Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Negative Quantities

Charles Lamb to Thomas Manning.

August, 1800.

Dear Manning,

I am going to ask a favor of you, and am at a loss how to do it in the most delicate manner. For this purpose I have been looking into Pliny's Letters, who is noted to have had the best grace in begging of all the ancients (I read him in the elegant translation of Mr.Melmoth); but not finding any case there exactly similar with mine, I am constrained to beg in my own barbarian way. To come to the point, then, and hasten into the middle of things, have you a copy of your Algebra [1] to give away? I do not ask it for myself; I have too much reverence for the Black Arts ever to approach thy circle, illustrious Trismegist! But that worthy man and excellent poet, George Dyer, made me a visit yesternight on purpose to borrow one, supposing, rationally enough, I must say, that you had made me a present of one before this; the omission of which I take to have proceeded only from negligence: but it is a fault. I could lend him no assistance. You must know he is just now diverted from the pursuit of BELL LETTERS by a paradox, which he has heard his friend Frend [2] (that learned mathematician) maintain, that the negative quantities of mathematicians were merae nugae,--things scarcely in rerum naturĂ¢, and smacking too much of mystery for gentlemen of Mr. Frend's clear Unitarian capacity. However, the dispute,once set a-going, has seized violently on George's pericranick; and it is necessary for his health that he should speedily come to a resolution of his doubts. He goes about teasing his friends with his new mathematics; he even frantically talks of purchasing Manning's Algebra,which shows him far gone, for, to my knowledge, he has not been master of seven shillings a good time. George's pockets and ----'s brains are two things in nature which do not abhor a vacuum.... Now, if you could step in, in this trembling suspense of his reason, and he should find on Saturday morning, lying for him at the Porter's Lodge, Clifford'sInn.--his safest address,--Manning's Algebra, with a neat manuscriptum in the blank leaf, running thus, "FROM THE AUTHOR!" it might save his wits and restore the unhappy author to those studies of poetry and criticism which are at present suspended, to the infinite regret of the whole literary world.

N.B.--Dirty books, smeared leaves, and dogs' ears will be rather a recommendation than otherwise. N.B.--He must have the book as soon as possible, or nothing can withhold him from madly purchasing the book on tick.... Then shall we see him sweetly restored to the chair of Longinus,--to dictate in smooth and modest phrase the laws of verse; to prove that Theocritus first introduced the Pastoral, and Virgil and Pope brought it to its perfection; that Gray and Mason (who always hunt in couples in George's brain) have shown a great deal of poetical fire in their lyric poetry; that Aristotle's rules are not to be servilely followed, which George has shown to have imposed great shackles upon modern genius. His poems, I find, are to consist of two vols., reasonable octavo; and a third book will exclusively contain criticisms, in which he asserts he has gone pretty deeply into the laws of blank verse and rhyme, epic poetry, dramatic and pastoral ditto,--all which is to come out before Christmas. But above all he has touched most deeply upon the Drama, comparing the English with the modern German stage, their merits and defects. Apprehending that his studies (not to mention his turn, which I take to be chiefly towards the lyrical poetry) hardly qualified him for these disquisitions, I modestly inquired what plays he had read. I found by George's reply that he had read Shakspeare, but that was a good while since: he calls him a great but irregular genius, which I think to be an original and just remark. (Beaumont and Fletcher, Massinger, Ben Jonson, Shirley, Marlowe, Ford, and the worthies of Dodsley's Collection,--he confessed he had read none of them, but professed his intention of looking through them all, so as to be able to touch upon them in his book.) So Shakspeare, Otway, and I believe Rowe, to whom he was naturally directed by Johnson's Lives, and these not read lately, are to stand him in stead of a general knowledge of the subject. God bless his dear absurd head!

By the by, did I not write you a letter with something about an invitation in it?--but let that pass; I suppose it is not agreeable.

N.B. It would not be amiss if you were to accompany your present with a dissertation on negative quantities.
C. L.

[1] Manning, while at Cambridge, published a work on Algebra.

[2] The Rev. William Frend, who was expelled from Cambridge for Unitarianism.

-from The Best Letters of Charles Lamb edited with an Introduction by Edward Gilpin Johnson (London: 1892).

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