Elia and The Last Essays of Elia / Charles Lamb, by Charles Lamb

My Relations

I am arrived at that point of life, at which a man may account it a blessing, as it is a singularity, if he have either of his parents surviving. I have not that felicity — and sometimes think feelingly of a passage in Browne’s Christian Morals, where he speaks of a man that hath lived sixty or seventy years in the world. “In such a compass of time,” he says, “a man may have a close apprehension what it is to be forgotten, when he hath lived to find none who could remember his father, or scarcely the friends of his youth, and may sensibly see with what a face in no long time OBLIVION will look upon himself.”

I had an aunt, a dear and good one. She was one whom single blessedness had soured to the world. She often used to say, that I was the only thing in it which she loved; and, when she thought I was quitting it, she grieved over me with mother’s tears. A partiality quite so exclusive my reason cannot altogether approve. She was from morning till night poring over good books, and devotional exercises. Her favourite volumes were Thomas à Kempis, in Stanhope’s Translation; and a Roman Catholic Prayer Book, with the matins and complines regularly set down — terms which I was at that time too young to understand. She persisted in reading them, although admonished daily concerning their Papistical tendency; and went to church every Sabbath, as a good Protestant should do. These were the only books she studied; though, I think, at one period of her life, she told me, she had read with great satisfaction the Adventures of an Unfortunate Young Nobleman. Finding the door of the chapel in Essex-street open one day — it was in the infancy of that heresy — she went in, liked the sermon, and the manner of worship, and frequented it at intervals for some time after. She came not for doctrinal points, and never missed them. With some little asperities in her constitution, which I have above hinted at, she was a steadfast, friendly being, and a fine old Christian. She was a woman of strong sense, and a shrewd mind — extraordinary at a repartee; one of the few occasions of her breaking silence — else she did not much value wit. The only secular employment I remember to have seen her engaged in, was, the splitting of French beans, and dropping them into a China basin of fair water. The odour of those tender vegetables to this day comes back upon my sense, redolent of soothing recollections. Certainly it is the most delicate of culinary operations.

Male aunts, as somebody calls them, I had none — to remember. By the uncle’s side I may be said to have been born an orphan. Brother, or sister, I never had any — to know them. A sister, I think, that should have been Elizabeth, died in both our infancies. What a comfort, or what a care, may I not have missed in her! — But I have cousins, sprinkled about in Hertfordshire — besides two, with whom I have been all my life in habits of the closest intimacy, and whom I may term cousins par excellence. These are James and Bridget Elia. They are older than myself by twelve, and ten, years; and neither of them seems disposed, in matters of advice and guidance, to waive any of the prerogatives which primogeniture confers. May they continue still in the same mind; and when they shall be seventy-five, and seventy-three, years old (I cannot spare them sooner), persist in treating me in my grand climacteric precisely as a stripling, or younger brother!

James is an inexplicable cousin. Nature hath her unities, which not every critic can penetrate; or, if we feel, we cannot explain them. The pen of Yorick, and of none since his, could have drawn J.E. entire — those fine Shandian lights and shades, which make up his story. I must limp after in my poor antithetical manner, as the fates have given me grace and talent. J.E. then — to the eye of a common observer at least — seemeth made up of contradictory principles. — The genuine child of impulse, the frigid philosopher of prudence — the phlegm of my cousin’s doctrine is invariably at war with his temperament, which is high sanguine. With always some fire-new project in his brain, J.E. is the systematic opponent of innovation, and crier down of every thing that has not stood the test of age and experiment. With a hundred fine notions chasing one another hourly in his fancy, he is startled at the least approach to the romantic in others; and, determined by his own sense in every thing, commends you to the guidance of common sense on all occasions. — With a touch of the eccentric in all which he does, or says, he is only anxious that you should not commit yourself by doing any thing absurd or singular. On my once letting slip at table, that I was not fond of a certain popular dish, he begged me at any rate not to say so — for the world would think me mad. He disguises a passionate fondness for works of high art (whereof he hath amassed a choice collection), under the pretext of buying only to sell again — that his enthusiasm may give no encouragement to yours. Yet, if it were so, why does that piece of tender, pastoral Dominichino hang still by his wall? — is the ball of his sight much more dear to him? — or what picture-dealer can talk like him?

Whereas mankind in general are observed to warp their speculative conclusions to the bent of their individual humours, his theories are sure to be in diametrical opposition to his constitution. He is courageous as Charles of Sweden, upon instinct; chary of his person, upon principle, as a travelling Quaker. — He has been preaching up to me, all my life, the doctrine of bowing to the great — the necessity of forms, and manner, to a man’s getting on in the world. He himself never aims at either, that I can discover — and has a spirit, that would stand upright in the presence of the Cham of Tartary. It is pleasant to hear him discourse of patience — extolling it as the truest wisdom — and to see him during the last seven minutes that his dinner is getting ready. Nature never ran up in her haste a more restless piece of workmanship than when she moulded this impetuous cousin — and Art never turned out a more elaborate orator than he can display himself to be, upon his favourite topic of the advantages of quiet, and contentedness in the state, whatever it may be, that we are placed in. He is triumphant on this theme, when he has you safe in one of those short stages that ply for the western road, in a very obstructing manner, at the foot of John Murray’s street — where you get in when it is empty, and are expected to wait till the vehicle hath completed her just freight — a trying three quarters of an hour to some people. He wonders at your fidgetiness — “where could we be better than we are, thus silting, thus consulting?”—“prefers, for his part, a state of rest to locomotion,”— with an eye all the while upon the coachman — till at length, waxing out of all patience, at your want of it, he breaks out into a pathetic remonstrance at the fellow for detaining us so long over the time which he had professed, and declares peremptorily, that “the gentleman in the coach is determined to get out, if he does not drive on that instant.”

Very quick at inventing an argument, or detecting a sophistry, he is incapable of attending you in any chain of arguing. Indeed he makes wild work with logic; and seems to jump at most admirable conclusions by some process, not at all akin to it. Consonantly enough to this, he hath been heard to deny, upon certain occasions, that there exists such a faculty at all in man as reason; and wondereth how man came first to have a conceit of it — enforcing his negation with all the might of reasoning he is master of. He has some speculative notions against laughter, and will maintain that laughing is not natural to him— when peradventure the next moment his lungs shall crow like Chanticleer. He says some of the best things in the world — and declareth that wit is his aversion. It was he who said, upon seeing the Eton boys at play in their grounds —What a pity to think, that these fine ingenuous lads in a few years will all be changed into frivolous Members of Parliament!

His youth was fiery, glowing, tempestuous — and in age he discovereth no symptom of cooling. This is that which I admire in him. I hate people who meet Time half-way. I am for no compromise with that inevitable spoiler. While he lives, J.E. will take his swing. — It does me good, as I walk towards the street of my daily avocation, on some fine May morning, to meet him marching in a quite opposite direction, with a jolly handsome presence, and shining sanguine face, that indicates some purchase in his eye — a Claude — or a Hobbima — for much of his enviable leisure is consumed at Christie’s, and Phillips’s — or where not, to pick up pictures, and such gauds. On these occasions he mostly stoppeth me, to read a short lecture on the advantage a person like me possesses above himself, in having his time occupied with business which he must do— assureth me that he often feels it hang heavy on his hands — wishes he had fewer holidays — and goes off — Westward Ho! — chanting a tune, to Pall Mall — perfectly convinced that he has convinced me — while I proceed in my opposite direction tuneless.

It is pleasant again to see this Professor of Indifference doing the honours of his new purchase, when he has fairly housed it. You must view it in every light, till he has found the best — placing it at this distance, and at that, but always suiting the focus of your sight to his own. You must spy at it through your fingers, to catch the aërial perspective — though you assure him that to you the landscape shows much more agreeable without that artifice. Wo be to the luckless wight, who does not only not respond to his rapture, but who should drop an unseasonable intimation of preferring one of his anterior bargains to the present! — The last is always his best hit — his “Cynthia of the minute.”— Alas! how many a mild Madonna have I known to come in— a Raphael! — keep its ascendancy for a few brief moons — then, after certain intermedial degradations, from the front drawing-room to the back gallery, thence to the dark parlour — adopted in turn by each of the Carracci, under successive lowering ascriptions of filiation, mildly breaking its fall — consigned to the oblivious lumber-room, go out at last a Lucca Giordano, or plain Carlo Maratti! — which things when I beheld — musing upon the chances and mutabilities of fate below, hath made me to reflect upon the altered condition of great personages, or that woful Queen of Richard the Second —

— set forth in pomp,

She came adorned hither like sweet May.

Sent back like Hollowmass or shortest day.

With great love for you, J.E. hath but a limited sympathy with what you feel or do. He lives in a world of his own, and makes slender guesses at what passes in your mind. He never pierces the marrow of your habits. He will tell an old established play-goer, that Mr. Such-a-one, of So-and-so (naming one of the theatres), is a very lively comedian — as a piece of news! He advertised me but the other day of some pleasant green lanes which he had found out for me, knowing me to be a great walker, in my own immediate vicinity — who have haunted the identical spot any time these twenty years! He has not much respect for that class of feelings which goes by the name of sentimental. He applies the definition of real evil to bodily sufferings exclusively — and rejecteth all others as imaginary. He is affected by the sight, or the bare supposition, of a creature in pain, to a degree which I have never witnessed out of womankind. A constitutional acuteness to this class of sufferings may in part account for this. The animal tribe in particular he taketh under his especial protection. A broken-winded or spur-galled horse is sure to find an advocate in him. An over-loaded ass is his client for ever. He is the apostle to the brute kind — the never-failing friend of those who have none to care for them. The contemplation of a lobster boiled, or eels skinned alive, will wring him so, that “all for pity he could die.” It will take the savour from his palate, and the rest from his pillow, for days and nights. With the intense feeling of Thomas Clarkson, he wanted only the steadiness of pursuit, and unity of purpose, of that “true yolk-fellow with Time,” to have effected as much for the Animal, as he hath done for the Negro Creation. But my uncontrollable cousin is but imperfectly formed for purposes which demand cooperation. He cannot wait. His amelioration-plans must be ripened in a day. For this reason he has cut but an equivocal figure in benevolent societies, and combinations for the alleviation of human sufferings. His zeal constantly makes him to outrun, and put out, his coadjutors. He thinks of relieving — while they think of debating. He was black-balled out of a society for the Relief of **********, because the fervor of his humanity toiled beyond the formal apprehension, and creeping processes, of his associates. I shall always consider this distinction as a patent of nobility in the Elia family! Do I mention these seeming inconsistencies to smile at, or upbraid, my unique cousin? Marry, heaven, and all good manners, and the understanding that should be between kinsfolk, forbid! — With all the strangenesses of this strangest of the Elias— I would not have him in one jot or tittle other than he is; neither would I barter or exchange my wild kinsman for the most exact, regular, and everyway consistent kinsman breathing.

In my next, reader, I may perhaps give you some account of my cousin Bridget — if you are not already surfeited with cousins — and take you by the hand, if you are willing to go with us, on an excursion which we made a summer or two since, in search of more cousins

Through the green plains of pleasant Hertfordshire.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lamb/charles/elia/book1.14.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38