Thursday, May 15, 2014

`It Contains Good Matter'

A common sight in my university’s library is a student sipping coffee, eating a muffin and chatting on some mysterious device at a table stacked with books and a laptop computer. So common, that I’ve come to question my initial sense of horror at such a scene. I’m of the generation that deemed a library the secular first cousin of a monastic cell – no food, no drink, no talking, no fun – a serious place where knowledge is worshipped. I grew up thinking food and books were dangerously incompatible, like matter and antimatter. Who else but Charles Lamb would encourage eating and smoking a pipe while reading a cherished volume? In a Nov. 4, 1802, letter to Coleridge, his childhood friend, he writes: 

“Observe, there comes to you, by the Kendal waggon tomorrow, the illustrious 5th of November, a box, containing the Miltons, the strange American Bible, with White’s brief note, to which you will attend; Baxter’s `Holy Commonwealth,’ for which you stand indebted to me 3s. 6d.; an odd volume of Montaigne, being of no use to me, I having the whole; certain books belonging to Wordsworth, as do also the strange thick-hoofed shoes, which are very much admired at in London. All these sundries I commend to your most strenuous looking after.” 

Twenty years later, in “Two Races of Men” (Essays of Elia, 1823), Lamb would write of the perils of lending books to Coleridge. He condemns “borrowers of books--those mutilators of collections, spoilers of the symmetry of shelves, and creators of odd volumes,” but reverses himself and writes with gratitude of his friend, a compulsive writer of marginalia: 

 “Reader, if haply thou art blessed with a moderate collection, be shy of showing it; or if thy heart overfloweth to lend them, lend thy books; but let it be to such a one as S. T. C. -- he will return them (generally anticipating the time appointed) with usury: enriched with annotations, tripling their value. I have had experience. Many are these precious MSS. of his -- (in matter oftentimes, and almost in quantity not unfrequently, vying with the originals) -- in no very clerkly hand -- legible in my Daniel: in old Burton; in Sir Thomas Browne; and those abstruser cogitations of the Greville, now, alas! wandering in Pagan lands. ---- I counsel thee, shut not thy heart, nor thy library, against S. T. C.” 

Now back to the 1802 letter. Lamb makes a virtue of the orts he leaves behind in his precious volumes. He tells Coleridge: 

“If you find the Miltons in certain parts dirtied and soiled with a crumb of right Gloucester [cheese] blacked in the candle (my usual supper), or peradventure a stray ash of tobacco wafted into the crevices, look to that passage more especially: depend upon it, it contains good matter.” 

The more copious the mess deposited in the pages of a book, the more attention Coleridge ought to pay the passages thus marked. The remnants of toasted cheese and ash are less a bookmark than an act of critical approval, celebratory marginalia: “It contains good matter.” And can anyone fill me in on “the strange American Bible?”

[ADDENDUM: An attentive reader writes: "And while on the subject of Coleridge, `the strange American Bible' you’ve just mentioned is John Elliot’s Indian Bible — see E.V. Lucas’s note on the previous letter (23rd October 1802) vol.3 p. 327."]


Paul Engle said...


Nothing definite, but some interesting history of early American bibles here:

-Paul Engle

Nige said...

'Orts' is a fine word - pretty much extinct over here.