Monday, February 10, 2014

`The Germ of Generosity in an Uneducated Mind'

“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 could, for it was not unlike what he makes.” 

The effortless froth of silliness gives it away – Charles Lamb. “Dash” is his dog, described by E.V. Lucas, Lamb’s biographer and editor of his letters, as “a tempestuous animal” (Vol. 3, The Letters of Charles and Mary Lamb, 1935). Elia’s alter ego is writing on July 19, 1827, to his friend Peter George Patmore (1786-1855), father of the poet Coventry Patmore. In My Friends and Acquaintance (1854), Patmore père says of Dash: 

“…Lamb made himself a perfect slave to this dog,—who was always half-a-mile off from his companion, either before or behind, scouring the fields or roads in all directions, up and down `all manner of streets,’ and keeping his attendant in a perfect fever of anxiety and irritation, from his fear of losing him on the one hand, and his reluctance to put the needful restraint upon him on the other. Dash perfectly well knew his host’s amiable weakness in this respect, and took a due dog-like advantage of it.” 

With one anecdote, Patmore perfectly illustrates Lamb’s passive-aggressive loveableness. It’s Lamb who spent the rest of his life caring for Mary, his sister, after she murdered their mother. Lamb possessed one of life’s rarest and most incalculably valuable gifts – a capacity for find humor in the grimmest of situations. Comedy, for Lamb, was part of his autoimmune system. Later in the letter to Patmore he writes: 

“I am doing a tragicomedy in two acts, and have got on tolerably, but it will be refused, or worse. I never had luck with any thing my name was put to. O, I am so poorly! I waked [Lamb turns a noun, “wake,” into a verb] it at my cousin’s the bookbinder’s [the deceased, Charles Lovekin, Lamb’s cousin], who is now with God, or, if he is not, It’s no fault of mine.” 

Food and drink are never far from Lamb’s thoughts, and the French were always (and remain) a reliable source of amusement, which explains the following later sentences to Patmore: 

“Did you ever taste frogs? Get them, if you can. They are like little Lilliput rabbits, only a thought nicer.” And this: "Do try and get some frogs. You must ask for grenouilles (green-eels). They don’t understand `frogs,’ though it’s a common phrase with us.” 

Three months later, in a letter to Barron Field, Lamb recalls the late Lovekin:   

“As my poor cousin, the bookbinder, now with God, told me, most sentimentally, that having purchased a picture of fish at a dead man’s sale, his heart ached to see how the widow grieved to part with it, being her dear husband’s favourite; and he almost apologised for his generosity by saying he could not help telling the widow she was `welcome to come and look at it’—e.g. at his house—`as often as she pleased.’ There was the germ of generosity in an uneducated mind.” 

Charles Lamb was born on this date, Feb. 10, in 1775, and died Dec. 27, 1834.

1 comment:

E Fischer said...

Just wished to say that I am grateful for your posts, they are a source of much needed lightness in my day.