Charles Lamb: Thanksgiving

“The most loveable figure in English literature,” Charles Lamb (1775 – 1834) was a member of the Lake poets group whose writings, however admired by the Regency-era public, were held in contempt by certain critics for their high-flown language.  He struggled with his personal life, having to care for a sister who murdered their mother and failing to win the heart of his beloved after years of courtship.

This blog has referenced him from time to time–on his adoration of Wordsworth‘s honesty, and his opinion that William Godwin’s new wife, the successor to Mary Wollenstonecraft, was a bitch.

Lawyers, he supposed, “were children once (!)” Charles Lamb by Hazlitt

With Thanksgiving upon us, his essay, “Grace Before Meat,” (1823)  seems an appropriate work to examine. One of several from his famed Essays of Elia, the piece attacks that long-lived ritual of saying grace before meals:

“Gluttony and surfeiting are no proper occasions for thanksgiving.”

Fustian, I say!

For Lamb, the matter was a serious one. He was preoccupied with the rising materialism of the age. He’d been known for remaining aloof of his countrymen’s increasing appetite for earthly pleasures. He read the New Testament and Psalms regularly. He despised organized religion.

Fellow Lake poet Robert Southey, he who “wooed Liberty as his mistress and married disreputable Legitimacy,” publicly condemned Lamb as irreligious.

But what is the point, Lamb asks?

I own that I am disposed to say grace upon twenty other occasions in the course of the day besides my dinner. I want a form for setting out upon a pleasant walk, for a moonlight ramble, for a friendly meeting, or a solved problem.

Such a  sentiment is completely inappropriate to the occasion…

When I have sate (a rarus hospes) at rich men’s tables, with the savoury soup and messes steaming up the nostrils…the ravenous orgasm upon you (!), it seems impertinent to interpose a religious sentiment.

…particularly as the occasion itself is rather hedonistic:

The heats of epicurism put out the gentle flame of devotion. The incense which rises round is pagan, and the belly-god intercepts it for his own.

..such that the one who has to say it is made to feel awkward:

I have observed this awkwardness felt, scarce consciously perhaps, by the good man who says the grace. I have seen it in clergymen and others — a sort of shame — a sense of the co-presence of circumstances which unhallow the blessing.

…and cannot be certain in knowing what to say:

A short form upon these occasions is felt to want reverence; a long one, I am afraid, cannot escape the charge of impertinence.

Borrowing an old joke from the playwright Sheridan*, Lamb suggests the following (tongue-in-cheek) for saying grace:

 “Is there no clergyman here?” — significantly adding, “thank G—.”

Blame it on the belly-god.

Even Charles Lamb could not quibble with this scene

*Lamb once said that the Irish playwright “ran through each mode of the lyre, and was master of all.”

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Wordsworth: Edward Ferrars

William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850) is the Romantic poet who once said he wrote to “shew that men who did not wear fine clothes can feel deeply.”

Austen must have known of his poetry when she wrote Sense and Sensibility. She does not mention the poet in her work, least of all in connection with the slightly awkward Edward Ferrars.

Nevertheless, I believe the screenwriter Andrew Davies was onto something when he included a passage from Wordsworth’s beloved Tintern Abbey in the 1995 film adaptation of Austen’s novel:edward ferrars

I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,

And the round ocean and the living air…

What connection can one possibly fathom between pedestrian Ferrars and the highflown language of Wordsworth? Besides, it was Willoughby who recited that passage.

Well, I’ll tell you…

A strong theme in Sense and Sensibility is the promotion of honesty, particularly in Christian marriage. Austen was the daughter of a cleric and strongly invested with the ideals of the good old C of E:

He, too, was awkward like Edward Ferrars, with a shy demeanor and a good humour adored by Charles Lamb.

He, too, was awkward like Edward Ferrars, with a shy demeanor and a good humour Charles Lamb adored.

In particular, for Austen, the marriage of men and women who have been transformed through “naked self-disclosure”, who have acknowledged their mistakes and who are now “poised to be active forces for good in their spheres, from village to town to nation to world.” — The Marriage of Faith: Christianity in William Wordsworth and Jane Austen, by Laura Dabundo from a book review by Friar Paul Byrd, to be read in its full content here

Willoughby may have read Wordsworth’s words, but he was a dishonest character and we cannot suppose he felt “sense sublime” at all honestly. Edward Ferrars, on the other hand, was the honest character that Elinor Dashwood needed in a life-long companion. He revealed his mistake in engaging himself to Lucy Steele, yet remained faithful to it, without sentimentality attendant on thwarted love.

Once released, he turned his full devotion to the one he would best love, who was best suited to helping him be fully devoted to the ideal of Sense, versus Sensibility.

Recall how Edward read Cowper, and rather poorly in Marianne’s eyes. He did not fully engage in the feelings of overwrought nature:

“I do not like crooked, twisted, blasted trees…I have more pleasure in a farm-house than a watch-tower.”

He preferred the honesty of “nature put into practice” — a pleasure taken in nature, yet glorifying the utility it is put to. Any other “romanticizing” of nature is simply that–a useless ornament.

Like love that idles dormant.