Letters of Charles Lamb → online text (page 10 of 20)