Monday, October 16, 2017

`I Am Not Romance-Bit about Nature'

If I could have chosen to be the recipient of anyone’s letters, from any era and any place, my choice would have been simple: Charles Lamb. How often have you received a letter (or email) that made you laugh when alone? Lamb cranked them out by the hundreds. Even great writers can be drab correspondents. Take Marianne Moore, whose letters are business-like. Or James Joyce, forever complaining, sponging or encouraging Nora to talk dirty. For sheer entertainment, Lamb is your man. Take the letter he wrote on this date, Oct. 16, in 1800, to his friend Thomas Manning. He might have written a single sentence: “I won’t be visiting you in Cambridge as promised.” Instead, after preliminaries, Lamb reports his activities of the previous night:      

“I wish to God you had made London in your way. There is an exhibition quite uncommon in Europe, which could not have escaped your genius,--a LIVE RATTLESNAKE, ten feet in length, and the thickness of a big leg.”

Why is that final metaphor so funny? Unexpectedness, I suppose, and pseudo-specificity (how big is a “big leg”?) – both Lambian specialties. Rattlesnakes are native to the Americas. In England in 1800, they would have been exotic and fearsome. A ten-foot rattlesnake is unlikely. For Lamb, the sight of such a creature is a cue for comedy:

“We walked into the middle, which is formed by a half-moon of wired boxes, all mansions of snakes,--whip-snakes, thunder-snakes, pig-nose-snakes, American vipers, and this monster. He lies curled up in folds; and immediately a stranger enters (for he is used to the family, and sees them play at cards,) he set up a rattle like a watchman's in London, or near as loud, and reared up a head, from the midst of these folds, like a toad, and shook his head, and showed every sign a snake can show of irritation.”

In the hands of a literal-minded drudge, think how dull this story might have been  -- like the vacation slideshows I watched as a kid. Lamb turns on the drama when he touched the snake’s cage: “I had got my finger away, nor could he well have bit me with his damn’d big mouth, which would have been certain death in five minutes. But it frightened me so much, that I did not recover my voice for a minute's space.” Famously, Lamb stuttered. Apart from his gift for deploying words interestingly, Lamb had a surplus of charm, a rare quality that involves keeping one’s self out of the way for the sake of entertaining others. “I dreamed of snakes in the night. I wish to heaven you could see it. He absolutely swelled with passion to the bigness of a large thigh.” Back to big legs again. Lamb signs off, “Yours sincerely, Philo Snake.”

About six weeks later, Lamb writes again to Manning, and again apologizes for not making it to Cambridge. Unlike most of his fellow Romantics, Lamb writes, “I must confess that I am not romance-bit about Nature.” He launches into an exalted (and quite sincere) paean to urban pleasures:

“Streets, streets, streets, markets, theatres, churches, Covent Gardens, shops sparkling with pretty faces of industrious milliners, neat sempstresses, ladies cheapening, gentlemen behind counters lying, authors in the street with spectacles, George Dyers (you may know them by their gait), lamps lit at night, pastry-cooks’ and silver-smiths’ shops, beautiful Quakers of Pentonville, noise of coaches, drowsy cry of mechanic watchman at night, with bucks reeling home drunk; if you happen to wake at midnight, cries of Fire and Stop thief; inns of court, with their learned air, and halls, and butteries, just like Cambridge colleges; old book-stalls, Jeremy Taylors, Burtons on Melancholy, and Religio Medicis on every stall. These are thy pleasures, O London with-the-many-sins. O City abounding in whores, for these may Keswick and her giant brood go hang!”

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