Wednesday, December 28, 2011

`Blown Up in a Steam Masheen'

One could dedicate a life to remembering the dead. Their numbers never dwindle. They remain as we knew them, fixed like photographs. Perhaps remembering them, celebrating some and condemning others, is an apprenticeship, wishful training for our own demise. If I remember the pre-deceased (a delicious obituary word made current since I wrote my first obit more than thirty years ago about a man named Miller, first name forgotten), am I likelier to be remembered? Probably not, but think how much life we already spend behaving in such a way as to ensure our remembrance, ill or fond. No “unvisited tombs” for us.

On Tuesday we remembered Osip Mandelstam and Charles  Lamb. Today, it’s Maurice Ravel, Theodore Dreiser, Fletcher Henderson and Sam Peckinpah (death endorses diversity). Lamb wrote to P.G. Patmore (father of the poet Coventry Patmore, you may remember) on July 19, 1827:

“I am so poorly, I have been to a funeral, where I made a Pun, to the consternation of the rest of the mourners, and we had wine. I can’t describe to you the howl which the widow set up at proper intervals. Dash [Lamb's dog] could, for it was not unlike what he makes.”

Lamb, you’ll remember, laughed at Hazlitt’s wedding. He meant no disrespect; or rather, disrespect from Lamb was a compliment. Genealogy says otherwise, but I’ve always suspected an Irish branch in the Lamb family tree. He was on to something with his hybrid of stoicism and comedy as a formula for facing death – and life. Later in his letter, Lamb briefs Patmore on his friends’ conditions:

“Procter has got a wen growing out of the nape of his neck, which his wife wants him to cut off, but I think it rather an agreeable excrescence: like his poetry, rather redundant. Hone has hang’d himself for debt. Godwin was taken up for picking pockets. Moxon has fal’n in love with Emma, our nut-brown maid. Becky takes to bad courses. Her father was blown up in a steam masheen. Coroner found it `Insanity.’”

The only true item in this litany concerns Moxon, the editors tell us, but do we really care? Would we otherwise remember Becky’s father and his “steam masheen?”

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