Charles Lamb.

The Best Letters of Charles Lamb online

. (page 12 of 20)
Online LibraryCharles LambThe Best Letters of Charles Lamb → online text (page 12 of 20)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

A hundred hisses (Damn the word, I write it like kisses, - how
different!) - a hundred hisses outweigh a thousand claps. [1] The former
come more directly from, the heart. Well, 't is withdrawn, and there
is an end.

Better luck to us,


[1] Lamb was himself in the audience, and is said to have taken a
conspicuous share in the storm of hisses that followed the dropping of
the curtain.



_January_ 2, 1810.

My best room commands a court, in which there are trees and a pump, the
water of which is excellent, - cold with brandy, and not very insipid
without. Here I hope to set up my rest, and not quit till Mr. Powell,
the undertaker, gives me notice that I may have possession of my last
lodging. He lets lodgings for single gentlemen. I sent you a parcel of
books by my last, to give you some idea of the state of European
literature. There comes with this two volumes, done up as letters, of
minor poetry, a sequel to "Mrs. Leicester;" the best you may suppose
mine, the next best are my coadjutor's. You may amuse yourself in
guessing them out; but I must tell you mine are but one third in
quantity of the whole. So much for a very delicate subject. It is hard
to speak of one's self, etc. Holcroft had finished his life when I wrote
to you, and Hazlitt has since finished his life, - I do not mean his own
life, but he has finished a life of Holcroft, which is going to press.
Tuthill is Dr. Tuthill. I continue Mr. Lamb. I have published a little
book for children on titles of honor; and to give them some idea of the
difference of rank and gradual rising, I have made a little scale,
supposing myself to receive the following various accessions of dignity
from the king, who is the fountain of honor, - as at first, 1, Mr. C.
Lamb; 2, C. Lamb, Esq.; 3, Sir C. Lamb, Bart.; 4, Baron Lamb, of
Stamford; 5, Viscount Lamb; 6, Earl Lamb; 7, Marquis Lamb; 8, Duke Lamb.
It would look like quibbling to carry it on farther, and especially as
it is not necessary for children to go beyond the ordinary titles of
sub-regal dignity in our own country, otherwise I have sometimes in my
dreams imagined myself still advancing, as 9th, King Lamb; 10th, Emperor
Lamb; 11th, Pope Innocent, - higher than which is nothing. Puns I have
not made many (nor punch much) since the date of my last; one I cannot
help relating. A constable in Salisbury Cathedral was telling me that
eight people dined at the top of the spire of the cathedral; upon which
I remarked that they must be very sharp-set. But in general I cultivate
the reasoning part of my mind more than the imaginative. I am stuffed
out so with eating turkey for dinner, and another turkey for supper
yesterday (turkey in Europe and turkey in Asia), that I can't jog on. It
is New Year here. That is, it was New Year half a year back, when I was
writing this. Nothing puzzles me more than time and space, and yet
nothing puzzles me less, for I never think about them. The Persian
ambassador is the principal thing talked of now. I sent some people to
see him worship the sun on Primrose Hill at half-past six in the
morning, 28th November; but he did not come, - which makes me think the
old fire-worshippers are a sect almost extinct in Persia. The Persian
ambassador's name is Shaw Ali Mirza. The common people call him Shaw
Nonsense. While I think of it, I have put three letters besides my own
three into the India post for you, from your brother, sister, and
some gentleman whose name I forget. Will they, have they, did they come
safe? The distance you are at, cuts up tenses by the root. I think you
said you did not know Kate *********. I express her by nine stars,
though she is but one. You must have seen her at her father's. Try and
remember her. Coleridge is bringing out a paper in weekly numbers, called
the "Friend," which I would send, if I could; but the difficulty I had in
getting the packets of books out to you before deters me; and you'll
want something new to read when you come home. Except Kate, I have had
no vision of excellence this year, and she passed by like the queen on
her coronation day; you don't know whether you saw her or not. Kate is
fifteen; I go about moping, and sing the old, pathetic ballad I used to
like in my youth, -

"She's sweet fifteen,
I'm _one year more._

Mrs. Bland sang it in boy's clothes the first time I heard it. I
sometimes think the lower notes in my voice are like Mrs. Bland's. That
glorious singer, Braham, one of my lights, is fled. He was for a season.
He was a rare composition of the Jew, the gentleman, and the angel, yet
all these elements mixed up so kindly in him that you could not tell
which predominated; but he is gone, and one Phillips is engaged instead.
Kate is vanished, but Miss Burrell is always to be met with!

"Queens drop away, while blue-legged Maukin thrives,
And courtly Mildred dies, while country Madge survives."

That is not my poetry, but Quarles's; but haven't you observed that the
rarest things are the least obvious? Don't show anybody the names in
this letter. I write confidentially, and wish this letter to be
considered as _private,_ Hazlitt has written a _grammar_ for Godwin;
Godwin sells it bound up with a treatise of his own on language; but the
_gray mare is the better horse._ I don't allude to Mrs. Godwin, but to
the word _grammar_, which comes near to _gray mare_, if you observe, in
sound. That figure is called paranomasia in Greek, I am sometimes happy
in it. An old woman begged of me for charity. "Ah, sir," said she, "I
have seen better days!" "So have I, good woman," I replied; but I meant
literally, days not so rainy and overcast as that on which begged, - she
meant more prosperous days.



_August_, 1810.

Mary has left a little space for me to fill up with nonsense, as the
geographers used to cram monsters in the voids of the maps, and call it
_Terra Incognita_. She has told you how she has taken to water like a
hungry otter. I too limp after her in lame imitation, [1] but it goes
against me a little at first. I have been acquaintance with it now for
full four days, and it seems a moon. I am full of cramps and
rheumatisms, and cold internally, so that fire won't warm me; yet I bear
all for virtue's sake. Must I then leave you, gin, rum, brandy,
_aqua-vitae_, pleasant, jolly fellows? Damn temperance and he that first
invented it! - some Anti-Noahite. Coleridge has powdered his head, and
looks like Bacchus, - Bacchus ever sleek and young. He is going to turn
sober, but his clock has not struck yet; meantime he pours down goblet
after goblet, the second to see where the first is gone, the third to
see no harm happens to the second, a fourth to say there is another
coming, and a fifth to say he is not sure he is the last. C. L.

[1] An experiment in total abstinence; it did not last long.



_October_ 19, 1810.

Dear W., - Mary has been very ill, which you have heard, I suppose, from
the Montagues. She is very weak and low-spirited now, I was much pleased
with your continuation of the "Essay on Epitaphs," [1] It is the only
sensible thing which has been written on that subject, and it goes to
the bottom. In particular I was pleased with your translation of that
turgid epitaph into the plain feeling under it. It is perfectly a test.
But what is the reason we have no good epitaphs after all?

A very striking instance of your position might be found in the
churchyard of Ditton-upon-Thames, if you know such a place.
Ditton-upon-Thames has been blessed by the residence of a poet who, for
love or money, I do not well know which, has dignified every gravestone
for the last few years with brand new verses, all different and all
ingenious, with the author's name at the bottom of each. This sweet Swan
of Thames has so artfully diversified his strains and his rhymes that
the same thought never occurs twice, - more justly, perhaps, as no
thought ever occurs at all, there was a physical impossibility that the
same thought should recur, It is long since I saw and read these
inscriptions; but I remember the impression was of a smug usher at his
desk in the intervals of instruction, levelling his pen. Of death, as it
consists of dust and worms, and mourners and uncertainty, he had never
thought; but the word "death" he had often seen separate and conjunct
with other words, till he had learned to speak of all its attributes as
glibly as Unitarian Belsham will discuss you the attributes of the word
"God" in a pulpit, and will talk of infinity with a tongue that dangles
from a skull that never reached in thought and thorough imagination two
inches, or farther than from his hand to his mouth, or from the vestry
to the sounding-board of the pulpit.

But the epitaphs were trim and sprag, and patent, and pleased the
survivors of Thames Ditton above the old mumpsimus of "Afflictions
sore." ... To do justice, though, it must be owned that even the
excellent feeling which dictated this dirge when new, must have suffered
something in passing through so many thousand applications, many of them
no doubt quite misplaced, as I have seen in Islington churchyard (I
think) an Epitaph to an Infant who died "_Ætatis_ four months," with
this seasonable inscription appended, "Honor thy father and thy mother,
that thy days may be long in the land," etc. Sincerely wishing your
children long life to honor, etc., I remain,


[1] Published in Coleridge's "Friend," Feb. 22, 1810.



_August_ 14, 1814.

Dear Wordsworth, - I cannot tell you how pleased I was at the receipt of
the great armful of poetry which you have sent me: and to get it before
the rest of the world, too! I have gone quite through with it, and was
thinking to have accomplished that pleasure a second time before I wrote
to thank you; but Martin Burney came in the night (while we were out)
and made holy theft of it: but we expect restitution in a day or two. It
is the noblest conversational poem [1] I ever read, - a day in heaven. The
part (or rather main body) which has left the sweetest odor on my memory
(a bad term for the remains of an impression so recent) is the "Tales of
the Churchyard" - the only girl among seven brethren, born out of due
time, and not duly taken away again; the deaf man and the blind man; the
Jacobite and the Hanoverian, whom antipathies reconcile; the
Scarron-entry of the rusticating parson upon his solitude, - these were
all new to me too. My having known the story of Margaret (at the
beginning), a very old acquaintance, even as long back as when I saw you
first at Stowey, did not make her reappearance less fresh. I don't know
what to pick out of this best of books upon the best subjects for
partial naming. That gorgeous sunset is famous; I think it must have
been the identical one we saw on Salisbury Plain five years ago, that
drew Phillips from the card-table, where he had sat from rise of that
luminary to its unequalled setting. But neither he nor I had gifted eyes
to see those symbols of common things glorified, such as the prophets
saw them in that sunset, - the wheel, the potter's clay, the washpot,
the wine-press, the almond-tree rod, the baskets of figs, the
four-fold-visaged head, the throne, and Him that sat thereon.

One feeling I was particularly struck with, as what I recognized so very
lately at Harrow Church on entering in it after a hot and secular day's
pleasure, - the instantaneous coolness and calming, almost transforming,
properties of a country church just entered; a certain fragrance which
it has, either from its holiness, or being kept shut all the week, or
the air that is let in being pure country, - exactly what you have
reduced into words; but I am feeling that which I cannot express. The
reading your lines about it fixed me for a time a monument in Harrow
Church, - do you know it? - with its fine long spire, white as washed
marble, to be seen, by vantage of its high site, as far as Salisbury
spire itself almost.

I shall select a day or two very shortly, when I am coolest in brain, to
have a steady second reading, which I feel will lead to many more; for
it will be a stock book with me while eyes or spectacles shall be lent
me. There is a great deal of noble matter about mountain scenery, yet
not so much as to overpower and discountenance a poor Londoner, or
south-countryman entirely, - though Mary seems to have felt it
occasionally a little too powerfully; for it was her remark, during
reading it, that by your system it was doubtful whether a liver in towns
had a soul to be saved. She almost trembled for that invisible part of
us in her.

Save for a late excursion to Harrow, and a day or two on the banks of
the Thames this summer, rural images were fast fading from my mind, and
by the wise provision of the Regent all that was countrified in the
parks is all but obliterated. The very colour of green is vanished; the
whole surface of Hyde Park is dry, crumbling sand (_Arabia Arenosa_),
not a vestige or hint of grass ever having grown there; booths and
drinking-places go all round it, for a mile and a half, I am
confident, - I might say two miles in circuit; the stench of liquors,
_bad_ tobacco, dirty people and provisions, conquers the air, and we are
all stifled and suffocated in Hyde Park [2]. Order after order has been
issued by Lord Sidmouth in the name of the Regent (acting in behalf of
his royal father) for the dispersion of the varlets; but in vain. The
_vis unita_ of all the publicans in London, Westminster, Marylebone, and
miles round, is too powerful a force to put down. The Regent has raised
a phantom which he cannot lay. There they'll stay probably forever. The
whole beauty of the place is gone, - that lake-look of the Serpentine
(it has got foolish ships upon it); but something whispers to have
confidence in Nature and its revival, -

"At the coming of the _milder_ day,
These monuments shall all be overgrown."

Meantime I confess to have smoked one delicious pipe in one of the
cleanliest and goodliest of the booths, - a tent rather, -

"Oh, call it not a booth!"

erected by the public spirit of Watson, who keeps the "Adam and Eve" at
Pancras (the ale-houses have all emigrated, with their train of bottles,
mugs, cork-screws, waiters, into Hyde Park, - whole ale-houses, with all
their ale!) in company with some of the Guards that had been in France,
and a fine French girl, habited like a princess of banditti, which one
of the dogs had transported from the Garonne to the Serpentine. The
unusual scene in Hyde Park, by candle-light, in open air, - good tobacco,
bottled stout, - made it look like an interval in a campaign, a repose
after battle. I almost fancied scars smarting, and was ready to club a
story with my comrades of some of my lying deeds. After all, the
fireworks were splendid; the rockets in clusters, in trees, and all
shapes, spreading about like young stars in the making, floundering
about in space (like unbroke horses), till some of Newton's calculations
should fix them; but then they went out. Any one who could see 'em, and
the still finer showers of gloomy rain-fire that fell sulkily and
angrily from 'em, and could go to bed without dreaming of the last day,
must be as hardened an atheist as - .

The conclusion of this epistle getting gloomy, I have chosen this part
to desire _our_ kindest loves to Mrs. Wordsworth and to Dorothea. Will
none of you ever be in London again?

Again let me thank you for your present, and assure you that fireworks
and triumphs have not distracted me from receiving a calm and noble
enjoyment from it (which I trust I shall often), and I sincerely
congratulate you on its appearance.

With kindest remembrances to you and household, we remain, yours

C. LAMB and Sister.

[1] The Excursion.

[2] Early in 1814 the London parks were thrown open to the
public, with fireworks, booths, illuminations, etc., in celebration of
the peace between France and England, it was two or three years before
they recovered their usual verdure.




Dear Wordsworth, - You have made me very proud with your successive book
presents. [1] I have been carefully through the two volumes to see that
nothing was omitted which used to be there. I think I miss nothing but a
character in the antithetic manner, which I do not know why you left
out, - the moral to the boys building the giant, the omission whereof
leaves it, in my mind, less complete, - and one admirable line gone (or
something come instead of it), "the stone-chat, and the glancing
sandpiper," which was a line quite alive. I demand these at your hand. I
am glad that you have not sacrificed a verse to those scoundrels. I
would not have had you offer up the poorest rag that lingered upon the
stripped shoulders of little Alice Fell, to have atoned all their
malice; I would not have given 'em a red cloak to save their souls. I am
afraid lest that substitution of a shell (a flat falsification of the
history) for the household implement, as it stood at first, was a kind
of tub thrown out to the beast, or rather thrown out for him. The tub
was a good honest tub in its place, and nothing could fairly be said
against it. You say you made the alteration for the "friendly reader;"
but the "malicious" will take it to himself. Damn 'em! if you give 'em
an inch, etc. The Preface is noble, and such as you should write. I wish
I could set my name to it, _Imprimatur_; but you have set it there
yourself, and I thank you. I had rather be a doorkeeper in your margin
than have their proudest text swelling with my eulogies. The poems in
the volumes which are new to me are so much in the old tone that I
hardly received them as novelties. Of those of which I had no previous
knowledge, the "Four Yew-Trees" and the mysterious company which you
have assembled there most struck me, - "Death the Skeleton, and Time the
Shadow." It is a sight not for every youthful poet to dream of; it is
one of the last results he must have gone thinking on for years for,
"Laodamia" is a very original poem, - I mean original with reference to
your own manner. You have nothing like it, I should have seen it in a
strange place, and greatly admired it, but not suspected its derivation.

Let me in this place, for I have writ you several letters naming it,
mention that my brother, who is a picture-collector, has picked up an
undoubtable picture of Milton. [2] He gave a few shillings for it, and
could get no history with it, but that some old lady had had it for a
great many years. Its age is ascertainable from the state of the canvas,
and you need only see it to be sure that it is the original of the heads
in the Tonson editions, with which we are all so well familiar. Since I
saw you, I have had a treat in the reading way which conies not every
day, - the Latin poems of V. Bourne, which were quite new to me. What a
heart that man had, all laid out upon town scenes! - a proper
counterpoise to _some people's_ rural extravaganzas. Why I mention him
is, that your "Power of Music" reminded me of his poem of "The
Ballad-singer in the Seven Dials," Do you remember his epigram on the
old woman who taught Newton the A B C, which, after all, he says, he
hesitates not to call Newton's "Principia"? I was lately fatiguing
myself with going through a volume of fine words by Lord
Thurlow, - excellent words; and if the heart could live by words alone,
it could desire no better regales. But what an aching vacuum of matter!
I don't stick at the madness of it, for that is only a consequence of
shutting his eyes and thinking he is in the age of the old Elizabeth
poets. From thence I turned to Bourne. What a sweet, unpretending,
pretty-mannered, _matter-ful_ creature, sucking from every flower,
making a flower of everything, his diction all Latin, and his thoughts
all English! Bless him! Latin wasn't good enough for him. Why wasn't he
content with the language which Gay and Prior wrote in?

I am almost sorry that you printed extracts from those first poems, or
that you did not print them at length. They do not read to me as they do
altogether. Besides, they have diminished the value of the original
(which I possess) as a curiosity. I have hitherto kept them distinct in
my mind, as referring to a particular period of your life. All the rest
of your poems are so much of a piece they might have been written in the
same week; these decidedly speak of an earlier period. They tell more of
what you had been reading. We were glad to see the poems "by a female
friend." [3] The one on the Wind is masterly, but not new to us. Being
only three, perhaps you might have clapped a D. at the corner, and let
it have past as a printer's mark to the uninitiated, as a delightful
hint to the better instructed. As it is, expect a formal criticism on
the poems of your female friend, and she must expect it. I should have
written before, but I am cruelly engaged, and like to be. On Friday I
was at office from ten in the morning (two hours dinner excepted) to
eleven at night, last night till nine; my business and office business
in general have increased so; I don't mean I am there every night, but I
must expect a great deal of it. I never leave till four, and do not keep
a holiday now once in ten times, where I used to keep all red-letter
days, and some few days besides, which I used to dub Nature's holidays.
I have had my day. I had formerly little to do. So of the little that is
left of life I may reckon two thirds as dead, for time that a man may
call his own is his life; and hard work and thinking about it taint even
the leisure hours, - stain Sunday with work-day contemplations. This is
Sunday; and the headache I have is part late hours at work the two
preceding nights, and part later hours over a consoling pipe afterwards.
But I find stupid acquiescence coming over me. I bend to the yoke, and
it is almost with me and my household as with the man and his consort, -

"To them each evening had its glittering star,
And every sabbath-day its golden sun!" [4]
to such straits am I driven for the life of life, Time!
Oh that from that superfluity of holiday-leisure my
youth wasted, "Age might but take some hours youth
wanted not"! N.B. - I have left off spirituous
liquors for four or more months, with a moral certainty
of its lasting. Farewell, dear Wordsworth!

O happy Paris, seat of idleness and pleasure! From some returned English
I hear that not such a thing as a counting-house is to be seen in her
streets, - scarce a desk. Earthquakes swallow up this mercantile city and
its "gripple merchants," as Drayton hath it, "born to be the curse of
this brave isle"! I invoke this, not on account of any parsimonious
habits the mercantile interest may have, but, to confess truth, because
I am not fit for an office.

Farewell, in haste, from a head that is too ill to methodize, a stomach
to digest, and all out of tune. Better harmonies await you!


[1] In 1815 Wordsworth published a new edition of his poems, with the
following title: "Poems by William Wordsworth; including Lyrical
Ballads, and the Miscellaneous Pieces of the Author. With Additional
Poems, a new Preface, and a Supplementary Essay. In two Volumes." The
new poems were "Yarrow Visited," "The Force of Prayer," "The Farmer of
Tilsbury Vale," "Laodamia," "Yew-Trees," "A Night Piece," etc., and it
was chiefly on these that Lamb made his comments.

[2] John Lamb afterwards gave the picture to Charles, who made it a
wedding present to Mrs. Moxon (Emma Isola), It is now in the National
Portrait Gallery.

[3] Dorothy Wordsworth.

[4] Excursion, book v.



Excuse this maddish letter; I am too tired to write _in formâ_.


Dear Wordsworth, - The more I read of your two last volumes, the more I
feel it necessary to make my acknowledgments for them in more than one
short letter. The "Night Piece," to which you refer me, I meant fully to
have noticed; but the fact is, I come so fluttering and languid from
business, tired with thoughts of it, frightened with fears of it, that
when I get a few minutes to sit down and scribble (an action of the hand
now seldom natural to me, - I mean voluntary pen-work), I lose all
presential memory of what I had intended to say, and say what I can,
talk about Vincent Bourne or any casual image, instead of that which I
had meditated (by the way, I mast look out V. B. for you). So I had
meant to have mentioned "Yarrow Visited," with that stanza, "But thou
that didst appear so fair:" [1] than which I think no lovelier stanza can

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 12 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

Online LibraryCharles LambThe Best Letters of Charles Lamb → online text (page 12 of 20)