Tuesday, December 27, 2011

`I Shall Never Like Tripe Again'

Characteristically, in the last letter he ever composed, written five days before his death on Dec. 27, 1834, Charles Lamb enquired of Mrs. George Dyer about the whereabouts of a misplaced volume:

“I am very uneasy about a Book which I either have lost or left at your house on Thursday. It was the book I went out to fetch from Miss Buffam’s, while the tripe was frying. It is called [Edward] Phillip’s Theatrum Poetarum: but it is an English book. I think I left it in the parlour. It is Mr. Cary’s book, and I would not lose it for the world. Pray, if you find it, book it at the Swan, Snow Hill, by an Edmonton stage immediately, directed to Mr. Lamb, Church-street, Edmonton, or write to say you cannot find it.”

That same day, Dec. 22, while on a stroll, Lamb tripped, fell and landed on his face. A modern biographer, Lord David Cecil, describes the aftermath: “He was taken back bruised and bleeding. A day or two later alarming symptoms began to show themselves.” Lamb had contracted erysipelas, an acute streptococcal infection. Because of the resulting reddening of the skin, the condition is known as ignis sacer (“holy fire”) and St. Anthony’s fire. One of Lamb’s friends, Thomas Talfourd, hurried to see him. Cecil reports:

“He found Lamb not apparently suffering but half-conscious and murmuring unintelligibly. Soon he fell asleep and died.”

Another soul, one of millions, who could have been saved with a regimen of antibiotics. Lamb was fifty-nine. Five months earlier, Coleridge, his friend since they met as schoolboys at Christ’s Hospital, had died. Wordsworth was convinced the shock hastened Lamb’s death. Lamb’s eulogy is heartbreaking:

“When I heard of the death of Coleridge, it was without grief. It seemed to me that he had long been on the confines of the next world, that he had a hunger for eternity. I grieved then that I could not grieve; but since, I feel how great a part he was of me. His great and dear spirit haunts me. I cannot think a thought, I cannot make a criticism on men or books, without an ineffectual turning and reference to him. He was the proof and touchstone of all my cogitations.”

Since 1796, Lamb had cared for his matricidal sister Mary, who periodically had to be removed to a madhouse in Islington. Mary was entering another bad spell when her brother suffered his fatal fall. She lived until 1847.

“St. Charles” may be pushing the matter, but Lamb strikes me as an exemplary human being. He wrote like an angel and dedicated his life to caring for Mary. Yes, he drank to excess, a pastime he extolled in letters and essays, but he seems never to have been malicious or gratuitously hurtful. Count, if you can, the writers who still make us laugh after almost two centuries. In the final sentences of that final letter about the missing book, Lamb writes:

“I am quite anxious about it. If it is lost, I shall never like tripe again.”

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