Thursday, July 27, 2017

`Find I Can Rhyme and Reason Again'

I trust “sinologist” is still acceptable. Since Nixon’s visit to China, the word has sounded fusty, like “authoress.” The first sinologist who comes to mind is fictional, Herr Doktor Peter Kien, followed by Arthur Waley (as A.J. Liebling writes in The Earl of Louisiana: “As I age, I grow more punctilious about my aesthetic debts; in Paris a few years ago I met Arthur Waley and thanked him for translating the Tale of Genji.”) and Simon Leys. Less well known is Thomas Manning (1772-1840), Charles Lamb’s friend who moved the essayist to write some of his giddiest, most amusing letters. Manning studied Chinese in Paris and in 1807 landed at Canton (Guangzhou), where he was confined to the quarter where Englishmen were permitted to live. In 1808, he tried unsuccessfully to enter China by way of Vietnam. In 1810 he tried again, via Bengal and Tibet.  He became the first Englishman to visit the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, and met the 9th Dalai, Lama, Lungtok Gyatso, who was then six years old. However, Manning was not permitted to enter China. 

Finally, Manning accompanied William Pitt Amherst, ambassador extraordinary to the court of the Qing dynasty in Peking, where Manning worked as an interpreter. Manning spent twelve years in Asia. Bad manners eventually scuttled the mission, and during his return to England, Manning stopped in St. Helena’s and met the exiled Napoleon. At home he renewed his friendship with Lamb and was said to possess the largest Chinese library in Europe. I would love to read a detailed biography of Manning. No dry pedant, he could easily keep up with Lamb at his silliest. Here’s a sample from the letter he wrote to Manning on May 28, 1819: “Mrs. Gold is well, but proves `uncoined,’ as the lovers about Wheathamstead would say.” In his reply, Manning tops him: 

“I took all your letter very kindly, except the word uncoined—as you & I have barred punnin, I could not tell at first what to make of it—I’m afraid it will not pass current. I thought at first you alluded to her not being in a Family way. The phraze was familiar in Dryden’s time—`stampt an image.’ But what interest could you or I take in that? She's not likely to produce young Napoleons, I suppose: Then I exchanged that for another idea — but still unfavorably.  Just as the circulating medium of my brain was at a standstill, & I feared I must let it aLoan . . . Nothing in this life, as you justly observe, is without alloy — not even uncoin’d Gold—but let’s change the note.” 

Both men enjoyed a taste. Manning writes to Lamb, inviting him to visit: “The very thought of your coming makes my keg of Rum wabble about like a porpoise—& the liquor (how fine it smells!) goes Gultch squlluck against the sides for joy.” Lamb replies that he is unable to come but invites Manning to London, where they will drink “rum, brandy, gin, aquavitae, usquebaugh, or whisky a’nights; and for the after-dinner trick I have eight bottles of genuine port, which, if mathematically divided, gives 1-1/2 for every day you stay, provided you stay a week.” 

On this date, July 27, in 1805, Lamb wrote a strange, stuttering note to Manning (“Archimedes”): “Things have gone on badly with thy ungeometrical friend; but they are on the turn. My old housekeeper has shown signs of convalescence, and will shortly resume the power of the keys, so I shan’t be cheated of my tea and liquors. Wind in the west, which promotes tranquillity. Have leisure now to anticipate seeing thee again. Have been taking leave of tobacco in a rhyming address. Had thought that vein had long since closed up. Find I can rhyme and reason too.” 

On Sept. 28, 1805, Lamb encloses his “rhyming address,” “A Farewell to Tobacco,” in a letter to William and Dorothy Wordsworth, including these lines: 

“Thou in such a cloud dost bind us,
That our worst foes cannot find us,
And ill fortune, that would thwart us,
Shoots at rovers, shooting at us;
While each man, thro' thy heightening steam,
Does like a smoking Etna seem,
And all about us does express
(Fancy and wit in richest dress)
A Sicilian fruitfulness.”

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