Monday, August 12, 2019

'Nice Brown Bread, Homely Sweet and Nutritive'

Another skill once thought mandatory, now nearing extinction: a gift for gratitude, a pleasing enthusiasm for saying thank you. Since they were first able to scrawl we expected our sons to write thank-you notes for gifts and favors received, especially as friends and family members are dispersed across the country. If you expect more gifts in the future, we reminded them, you’d better mind your manners today. Yes, even “thank you” can be mercenary. Second only to morals, manners lubricate life and keep things humming.

“You have overwhelmed me with your favours. I have received positively a little library from Baldwyn’s. I do not know how I have deserved such a bounty.”

Charles Lamb is writing to Sir Charles Abraham Elton, 6th Baronet (1778-1853), a soldier (who received his commission at age fifteen in the 48th Regiment of Foot), poet and translator. The letter is variously dated Aug. 17, 1821 (or 1824) and Aug. 12, 1829. The editor of Lamb’s letters, E.V. Lucas, tells us Elton had sent Lamb a selection of his own books, including Specimens of the Classical Poets in a chronological series from Homer to Tryphiodorus (1814), translated by Elton into English verse. Lamb is a master of thanksgiving, as is William Cowper in his letters. Lamb knew that the secret of charming gratitude is specificity, not a vague generality:

“We have been up to the ear in the classics ever since it came. I have been greatly pleased, but most, I think, with the Hesiod, — the Titan battle quite amused me. Gad, it was no child's play — and then the homely aphorisms at the end of the works — how adroitly you have turned them! Can he be the same Hesiod who did the Titans?”

Elton also included a volume of his own poetry, The Brothers and Other Poems (1820), of which Lamb writes: “I will say nothing of the tenderest parts in your own little volume, at the end of such a slatternly scribble as this, but indeed they cost us some tears.” And here is Lamb’s finest sentiment:

“But to read [Hesiod’s] Days and Works, is like eating nice brown bread, homely sweet and nutritive.”

1 comment:

rgfrim said...

Another form worth considering is the condolence note. None other than Saul Bellow diligently observed deaths of relatives, friends and acquaintances with truly sincere and compassionate letters of condolence. ( see the first edition of his “ Letters”). Indeed, I would advise readers confronted with such a loss and at a loss for what to say just copy one of Bellow’s meaningful missives.