Monday, December 17, 2012

`Without the Help of Scaffolding'

Winter, and with it the longest night and shortest day of the year, arrives on Friday, even in Houston. Rain fell most of the day on Sunday, a welcome respite from ongoing drought, though hardly encouraging of Yuletide cheer. One’s notion of Christmas and winter forms early, compounded of scenes from boyhood and books, Santa and Dickens. Nothing quite lives up to this primal Christmas collage, though we spend the rest of our lives trying to replicate it. Emotionally, I remain a Northerner, even in Texas. I get flashes of the Platonic winter, the one I never experienced in reality, only in the purity of imagination. I recognize it in William Cowper’s The Task, Book IV: “The Winter Evening”: 

“Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
And, while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups,
That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each,
So let us welcome peaceful ev'ning in.”

I see it too in this passage from a letter Charles Lamb wrote his friend Robert Lloyd on this date, Dec. 17, in 1799: 

“The presents will be most acceptable whenever they come, both for thy sake and for the liquor, which is a beverage I most admire. Wine makes me hot, and brandy makes me drunk, but porter warms without intoxication; and elevates, yet not too much above the point of tranquility. But I hope Robert will come himself before the tap is out. He may be assured that his good honest company is the most valuable present, after all, he can make us. These cold nights crave something beside Porter—good English mirth and heart’s ease. Rob must contrive to pass some of his Christmas with us, or at least drink in the century with a welcome.” 

Here are two English writers, neither a stranger to suffering, both occasional guests in asylums, and both make us cozy with thoughts of winter and Christmas. Each emphasized the essential ingredients – friends, family, the intimacy of loved ones. Lamb writes later in the same letter: 

“I am not fond of presents all on one side, and Rob knows that I have little to present him, except the assurances of an undiminished and undiminishable friendship. Rob will take as a hint what his friend does not mean as an affront. I hope our friendship will stand firm, without the help of scaffolding.”

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