Sunday, July 10, 2011

`She May Let Them Hop Off By Themselves'

In 1822, John Clare sent Charles Lamb a copy of The Village Minstrel, and other Poems, the collection he had published the previous year. Lamb singled out “Recollections after a Ramble” for praise, and wrote to Clare in a letter dated Aug. 31:

“I thank you heartily for your present. I am an inveterate old Londoner, but while I am among your choice collections I seem to be native to them and free of the country. The quality of your observation has astonished me.”

Unlike his friends Coleridge and Wordsworth, who celebrated the beauties of rural England (sometimes absurdly, with little biological or historical understanding), Lamb lived all his life in London and its suburbs. Away from the city, he was restless and ill-at-ease. “I must have a prospect of seeing Fleet Street,” he wrote to his friend Thomas Manning in 1802.

Clare was Lamb’s sympathetic opposite. Born in Northamptonshire, he spent most of his life in the country (I live here among the ignorant like a lost man”). One can’t imagine either man swapping places with the other.

I thought of Lamb’s letter while talking with a dinner guest, a woman in her sixties who was born in Houston and lived here all of her life. She’s a realtor, shrewd and charming in a distinctly Southern manner. She has traveled little outside of Texas and late in the conversation confessed to a dream harbored since childhood: “I want to spend a week in Paris. I want to see all the places I’ve only seen in pictures.”

Lamb left England only once, in 1822, when he visited Paris. He concludes his letter to Clare with these sentences:

“Since I saw you I have been in France, and have eaten frogs. The nicest little rabbity things you ever tasted. Do look about for them. Make Mrs. Clare pick off the hind-quarters, boil them plain, with parsley and butter. The fore-quarters are not so good. She may let them hop off by themselves.”

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