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1797

XI.

TO COLERIDGE.

January 5, 1797.

Sunday Morning.--You cannot surely mean to degrade the Joan of Arc into a pot-girl. [1] You are not going, I hope, to annex to that most splendid ornament of Southey's poem all this cock-and-a-bull story of Joan, the publican's daughter of Neufchâtel, with the lamentable episode of a wagoner, his wife, and six children. The texture will be most lamentably disproportionate. The first forty or fifty lines of these addenda are no doubt in their way admirable too; but many would prefer the Joan of Southey.

[1] Coleridge, in later years, indorsed Lamb's opinion of this portion of his contribution to "Joan of Arc." "I was really astonished," he said, "(1) at the schoolboy, wretched, allegoric machinery; (2) at the transmogrification of the fanatic virago into a modern novel-pawing proselyte of the "Age of Reason,"--a Tom Paine in petticoats; (3) at the utter want of all rhythm in the verse, the monotony and dead plumb-down of the pauses, and the absence of all bone, muscle, and sinew in the single lines."

"On mightiest deeds to brood Of shadowy vastness, such as made my heart Throb fast; anon I paused, and in a state Of half expectance listened to the wind."

"They wondered at me, who had known me once A cheerful, careless damsel."

"The eye, That of the circling throng and of the visible world, Unseeing, saw the shapes of holy phantasy."

I see nothing in your description of the Maid equal to these. There is a fine originality certainly in those lines,--

"For she had lived in this bad world As in a place of tombs, And touched not the pollutions of the dead;"

but your "fierce vivacity" is a faint copy of the "fierce and terrible benevolence" of Southey; added to this, that it will look like rivalship in you, and extort a comparison with Southey,--I think to your disadvantage. And the lines, considered in themselves as an addition to what you had before written (strains of a far higher mood), are but such as Madame Fancy loves in some of her more familiar moods,--at such times as she has met Noll Goldsmith, and walked and talked with him, calling him "old acquaintance." Southey certainly has no pretensions to vie with you in the sublime of poetry; but he tells a plain tale better than you. I will enumerate some woful blemishes, some of 'em sad deviations from that simplicity which was your aim. "Hailed who might be near" (the "canvas-coverture moving," by the by, is laughable); "a woman and six children" (by the way, why not nine children? It would have been just half as pathetic again); "statues of sleep they seemed;" "frost-mangled wretch;" "green putridity;" "hailed him immortal" (rather ludicrous again); "voiced a sad and simple tale" (abominable!); "unprovendered;" "such his tale;" "Ah, suffering to the height of what was sufffered" (a most insufferable line); "amazements of affright;" "The hot, sore brain attributes its own hues of ghastliness and torture" (what shocking confusion of ideas!).

In these delineations of common and natural feelings, in the familiar walks of poetry, you seem to resemble Montauban dancing with Roubigné's tenants [1], "much of his native loftiness remained in the execution."

I was reading your "Religious Musings" the other day, and sincerely I think it the noblest poem in the language next after the "Paradise Lost;" and even that was not made the vehicle of such grand truths. "There is one mind," etc., down to "Almighty's throne," are without a rival in the whole compass of my poetical reading.

"Stands in the sun, and with no partial gaze Views all creation."

I wish I could have written those lines. I rejoice that I am able to relish them. The loftier walks of Pindus are your proper region. There you have no compeer in modern times. Leave the lowlands, unenvied, in possession of such men as Cowper and Southey. Thus am I pouring balsam into the wounds I may have been inflicting on my poor friend's vanity.

In your notice of Southey's new volume you omit to mention the most pleasing of all, the "Miniature."

"There were Who formed high hopes and flattering ones of thee, Young Robert!"

"Spirit of Spenser! was the wanderer wrong?"

Fairfax I have been in quest of a long time. Johnson, in his "Life of Waller," gives a most delicious specimen of him, and adds, in the true manner of that delicate critic, as well as amiable man, "It may be presumed that this old version will not be much read after the elegant translation of my friend Mr. Hoole." I endeavored--I wished to gain some idea of Tasso from this Mr. Hoole, the great boast and ornament of the India House, but soon desisted. I found him more vapid than smallest small beer "sun-vinegared." Your "Dream," down to that exquisite line,--

"I can't tell half his adventures,"

is a most happy resemblance of Chaucer. The remainder is so-so. The best line, I think, is, "He belong'd, I believe, to the witch Melancholy." By the way, when will our volume come out? Don't delay it till you have written a new "Joan of Arc." Send what letters you please by me, and in any way you choose, single or double. The India Company is better adapted to answer the cost than the generality of my friend's correspondents,--such poor and honest dogs as John Thelwall particularly. I cannot say I know Coulson,--at least intimately; I once supped with him and Austin; I think his manners very pleasing. I will not tell you what I think of Lloyd, for he may by chance come to see this letter; and that thought puts a restraint on me. I cannot think what subject would suit your epic genius,--some philosophical subject, I conjecture, in which shall be blended the sublime of poetry and of science. Your proposed "Hymns" will be a fit preparatory study wherewith "to discipline your young novitiate soul." I grow dull; I'll go walk myself out of my dulness.

Sunday Night,--You and Sara are very good to think so kindly and so favorably of poor Mary; I would to God all did so too. But I very much fear she must not think of coming home in my father's lifetime. It is very hard upon her, but our circumstances are peculiar, and we must submit to them, God be praised she is so well as she is. She bears her situation as one who has no right to complain. My poor old aunt, whom you have seen, the kindest, goodest creature to me when I was at school; who used to toddle there to bring me good things, when I, schoolboy-like, only despised her for it, and used to be ashamed to see her come and sit herself down on the old coal-hole steps as you went into the old grammar-school, and open her apron, and bring out her basin, with some nice thing she had caused to be saved for me, [2]--the good old creature is now lying on her death-bed. I cannot bear to think on her deplorable state. To the shock she received on that our evil day, from which she never completely recovered, I impute her illness. She says, poor thing, she is glad she is come home to die with me. I was always her favourite;

"No after friendship e'er can raise The endearments of our early days; Nor e'er the heart such fondness prove, As when it first began to love."

[1] In Mackenzie's tale, "Julia de Roubigné."

[2] See the essay, "Christ's Hospital Five-and-Thirty Years Ago."



XII.

TO COLERIDGE.

January 10, 1797.

I need not repeat my wishes to have my little sonnets printed verbatim my last way. In particular, I fear lest you should prefer printing my first sonnet, as you have done more than once, "did the wand of Merlin wave," it looks so like Mr. Merlin, [1] the ingenious successor of the immortal Merlin, now living in good health and spirits, and flourishing in magical reputation, in Oxford Street; and, on my life, one half who read it would understand it so.

Do put 'em forth finally, as I have, in various letters, settled it; for first a man's self is to be pleased, and then his friends,--and of course the greater number of his friends, if they differ inter se. Thus taste may safely be put to the vote. I do long to see our names together,--not for vanity's sake, and naughty pride of heart altogether; for not a living soul I know, or am intimate with, will scarce read the book,--so I shall gain nothing, quoad famam; and yet there is a little vanity mixes in it, I cannot help denying.--I am aware of the unpoetical cast of the last six lines of my last sonnet, and think myself unwarranted in smuggling so tame a thing into the book; only the sentiments of those six lines are thoroughly congenial to me in my state of mind, and I wish to accumulate perpetuating tokens of my affection to poor Mary. That it has no originality in its cast, nor anything in the feelings but what is common and natural to thousands, nor ought properly to be called poetry, I see; still, it will tend to keep present to my mind a view of things which I ought to indulge. These six lines, too, have not, to a reader, a connectedness with the foregoing. Omit it if you like,--What a treasure it is to my poor, indolent, and unemployed mind thus to lay hold on a subject to talk about, though 'tis but a sonnet, and that of the lowest order! How mournfully inactive I am!--'Tis night; good night.

My sister, I thank God, is nigh recovered; she was seriously ill. Do, in your next letter, and that right soon, give me some satisfaction respecting your present situation at Stowey. Is it a farm that you have got? and what does your worship know about farming?

Coleridge, I want you to write an epic poem. Nothing short of it can satisfy the vast capacity of true poetic genius. Having one great end to direct all your poetical faculties to, and on which to lay out your hopes, your ambition will show you to what you are equal. By the sacred energies of Milton! by the dainty, sweet, and soothing phantasies of honey-tongued Spenser! I adjure you to attempt the epic, or do something more ample than the writing an occasional brief ode or sonnet; something "to make yourself forever known,--to make the age to come your own." But I prate; doubtless you meditate something. When you are exalted among the lords of epic fame, I shall recall with pleasure and exultingly the days of your humility, when you disdained not to put forth, in the same volume with mine, your "Religious Musings" and that other poem from the "Joan of Arc," those promising first-fruits of high renown to come. You have learning, you have fancy, you have enthusiasm, you have strength and amplitude of wing enow for flights like those I recommend. In the vast and unexplored regions of fairy-land there is ground enough unfound and uncultivated: search there, and realize your favorite Susquehanna scheme. In all our comparisons of taste, I do not know whether I have ever heard your opinion of a poet very dear to me,--the now-out-of-fashion Cowley. Favor me with your judgment of him, and tell me if his prose essays, in particular, as well as no inconsiderable part of his verse, be not delicious. I prefer the graceful rambling of his essays even to the courtly elegance and ease of Addison, abstracting from this the latter's exquisite humor.

When the little volume is printed, send me three or four, at all events not more than six, copies, and tell me if I put you to any additional expense by printing with you, I have no thought of the kind, and in that case must reimburse you.

Priestley, whom I sin in almost adoring, speaks of "such a choice of company as tends to keep up that, right bent and firmness of mind which a necessary intercourse with the world would otherwise warp and relax.... Such fellowship is the true balsam of life; its cement is infinitely more durable than that of the friendships of the world, and it looks for its proper fruit and complete gratification to the life beyond the grave." Is there a possible chance for such an one as I to realize in this world such friendships? Where am I to look for 'em? What testimonials shall I bring of my being worthy of such friendship? Alas! the great and good go together in separate herds, and leave such as I to lag far, far behind in all intellectual and, far more grievous to say, in all moral accomplishments. Coleridge, I have not one truly elevated character among my acquaintance,--not one Christian; not one but undervalues Christianity. Singly what am I to do? Wesley (have you read his life?), was he not an elevated character? Wesley has said, "Religion is not a solitary thing." Alas! it necessarily is so with me, or next to solitary. 'T is true you write to me. But correspondence by letter and personal intimacy are very widely different. Do, do write to me, and do some good to my mind, already how much "warped and relaxed" by the world! 'T is the conclusion of another evening. Good night; God have us all in His keeping!

If you are sufficiently at leisure, oblige me with an account of your plan of life at Stowey; your literary occupations and prospects,--in short, make me acquainted with every circumstance which, as relating to you, can be interesting to me. Are you yet a Berkleyan? Make me one. I rejoice in being, speculatively, a necessarian. Would to God I were habitually a practical one! Confirm me in the faith of that great and glorious doctrine, and keep me steady in the contemplation of it. You some time since expressed an intention you had of finishing some extensive work on the Evidences of Natural and Revealed Religion. Have you let that intention go? Or are you doing anything towards it? Make to yourself other ten talents. My letter is full of nothingness. I talk of nothing. But I must talk. I love to write to you. I take a pride in it. It makes me think less meanly of myself. It makes me think myself not totally disconnected from the better part of mankind. I know I am too dissatisfied with the beings around me; but I cannot help occasionally exclaiming, "Woe is me, that I am constrained to dwell with Meshech, and to have my habitation among the tents of Kedar." I know I am noways better in practice than my neighors, but I have a taste for religion, an occasional earnest aspiration after perfection, which they have not. I gain, nothing by being with such as myself,--we encourage one another in mediocrity, I am always longing to be with men more excellent than myself. All this must sound odd to you; but these are my predominant feelings when I sit down to write to you, and I should put force upon my mind, were I to reject them, Yet I rejoice, and feel my privilege with gratitude, when I have been reading some wise book, such as I have just been reading,--Priestley on Philosophical Necessity,--in the thought that I enjoy a kind of communion, a kind of friendship even, with the great and good. Books are to me instead of friends, I wish they did not resemble the latter in their scarceness.

And how does little David Hartley? "Ecquid in antiquam virtutem?" Does his mighty name work wonders yet upon his little frame and opening mind? I did not distinctly understand you,--you don't mean to make an actual ploughman of him? Is Lloyd with you yet? Are you intimate with Southey? What poems is he about to publish? He hath a most prolific brain, and is indeed a most sweet poet. But how can you answer all the various mass of interrogation I have put to you in the course of the sheet? Write back just what you like, only write something, however brief. I have now nigh finished my page, and got to the end of another evening (Monday evening), and my eyes are heavy and sleepy, and my brain unsuggestive. I have just heart enough awake to say good night once more, and God love you, my dear friend; God love us all! Mary bears an affectionate remembrance of you.

CHARLES LAMB.

[1] A well-known conjuror of the time.



XIII.

TO COLERIDGE.

February 13, 1797.

Your poem is altogether admirable--parts of it are even exquisite; in particular your personal account of the Maid far surpasses anything of the sort in Southey. [1] I perceived all its excellences, on a first reading, as readily as now you have been removing a supposed film from my eyes. I was only struck with a certain faulty disproportion in the matter and the style, which I still think I perceive, between these lines and the former ones. I had an end in view,--I wished to make you reject the poem, only as being discordant with the other; and, in subservience to that end, it was politically done in me to over-pass, and make no mention of, merit which, could you think me capable of overlooking, might reasonably damn forever in your judgment all pretensions in me to be critical. There, I will be judged by Lloyd whether I have not made a very handsome recantation. I was in the case of a man whose friend has asked him his opinion of a certain young lady; the deluded wight gives judgment against her in toto,--don't like her face, her walk, her manners; finds fault with her eyebrows; can see no wit in her. His friend looks blank; he begins to smell a rat; wind veers about; he acknowledges her good sense, her judgment in dress, a certain simplicity of manners and honesty of heart, something too in her manners which gains upon you after a short acquaintance;--and then her accurate pronunciation of the French language, and a pretty, uncultivated taste in drawing. The reconciled gentleman smiles applause, squeezes him by the hand, and hopes he will do him the honor of taking a bit of dinner with Mrs. ---- and him--a plain family dinner--some day next week; "for, I suppose, you never heard we were married. I'm glad to see you like my wife, however; you 'll come and see her, ha?" Now am I too proud to retract entirely? Yet I do perceive I am in some sort straitened; you are manifestly wedded, to this poem, and what fancy has joined, let no man separate, I turn me to the "Joan of Arc," second book.

The solemn openings of it are with sounds which, Lloyd would say, "are silence to the mind." The deep preluding strains are fitted to initiate the mind, with a pleasing awe, into the sublimest mysteries of theory concerning man's nature and his noblest destination,--the philosophy of a first cause; of subordinate agents in creation superior to man; the subserviency of pagan worship and pagan faith to the introduction of a purer and more perfect religion, which you so elegantly describe as winning, with gradual steps, her difficult way northward from Bethabara. After all this cometh Joan, a publican's daughter, sitting on an ale-house bench, and marking the swingings of the signboard, finding a poor man, his wife and six children, starved to death with cold, and thence roused into a state of mind proper to receive visions emblematical of equality,--which, what the devil Joan had to do with, I don't know, or indeed with the French and American revolutions; though that needs no pardon, it is executed so nobly. After all, if you perceive no disproportion, all argument is vain; I do not so much object to parts. Again, when you talk of building your fame on these lines in preference to the "Religious Musings," I cannot help conceiving of you and of the author of that as two different persons, and I think you a very vain man.

I have been re-reading your letter. Much of it I could dispute; but with the latter part of it, in which you compare the two Joans with respect to their predispositions for fanaticism, I toto corde coincide; only I think that Southey's strength rather lies in the description of the emotions of the Maid under the weight of inspiration. These (I see no mighty difference between her describing them or you describing them),--these if you only equal, the previous admirers of his poem, as is natural, will prefer his; if you surpass, prejudice will scarcely allow it, and I scarce think you will surpass, though your specimen at the conclusion (I am in earnest) I think very nigh equals them. And in an account of a fanatic or of a prophet the description of her emotions is expected to be most highly finished. By the way, I spoke far too disparagingly of your lines, and, I am ashamed to say. purposely, I should like you to specify or particularize; the story of the "Tottering Eld," of "his eventful years all come and gone," is too general; why not make him a soldier, or some character, however, in which he has been witness to frequency of "cruel wrong and strange distress"? I think I should, When I laughed at the "miserable man crawling from beneath the coverture," I wonder I did not perceive it was a laugh of horror,--such as I have laughed at Dante's picture of the famished Ugolino. Without falsehood, I perceive an hundred, beauties in your narrative. Yet I wonder you do not perceive something out-of-the-way, something unsimple and artificial, in the expression, "voiced a sad tale." I hate made-dishes at the muses' banquet, I believe I was wrong in most of my other objections. But surely "hailed him immortal" adds nothing to the terror of the man's death, which it was your business to heighten, not diminish by a phrase which takes away all terror from it, I like that line, "They closed their eyes in sleep, nor knew 'twas death," Indeed, there is scarce a line I do not like, "Turbid ecstasy" is surely not so good as what you had written,--"troublous." "Turbid" rather suits the muddy kind of inspiration which London porter confers. The versification is throughout, to my ears, unexceptionable, with no disparagement to the measure of the "Religious Musings," which is exactly fitted to the thoughts.

You were building your house on a rock when you rested your fame on that poem. I can scarce bring myself to believe that I am admitted to a familiar correspondence, and all the license of friendship, with a man who writes blank verse like Milton. Now, this is delicate flattery, indirect flattery. Go on with your "Maid of Orleans," and be content to be second to yourself. I shall become a convert to it, when 'tis finished.

This afternoon I attend the funeral of my poor old aunt, who died on Thursday. I own I am thankful that the good creature has ended all her days of suffering and infirmity. She was to me the "cherisher of infancy;" and one must fall on these occasions into reflections, which it would be commonplace to enumerate, concerning death, "of chance and change, and fate in human life." Good God, who could have foreseen all this but four months back! I had reckoned, in particular, on my aunt's living many years; she was a very hearty old woman. But she was a mere skeleton before she died; looked more like a corpse that had lain weeks in the grave, than one fresh dead. "Truly the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun: but let a man live many days, and rejoice in them all; yet let him remember the days of darkness, for they shall be many." Coleridge, why are we to live on after all the strength and beauty of existence are gone, when all the life of life is fled, as poor Burns expresses it? Tell Lloyd I have had thoughts of turning Quaker, and have been reading, or am rather just beginning to read, a most capital book, good thoughts in good language, William Penn's "No Cross, no Crown;" I like it immensely. Unluckily I went to one of his meetings, tell hire, in St. John Street, yesterday, and saw a man under all the agitations and workings of a fanatic, who believed himself under the influence of some "inevitable presence." This cured me of Quakerism: I love it in the books of Penn and Woolman, but I detest the vanity of a man thinking he speaks by the Spirit, when what he says an ordinary man might say without all that quaking and trembling. In the midst of his inspiration,--and the effects of it were most noisy,--was handed into the midst of the meeting a most terrible blackguard Wapping sailor; the poor man, I believe, had rather have been in the hottest part of an engagement, for the congregation of broad-brims, together with the ravings of the prophet, were too much for his gravity, though I saw even he had delicacy enough not to laugh out. And the inspired gentleman, though his manner was so supernatural, yet neither talked, nor professed to talk anything more than good sober sense, common morality, with, now and then a declaration of not speaking from himself. Among other things, looking back to this childhood and early youth, he told the meeting what a graceless young dog he had been, that in his youth he had a good share of wit. Reader, if thou hadst seen the gentleman, thou wouldst have sworn that it must indeed have been many years ago, for his rueful physiognomy would have scared away the playful goddess from the meeting, where he presided, forever, A wit! a wit! what could he mean? Lloyd, it minded me of Falkland in the "Rivals," "Am I full of wit and humor? No, indeed, you are not. Am I the life and soul of every company I come into? No, it cannot be said you are." That hard-faced gentleman a wit! Why, Nature wrote on his fanatic forehead fifty years ago, "Wit never comes, that comes to all." I should be as scandalized at a bon-mot issuing from his oracle-looking mouth as to see Cato go down a country-dance. God love you all! You are very good to submit to be pleased with reading my nothings. 'T is the privilege of friendship to talk nonsense and to have her nonsense respected. Yours ever,

C. LAMB.

[1] See Letter VIII.


Charles Lamb

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