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