At the end of a letter to John Payne Collier dated May 6, 1820, Charles Lamb adds the complaint:
I write in misery. N.B. the best pen I could borrow at our butcher’s: the ink, I verily believe, came out of the kennel.
The “kennel” here is the gutter down which blood flows at the butcher’s shop. Lamb was writing away from home and his more reliable instruments. But he seems to like the analogy of ink and blood. In another letter of the same year, he assures Coleridge that, despite appearances, he hasn’t opened his veins for something to write with but was forced to use a cheap red ink commonly known as “clerk’s blood.”
This past weekend I bought a British two-volume Everyman’s Library edition of Lamb’s letters. Though in tolerable shape (even retaining their yellow and white dust jackets), the books are more cheaply made than usual. This is explained by the publication date of 1945 and the stamped image of a lion couchant atop the announcement: “BOOK PRODUCTION WAR ECONOMY STANDARD.”
Though I’ve been a (more often than not) distant admirer of Lamb’s since a college course on the Romantics twenty years ago, I was moved to pick up his letters on the warm endorsement of Patrick Kurp. Like Kurp, I find Lamb’s letters an awful lot of fun. Within a mere ten pages in either direction of the quote above, you will find passages like this from an 1821 letter to Mrs William Ayrton:
My sister desires me, as being a more expert penman than herself, to say that she saw Mrs Paris yesterday, and that she is very much out of spirits, and has expressed a great wish to see your son William, and Fanny
– I like to write that word Fanny. I do not know but it was one reason of taking upon me this pleasant task –
From an 1820 letter to Joseph Cottle we get the following:
I am quite ashamed of not having acknowledg’d your second kind present earlier. But that unknown something, which was never yet discover’d, though so often speculated upon, which stands in the way of Lazy folks’ answering letters, has presented its usual obstacle.
Lamb goes on in the same letter to sympathize with Cottle’s personal distaste for Byron:
It was quite a mistake that I could dislike anything you should write against Lord Byron, for I have a thorough aversion to his character, and a very moderate admiration of his genius – he is great in so little a way – To be a Poet is to be The Man, the whole Man – not a petty portion of occasional low passion worked up into a permanent form of Humanity.
There’s a judgment that might have drawn blood.
But nothing could seem less likely to cost the author himself any blood than Lamb’s letters. They are full of impressive gaiety and ease. For all his kennel ink and clerk’s blood, you don’t imagine Lamb toiling painfully at his correspondence, though I suspect he must have. From letter to letter he reads like a circus performer so well practiced that he makes the high wire look like a stroll down the lawn – only this performer is wearing a clown’s nose.
If, as I sometimes think, laughter is the most precious human commodity, then precious indeed is the blood of the Lamb.