Charles Lamb.

The life, letters, and writings of Charles Lamb (Volume 6) online

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spoke these words that struck me not a little. It
was more like the accent with which a man bemoans
some recent calamity that has happened to a friend,
than that tone of sober grief with which we lament
the sorrows of a person, however excellent and how
ever grievous his afflictions may have been, who has
been dead more than two centuries. I had the
curiosity to inquire into the reasons of so uncommon
an ejaculation. My young gentleman, with a more
solemn tone of pathos than before, repeated, " Poor
Spencer ! " and added, " He has lost his wife ! "

My astonishment at this assertion rose to such a
height, that I began to think the brain of my young
friend must be cracked, or some unaccountable revery


had gotten possession of it. But, upon further ex-
planation, it appeared that the word "Spenser" —
which to you or me, reader, in a conversation upon
poetry too, would naturally have called up the idea
of an old poet in a ruff, one Edmund Spenser, that
flourished in the days of Queen Elizabeth, and wrote
a poem called "The Fairy Queen," with "The Shep-
herd's Calendar," and many more verses besides —
did, in the mind of my young friend, excite a very
different and quite modern idea ; namely, that of the
Honourable William Spencer, one of the living orna-
ments, if I am not misinformed,, of this present
poetical era^ AJD. 1811.




Mr. Reflector, — 1 am one of those persons whom
the world has thought proper to designate by the
title of Damned Authors. In that memorable season
of dramatic failures, 1806-7, — in which no fewer, I
think,, than two tragedies, four comedies, one opera,
and three farces, suffered at Drury Lane Theatre, —
I was found guilty of constructing an afterpiece, and
was damned.


Against the decision of the pubhc in such instances
there can be no appeal. The clerk of Chatham might
as well have protested against the decision of Cade
and his followers, who were then the public. Like
him, I was condemned because I could write.

Not but it did appear to some of us that the
measures of the popular tribunal at that period
savoured a little of harshness and of the summum
jus. The public mouth was early in the season
fleshed upon the " Vindictive Man," and some pieces
of that nature; and it retained, through the remainder
of it, a relish of blood. As Doctor Johnson would
have said, " Sir, there was a habit of sibilation in
the house."

Still less am I disposed to inquire into the reason
of the comparative lenity, on the other hand, with
which some pieces were treated, which, to indifferent
judges, seemed at least as much deserving of con-
demnation as some of those which met with it. I
am willing to put a favourable construction upon the
votes that were given against us ; I believe that there
was no bribery or designed partiality in the case : only
•' our nonsense did not happen to suit their non-
sense; " that was all.

But against the manner in which the public, on
these occasions, think fit to deliver their disappro-
bation, I must and ever will protest.

Sir, imagine (but you have been present at the
damning of a piece ; those who never had that
felicity I beg them to imagine) a vast theatre, like
that which Drury Lane was before it was a heap of dust
and ashes, (I insult not over its fallen greatness ; let
it recover itself when it can for me, let it lift up its
towering head once more, and take in poor authors


to write for it ; hie ccestus artemque repono,) — a
theatre like that, filled with all sorts of disgusting
sounds, — shrieks, groans, hisses, but chiefly the last,
like the noise of many waters, or that which Don
Quixote heard from the fulling-mills, or that wilder
combination of devilish sounds which St. Anthony
listened to in the wilderness.

Oh Mr. Reflector, is it not a pity that the sweet
human voice, which was given man to speak with,
to sing with, to whisper tones of love in, to express
compliance, to convey a favour, or to grant a suit, —
that voice, which in a Siddons or a Braham rouses
us, in a siren Catalan! charms and captivates us, — •
that the musical, expressive human voice should be
converted into a rival of the noises of silly geese,
and irrational, venomous snakes ?

I never shall forget the sounds on my night. I
never before that time fully felt the reception which
the Author of All 111, in the •' Paradise Lost," meets
with from the critics in the pit, at the final close
of his "Tragedy upon the Human Race," — thoug^b
that, alas I met with too much success : —

" From innumerable tongues
A dismal universal biss, the sound
Of public scorn. Dreadful was the din
Of hissing through the hall, thick swarming now
With complicated monsters, head and tail.
Scorpion and Asp, and Amphisbsena dire,
Cerastes horned. Hydras, and Elops drear.
And Dipsas."

For hall substitute theatre, and you have the very
image of what takes place at what is called the
damnation of a piece, — and properly so called ; for
here you see its origin plainly, whence the custom


was derived, and what the first piece was that so suf-
fered. After this, none can doubt the propriety of
the appellation.

But, sir, as to the justice of bestowing such appal-
ling, heart-withering denunciations of the popular
obloquy upon the venial mistake of a poor author,
who thought to please us in the act of filling his
pockets, (for the sum of his demerits amounts to no
more than that,) it does, I own, seem to me a species
of retributive justice far too severe for the offence. A
culprit in the pillory (bate the eggs) meets with no
severer exprobration.

Indeed I have often wondered that some modest
critic has not proposed that there should be a wooden
machine to that effect erected in some convenient
part o{ the proscenium, which an unsuccessful author
should be required to mount, and stand his hour,
exposed to the apples and oranges of the pit. This
amende honorable would well suit with the meanness
of some authors, who, in their prologues, fairly
prostrate their skulls to the audience, and seem to
invite a pelting.

Or w^hy should they not have their pens publicly
broke over their heads, as the swords of recreant
knights in old times were, and an oath administered
to them that they should never write again ?

Seriously, Messieurs the Public, this outrageous
way which you have got of expressing your dis-
pleasure is too much for the occasion. When I was
deafening under the effects of it, I could not help
asking what crime of great moral turpitude I had
committed : for every man about me seemed to feel
the offence as personal to himself; as something
which public interest and private feelings alike called


upon him, in the strongest possible manner, to stig-
matize with infamy.

The Romans, it is well known to you, Mr, Re-
flector, took a gentler method of marking their dis-
approbation of an author's work. They were a
humane and equitable nation. They left the furca
and the patibuhim, the axe and the rods, to great
offenders: for these minor and (if I may so term
them) extra-moral offences, the bent thumb was con-
sidered as a sufficient sign of disapprobation, — vertere
pollicem ; as the pressed thumb, premere pollicem, was
a mark of approving.

And really there seems to have been a sort of
fitness in this method, a correspondency of sign in
the punishment to the offence ; or, as the action of
writing is performed by bending the thumb forward,
the retroversion or bending back of that joint did not
unaptly point to the opposite of that action ; imply-
ing that it was the will of the audience that the
author should write no more : a much more signifi-
cant as well as more humane way of expressing that
desire than our custom of hissing, which is al-
together senseless and indefensible. Nor do we find
that the Roman audiences deprived themselves, by
this lenity, of any tittle of that supremacy which
audiences in all ages have thought themselves bound
to maintain over such as have been candidates for
their applause. On the contrary, by this method they
seem to have had the author, as we should express it,
completely under finger and thumb.

The provocations to which a dramatic genius is
exposed from the public are so much the more vexa-
tious as they are removed from any possibility of
retaliation, the hope of which sweetens most other


injuries; for the public never writes itself . Not but
something very like it took place at the time of the
O. P. differences. The placards which were nightly
exhibited, were, properly speaking, the composition
of the public. The public wrote them, the public
applauded them ; and precious morceaux of wit and
eloquence they were, — except some few, of a better
quality, which it is well known were furnished by
professed dramatic writers. After this specimen of
what the public can do for itself, it should be a little
slow in condemning what others do for it.

As the degrees of malignancy vary in people accord-
ing as they have more or less of the Old Serpent (the
father of hisses) in their composition, I have some-
times amused myself with analyzing this many-
headed h3fdra, which calls itself the public, into the
component parts of which it is *' complicated, head
and tail," and seeing how many varieties of the snake
kind it can afford.

First, there is the Common English Snake. This
is that part of the auditory who are always the
majority at damnations ; but who, having no critical
venom in themselves to sting them on, stay till
they hear others hiss, and then join in for company.

The Blind Worm is a species very nearly allied to
the foregoing. Some naturalists have doubted whether
they are not the same.

The Rattlesnake. — These are your obstreperous
talking critics, — the impertinent guides of the pit, —
who will not give a plain man leave to enjoy an even-
ing's entertainment ; but, with their frothy jargon
and incessant finding of faults, either drown his
pleasure quite, or force him, in his own defence, to
join in their clamorous censure. The hiss always


originates with these. When this creature springs
his rattle, you would think, from the noise it makes,
there was something in it ; but you have only to
examine the instrument from which the noise pro-
ceeds, and you will find it typical of a critic's tongue,
— a shallow membrane, empty, voluble, and seated
in the most contemptible part of the creature's body.

The Whipsnake. — This is he that lashes the poor
author the next day in the newspapers.

The deaf Adder, or Surda Echidna of Linnaeus. —
Under this head may be classed all that portion of
the spectators (for audience they properly are not)
who, not finding the first act of a piece answer to
their preconceived notions of what a first act should
be, like Obstinate, in John Bunyan, positively thrust
their fingers in their ears, that they may not hear a
word of what is coming, though perhaps the very
next act may be composed in a style as different as
possible, and be written quite to their own tastes.
These adders refuse to hear the voice of the charmer,
because the tuning of his instrument gave them

I should weary you, and myself too, if I were to go
through all the classes of the serpent kind. Two
qualities are common to them all. They are crea-
tures of remarkably cold digestions, and chiefly
haunt pits and low grounds.

I proceed with more pleasure to give you an account
of a club to which I have the honour to belong. There
are fourteen of us, who are all authors that have been
once in our lives what is called damned. We meet
on the anniversaries of our respective nights, and
make ourselves merry at the expense of the public.


The chief tenets which distinguish our society, and
which every man among us is bound to hold for
gospel, are —

That the public, or mob, in all ages, have been a
set of blind, deaf, obstinate, senseless, illiterate
savages. That no man of genius, in his senses,
would be ambitious of pleasing such a capricious,
ungrateful rabble. That the only legitimate end of
writing for them is to pick their pockets ; and, that
failing, we are at full liberty to vilify and abuse them
as much as ever we think fit.

That authors, by their affected pretences to humility,
which they made use of as a cloak to insinuate their
writings into the callous senses of the multitude,
obtuse to every thing but the grossest flattery, have
by degrees made that great beast their master ; as
we may act submission to children till we are obliged
to practise it in earnest. That authors are and ought
to be considered the masters and preceptors of the
public, and not vice versa. That it was so in the
days of Orpheus, Linus, and Musaeus; and would be
so again, if it were not that writers prove traitors to
themselves. That, in particular, in the days of the
first of those three great authors just mentioned,
audiences appear to have been perfect models of
what atidiences should be ; for though, along with
the trees and the rocks and the wild creatures which
he drew after him to listen to his strains, some
serpents doubtless came to hear his music, it does
not appear that any one among them ever lifted up
a dissentient voice. They knew what was due to
authors in those days. Now every stock and stone
turns into a serpent, and has a voice.

That the terms "courteous reader" and "candid


auditors," as having given rise to a false notion in
those to whom they were appHed, as if they conferred
upon them some right, which they cannot have, of
exercising their judgments, ought to be utterly
banished and exploded.

These are our distinguishing tenets. To keep up
the memory of the cause in which we suffered, as the
ancients sacrificed a goat, a supposed unhealthy
animal, to ^Esculapius, on our feast-nights we cut up
a goose, an animal typical of the popular voice, to the
deities of Candour and Patient Hearing. A zealous
member of the society once proposed that we should
revive the obsolete luxury of viper-broth ; but, the
stomachs of some of the company rising at the pro-
position, we lost the benefit of that highly salutary
and antidotal dish.

The privilege of admission to our club is strictly
limited to such as have been fairly damned. A piece
that has met with ever so little applause, that has but
languished its night or two, and then gone out, will
never entitle its author to a seat among us. An ex-
ception to our usual readiness in conferring this
privilege is in the case of a writer, who, having been
once condemned, writes again, and becomes candidate
for a second martyrdom. Simple damnation we hold
to be a merit ; but to be twice damned we adjudge
infamous. Such a one we utterly reject, and black-
ball without a hearing : —

" The common damned shun his society."

Hoping that 3'our publication of our regulations
may be a means of inviting some more members inta
our society, I conclude this long letter.

I am. Sir, yours.

Semei - Damnatus.



A CORRESPONDENT, who writes himself Peter Ball,
or Bell, — for his handwriting is as ragged as his
manners, — admonishes me of the old saying, that some
people (under a courteous periphrasis, I slur his less
ceremonious epithet) had need have good memories.
In my "Old Benchers of the Inner Temple," I have
delivered myself, and truly, a templar born. Bell
clamours upon this, and thinketh that he hath caught
a fox. It seems that in a former paper, retorting upon
a weekly scribbler who had called my good identity in
question, (see Postscript to my " Chapter on Ears,")
I profess myself a native of some spot near Cavendish
Square, deducing my remoter origin from Italy. But
who does not see, except this tinkling cymbal, that,
in that idle fiction of Genoese ancestry, I was
answering a fool according to his folly, — that Elia
there expresseth himself ironically as to an approved
slanderer, who hath no right to the truth, and can be
no fit recipient of it ? Such a one it is usual to
leave to his delusions ; or, leading him from error
still to contradictory error, to plunge him (as we say)
deeper in the mire, and give him line till he sus-
pend himself. No understanding reader could be
imposed upon by such obvious rodomontade to


suspect me for an alien, or believe me other than

To a second correspondent, who signs himself " A
Wiltshire Man," who claims me for a countryman
upon the strength of an equivocal phrase in my
*' Christ's Hospital," a more mannerly reply is due.
Passing over the Genoese fable, which Bell makes
such a ring about, he nicely detects a more subtile
discrepancy, which Bell was too obtuse to strike
upon. Referring to the passage, I must confess, that
the term " native town," applied to Calne, prima
facie seems to bear out the construction which my
friendly correspondent is willing to put upon it. The
context too, I am afraid, a little favours it. But
where the words of an author, taken literally, com-
pared with some other passage in his writings, ad-
mitted to be authentic, involve a palpable contra-
diction, it hath been the custom of the ingenuous
commentator to smoothe the difficulty by the sup-
position that in the one case an allegorical or tropical
sense was chiefly intended. So, by the word
** native," I may be supposed to mean a town where
I might have been born, or where it might be desir-
able that I should have been born, as being situated
in wholesome air, upon a dry, chalky soil, in which
I delight ; or a town with the inhabitants of which I
passed some weeks, a Summer or two ago, so agree-
ably, that they and it became in a manner native to
me. Without some such latitude of interpretation
in the present case, I see not how we can avoid
falling into so gross an error in physics as to con-
ceive that a gentleman may be born in two places,
from which all modern and ancient testimony is alike
abhorrent. Bacchus cometh the nearest to it, whom


I remember Ovid to have honoured with the epithet
" twice born." ^ But, not to mention that he is so
called (we conceive) in reference to the places whence
rather than the places where he was delivered, — for,
by either birth, he may probably be challenged for a
Theban, — in a strict way of speaking, he was a filius
femoris by no means in the same sense as he had
been before a filius alvi ; for that latter was but a
secondary and tralatitious way of being born, and
he but a denizen of the second house of his geni-
ture. Thus much by way of explanation was thought
due to the courteous " Wiltshire Man."

To " Indagator," " Investigator," " Incertus," and
the rest of the pack, that are so importunate about
the true localities of his birth, — as if, forsooth, Elia
were presently about to be passed to his parish, —
to all such churchwarden critics he- answereth, that,
any explanation here given notwithstanding, he hath
not so fixed his nativity (like a rusty vane) to one
dull spot, but that, if he seeth occasion, or the argu-
ment shall demand it, he will be born again, in future
papers, in whatever place, and at whatever period,
shall seem good unto him.

" Mod6 me Thebis, modO Atlienis."

1 " Imperfectus adhuc infans genetricis abalvo
Eripitur, patrioque tener (si credere dignum)
Insuitur femori. . . .
Tutaque bis geniti sunt incunabula Bacchi."

Metamorph., lib. iii.



Sir, — You have done me an unfriendly office, without
perhaps much considering what you were doing.
You have given an ill name to my poor lucubrations.
In a recent paper on Infidelity, you usher in a condi-
tional commendation of them with an exception ;
which, preceding the encomium, and taking up nearly
the same space with it, must impress your readers
with the notion, that the objectional parts in them are
at least equal in quantity to the pardonable. The
censure is in fact the criticism; the praise — aeon-
cession merely. Exceptions usually follow, to qualify
praise or blame. But there stands your reproof, in the
very front of your notice, in ugly characters, like some
bugbear, to frighten all good Christians from pur-
chasing. Through you I become an object of sus-
picion to preceptors of youth, and fathers of families.
" A book which wants only a sounder religious feeling,
to he as delightful as it is original." With no further
explanation, what must your readers conjecture, but
that my little volume is some vehicle for heresy or in-
fidelity? The quotation which you honour me by
subjoining, oddly enough, is of a character which
bespeaks a temperament in the writer the very reverse
of that your reproof goes to insinuate. Had you been
taxing me with superstition, the passage would have
been pertinent to the censure. Was it worth youi


while to go so far out of your way to affront the feel-
ings of an old friend, and commit yourself by an
irrelevant quotation, for the pleasure of reflecting
upon a poor child, an exile at Genoa?

I am at a loss what particular essay you had in
view (if my poorramblings amount to that appellation)
when you were in such a hurry to thrust in your
objection, like bad news, foremost. — Perhaps the paper
on " Saying Graces" was the obnoxious feature. I
have endeavoured there to rescue a voluntary duty —
good in place, but never, as I remember, literally com-
manded — from the charge of an undecent formality.
Rightly taken, sir, that paper was not against graces
but want of grace ; not against the ceremony, but the
carelessness and slovenliness so often observed in the
performance of it.

Or v^^as it that on the " New Year " — in which I
have described the feelings of the merely natural man,
on a consideration of the amazing change, which is
supposable to take place on our removal from this
fleshly scene ? If men would honestly confess their
misgivings (which few men will) there are times when
the strongest Christian of us, I believe, has reeled
under questions of such staggering obscurity. I do
not accuse you of this weakness. There are some
who tremblingly reach out shaking hands to the guid-
ance of Faith — others who stoutly venture into the
dark (their Human Confidence their leader, whom they
mistake for Faith); and, investing themselves before-
hand with cherubic wings, as they fancy, find their new
robes as familiar, and fitting to the supposed growth
and stature in godliness, as the coat they left off
yesterday — some whose hope totters upon crutches —
others who stalk into futurity upon stilts.


The contemplation of a Spiritual World, — which,
without the addition of a misgiving conscience, is
enough to shake some natures to their foundation — is
smoothly got over by others, who shall float over the
black billows in their little boat of No-Distrust, as un-
concernedly as over a summer sea. The difference is
chiefly constitutional.

One man shall love his friends and his friends'
faces ; and, under the uncertainty of conversing with
them again, in the same manner and familiar circum-
stances of sight, speech, &c., as upon earth — in a
moment of no irreverent weakness — for a dream-while
— no more — would be almost content, for a reward of
a life of virtue (if he could ascribe such acceptance to
his lame performances), to take up his portion with
those he loved, and was made to love, in this good
world, which he knows — which was created so lovely,
beyond his deservings. Another, embracing a more
exalted vision — so that he might receive indefinite
additaments of power, knowledge, beauty, glory, &c.
— is ready to forgo the recognition of humbler indi-
vidualities of earth, and the old familiar faces. The
shapings of our heavens are the modifications of our
constitutions ; and Mr. Feeble Mind, or Mr. Great
Heart, is born in every one of us.

Some (and such have been accounted the safest
divines) have shrunk from pronouncing upon the final
state of any man ; nor dare they pronounce the case
of Judas to be desperate. Others (with stronger
optics), as plainly as with the eye of flesh, shall behold
a given king in bliss, and a given chamberlain in tor-

Online LibraryCharles LambThe life, letters, and writings of Charles Lamb (Volume 6) → online text (page 5 of 29)