Charles Lamb.

The Best Letters of Charles Lamb online

. (page 3 of 20)
Online LibraryCharles LambThe Best Letters of Charles Lamb → online text (page 3 of 20)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

"This dark, frieze-coated, hoarse, teeth-chattering month."

They are exactly such epithets as Burns would have stumbled on, whose
poem on the ploughed-up daisy you seem to have had in mind. Your
complaint that of your readers some thought there was too much, some too
little, original matter in your numbers, reminds me of poor dead Parsons
in the "Critic." "Too little incident! Give me leave to tell you, sir,
there is too much incident." I had like to have forgot thanking you for
that exquisite little morsel, the first Sclavonian Song. The expression
in the second, "more happy to be unhappy in hell," is it not very
quaint? Accept my thanks, in common with those of all who love good
poetry, for "The Braes of Yarrow." I congratulate you on the enemies you
must have made by your splendid invective against the barterers in human
flesh and sinews. Coleridge, you will rejoice to hear that Cowper is
recovered from his lunacy, and is employed on his translation of the
Italian, etc., poems of Milton for an edition where Fuseli presides as
designer. Coleridge, to an idler like myself, to write and receive
letters are both very pleasant; but I wish not to break in upon your
valuable time by expecting to hear very frequently from you. Reserve
that obligation for your moments of lassitude, when you have nothing
else to do; for your loco-restive and all your idle propensities, of
course, have given way to the duties of providing for a family. The mail
is come in, but no parcel; yet this is Tuesday. Farewell, then, till
to-morrow; for a niche and a nook I must leave for criticisms. By the
way, I hope you do not send your own only copy of "Joan of Arc;" I will
in that case return it immediately.

Your parcel _is_ come; you have been _lavish_ of your presents.

Wordsworth's poem I have hurried through, not without delight. Poor
Lovell! my heart almost accuses me for the light manner I lately spoke
of him, not dreaming of his death. My heart bleeds for your accumulated
troubles; God send you through 'em with patience. I conjure you dream
not that I will ever think of being repaid; the very word is galling to
the ears. I have read all your "Religious Musings" with uninterrupted
feelings of profound admiration. You may safely rest your fame on it.
The best remaining things are what I have before read, and they lose
nothing by my recollection of your manner of reciting 'em, for I too
bear in mind "the voice, the look," of absent friends, and can
occasionally mimic their manner for the amusement of those who have seen
'em. Your impassioned manner of recitation I can recall at any time to
mine own heart and to the ears of the bystanders. I rather wish you had
left the monody on Chatterton concluding, as, it did, abruptly. It had
more of unity. The conclusion of your "Religious Musicgs," I fear, will
entitle you to the reproof of your beloved woman, who wisely will not
suffer your fancy to run riot, but bids you walk humbly with your God.
The very last words, "I exercise my young novitiate thought in
ministeries of heart-stirring song," though not now new to me, cannot be
enough admired. To speak politely, they are a well-turned compliment to
poetry. I hasten to read "Joan of Arc," etc. I have read your lines at
the beginning of second book; [1] they are worthy of Milton, but in my
mind yield to your "Religious Musings." I shall read the whole
carefully, and in some future letter take the liberty to particularize
my opinions of it. Of what is new to me among your poems next to the
"Musings," that beginning "My Pensive Sara" gave me most pleasure. The
lines in it I just alluded to are most exquisite; they made my sister
and self smile, as conveying a pleasing picture of Mrs. C. checking your
wild wanderings, which we were so fond of hearing you indulge when among
us. It has endeared us more than anything to your good lady, and your
own self-reproof that follows delighted us. 'T is a charming poem
throughout (you have well remarked that charming, admirable, exquisite
are the words expressive of feelings more than conveying of ideas, else
I might plead very well want of room in my paper as excuse for
generalizing). I want room to tell you how we are charmed with your
verses in the manner of Spenser, etc. I am glad you resume the
"Watchman." Change the name; leave out all articles of news, and
whatever things are peculiar to newspapers, and confine yourself to
ethics, verse, criticism; or, rather, do not confine yourself. Let your
plan be as diffuse as the "Spectator," and I 'll answer for it the work
prospers. If I am vain enough to think I can be a contributor, rely on
my inclinations. Coleridge, in reading your "Religious Musings," I felt
a transient superiority over you. I _have_ seen Priestley. I love to see
his name repeated in your writings. I love and honor him almost
profanely. You would be charmed with his _Sermons_, if you never read
'em. You have doubtless read his books illustrative of the doctrine of
Necessity. Prefixed to a late work of his in answer to Paine, there is a
preface giving an account of the man and his services to men, written by
Lindsey, his dearest friend, well worth your reading.

_Tuesday Eve_. - Forgive my prolixity, which is yet too brief for all I
could wish to say. God give you comfort, and all that are of your
household! Our loves and best good-wishes to Mrs. C.


[1] Coleridge contributed some four hundred lines to the second book of
Southey's epic.



_June_ 10, 1796.

With "Joan of Arc" I have been delighted, amazed, I had not presumed to
expect anything of such excellence from Southey. Why, the poem is alone
sufficient to redeem the character of the age we live in from the
imputation of degenerating in poetry, were there no such beings extant
as Burns, and Bowles, Cowper, and - - , - - fill up the blank how you
please; I say nothing. The subject is well chosen; it opens well. To
become more particular, I will notice in their order a few passages that
chiefly struck me on perusal. Page 26: "Fierce and terrible
Benevolence!" is a phrase full of grandeur and originality, The whole
context made me feel _possessed_, even like Joan herself. Page 28: "It
is most horrible with the keen sword to gore the finely fibred human
frame," and what follows, pleased me mightily. In the second book, the
first forty lines in particular are majestic and high-sounding. Indeed,
the whole vision of the Palace of Ambition and what follows are
supremely excellent. Your simile of the Laplander, "By Niemi's lake, or
Balda Zhiok, or the mossy stone of Solfar-Kapper," [1] will bear
comparison with any in Milton for fulness of circumstance and
lofty-pacedness of versification. Southey's similes, though many of 'em
are capital, are all inferior. In one of his books, the simile of the
oak in the storm occurs, I think, four times. To return: the light in
which you view the heathen deities is accurate and beautiful. Southey's
personifications in this book are so many fine and faultless pictures. I
was much pleased with your manner of accounting for the reason why
monarchs take delight in war. At the 447th line you have placed Prophets
and Enthusiasts cheek by jowl, on too intimate a footing for the dignity
of the former. Necessarian-like-speaking, it is correct. Page 98: "Dead
is the Douglas! cold thy warrior frame, illustrious Buchan," etc., are
of kindred excellence with Gray's "Cold is Cadwallo's tongue," etc. How
famously the Maid baffles the Doctors, Seraphic and Irrefragable, "with
all their trumpery!" Page 126: the procession, the appearances of the
Maid, of the Bastard Son of Orleans, and of Tremouille, are full of fire
and fancy, and exquisite melody of versification. The personifications
from line 303 to 309, in the heat of the battle, had better been
omitted; they are not very striking, and only encumber. The converse
which Joan and Conrade hold on the banks of the Loire is altogether
beautiful. Page 313: the conjecture that in dreams "all things are that
seem," is one of those conceits which the poet delights to admit into
his creed, - a creed, by the way, more marvellous and mystic than ever
Athanasius dreamed of. Page 315: I need only _mention_ those lines
ending with "She saw a serpent gnawing at her heart!" They are good
imitative lines: "he toiled and toiled, of toil to reap no end, but
endless toil and never-ending woe." Page 347: Cruelty is such as Hogarth
might have painted her. Page 361: all the passage about Love (where he
seems to confound conjugal love with creating and preserving love) is
very confused, and sickens me with a load of useless personifications;
else that ninth book is the finest in the volume, - an exquisite
combination of the ludicrous and the terrible. I have never read either,
even in translation, but such I conceive to be the manner of Dante or
Ariosto. The tenth book is the most languid.

On the whole, considering the celerity wherewith the poem was finished,
I was astonished at the unfrequency of weak lines, I had expected to
find it verbose. Joan, I think, does too little in battle, Dunois
perhaps the same; Conrade too much. The anecdotes interspersed among the
battles refresh the mind very agreeably, and I am delighted with the
very many passages of simple pathos abounding throughout the
poem, - passages which the author of "Crazy Kate" might have written. Has
not Master Southey spoke very slightingly in his preface and
disparagingly of Cowper's Homer? What makes him reluctant to give Cowper
his fame? And does not Southey use too often the expletives "did" and
"does"? They have a good effect at times, but are too inconsiderable, or
rather become blemishes when they mark a style. On the whole, I expect
Southey one day to rival Milton; I already deem him equal to Cowper, and
superior to all living poets besides. What says Coleridge? The "Monody
on Henderson" is _immensely good_; the rest of that little volume is
_readable and above mediocrity?_ [2] I proceed to a more pleasant
task, - pleasant because the poems are yours; pleasant because you impose
the task on me; and pleasant, let me add, because it will confer a
whimsical importance on me to sit in judgment upon your rhymes. First,
though, let me thank you again and again, in my own and my sister's
name, for your invitations. Nothing could give us more pleasure than to
come; but (were there no other reasons) while my brother's leg is so
bad, it is out of the question. Poor fellow! he is very feverish and
light-headed; but Cruikshanks has pronounced the symptoms favourable,
and gives us every hope that there will be no need of amputation. God
send not! We are necessarily confined with him all the afternoon and
evening till very late, so that I am stealing a few minutes to write
to you.

Thank you for your frequent letters; you are the only correspondent and,
I might add, the only friend I have in the world. I go nowhere, and have
no acquaintance. Slow of speech and reserved of manners, no one seeks or
cares for my society, and I am left alone. Austin calls only
occasionally, as though it were a duty rather, and seldom stays ten
minutes. Then judge how thankful I am for your letters! Do not, however,
burden yourself with the correspondence. I trouble you again so soon
only in obedience to your injunctions. Complaints apart, proceed we to
our task. I am called away to tea, - thence must wait upon my brother; so
must delay till to-morrow. Farewell! - _Wednesday_.

_Thursday_. - I will first notice what is new to me. Thirteenth page:
"The thrilling tones that concentrate the soul" is a nervous line, and
the six first lines of page 14 are very pretty, the twenty-first
effusion a perfect thing. That in the manner of Spenser is very sweet,
particularly at the close; the thirty-fifth effusion is most
exquisite, - that line in particular, "And, tranquil, muse upon
tranquillity." It is the very reflex pleasure that distinguishes the
tranquillity of a thinking being from that of a shepherd, - a modern one
I would be understood to mean, - a Damoetas; one that keeps other
people's sheep. Certainly, Coleridge, your letter from Shurton Bars has
less merit than most things in your volume; personally it may chime in
best with your own feelings, and therefore you love it best. It has,
however, great merit. In your fourth epistle that is an exquisite
paragraph, and fancy-full, of "A stream there is which rolls in lazy
flow," etc. "Murmurs sweet undersong 'mid jasmin bowers" is a sweet
line, and so are the three next. The concluding simile is far-fetched;
"tempest-honored" is a quaintish phrase.

Yours is a poetical family. I was much surprised and pleased to see the
signature of Sara to that elegant composition, the fifth epistle. I dare
not _criticise_ the "Religious Musings;" I like not to _select_ any
part, where all is excellent. I can only admire, and thank you for it in
the name of a Christian, as well as a lover of good poetry; only let me
ask, is not that thought and those words in Young, "stands in the
sun," - or is it only such as Young, in one of his _better moments,_
might have writ?

"Believe thou, O my soul,
Life is a vision shadowy of Truth;
And vice, and anguish, and the wormy grave,
Shapes of a dream!"

I thank you for these lines in the name of a necessarian, and for what
follows in next paragraph, in the name of a child of fancy. After all,
you cannot nor ever will write anything with which I shall be so
delighted as what I have heard yourself repeat. You came to town, and I
saw you at a time when your heart was yet bleeding with recent wounds.
Like yourself, I was sore galled with disappointed hope; you had

"Many an holy lay
That, mourning, soothed the mourner on his way."

I had ears of sympathy to drink them in, and they yet vibrate pleasant
on the sense. When I read in your little volume your nineteenth
effusion, or the twenty-eighth or twenty-ninth, or what you call the
"Sigh," I think I hear _you_ again. I image to myself the little smoky
room at the "Salutation and Cat," where we have sat together through the
winter nights, beguiling the cares of life with poesy. When you left
London, I felt a dismal void in my heart. I found myself cut off, at one
and the same time, from two most dear to me, "How blest with ye the path
could I have trod of quiet life!" In your conversation you had blended
so many pleasant fancies that they cheated me of my grief; but in your
absence the tide of melancholy rushed in again, and did its worst
mischief by overwhelming my reason. I have recovered, but feel a stupor
that makes me indifferent to the hopes and fears of this life. I
sometimes wish to introduce a religious turn of mind; but habits are
strong things, and my religious fervours are confined, alas! to some
fleeting moments of occasional solitary devotion,

A correspondence, opening with you, has roused me a little from my
lethargy and made me conscious of existence. Indulge me in it; I will
not be very troublesome! At some future time I will amuse you with an
account, as full as my memory will permit, of the strange turn my frenzy
took. I look back upon it at times with, a gloomy kind of envy; for
while it lasted, I had many, many hours of pure happiness. Dream not,
Coleridge, of having tasted all the grandeur and wildness of fancy till
you have gone mad! All now seems to me vapid, - comparatively so. Excuse
this selfish digression. Your "Monody" [3] is so superlatively excellent
that I can only wish it perfect, which I can't help feeling it is not
quite. Indulge me in a few conjectures; what I am going to propose would
make it more compressed and, I think, more energetic, though, I am
sensible, at the expense of many beautiful lines. Let it begin, "Is this
the land of song-ennobled line?" and proceed to "Otway's famished form;"
then, "Thee, Chatterton," to "blaze of Seraphim;" then, "clad in
Nature's rich array," to "orient day;" then, "but soon the scathing
lightning," to "blighted land;" then, "sublime of thought," to "his
bosom glows;" then

"But soon upon his poor unsheltered head
Did Penury her sickly mildew shed;
Ah! where are fled the charms of vernal grace,
And joy's wild gleams that lightened o'er his face."

Then "youth of tumultuous soul" to "sigh," as before. The rest may all
stand down to "gaze upon the waves below." What follows now may come
next as detached verses, suggested by the "Monody," rather than a part
of it. They are, indeed, in themselves, very sweet;

"And we, at sober eve, would round thee throng,
Hanging enraptured on thy stately song!"

in particular, perhaps. If I am obscure, you may understand me by
counting lines. I have proposed omitting twenty-four lines; I feel that
thus compressed it would gain energy, but think it most likely you will
not agree with me; for who shall go about to bring opinions to the bed
of Procrustes, and introduce among the sons of men a monotony of
identical feelings? I only propose with diffidence.

Reject you, if you please, with as little remorse as you would the color
of a coat or the pattern of a buckle, where our fancies differed.

The "Pixies" is a perfect thing, and so are the "Lines on the Spring."
page 28. The "Epitaph on an Infant," like a Jack-o'-lantern, has danced
about (or like Dr. Forster's [4] scholars) out of the "Morning Chronicle"
into the "Watchman," and thence back into your collection. It is very
pretty, and you seem to think so, but, may be, overlooked its chief
merit, that of filling up a whole page, I had once deemed sonnets of
unrivalled use that way, but your Epitaphs, I find, are the more
diffuse. "Edmund" still holds its place among your best verses, "Ah!
fair delights" to "roses round," in your poem called "Absence," recall
(none more forcibly) to my mind the tones in which you recited it, I
will not notice, in this tedious (to you) manner, verses which have been
so long delighful to me, and which you already know my opinion of. Of
this kind are Bowles, Priestley, and that most exquisite and most
Bowles-like of all, the nineteenth effusion. It would have better ended
with "agony of care;" the last two lines are obvious and unnecessary;
and you need not now make fourteen lines of it, now it is rechristened
from a Sonnet to an Effusion.

Schiller might have written the twentieth effusion; 't is worthy of him
in any sense, I was glad to meet with those lines you sent me when my
sister was so ill; I had lost the copy, and I felt not a little proud at
seeing my name in your verse. The "Complaint of Ninathoma" (first stanza
in particular) is the best, or only good, imitation of Ossian I ever
saw, your "Restless Gale" excepted. "To an Infant" is most sweet; is not
"foodful," though, very harsh? Would not "dulcet" fruit be less harsh,
or some other friendly bi-syllable? In "Edmund," "Frenzy! fierce-eyed
child" is not so well as "frantic," though that is an epithet adding
nothing to the meaning. Slander _couching_ was better than "squatting."
In the "Man of Ross" it _was_ a better line thus, -

"If 'neath this roof thy wine-cheered moments pass,"

than as it stands now. Time nor nothing can reconcile me to the
concluding five lines of "Kosciusko;" call it anything you will but
sublime. In my twelfth effusion I had rather have seen what I wrote
myself, though they bear no comparison with your exquisite lines, -

"On rose-leaf beds amid your faery bowers," etc.

I love my sonnets because they are the reflected images of my own
feelings at different times. To instance, in the thirteenth, -

"How reason reeled," etc.,

are good lines, but must spoil the whole with me, who know it is only a
fiction of yours, and that the "rude dashings" did in fact not "rock me
to repose." I grant the same objection applies not to the former sonnet;
but still I love my own feelings, - they are dear to memory, though they
now and then wake a sigh or a tear, "Thinking on divers things fordone,"
I charge you, Coleridge, spare my ewe-lambs; and though a gentleman may
borrow six lines in an epic poem (I should have no objection to borrow
five hundred, and without acknowledging), still, in a sonnet, a personal
poem, I do not ask my friend the aiding verse; I would not wrong your
feelings by proposing any improvements (did I think myself capable of
suggesting 'era) in such personal poems as "Thou bleedest, my poor
heart," - 'od so, - I am caught, - I have already done it; but that simile
I propose abridging would not change the feeling or introduce any alien
ones. Do you understand me? In the twenty-eighth, however, and in the
"Sigh," and that composed at Clevedon, things that come from the heart
direct, not by the medium of the fancy, I would not suggest an

When my blank verse is finished, or any long fancy poem, "propino tibi
alterandum, cut-up-andum, abridgeandum," just what you will with, it:
but spare my ewe-lambs! That to "Mrs. Siddons' now, you were welcome to
improve, if it had been worth it; but I say unto you again, Coleridge,
spare my ewe-lambs! I must confess, were the mine, I should omit, _in
editione secunda_, effusions two and three, because satiric and below
the dignity of the poet of "Religious Musings," fifth, seventh, half of
the eighth, that "Written in early youth," as far as "thousand
eyes," - though I part not unreluctantly with that lively line, -

"Chaste joyance dancing in her bright blue eyes,"

and one or two just thereabouts. But I would substitute for it that
sweet poem called "Recollection," in the fifth number of the "Watchman,"
better, I think, than the remainder of this poem, though not differing
materially; as the poem now stands, it looks altogether confused. And do
not omit those lines upon the "Early Blossom" in your sixth number of
the "Watchman;" and I would omit the tenth effusion, or what would do
better, alter and improve the last four lines. In fact, I suppose, if
they were mine, I should _not_ omit 'em; but your verse is, for the most
part, so exquisite that I like not to see aught of meaner matter mixed
with it. Forgive my petulance and often, I fear, ill-founded criticisms,
and forgive me that I have, by this time, made your eyes and head ache
with my long letter; but I cannot forego hastily the pleasure and pride
of thus conversing with you. You did not tell me whether I was to
include the "Conciones ad Populum" in my remarks on your poems. They are
not unfrequently sublime, and I think you could not do better than to
turn 'em into verse, - if you have nothing else to do. Austin, I am sorry
to say, is a _confirmed_ atheist. Stoddart, a cold-hearted, well-bred,
conceited disciple of Godwin, does him no good. His wife has several
daughters (one of 'em as old as himself). Surely there is something
unnatural in such a marriage.

How I sympathize with you on the dull duty of a reviewer, and heartily
damn with you Ned Evans and the Prosodist! I shall, however, wait
impatiently for the articles in the "Critical Review" next month,
because they are _yours_. Young Evans (W. Evans, a branch of a family
you were once so intimate with) is come into our office, and sends his
love to you. Coleridge, I devoutly wish that Fortune, who lias made
sport with you so long, may play one freak more, throw you into London
or some spot near it, and there snug-ify you for life. 'Tis a selfish
but natural wish for me, cast as I am on life's wide plain, friendless,"
Are you acquainted with Bowles? I see by his last Elegy (written at
Bath) you are near neighbors, - _Thursday_.

"And I can think I can see the groves again;" "Was it the voice of
thee;" "Turns not the voice of thee, my buried friend;" "Who dries with
her dark locks the tender tear," - are touches as true to Nature as any
in his other Elegy, written at the Hot Wells, about poor Kassell, etc.
You are doubtless acquainted with it,

I do not know that I entirely agree with you in your stricture upon my
sonnet "To Innocence," To men whose hearts are not quite deadened by
their commerce with the world, innocence (no longer familiar) becomes an
awful idea. So I felt when I wrote it. Your other censures (qualified
and sweetened, though, with praises somewhat extravagant) I perfectly
coincide with: yet I choose to retain the word "lunar," - indulge a
"lunatic" in his loyalty to his mistress the moon! I have just been
reading a most pathetic copy of verses on Sophia Pringle, who was hanged
and burned for coining. One of the strokes of pathos (which are very
many, all somewhat obscure) is, "She lifted up her guilty forger to
heaven." A note explains, by "forger," her right hand, with which she

1 3 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

Online LibraryCharles LambThe Best Letters of Charles Lamb → online text (page 3 of 20)