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Woodworking column: A taste of Lamb

On this date 183 years ago Charles Lamb died in Middlesex, England. His life was a troubled one, bedeviled by alcoholism, a sister who murdered their mother. Nevertheless he is still the envy of every personal essayist I have read or read about, including yours truly. He ranks with older essayists like Francis Bacon, newer ones like Joan Didion.

He was a very perceptive critic and wrote extensively on William Shakespeare, but I won't bore you with that stuff.

Instead, I'll concentrate on his whimsey. He's the kind of fellow you like to get letters from, back in the days before Tweets ruled the airwaves. He wrote lots of them, many to fellow writers who have garnered much more fame with much less whimsy than Lamb.

Here's one to his pal Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whom he called "an archangel slightly damaged":

"For God's sake don't make me ridiculous anymore by terming me 'gentle hearted in print' ... substitute drunken dog, ragged head, seldom-shaven, odd-eyed, stuttering, or any other epithet which truly and properly belongs to the gentleman in question."

And to nature lover and occasional crashing bore William Wordsworth:

"Separate from the pleasure of your company, I don't much care if I never see a mountain again."

In a letter to Mrs. William Hazlitt, he dipped his oar into music criticism: "Some cry up Haydn, some Mozart. Just as the whim bites. For my part, I do not care a farthing candle for either of them, nor for Handel."

But for sheer nonsense nothing beats Lamb's version of how mankind learned to cook meat. The essayist's most famous effort is "A Dissertation on Roast Pig," which is more than a match for Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," which urges the rich English to relieve the poverty of the poor Irish by butchering and eating young Dubliner kids. (Make that children, not goats.) Lamb's story goes something like this. A Chinese farmer is eating his breakfast centuries ago, when his hired man bursts into the dining room and announces that the farmer's hog house is on fire. The duo rushes out to quell the blaze, but to no avail. As the walls go up in flame, the farmer grabs a smokingly hot hog and pulls it out of the blazing sty. In so doing, he punctures the hot hog's skin with his fingers and burns them. He quickly sticks them in his mouth to appease the pain and looks up and says to the hired man and shouts, "Hey, this tastes GOOD!"

"You betcha," says the hired man.

So from that day forward the farmer and the hired man, on the eve of each butchering season, burn down the farm's hog house and have themselves a feast.

But Lamb had his serious side, as well. Beautifully illustrated by his effort in 1821 to describe his feelings about "New Year's Eve.'" As this will be my last column of 2017, here's a taste of Lamb's skill:

"Every man has two birthdays: two days at least in every year, which set him upon revolving the lapse of time, as it effects his mortal duration. The one is that which in an especial manner, he termeth HIS. In the gradual desuetude of old observances, this custom of solemnizing our proper birthday hath nearly passed away, or is left to children, who reflect nothing at all about the matter, nor understand anything in it beyond cake and orange. But the birth of a New Year is of an interest too wide to be pretermitted by king or cobbler. No one ever regarded the First of January with indifference. It is that from which all date their time, and count upon what is left. It is the nativity of our common Adam."

And with that, Gentle Readers, I bid you a very Happy New Year.

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715-426-9554. No requests for resolutions please.

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