Monday, June 25, 2018

'All the Dogs Here Are Going Mad'

“I am so poorly. I have been to a funeral, where I made a Pun, to the consternation of the rest of the mourners. And we had wine. I can’t describe to you the howl which the widow set up at proper intervals. Dash could; for it was not unlike what he makes.”

Charles Lamb, of course. Dash is his dog, a gift from Thomas Hood, the humorist who once described Lamb as “a literary Modern Antique, a New-Old Author, a living Anachronism, contemporary at once with Burton the Elder, and Colman the Younger.” Lamb is writing on July 19, 1827 to P.G. Patmore. Lamb indulges Dash as though he were an amusing and slightly dotty relative. The dog brought out, the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon writes in his Autobiography (1855), “Lamb's most amiable characteristics —that of sacrificing his own feelings and inclinations to those of others.” Dog owners will understand:

“This was a large and very handsome dog, of a rather curious and singularly sagacious breed, which had belonged to Thomas Hood, and at the time I speak of, and to oblige both dog and master, had been transferred to the Lambs—who made a great pet of him, to the entire disturbance and discomfiture, as it appeared, of all Lamb's habits of life, but especially of that most favourite and salutary of all, his long and heretofore solitary suburban walks: for Dash (that was the dog's name) would never allow Lamb to quit the house without him, and, when out, would never go anywhere but precisely where it pleased himself. The consequence was, that Lamb made himself a perfect slave to this dog.”

In a note to the July 19 letter, the editor, E.V. Lucas, describes Dash as “a tempestuous animal.” In September, Lamb, while traveling, writes again to Patmore:

“Excuse my anxiety—but how is Dash? (I should have asked if Mrs. Patmore kept her rules and was improving—but Dash came uppermost. The order of our thoughts should be the order of our writing.) Goes he muzzled, or aperto ore? Are his intellects sound, or does he wander a little in his conversation? You cannot be too careful to watch the first symptoms of incoherence. The first illogical snarl he makes, to St. Luke's with him. All the dogs here are going mad, if you believe the overseers; but I protest they seem to me very rational and collected. But nothing is so deceitful as mad people to those who are not used to them.”

Keep in mind that Lamb himself spent six weeks in an asylum in 1795, and the following year his sister Mary fatally stabbed their mother. She was subject to spells of insanity for the rest of her life, and Charles remained her custodian. That he could joke about madness, even in a dog, suggests something about the intractability of his sense of humor. Nothing so efficiently shields us against the madness of the world. Patmore replies to Lamb, and in the same spirit, with an account of Dash’s latest escapade:

“He was out at near dusk, down the lane, a few nights ago, with his mistress, . . . when Dash attacked a carpenter, armed with a large saw—not Dash, but the carpenter—and a `wise saw' it turned out, for its teeth protected him from Dash’s, and a battle royal ensued, worthy the Surrey Theatre. Mrs. Patmore says that it was really frightful to see the saw, and the way in which it and Dash gnashed their teeth at each other.”

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