“I assure you I find this world a very pretty place.”
Strong words. All of us see only ugliness and waste sometimes, but there’s a voluble class of people unwilling to see anything else. Think of them as critics without portfolio. I once worked for an editor who returned from his first visit to Montreal and complained about the scratchiness of the hotel towels. The more balanced soul quoted above is Charles Lamb. On this date, Nov. 17, in 1798, Lamb is writing to his friend Robert Lloyd, who in a previous letter had complained that “this world to you seems drain’d of all its sweets.” Keep in mind that three years earlier, Lamb had spent six weeks locked up in an asylum. As he wrote to Coleridge in May 1796:
“I know not what suffering scenes you have gone through at Bristol. 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.”
On Sept. 22, 1796, his sister Mary fatally stabbed their mother. For the rest of his life, Lamb, who never married, remained her legal guardian. Lamb replies to Lloyd in his 1798 letter:
“At first I had hoped you only meant to insinuate the high price of Sugar! but I am afraid you meant more. O Robert, I don’t know what you call sweet. Honey and honey comb, roses and violets, are yet in the earth. The sun and moon yet reign in Heaven, and the lesser lights keep up their pretty twinklings.”
Some readers find Lamb’s prose indigestible. He’s just too silly, unlike his friend and reflection in a funhouse mirror, William Hazlitt. Fortunately, they are not mutually exclusive tastes, and we can always be grateful that Lamb never published a three-volume biography of Napoleon and Hazlitt never wrote Lamb’s awful poetry. Lamb had every excuse in the world to be anguished and suicidal. Instead, he became one of the wittiest writers in the language, a master of tone and rhythm, even in letters. Who else among his contemporaries makes us laugh? Wordsworth?
“Meats and drinks, sweet sights and sweet smells, a country walk, spring and autumn, follies and repentance, quarrels and reconcilements, have all a sweetness by turns. So good humour and good nature, friends at home that love you, and friends abroad that miss you—you possess all these things, and more innumerable: and these are all sweet things. You may extract honey from every thing; do not go a gathering after gall. The bees are wiser in their generation than the race of sonnet writers and complainers.”
Lamb’s wish to comfort and reassure his friend is touching. To do so while being eloquent and funny is miraculous.