Friday, February 03, 2012

`Upon the Tongue of My Friend'

One morning in 1815, a twenty-year-old law student and admirer, Thomas Noon Talfourd (1795-1854), showed up unannounced at Charles Lamb’s door with a gift of fruit. Lamb returned the favor by introducing Talfourd to William Wordsworth, effectively launching the young man’s career. He joined the staff of London Magazine and wrote for other periodicals. He became a barrister, a jurist and in 1835 a Member of Parliament. Talfourd befriended Charles Dickens, who dedicated the 1837 edition of The Pickwick Papers to him, and based the character Tommy Traddles in David Copperfield on his friend.

On Aug. 9, 1815, the day of Talfourd’s gift-bearing visit, Lamb writes to Wordsworth:
"There is something inexpressibly pleasant to me in these presents. Be it fruit, or fowl, or brawn, or what not. Books are a legitimate cause of acceptance. If presents be not the soul of friendship, undoubtedly they are the most spiritual part of the body of that intercourse. There is too much narrowness of thinking in this point. The punctilio of acceptance methinks is too confused and straitlaced."
Chief among Lamb’s gifts, literary and otherwise, is generosity of spirit. He possessed a gift for gift-giving as well as a gift, far rarer, for gift-receiving, one I have never mastered. I’m as greedy as the next man but my “punctilio of acceptance” has always been “confused and straitlaced,” though I’ve haltingly learned to say “Thank you” and leave it at that. Lamb turned the gift of a pig from Coleridge into his best-known essay, “A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig,” in which he says:
“I am one of those, who freely and ungrudgingly impart a share of the good things of this life which fall to their lot (few as mine are in this kind) to a friend. I protest I take as great an interest in my friend's pleasures, his relishes, and proper satisfactions, as in mine own. `Presents,’ I often say, `endear Absents.’ Hares, pheasants, partridges, snipes, barn-door chicken (those `tame villatic fowl’), capons, plovers, brawn, barrels of oysters, I dispense as freely as I receive them. I love to taste them, as it were, upon the tongue of my friend.”
Lamb ranks among the supreme celebrators of food and drink in the language. In his March 9, 1822, letter of thanks to Coleridge for the gift of the pig, Lamb tells the tale of the “sixpenny whole plum-cake” given him as a boy by his aunt. As he carries home the treat, young Lamb meets “a look-beggar, not a verbal petitionist”:
“…in the coxcombry of taught-charity I gave away the cake to him. I walked on a little in all the pride of an Evangelical peacock, when of a sudden my old aunt’s kindness crossed me – the sum it was to her – the pleasure she had a right to expect that I – not the old impostor – should take in eating her cake – the cursed ingratitude by which, under the colour of Christian virtue, I had frustrated her cherished purpose. I sobbed, I wept, and took it to heart so grievously, that I think I never suffered the like – and I was right. It was a piece of unfeeling hypocrisy, and proved a lesson to me ever after. The cake has long been masticated, consigned to the dunghill with the ashes of that unseasonable pauper.”
Among his other gifts, Lamb was a shrewd psychologist and practitioner of applied ethics.

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