Sunday, November 03, 2019

'Fullest of Matter with Least Verbosity'

George Eliot famously recognized those who “lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs,” which is where most of us will find our eternal rest. Fame and infamy are rare qualities hardly worth the effort. Striving after celebrity is a mug’s game. Consider that most of those we have met in our lives have already forgotten us. Then think of those who intersected glancingly with literary history, and whom we know only from those brief intersections, like satellites orbiting a distant star. They exist as footnotes, not even a formal part of the text. On Saturday I took note of Samuel Parr. Another such is John Rickman, one of Charles Lamb’s many friends. On this date, Nov. 3, in 1800, Lamb writes to his friend Thomas Manning that he has been introduced to Rickman by George Dyer:

“This Rickman lives in our Buildings, immediately opposite our house; the finest fellow to drop in a’ nights, about nine or ten o’clock—cold bread-and-cheese time—just in the wishing time of the night, when you wish for somebody to come in, without a distinct idea of a probable anybody. Just in the nick, neither too early to be tedious, nor too late to sit a reasonable time.”

A fine description of a friend or charming acquaintance, one not oblivious to the wishes of others. Without Lamb’s witness we might still have learned of Rickman. In modern parlance he was a statistician, credited with drafting the bill that became the 1800 Census Act. Rickman is the sort of man who might give bureaucrats a good name. Lamb continues:

“He is a most pleasant hand: a fine rattling fellow, has gone through life laughing at solemn apes; himself hugely literate, oppressively full of information in all stuff of conversation, from matter of fact to Xenophon and Plato—can talk Greek with Porson, politics with Thelwall, conjecture with George Dyer, nonsense with me, and anything with anybody: a great farmer, somewhat concerned in an agricultural magazine—reads no poetry but Shakespeare, very intimate with Southey, but never reads his poetry: relishes George Dyer, thoroughly penetrates into the ridiculous wherever found, understands the first time (a great desideratum in common minds)—you need never twice speak to him; does not want explanations, translations, limitations . . .”

Such are ideal companions. They get our jokes and we get theirs. There’s an element of telepathy between us. The strident and other bores need not apply:

“You must see Rickman to know him, for he is a species in one. A new class. An exotic, any slip of which I am proud to put in my garden-pot. The clearest-headed fellow. Fullest of matter with least verbosity.”

1 comment:

Richard Zuelch said...

With pleasure, I found this letter in my edition: "The Letters of Charles Lamb: Newly Arranged, with Additions," edited, with an Introduction and Notes, by Alfred Ainger; 2 volumes (London and New York: Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1904), 1:157-160. The portion you quoted is on page 158.

The entire letter is quite interesting, as are, doubtless, most of his letters.