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.”

Regency Critics: Thanksgiving Part I

The Prince Regent declared January 18, 1816 an official day of Thanksgiving for all Regency England–to commemorate a Nation’s gratitude that war had ended.

Wordsworth wrote the following poem to mark the occasion:



O Britain! dearer far than life is dear,
If one there be
Of all thy progeny
Who can forget thy prowess, never more
Be that ungrateful Son allowed to hear
Thy green leaves rustle or thy torrents roar.

Thanksgiving Ode by Wordsworth

Scarcely remembered, this Ode represents the vexing condition gratitude often finds itself in–quickly forgotten before the day is out.

Like Thanksgiving.

In 1796, Robert Burns, the great pioneer of Romantic poetry, breathed his last, having opened a vast new literary landscape to successors such as Byron, Shelley–and William Wordsworth. Burns’ brother, Gilbert, thought it prudent to write a biography of Robbie before his character as a man should be forgotten. He sent a pamphlet ’round Edinburgh explaining his project and requesting anecdotes that might be used in the biography.

One was directed to the scholar James Gray who, in turn, shared it with Wordsworth.

By this time Wordsworth had achieved no little stature as a composer of the sonnet after Burns’ natural style. Of course, any comments he should care to make would be well-attended to. Indeed, he had already written a poem to comfort Burns’ sons, albeit with a mendacious warning against drinking too much:

Tintern Abbey, by Turner

Tintern Abbey, by Turner

Strong-bodied if ye be to bear
Intemperance with less harm, beware!
But if your Father’s wit ye share,
Then, then indeed.
Ye Sons of Burns! for watchful care
There will be need.

Address to the Sons of Burns, after visiting their Father’s Grave (August 14th, 1803)

When offered the opportunity to enlarge upon the merits of Scotland’s favorite son, the bard of Tintern Abbey entered into the exercise with enthusiasm:

“From the respect which I have long felt for the character of the person who has thus honored me, and from the gratitude which, as a lover of poetry, I owe to the genius of his departed relative, should most gladly comply with this wish.”

— Wordsworth to Gray in A Letter to a Friend of Robert Burns (1816)

A biography of Burns was already in publication, by one Dr. Currie. In it, certain details of the poet’s personal life had been rendered most candidly. To his family’s dismay, Burns’ reputation was beginning to resemble that of his creation, Tom O’Shanter.

Echoing his previous concern, Wordsworth addressed these details minutely–perhaps too much so–in his enthusiasm to clean up Burns’ image:

“His brother can set me right is I am mistaken when I express a belief that, at the time he wrote his story of ‘Death and Dr. Hornbrook,’ he had very rarely been intoxicated, or perhaps even much exhilarated by liquor. Yet how happily does he lead his reader into that track of sensations!”

He was a drunkard, to be sure, but not all the time!

Nasmyth's flattering portrait of Burns

Nasmyth’s flattering portrait of Burns

Wordsworth’s gratitude was turned on its head when his Letter found its way into the hands of Blackwood’s and into the glare of the Public’s eye:

“(Wordsworth) has unquestionably written some fine verse in his day; but, with the exception of some poetical genius, he is, in all respects, immeasurably inferior, as an intellectual being, to the distinguished person he so foolishly libels.”

–Observations on Mr. Wordsworth’s Letter, by ‘a gentleman of distinguished literary talents’ (John Wilson, probably) Vol. I (1817)

Happily, Wordsworth’s role as literary critic was forgotten, smothered under the mantle of Britain’s Poet Laureate which was awarded to him in 1843.

Otherwise, he might have been remembered as the perfect example of a Regency ingrate.





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.

Bibliomaniacs – Librarians to the Regency

“What wild desires, what restless torments seize

The hapless man, who feels the book disease..”

— The Bibliomania – An Epistle to Richard Heber by John Ferriar (1809)

He's almost as popular over formal room mantles as Gainsborough's Blue Boy

He’s almost as popular over formal room mantles as Gainsborough’s Blue Boy

As the portrait indicates, Richard Heber (1773 – 1833) was a handsome boy. He was also nearsighted, and perhaps for this reason conceived a passion for collecting books. He was later termed as having “bibliomania” and no wonder. His collection of books  filled several houses in England and abroad.

Richard’s father, to whom he owed a vast inheritance, decried his book-collecting, stating the indulgence should be nipped in the bud before it ruined him, having “no use nor end.” Little heed was paid to this advice. When Richard came into his inheritance in 1804, he embarked on a buying spree, travelling abroad after “ransacking” England in pursuit of entire collections and the most rare, original editions of selected works.

He not only loved book-collecting, he loved the friendships his passion brought him. He was very happy to lend his books and could be relied upon to provide the original edition if a copy was found to contain errors (as subsequent editions frequently did). His scholarship aided such luminaries as Sir Walter Scott, who dedicated the sixth canto of Marmion to him, and William Wordsworth. Richard’s influence among academia brought professorships and fellowships to those who sought his help.

After an abortive first try, he was finally elected to the House of Commons as a member of the Tory party. However, his propensity for being a friend made him less desirable as a representative, as far as his constituents were concerned. The fellow was just too conciliatory:

“..the assets of his ‘popular manners, his great library, his genuine Toryism and his assiduous canvass of near 15 years’ were offset by the ‘great cry’ raised against him by ‘the high churchmen’, who were said to ‘accuse him of travelling in stage coaches, of living at a brewery, of associating with the opposition, and of being favourably disposed towards the Catholics.’ — Althorp Letters, 115; Add. 51659, Whishaw to Lady Holland, 16 July 1821.

For all he did for his friends, they were conspicuously absent in his later years. In the end, he died alone, having never married.

Then, years later, an obituary appeared–that of Frances Mary Richardson Currer (1785 – 1861). She was the posthumous daughter of a Yorkshire clergyman and heiress to both her father and mother’s

Miss Currer's bookplate

Miss Currer’s bookplate

fortunes.  Her home at Eshton Hall held her collection of books which was estimated between 15,000 and 20,000 volumes. She was deaf, and therefore not active socially. However, this last mention of her included another:

“Miss Currer was an intimate friend of the great bibliomaniac Richard Heber, who filled many houses with his books. It was even rumoured that they might become united by a tie more permanent than that of kindred pursuits in literature. This however, is now a tale of times gone by.” — Gentleman’s Magazine, 1861