Wednesday, January 01, 2020


Freshly Minted Sauce for Lamb

[Thanks very much to Eric Thomson for the following.]

New Year’s Eve, in Charles Lamb, The Essays of Elia, edited by N. L. Hallward and S. C. Hill (London & New York: Macmillan, 1895), pp. 40-48, at pp. 43-44:
But now, shall I confess a truth?—I feel these audits but too powerfully. I begin to count the probabilities of my duration, and to grudge at the expenditure of moments and shortest periods, like miser’s farthings. In proportion as the years both lessen and shorten, I set more count upon their periods, and would fain lay my ineffectual finger upon the spoke of the great wheel. I am not content to pass away “like a weaver’s shuttle.” Those metaphors solace me not, nor sweeten the unpalatable draught of mortality. I care not to be carried with the tide, that smoothly bears human life to eternity; and reluct at the inevitable course of destiny. I am in love with this green earth; the face of town and country; the unspeakable rural solitudes, and the sweet security of streets. I would set up my tabernacle here. I am content to stand still at the age to which I am arrived; I, and my friends: to be no younger, no richer, no handsomer.

I do not want to be weaned by age; or drop, like mellow fruit, as they say, into the grave.—Any alteration, on this earth of mine, in diet or in lodging, puzzles and discomposes me. My household-gods plant a terrible fixed foot, and are not rooted up without blood. They do not willingly seek Lavinian shores. A new state of being staggers me.
Hallward and Hill’s endnotes on this passage (p. 249) are useful but incomplete:
audits: seasons of reckoning when we examine our past lives, and, as it were, make up our accounts. Latin auditus, a hearing.

lessen and shorten: grow fewer in number and pass more rapidly.

set more count upon their periods: attach greater value to their revolutions.

lay my ineffectual finger, etc., vainly try to stop the rolling of the great wheel of time.

"like a weavers shuttle": Job, vii. 6, "My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle."

sweeten the unpalatable draught of mortality: make the distasteful liability to death any more endurable. The metaphor is taken from the custom of administering to children disagreeable medicines disguised by being sweetened with sugar.

the tide, etc.: cf. Wordsworth, Prelude, “the great tide of human life.”

reluct, etc.: recoil from; another archaic word.

set up my tabernacle: make my permanent dwelling-place. See Mark, ix. 5. weaned by age: Compare Swift's saying, "The troubles of age were intended to wean us gradually from our fondness of life."

drop, like mellow fruit: cf. Paradise Lost, xi. 535 :
" So'mayst thou live, till like ripe fruit thou drop
Into thy mother's lap ";
and Dryden, Oedipus, iv. 1. :
"Fell like autumn fruit that mellowed long."


seek Lavinian shores: remove to strange countries, as Aeneas, by the command of the gods, migrated with his followers after the sack of Troy to Lavinium in Italy. Cf. Vergil, Aeneid, I. 2.
My additions:
audits: Lamb begrudges spending time as a miser would spending money. The metaphor is prolonged in ‘count’ (twice), ‘expenditure’ and ‘miser’s farthings’. Lamb was involved in auditing for the East India Company for much of his professional life. In a letter to Wordsworth (9 Aug.1815) he fantasizes “If I do but get rid of auditing Warehousekeepers Acc’ts and get no worse-harassing task in the place of it, what a Lord of Liberty I shall be” [E. V. Lucas, Letters, 1935, II, p. 170].

periods: OED s.v. period, sense 7.b.: “Astronomy. The time in which a celestial object, satellite, etc., performs one revolution about its primary (or about the centre of gravity of its system) or rotates once on its axis.”

ineffectual finger upon the spoke of the great wheel: The metaphor perhaps is the circle described by the Earth’s rotation around the sun as a spinning wheel with its spokes.

sweeten the unpalatable draught of mortality: The expression ‘dulcify this unpalatable draught’ occurs in ‘Memoir of General Moreau’, which appeared in The European Magazine or London Review (September 1813, p. 185). As Moreau is mentioned in Lamb’s earliest published essay ‘What is Jacobinism?’ he might have come across the Memoir and then recalled the phrase. See Winifred F. Courtney, Young Charles Lamb 1775-1802 (London: Macmillan, 1982) Appendix B.

reluct at: Lamb had a penchant for archaistic vocabulary. One of his favourite authors was Isaac Walton, in whose Life of Donne (1670), the poet is described as “by nature highly passionate, but more apt to reluct at the excesses of it”.

I am in love with this green earth: Wordsworth, Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey (1798) ll. 103-8:

                               Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye and ear, both what they half create
And what perceive...

set up my tabernacle: Mark 9: 4, in the KJV, reads “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; and let us make three tabernacles”. Closer to Lamb’s wording, however, is Leviticus 26: 11 “And I will set my tabernacle among you: and my soul shall not abhor you”.

plant a terrible fixed foot: a pun on OED, s.v. plant, sense 4.a: “To place (a thing) firmly on the ground or any other body or surface; to set down firmly etc.” and sense 1.a.: “To set or place (a seed, bulb, or growing thing) in the ground so that it may take root and grow etc.”.

are not rooted up without blood: Bleeding in the context of broken roots suggests ‘ruptis radicibus’ and ‘atro sanguine’at Aeneid III, 27-29:

nam quae prima solo ruptis radicibus arbos
vellitur, huic atro liquuntur sanguine guttae
et terram tabo maculant.

                     when the first stalk came torn
Out of the earth, and the root network burst,
Dark blood dripped down to soak and foul the soil.

do not willingly seek Lavinian shores: While ‘Lavinian shores’ evokes ‘Laviniaque … litora’ of Aeneid I, 2-3, ‘not willingly’ corresponds to ‘non sponte’ at IV, 361: ‘Italiam non sponte sequor.'

staggers me: The reference to (uprooted) ‘fixed foot’ allows Lamb punningly to bridge OED, s.v. stagger, sense II. 6. a.: To cause (a person or animal) to reel or totter, esp. from a blow”, and sense 7. a.: “To bewilder, perplex, nonplus; to render helpless by a shock of amazement (or occasionally horror)”.

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