Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Histories of the past

Charles Lamb to Thomas Manning*

March 1, 1800.

hope by this time you are prepared to say the "Falstaff's Letters" area bundle of the sharpest, queerest, profoundest humors of any these juice-drained latter times have spawned. I should have advertised you that the meaning is frequently hard to be got at,--and so are the future guineas that now lie ripening and aurifying in the womb of some undiscovered Potosi; but dig, dig, dig, dig, Manning! I set to with an unconquerable propulsion to write, with a lamentable want of what to write. My private goings on are orderly as the movements of the spheres, and stale as their music to angels' ears. Public affairs, except as they touch upon me, and so turn into private, I cannot whip up my mind to feel any interest in, I grieve, indeed, that War and Nature and Mr.Pitt, that hangs up in Lloyd's best parlour, should have conspired to call up three necessaries, simple commoners as our fathers knew them, into the upper house of luxuries,--bread and beer and coals, Manning. But as to France and Frenchmen, and the Abbé Siéyès and his constitutions, I cannot make these present times present to me. I read histories of the past, and I live in them; although, to abstract senses, they are far less momentous than the noises which keep Europe awake. I am reading Burnet's "Own Times." Did you ever read that garrulous, pleasant history? He tells his story like an old man, past political service, bragging to his sons on winter evenings of the part he took in public transactions when "his old cap was new." Full of scandal, which all true history is. No palliatives; but all the stark wickedness that actually gives the momentum to national actors. Quite the prattle of age and outlived importance. Truth and sincerity staring out upon you perpetually in alto relievo. Himself a party man, he makes you a party man. None of the cursed philosophical Humeian indifference, so cold and unnatural and inhuman! None of the cursed Gibbonian fine writing, so fine and composite. None of Dr. Robertson's periods with three members. None of Mr. Roscoe's sage remarks, all so apposite, and coming in so clever, lest the reader should have had the trouble of drawing an inference. Burnet's good old prattle I can bring present to my mind; I can make the Revolution present to me: the French Revolution, by a converse perversity in my nature, I fling as far from me. To quit this tiresome subject, and to relieve you from two or three dismal yawns, which I hear in spirit, I here conclude my more than commonly obtuse letter,--dull up to the dulness of a Dutch commentator on Shakspeare.

My love to Lloyd and Sophia
C. L.

* To this remarkable person we are largely indebted for some of the best of Lamb's letters. He was mathematical tutor at Caius College, Cambridge, and in later years became somewhat famous as an explorer of the remoter parts of China and Thibet. Lamb had been introduced to him, during a Cambridge visit, by Charles Lloyd, and afterwards told Crabb Robinson that he was the most "wonderful man" he ever met. An account of Manning will be found in the memoir prefixed to his "Journey to Lhasa," in 1811-12. (George Bogle and Thomas Manning's Journey to Thibet and Lhasa, by C.R. Markham, 1876.)
-from The Best Letters of Charles Lamb edited with an Introduction by Edward Gilpin Johnson (London: 1892).

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