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1801

XXXIV.

TO WORDSWORTH.

January, 1801.

Thanks for your letter and present. I had already borrowed your second volume. [1] What pleases one most is "The Song of Lucy.". Simon's sickly Daughter, in "The Sexton," made me cry. Next to these are the description of these continuous echoes in the story of "Joanna's Laugh," where the mountains and all the scenery absolutely seem alive; and that fine Shakspearian character of the "happy man" in the "Brothers,"--

"That creeps about the fields, Following his fancies by the hour, to bring Tears down his cheek, or solitary smiles Into his face, until the setting sun Write Fool upon his forehead!"

I will mention one more,--the delicate and curious feeling in the wish for the "Cumberland Beggar" that he may have about him the melody of birds, although he hear them not. Here the mind knowingly passes a fiction upon herself, first substituting her own feeling for the Beggar's, and in the same breath detecting the fallacy, will not part with the wish. The "Poet's Epitaph" is disfigured, to my taste, by the common satire upon parsons and lawyers in the beginning, and the coarse epithet of "pin-point," in the sixth stanza. All the rest is eminently good, and your own. I will just add that it appears to me a fault in the "Beggar" that the instructions conveyed in it are too direct, and like a lecture: they don't slide into the mind of the reader while he is imagining no such matter. An intelligent reader finds a sort of insult in being told, "I will teach you how to think upon this subject." This fault, if I am right, is in a ten-thousandth worse degree to be found in Sterne, and in many novelists and modern poets, who continually put a sign-post up to show where you are to feel. They set out with assuming their readers to be stupid,--very different from "Robinson Crusoe," the "Vicar of Wakefield," "Roderick Random," and other beautiful, bare narratives. There is implied, an unwritten compact between author and reader: "I will tell you a story, and I suppose you will understand it." Modern novels, "St. Leons" and the like, are full of such flowers as these,--"Let not my reader suppose;" "Imagine, if you can, modest," etc, I will here have done with praise and blame, I have written so much only that you may not think I have passed over your book without observation.... I am sorry that Coleridge has christened his "Ancient Marinere," a "Poet's Reverie;" it is as bad as Bottom the Weaver's declaration that he is not a lion, but only the scenical representation of a lion. What new idea is gained by this title but one subversive of all credit--which the tale should force upon us--of its truth!

For me, I was never so affected with any human tale. After first reading it, I was totally possessed with it for many days. I dislike all the miraculous part of it; but the feelings of the man under the operation of such scenery, dragged me along like Tom Pipe's magic whistle. I totally differ from your idea that the "Marinere" should have had a character and a profession. This is a beauty in "Gulliver's Travels," where the mind is kept in a placid state of little wonderments; but the "Ancient Marinere" undergoes such trials as overwhelm and bury all individuality or memory of what he was,--like the state of a man in a bad dream, one terrible peculiarity of which is, that all consciousness of personality is gone. Your other observation is, I think as well, a little unfounded: the "Marinere," from being conversant in supernatural events, has acquired a supernatural and strange cast of phrase, eye, appearance, etc., which frighten the "wedding guest." You will excuse my remarks, because I am hurt and vexed that you should think it necessary, with a prose apology, to open the eyes of dead men that cannot see.

To sum up a general opinion of the second volume, I do not feel any one poem in it so forcibly as the "Ancient Marinere" and "The Mad Mother," and the "Lines at Tintern Abbey" in the first.

C. L.

[1] Of the "Lyrical Ballads" then just published. For certain results of Lamb's strictures in this letter, see Letter xxxvii.


XXXV.

TO WORDSWORTH.

January 30, 1801.

I ought before this to have replied to your very kind invitation into Cumberland. With you and your sister I could gang anywhere; but I am afraid whether I shall ever be able to afford so desperate a journey. Separate from the pleasure of your company, I don't much care if I never see a mountain in my life. I have passed all my days in London, until I have formed as many and intense local attachments as any of you mountaineers can have done with dead nature. The lighted shops of the Strand and Fleet Street; the innumerable trades, tradesmen, and customers; coaches, wagons, playhouses; all the bustle and wickedness round about Covent Garden; the very women of the town; the watchmen, drunken scenes, rattles; life awake, if you awake, at all hours of the night; the impossibility of being dull in Fleet Street; the crowds, the very dirt and mud, the sun shining upon houses and pavements; the print-shops, the old-book stalls, parsons cheapening books; coffee-houses, steams of soups from kitchens; the pantomimes, London itself a pantomime and a masquerade,--all these things work themselves into my mind, and feed me without a power of satiating me. The wonder of these sights impels me into night-walks about her crowded streets, and I often shed tears in the motley Strand from fulness of joy at so much life. All these emotions must be strange to you; so are your rural emotions to me. But consider what must I have been doing all my life, not to have lent great portions of my heart with usury to such scenes?

My attachments are all local, purely local,--I have no passion (or have had none since I was in love, and then it was the spurious engendering of poetry and books) to groves and valleys. The rooms where I was bom, the furniture which has been before my eyes all my life, a bookcase which has followed me about like a faithful dog (only exceeding him in knowledge), wherever I have moved; old chairs, old tables; streets, squares, where I have sunned myself; my old school,--these are my mistresses. Have I not enough without your mountains? I do not envy you. I should pity you, did I not know that the mind will make friends with anything. Your sun and moon, and skies and hills and lakes, affect me no more or scarcely come to be in more venerable characters, than as a gilded room with tapestry and tapers, where I might live with handsome visible objects. I consider the clouds above me but as a roof beautifully painted, but unable to satisfy the mind, and at last, like the pictures of the apartment of a connoisseur, unable to afford him any longer a pleasure. So fading upon me, from disuse, have been the beauties of Nature, as they have been confidently called; so ever fresh and green and warm are all the inventions of men and assemblies of men In this great city. I should certainly have laughed with dear Joanna.

Give my kindest love and my sister's to D. and yourself. And a kiss from me to little Barbara Lewthwaite. [1] Thank you for liking my play!

C.L.



XXXVI.

TO MANNING.

February, 1801.

I am going to change my lodgings, having received a hint that it would be agreeable, at our Lady's next feast. I have partly fixed upon most delectable rooms, which look out (when you stand a-tiptoe) over the Thames and Surrey Hills, at the upper end of King's Bench Walks, in the Temple. There I shall have all the privacy of a house without the encumbrance; and shall be able to lock my friends out as often as I desire to hold free converse with my immortal mind; for my present lodgings resemble a minister's levee, I have so increased my acquaintance (as they call 'em), since I have resided in town. Like the country mouse, that had tasted a little of urban manners, I long to be nibbling my own cheese by my dear self without mousetraps and time-traps. By my new plan, I shall be as airy, up four pair of stairs, as in the country; and in a garden, in the midst of enchanting, more than Mahometan paradise, London, whose dirtiest drab-frequented alley, and her lowest-bowing tradesman, I would not exchange for Skiddaw, Helvellyn, James, Walter, and the parson into the bargain. Oh, her lamps of a night; her rich goldsmiths, print-shops, toy-shops, mercers, hardwaremen, pastrycooks; St. Paul's Churchyard; the Strand; Exeter 'Change; Charing Cross, with a man upon a black horse! These are thy gods, O London! Ain't you mightily moped on the banks of the Cam? Had not you better come and set up here? You can't think what a difference. All the streets and pavements are pure gold, I warrant you,--at least, I know an alchemy that turns her mud into that metal: a mind that loves to be at home in crowds.

'Tis half-past twelve o'clock, and all sober people ought to be a-bed. Between you and me, the L. Ballads are but drowsy performances.

C. LAMB (as you may guess).

[1] The child in Wordsworth's "The Pet Lamb."



XXXVII.

TO MANNING.

February 15, 1801.

I had need be cautious henceforward what opinion I give of the "Lyrical Ballads." All the North of England are in a turmoil. Cumberland and Westmoreland have already declared a state of war. I lately received from Wordsworth a copy of the second volume, accompanied by an acknowledgment of having received from me many months since a copy of a certain tragedy, with excuses for not having made any acknowledgment sooner, it being owing to an "almost insurmountable aversion from letter-writing." This letter I answered in due form and time, and enumerated several of the passages which had most affected me, adding, unfortunately, that no single piece had moved me so forcibly as the "Ancient Mariner," "The Mad Mother," or the "Lines at Tintern Abbey." The Post did not sleep a moment. I received almost instantaneously a long letter of four sweating pages from my Reluctant Letter-Writer, the purport of which was that he was sorry his second volume had not given me more pleasure (Devil a hint did I give that it had not pleased me), and "was compelled to wish that my range of sensibility was more extended, being obliged to believe that I should receive large influxes of happiness and happy thoughts" (I suppose from the L. B.),--with a deal of stuff about a certain Union of Tenderness and Imagination, which, in the sense he used Imagination, was not the characteristic of Shakspeare, but which Milton possessed in a degree far exceeding other Poets; which union, as the highest species of poetry, and chiefly deserving that name, "he was most proud to aspire to;" then illustrating the said union by two quotations from his own second volume (which I had been so unfortunate as to miss.) First specimen; A father addresses his son:--

"When thou First camest into the World, as it befalls To new-born infants, thou didst sleep away Two days; and blessings from thy father's tongue Then fell upon thee."

The lines were thus undermarked, and then followed, "This passage, as combining in an extraordinary degree that union of tenderness and imagination which I am speaking of, I consider as one of the best I ever wrote."

Second specimen: A youth, after years of absence, revisits his native place, and thinks (as most people do) that there has been strange alteration in his absence,--

"And that the rocks And everlasting hills themselves were changed."

You see both these are good poetry; but after one has been reading Shakspeare twenty of the best years of one's life, to have a fellow start up and prate about some unknown quality which Shakspeare possessed in a degree inferior to Milton and somebody else! This was not to be all my castigation. Coleridge, who had not written to me for some months before, starts up from his bed of sickness to reprove me for my tardy presumption; four long pages, equally sweaty and more tedious, came from him, assuring me that when the works of a man of true genius, such as W. undoubtedly was, do not please me at first sight, I should expect the fault to lie "in me, and not in them," etc. What am I to do with such people? I certainly shall write them a very merry letter. Writing to you, I may say that the second volume has no such pieces as the three I enumerated. It is full of original thinking and an observing mind; but it does not often make you laugh or cry. It too artfully aims at simplicity of expression. And you sometimes doubt if simplicity be not a cover for poverty. The best piece in it I will send you, being short. I have grievously offended my friends in the North by declaring my undue preference; but I need not fear you.

"She dwelt among the untrodden ways Beside the Springs of Dove,-- A maid whom there were few (sic) to praise, And very few to love.

"A violet, by a mossy stone Half hidden from the eye, Fair as a star when only one Is shining in the sky.

"She lived unknown; and few could know When Lucy ceased to be; But she is in the grave, and oh, The difference to me!"

This is choice and genuine, and so are many, many more. But one does riot like to have 'em rammed down one's throat. "Pray take it,--it's very good; let me help you,--eat faster."


Charles Lamb

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