Charles Lamb’s letter to his boyhood friend Samuel Coleridge, written on this date, Nov. 8, in 1796, is one of literature’s memorable rousers, a pep talk from one writer to another that seems to have been heeded, at least briefly:
“Cultivate simplicity, Coleridge, or rather, I should say, banish elaborateness; for simplicity springs spontaneous from the heart, and carries into daylight its own modest buds and genuine, sweet, and clear flowers of expression. I allow no hot-beds in the gardens of Parnassus. I am unwilling to go to bed, and leave my sheet unfilled (a good piece of night-work for an idle body like me) . . .”
Lamb, misjudged as a flyweight essayist and drunk – Carlyle wrote after meeting him: “Poor England where such a despicable abortion is named genius!” – was the most significant influence on Coleridge’s poetry before Wordsworth. The passage quoted above, in which Lamb is responding to a sonnet his friend had sent him, might almost stand as life advice. Coleridge was already depressed, dabbling with laudanum, hatching crackpot schemes and growing dissatisfied with his marriage. He is one of literature’s impossible men, yet brilliant. In April 1796, at age twenty-three, he had published his first collection, Poems on Various Subjects, which included four sonnets by Lamb, who was not much of a poet. Soon, perhaps thanks to Lamb’s advice that he “cultivate simplicity,” Coleridge would write his “conversation poems,” including his finest single work, “Frost at Midnight.” Lamb is a remarkably patient, loving friend, considering the rivalries and jealousies that can rage between writers. In his letter he writes:
“Would to God it were in my power to contribute towards the bringing of you into the haven where you would be! But you are too well skilled in the philosophy of consolation to need my humble tribute of advice; in pain and in sickness, and in all manner of disappointments, I trust you have that within you which shall speak peace to your mind. Make it, I entreat you, one of your puny comforts that I feel for you and share all your griefs with you.”
With Chekhov and few other secular writers, Lamb might be worthy of beatification, gin and all.