We’ve lost the gift for mock-self-disparagement. The point of the art form is to make a show of modesty, for form’s sake, but to do it so dazzlingly that your recipient forgets you don’t really mean it and applauds your wit. In his letters, Guy Davenport often referred to his writings as “scribbles,” which I’ve always taken as an allusion to the Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh’s “Another damned thick book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh, Mr. Gibbon?” That way, Davenport remains fetchingly humble while likening himself to the author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Here is another impressive example. On this date, Jan. 23, in 1824, Charles Lamb wrote a letter to his friend Bernard Barton, known as the “Quaker Poet” and renowned as a writer of hymns. Humor seems to have been lost on Barton. Lamb begins with a mock-apology for having written a “peevish letter” about being slow to answer letters, and tells his Friend he “seems to have taken [it] in too serious a light.” He had a cold, Lamb says, and couldn’t muster “the vigour of a Letter, much less an Essay.” Then comes the apologetic artifice: “I will bridle my pen another time, and not teaze and puzzle you with my aridities.” Lamb is the wittiest of writers, a reputation he earned during his lifetime. “Aridities” is his “scribbles.” But he won’t let go of it:
“The more I think the more I am vexed at having puzzled you with that Letter, but I have been so out of Letter writing of late years, that it is a sore effort to sit down to it, & I felt in your debt, and sat down waywardly to pay you in bad money. Never mind my dulness, I am used to long intervals of it. The heavens seem brass to me--then again comes the
refreshing shower. `I have been merry once or twice ere now.’”
The Shakespeare tag is nice. Silence to Falstaff in Henry IV, Part 2, Act V, Scene 3. Lamb possessed an enviable gift for being simultaneously gracious, affectionate and collegial, and also amusing. What a joy it must have been to open one of his letters. Even Wordsworth, I suspect, must have indulged in the occasional discreet giggle. Here’s the close of the Barton letter:
“Keep your good spirits up, dear BB--mine will return--They are at present in abeyance. But I am rather lethargic than miserable. I don’t know but a good horse whip would be more beneficial to me than Physic. My head, without aching, will teach yours to ache. It is well I am getting to the conclusion. I will send a better letter when I am a better man. Let me thank you for your kind concern for me (which I trust will have reason soon to be dissipated) & assure you that it gives me pleasure to hear from you.”