On April 28 1815, Charles Lamb writes to William Wordsworth, who had just published a two volume collection of his poems entitled ‘Poems by William Wordsworth including Lyrical Ballads and the Miscellaneous Pieces of the Author.’ Lamb writes:
[p.m. April 28, 1815.]
Excuse this maddish letter: I am too tired to write in forma —
DEAR Wordswth. The more I read of your two last volumes, the more I feel it necessary to make my acknowledgmts for them in more than one short letter. The Night Piece to which you refer me I meant fully to have noticed, but the fact is I come so fluttering and languid from business, tired with thoughts of it, frightened with fears of it, that when I get a few minutes to sit down to scribble (an action of the hand now seldom natural to me.
—I mean voluntary pen-work) I lose all presential memory of what I had intended to say, and say what I can,—talk about Vincent Bourne or any casual image instead of that which I had meditated—by the way, I must look out V. B. for you.—So I had meant to have mentioned Yarrow Visited, with that stanza, “But thou that didst appear so fair—” than which I think no lovelier stanza can be found in the wide world of poetry—yet the poem on the whole seems condemned to leave behind it a melancholy of imperfect satisfaction, as if you had wronged the feeling with which in what preceded it you had resolved never to visit it, and as if the Muse had determined in the most delicate manner to make you, and scarce make you, feel it. Else, it is far superior to the other, which has but one exquisite verse in it, the last but one, or the two last—this has all fine, except perhaps that that of “studious ease and generous cares” has a little tinge of the less romantic about it. The farmer of Tilsbury vale is a charming counter part to poor Susan, with the addition of that delicacy towards aberrations from the strict path which is so fine in the Old Thief and the boy by his side, which always brings water into my eyes. Perhaps it is the worse for being a repetition. Susan stood for the representative of poor Rus in Urbe. There was quite enough to stamp the moral of the thing never to be forgotten. “Fast volumes of vapour” &c. The last verse of Susan was to be got rid of at all events. It threw a kind of dubiety upon Susan’s moral conduct. Susan is a servant maid. I see her trundling her mop and contemplating the whirling phenomenon thro’ blurred optics; but to term her a poor outcast seems as much as to say that poor Susan was no better than she should be, which I trust was not what you meant to express. Robin Goodfellow supports himself without that stick of a moral which you have thrown away,—but how I can be brought in felo de omittendo for that Ending to the boy builders is a mystery. I can’t say positively now—I only know that no line oftener or readier occurs than that “Light hearted boys, I will build up a giant with you.” It comes naturally with a warm holyday and the freshness of the blood. It is a perfect summer Amulet that I tye round my legs to quicken their motion when I go out a Maying. (N.B.) I don’t often go out a maying.—Must is the tense with me now. Do you take the Pun? Young Romilly is divine, the reasons of his mother’s grief being remediless. I never saw parental love carried up so high, towering above the other Loves. Shakspeare had done something for the filial in Cordelia, and by implication for the fatherly too in Lear’s resentment—he left it for you to explore the depths of the maternal heart. I get stupid, and flat and flattering—what’s the use of telling you what good things you have written, or—I hope I may add—that I know them to be good. Apropos—when I first opened upon the just mentioned poem, in a careless tone I said to Mary as if putting a riddle “What is good for a bootless bean?” to which with infinite presence of mind (as the jest book has it) she answered, a “shoeless pea.” It was the first joke she ever made. Joke the 2d I make—you distinguish well in your old preface between the verses of Dr. Johnson of the man in the Strand, and that from the babes of the wood. I was thinking whether taking your own glorious lines—
And for the love was in her soul
For the youthful Romilly—
which, by the love I bear my own soul, I think have no parallel in any of the best old Balads, and just altering it to—
And from the great respect she felt
For Sir Samuel Romilly—
would not have explained the boundaries of prose expression and poetic feeling nearly as well. Excuse my levity on such an occasion, never felt deeply in my life, if that poem did not make me, both lately and when I read it in MS. No alderman ever longed after a haunch of buck venison more than I for a Spiritual taste of that White Doe you promise. I am sure it is superlative, or will be when drest, i.e. printed. All things read raw tome in MS.—to compare magna parvis, I cannot endure my own writings in that state. The only one which I think would not very much win upon me in print is Peter Bell. But I am not certain. You ask me about your preface. I like both that and the Supplement without an exception. The account of what you mean by Imagination is very valuable to me. It will help me to like some things in poetry better, which is a little humiliating in me to confess. I thought I could not be instructed in that science (I mean the critical), as I once heard old obscene beastly Peter Pindar in a dispute on Milton say he thought that if he had reason to value himself upon one thing more than another it was in knowing what good verse was. Who lookd over your proof sheets, and left ordebo in that line of Virgil?
My brothers picture of Milton is very finely painted, that is, it might have been done by a hand next to Vandyke’s. It is the genuine Milton, and an object of quiet gaze for the half hour at a time. Yet tho’ I am confident there is no better one of him, the face does not quite answer to Milton. There is a tinge of petit (or petite, how do you spell it) querulousness about. Yet hang it, now I remember better, there is not—it is calm, melancholy, and poetical.
One of the copies you sent had precisely the same pleasant blending of a sheet of 2d vol. with a sheet of 1st. I think it was page 245; but I sent it and had it rectifyd. It gave me in the first impetus of cutting the leaves just such a cold squelch as going down a plausible turning and suddenly reading “no thoroughfare.” Robinson’s is entire; he is gone to Bury his father.
I wish you would write more criticism, about Spenser &c. I think I could say something about him myself—but Lord bless me—these “merchants and their spicy drugs” which are so harmonious to sing of, they lime-twig up my poor soul and body, till I shall forget I ever thought myself a bit of a genius! I can’t even put a few thoughts on paper for a newspaper. I “engross,” when I should pen a paragraph. Confusion blast all mercantile transactions, all traffick, exchange of commodities, intercourse between nations, all the consequent civilization and wealth and amity and link of society, and getting rid of prejudices, and knowlege of the face of the globe—and rot the very firs of the forest that look so romantic alive, and die into desks. Vale.
Yours dear W. and all yours’
[Added at foot of the first page:] N.B. Dont read that Q. Review—I will never look into another.