Surely the most benign drunk in the history of letters was Charles Lamb. Serious drinkers unpredictably alternate nastiness and charm – think of Berryman and Cheever. Alcohol is a stimulant and depressant, lubricant and corrosive. It’s said that if alcohol were discovered for the first time today, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration wouldn’t approve it. Lamb, despite bouts of madness, his sister’s murder of their mother, and his guardianship of Mary Lamb until his death, seems never to have been less than charming, though alcohol is everywhere in the essays and letters. Their author, unlike his childhood friend Coleridge, somehow maintained a moral and emotional balance despite over-indulgence. In “Table-Talk,” in a very different context, Lamb writes: “The vices of some men are magnificent.” This seems to have been true for Lamb, though “magnificent” overstates the case for a writer so mild and modest.
On Sept. 24, 1802, Lamb wrote to his friend Thomas Manning. The letter begins with a typically amusing Lamb digression on the subject of travel:
“A strong desire seized me of visiting remote regions. My first impulse was to go and see Paris. It was a trivial objection to my aspiring mind that I did not understand a word of the language, since I certainly intend some time in my life to see Paris, and equally certainly never intend to learn the language; therefore that could be no objection.”
Three unparagraphed pages later, at the end of his missive, Lamb gets around to his letter’s essential subject, the one most dreaded by a drinker – sobriety:
“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.”
Have dread and antic wit ever so mingled? He poses the drunk’s ultimate question --“Is life, with such limitations, worth trying?” -- and undercuts it with mock-self-pity and horror: “friendly harpies.” Few things require so much mental labor and physical dedication as self-destructive drinking. For a poetic rendering of sobriety in a more hopeful light consider “Early Autumn” by Kenneth Fields (from Classic Rough News, 2005):
“It’s been three years today, who would have guessed it?
Without a drink and happy! Unobsessed,
The black dogs of resentment worry less
At me, their chief contention, their old bone.
Whoever held me like a glass of wine
Now holds me like a sound I scarcely hear . . .
Whoever brought me down now lifts me up,
Whoever. . . . I am taken by a wind
`From the round earth’s imagined corners’ now
Into a calm I’ve never felt before.
It comes and goes. Outside, beneath my window,
Along the pavement, a young bird like a leaf
Flutters toward cover. I pray for the helplessness
Of birds, of cats, of foxes, and of wolves—
All of us in the game!—the hounds of autumn
Testing the air, the summer’s fading traces.”
“It comes and goes,” but Fields maintains sobriety for three years. The passage quoted in the fifth line is taken, appropriately (the theme is rebirth), from Donne’s seventh “Holy Sonnet”:
“At the round earth's imagined corners blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scattered bodies go;
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o'erthrow,
All whom war, death, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despair, law, chance hath slain, and you, whose eyes
Shall behold God, and never taste death's woe.
But let them sleep, Lord, and me mourn a space;
For, if above all these my sins abound,
'Tis late to ask abundance of Thy grace,
When we are there. Here on this lowly ground,
Teach me how to repent, for that's as good
As if Thou hadst seal'd my pardon with Thy blood.”
Just to keep this perpetual motion machine rolling, Philip Jose Farmer used the fourth line of Donne’s sonnet as the title for his 1971 science-fiction novel To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971). By the early 19th century, Donne’s reputation had evaporated, but Coleridge was an enthusiastic admirer. As marginalia in Lamb's copy of Donne's poems, Coleridge wrote:
“To read Dryden, Pope &c, you need only count syllables; but to read Donne you must measure Time, & discover the Time of Each word by the Sense & Passion.”