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David Hines [userpic]

Charles Lamb

February 18th, 2007 (06:31 pm)
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Apologies if this seems random. I keep a list of things I mean to share with people, and Charles Lamb's letters were among them. Just ran across them again, and I figured they were worth sharing.

Every time I start to get a little down in the mouth, I think about Charles Lamb, and am resolved to do better.

Lamb is not as in fashion these days as he was, say, sixty to seventy years ago, but the great circle goes round; I read an estimation of Edgar Rice Burroughs that, in mentioning Burroughs's enduring popularity, dismissed Mickey Spillane as a flash in the pan whose books were soon to be forgotten. Lamb was a poet and essayist who is remembered by history for two literary contributions, neither of which is his poetry. One is his Dissertation Upon Roast Pig. Robert Ruark, who read Lamb's "Dissertation" in school, complained that it was impossible to read the thing without going crazy over the mouth-watering descriptions of suckling pig. The other of his major literary contributions is his letters -- letters to Coleridge, Wordsworth, and other friends remembered not so much for their poetic content as their humanity. Charles Lamb bore a hell of a lot, and when you read his letters you can't help but love him for it.

Consider this excerpt from a letter to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, on May 27, 1796:

My life has been somewhat diversified of late. The six weeks that finished last year and began this, your very humble servant spent very agreeably in a madhouse at Hoxton. I am got somewhat rational now, and don't bite any one. But mad I was and many a vagary my imagination played with me,--enough to make a volume, if all were told.


"I am got somewhat rational now, and don't bite any one." I love that.

Mental illness is bad enough now, when we understand it a little better and have some remedies that actually help. I can't imagine what it must have been like for folks like Charles Lamb or Marcus Aurelius, who didn't have any of that and had to get through on inner strength and religious faith alone. Lamb, in particular, relied very deeply on his faith to get him through the tough times. And he had very bad ones.

TO COLERIDGE.
_September_ 27, 1796.

My Dearest Friend,--White, or some of my friends, or the public papers, by this time may have informed you of the terrible calamities that have fallen on our family. I will only give you the outlines: My poor dear, dearest sister, in a fit of insanity, has been the death of her own mother. I was at hand only time enough to snatch the knife out of her grasp. She is at present in a madhouse, from whence I fear she must be moved to an hospital. God has preserved to me my senses,--I eat, and drink, and sleep, and have my judgment, I believe, very sound. My poor father was slightly wounded, and I am left to take care of him and my aunt. Mr, Norris, of the Blue-coat School, has been very kind to us, and we have no other friend; but, thank God, I am very calm and composed, and able to do the best that remains to do. Write as religious a letter as possible, but no mention of what is gone and done with. With me "the former things are passed away," and I have something more to do than to feel.

God Almighty have us all in his keeping!

C. LAMB.

Mention nothing of poetry. I have destroyed every vestige of past vanities of that kind. Do as you please, but if you publish, publish mine (I give free leave) without name or initial, and never send me a book, I charge you.

Your own judgment will convince you not to take any notice of this yet to your dear wife. You look after your family; I have my reason and strength left to take care of mine. I charge you, don't think of coming to see me. Write. I will not see you, if you come, God Almighty love you and all of us!

C. LAMB.


He has another letter, to Coleridge, after the death of Hetty, his family's old servant. It's very brief. If you're sensitive, you may not even want to read it; it's simple, straightforward, unaffected, and one of the most anguished pieces of writing I have ever read.

TO COLERIDGE,
_May_ 12, 1800,


My Dear Coleridge,--I don't know why I write, except from the propensity misery has to tell her griefs. Hetty died on Friday night, about eleven o'clock, after eight days' illness; Mary, in consequence of fatigue and anxiety, is fallen ill again, and I was obliged to remove her yesterday. I am left alone in a house with nothing but Hetty's dead body to keep me company. To-morrow I bury her, and then I shall be quite alone, with nothing but a cat to remind me that the house has been full of living beings like myself. My heart is quite sunk, and I don't know where to look for relief. Mary will get better again; but her constantly being liable to such relapses is dreadful; nor is it the least of our evils that her case and all our story is so well known around us. We are in a manner _marked_. Excuse my troubling you; but I have nobody by me to speak to me. I slept out last night, not being able to endure the change and the stillness. But I did not sleep well, and I must come back to my own bed. I am going to try and get a friend to come and be with me to-morrow. I am completely shipwrecked. My head is quite bad. I almost wish that Mary were dead. God bless you. Love to Sara and Hartley.

C. LAMB.


There is so much pain in that letter that even two hundred years later, it makes me feel ill to read.

And the man just kept going, and he always found his feet. Listen to his description of a hangover, from a letter to Coleridge, August 14, 1800:

My head is playing all the tunes in the world, ringing such peals! It has just finished the "Merry Christ Church Bells," and absolutely is beginning "Turn again, Whittington." Buz, buz, buz; bum, bum, bum; wheeze, wheeze, wheeze; fen, fen, fen; tinky, tinky, tinky; _cr'annch_. I shall certainly come to be condemned at last. I have been drinking too much for two days running. I find my moral sense in the last stage of a consumption, and my religion getting faint. This is disheartening, but I trust the devil will not overpower me. In the midst of this infernal torture Conscience is barking and yelping as loud as any of them.


He returned to poetry, too. He and his friends read and praised and criticized each other's drafts. It was something of a salvation for him, that community; we can't see Lamb's salons, which he and Mary held in their home, but we can see a bit of them in Lamb's correspondence. I think Charles Lamb would have *ruled* on LJ; he was a wonderful, intimate writer, and he and Coleridge and Wordsworth and their pals would have formed a great little community of geeks sharing poems and talking about Pliny.

So, why does Lamb inspire me so much? Because he kept going. He could have given in at any point; people have done so for much, much less. But he kept on swimming, and laughed when he could, and bore what he had to bear. He didn't beg for pity, and in fact went out of his way to avoid it. When he hurt, he wrote shorter; he cut his effusiveness down; he said what was the matter and let it be, and shouldered the burdens he had to for his family. When I'm feeling glum, I can think of Charles Lamb and his wry dismissal of six weeks in an eighteenth-century madhouse: "I am got somewhat rational now, and don't bite anyone."

If Charles Lamb kept going, so can anybody.