Tag Archives: Charles Lamb

Kennel Ink

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.

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Book Porn, no.1

Charles Lamb, Essays of Elia and Last Essays. Oxford University Press, World’s Classics Series; 1961, UK.  A hard-to-find little book that sits happily in the palm of my hand and which I would very much like to steal from the library.  I am allowed to renew my borrowing period three times before I have to return it.  Then I wait a few days and check it out again, and so even if I don’t own it I have the pleasure of its company almost all the time.  The soft salmon-colored dust jacket with the black and white print on the front cover is exquisite.

I wonder if the robed and bearded scroll-readers of Alexandria wept at the advent of the codex.  “Nothing good can come of this,” they might have said.  “A single, elegantly contiguous manuscript is sliced up into separate leaves and you call that progress?  It’s schizophrenic, that’s what it is.”

I like to think the situation more dire with the present shift from books to so-called e-books.  It’s certainly weirder.  We see that the disembodiment of books is part of a broader cultural retreat toward immateriality.  Books, like musical recordings, photographs and so many other things, will cease to be physical objects at all and will exist only as electronic phantoms, passed from device to device but never from hand to hand.  The notion that this makes an improvement on the old order is laughable.  It smacks of annihilationism: one more milepost on the Manichaean march toward the final ghostification of all things.

I don’t intend to purchase an electronic reading device.  I want to insist on the codex.  It’s not only that I’m a sentimentalist, but I think we owe philosophical allegiance to the materiality of things.  I don’t want a platonic beatitude.  I want a real book in my hand, a hot cup of tea, a ‘friend’ I can physically embrace.  They fool themselves who believe that digitalization better preserves texts (or recordings or images) against the depredations of time.  Some day the dark ages will come again and we’ll see that nothing is saved by being made intangible.  Materiality is the only condition of salvation.

Consider this series a sort of scrapbook monument to the codex.  There’s irony in the bloggish venue, I know.  It can’t be helped.  But I want to honor books as discrete physical objects.  In each case I’ll offer a photograph (or two) and description of a particular book.  It need not contain great literature between its covers.  It need only give pleasure to the reader or possessor of it.


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Marginalia, no.89

If peradventure, Reader, it has been thy lot to waste the golden years of thy life – thy shining youth – in an office…

~ Charles Lamb, ‘The Superannuated Man’

Business is the death of the soul.  I recognize that I’m one of those persons inclined to be discontent with my lot so long as necessity has any claims on me whatsoever.  But the pursuit of market share and media hits and the perpetually ascending conversion yield puts me in constant thought of my own mortality.  Perhaps the value of business is precisely that it forces me to grapple with vanity and finitude. But I wonder if it doesn’t sharpen the death-wish too.  Later in the same essay Lamb writes that ‘a man can never have too much time to himself, nor too little to do,’ which seems an apt description of death.  I light up a phone switch in place of a candle and whisper supplications to St Bartleby Scrivener.

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