Monday, September 22, 2014

`Able to Do the Best that Remains to Do'

“My life has been somewhat diversified of late. The six weeks that finished last year and began this your very humble servant spent very agreeably in a mad house at Hoxton—I am got somewhat rational now, and don’t bite any one. But mad I was—and many a vagary my imagination played with me, enough to make a volume if all told.” 

Which he never did. Charles Lamb, after his own sui generis fashion, was stoical, not indulgent of self-pity or much given to the confessional mode. No one would confuse his account with the self-dramatized ravings of Anne Sexton. Like many comic writers, his humor is interleaved with suffering. Above, in May 1796, at age twenty-one, he writes to his school friend Coleridge, likewise no stranger to unhappiness. But Lamb was a paragon of mental health weighed against his sister, Mary Lamb. On this date, Sept. 22, in 1796, Mary fatally stabbed their mother with a kitchen knife and attacked their father. Five days later Charles wrote to Coleridge:

I will only give you the outlines. My poor dear dearest sister in a fit of insanity has been the death of her own mother. I was at hand only time enough to snatch the knife out of her grasp. She is at present in a mad house, from whence I fear she must be moved to an hospital. God has preserved to me my senses, — I eat and drink and sleep, and have my judgment I believe very sound. My poor father was slightly wounded, and I am left to take care of him and my aunt.”

Charles obtained Mary’s release from lifelong imprisonment on the condition he take legal responsibility for her. He never married. They lived together until his death, even collaborating on Tales from Shakespeare, which has remained in print since 1807. Mary suffered psychotic episodes for the rest of her life and outlived her brother by 12 years. Here are the subsequent lines in the second letter to Coleridge (again, written by a twenty-one-year-old): “…thank God I am very calm and composed, and able to do the best that remains to do. Write, —as religious a letter as possible— but no mention of what is gone and done with. —With me `the former things are passed away,’ and I have something more to do that [than] to feel. God almighty have us all in his keeping.”

In 1820, Lamb began publishing in The London Magazine the pieces that would become his Essays of Elia (1823) and Last Essays of Elia (1833). His alter ego gave Lamb the room to safely mingle misery and comedy. No other writer I know is so tonally dexterous as Lamb. In the final paragraph of “All Fool’sDay,” after contemplating scripture, he writes: 

“I have never made an acquaintance since, that lasted; or a friendship, that answered; with any that had not some tincture of the absurd in their characters. I venerate an honest obliquity of understanding. The more laughable blunders a man shall commit in your company, the more tests he giveth you, that he will not betray or overreach you. I love the safety, which a palpable hallucination warrants; the security, which a word out of season ratifies. And take my word for this, reader, and say a fool told it you, if you please, that he who hath not a dram of folly in his mixture, hath pounds of much worse matter in his composition.”

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