In 1811 Charles Lamb is talking to a friend about the poet Spenser when he discovers that he isn't, and in fact the Spenser his friend is referring to is a different Spenser, and not Spenser but Spencer, and not the Elizabethan author of The Faerie Queene and the Epithalamion (which Lamb had brought out to show him, wondering why the friend didn't know the poem already when he'd said that Spenser was "an author with whose writing he thought himself particularly conversant"), but the Honourable William Robert Spencer, third son of a Lady and a Lord, friend to Byron, popular author of Beth Gêlert, or the Grave of a Greyhound, a man who had been born in 1769 and who was still completely alive as they were having their conversation, not buried and inert like a Spenser but walking around on viable legs like a Spencer and maybe even writing a fresh poem: productive, warm, soft, still growing hair and nails, smiling, wearing shoes.
He was not Spenser:
Let no lamenting cryes, nor dolefull teares,
Be heard all night within, nor yet without:
Ne let false whispers, breeding hidden feares,
Breake gentle sleepe with misconceivèd dout.
Let no deluding dreames, nor dreadfull sights,
Make sudden sad affrights;
Ne let house-fyres, nor lightnings helpelesse harmes,
Ne let the Pouke, nor other evill sprights,
Ne let mischivous witches with theyr charmes,
Ne let hob Goblins, names whose sence we see not,
Fray us with things that be not:
Let not the shriech Oule nor the Storke be heard,
Nor the night Raven, that still deadly yels;
Nor damnèd ghosts, cald up with mighty spels,
Nor griesly vultures, make us once affeard:
Ne let th' unpleasant Quyre of Frogs still croking
Make us to wish theyr choking.
Let none of these theyr drery accents sing;
Ne let the woods them answer, nor theyr eccho ring.
He was Spencer:
And now a gallant tomb they raise,
With costly sculpture decked;
And marbles, storied with his praise,
Poor Gêlert's bones protect.
Here never could the spearman pass,
Or forester, unmoved;
Here oft the tear-besprinkled grass
Llewellyn's sorrow proved.
And here he hung his horn and spear;
And oft, as evening fell,
In fancy's piercing sounds would hear
Poor Gêlert's dying yell!
"How oddly it happens that the same sound shall suggest to the minds of two people hearing it ideas the most opposite," writes Lamb. Later in one of his letters he will recommend William Blake to a friend and refer to the poet as Robert, which was the name of Blake's younger brother who died at the age of twenty-four, and whose spirit was seen by Blake leaving his body through the ceiling "clapping its hands for joy." William said that Robert came to him in dreams afterwards and gave him advice about printing. Last week I was in a secondhand bookshop buying a paperback compendium of Samuel Beckett's Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable, when the man behind the counter started talking to me about Beckett's face -- Samuel Beckett had a distinctive face, he said, and we get people all the time bringing in copies of this one specific Beckett biography and they all have the same photograph on the front -- it's true, I agreed: he had that lined face, that weathered well-lived face, it's serendipity, Samuel Beckett looked like the man who wrote the books that Samuel Beckett wrote. And always a cigarette, said the man. In every single photograph a cigarette, even when he was young.
The photograph of Beckett I knew best was the one on the front of Anthony Cronin's Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist and I couldn't remember a cigarette. They must be film students, said the man. It must be one of the set texts for the film studies course at the university.
"There was something in the tone with which he spoke these words that struck me not a little," remarked Lamb in 1811 and now I was struck too, because I couldn't think of any reason why you would see a student come into your shop with a biography of Samuel Beckett and assume that they were studying film. I was a snail that had been running forward with confidence and now one of my eyes had hit a barrier, it curled back, I hung fascinated, I was searching for a route and the route I'd thought we had was gone: we were not talking about the same Beckett. Who was his Beckett? Who was smoking cigarettes in every picture? Lamb's friend, what was he thinking as he read the Elizabethan Epithalamion, how did he reconcile it with the Spencer he knew, "with whose writing he thought himself particularly conversant"? How was he able to go on talking about Spencer as though Spenser was Spencer when Spencer didn't write like Spenser?
And the copy that Lamb showed him was a first folio, and the first folio edition of Spenser's collected works was printed in 1611, so how did the friend in 1811 reconcile the age of the book with the recentness of Spencer? Somehow he did. For a little while the two poets were not flesh and blood they were syllables, spen and ser, they were noises, and those noises bridged or fogged the difference between Elizabethan and contemporary poetry, they fogged the wear and tear in the folio paper, the unity of sound made them convincing, the ideas roused by those sounds dominated the room, the material world was less important, and Lamb's friend detached himself and flew into a world of impressions, taking spen and ser and cobbling together a universe in which the author of Beth Gêlert wrote faux-Elizabethan poetry and publishing houses issued him in a replica.
He assembled this world out of the tools that had been presented to him, his memory of Spencer, plus this new evidence and the apparent conviction of the other man in the room, Lamb, who was older and well-read -- muddling these items together into a shape and not examining it closely yet, just trusting that it would make sense, that the world would fall into coherence once he stopped and looked: assuming.
I can't read his mind. But no matter what he was thinking, he continued the conversation with Lamb as if he believed that the two poets were the same man, an assumption is the shortest distance between two points, and what conversation is not made up of assumptions?
It's possible that he suspected something and didn't show it. He stood on the surfboard of those two syllables and coasted over the waves. Perhaps he was afraid of looking ignorant if he asked, "Is this the same person?" and maybe he was wondering, as I wondered too, in that bookshop, if the ultimate useful clue would come along in the conversation naturally, by accident, and maybe that's why he let Lamb hear him mutter, "Poor Spenser" as he looked at the folio -- he wanted to help things along, he wanted a small crisis, boom, precipitation, unuttered question answered, everything clear, and that was why he said his "Poor Spenser" in "the accent with which a man bemoans some recent calamity that has happened to a friend, [rather] than that tone of sober grief with which we lament the sorrows of a person, however excellent, and however grievous his afflictions may have been, who has been dead more than two centuries." That tone was the giveaway. "I had the curiosity to enquire into the reasons of so uncommon an ejaculation," writes Lamb. Shortly the mystery was solved.
I asked the man in the bookshop if he knew who had written the biography. I have one at home, I said, and I'm wondering if it's the same author. Privately I was thinking that if we had the biography in our hands he would see that my Beckett was not his Beckett. It would be our turning point. Poor Spenser. He took me to the Biographies shelf in the Movie section of the bookshop and there was Scorsese but no Beckett, Spielberg but no Beckett, -- I stared at the shelf seriously as if I expected to find Beckett there, knowing that I wouldn't. He h'm'd, and I wondered: now what? We were in a mystery and the mystery was mine, I was the only one who saw it, it was my mystery, and if I never mentioned it then no one else would ever know it had existed.
A name is not a person, people mistake names, people play with names, names are not as sacred as their owners wish they were, even parents can be playful with names -- one of Lamb's friends was the barrister and judge Barron Field, author of the first book of poetry published in Australia. Baron Field? asked M. No, I said: barren field. But the choice of name was not as whimsical as it looks. Barron was his mother's maiden name. Kim Jong-il hadn't been dead on the internet for twenty minutes before I saw different people make variations on the same joke. Kim Jong dead? I didn't even know he was il. Kim Jong-il is dead, I told M., and everybody in North Korea is compelled to mourn, the way the Zulus had to when Shaka Zulu's mother died. Shaka was bereft; everybody had to be bereft.
(Everybody had to have his feelings, everybody was the child of his mother Nandi, all of North Korea was the child of Kim Jong-il: vast imaginary families, execution if you don't comply, and the grieving child is surrounded by grieving children but he is the real one and they are not, and all the rest are by definition, acting; and the act can be detected and exposed at any time, if the real child likes. A parent dies and moves are made to see that the child is surrounded with objects whose minds he can read, in short: toys.)
Of course, said M., she was the Queen Mum, and everybody loves the Queen Mum.
The Queen Mum, I mused -- with her kraal full of corgis -- and pictured them there, sand-coloured, like lions.
Here is Lamb's essay: On the Ambiguities arising from Proper Names.
Also the poetry of William Spencer.
And the poetry of Edmund Spenser.