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To James Rice (Teignmouth, March 24, 1818)
Teignmouth, Tuesday, March 24, 1818
My dear Rice
Being in the midst of your favourite Devon, I should not, by rights, pen one word but it should contain a vast portion of Wit, Wisdom and learning—for I have heard that Milton ere he wrote his answer to Salmasius came into these parts, and for one whole month, rolled himself for three whole hours (per day?), in a certain meadow hard by us—where the mark of his nose at equidistances is still shown. The exhibitor of the said meadow further saith, that, after these rollings, not a nettle sprang up in all the seven acres for seven years, and that from the said time, a new sort of plant was made from the whitethorn, of a thornless nature, very much used by the bucks of the present day to rap their boots withal. This account made me very naturally suppose that the nettles and thorns etherealised by the scholar’s rotatory motion, and garnered in his head, thence flew after a process of fermentation against the luckless Salmasius and occasioned his well-known and unhappy end. What a happy thing it would be if we could settle our thoughts and make our minds up on any matter in five minutes, and remain content—that is, build a sort of mental cottage of feelings, quiet and pleasant—to have a sort of Philosophical back-garden, and cheerful holiday-keeping front one—but alas! this never can be: for as the material cottager knows there are such places as France and Italy, and the Andes and burning mountains, so the spiritual Cottager has knowledge of the terra semi-incognita of things unearthly, and cannot for his life keep in the check-rein—or I should stop here quiet and comfortable in my theory of nettles. You will see, however, I am obliged to run wild being attracted by the load-stone concatenation. No sooner had I settled the knotty point of Salmasius, than the Devil put this whim into my head in the likeness of one of Pythagoras’s questionings—Did Milton do more good or harm in the world? He wrote, let me inform you (for I have it from a friend, who had it of ——,) he wrote Lycidas, Comus, Paradise Lost and other Poems, with much delectable prose—He was moreover an active friend to man all his life, and has been since his death.—Very good—but, my dear Fellow, I must let you know that, as there is ever the same quantity of matter constituting this habitable globe—as the ocean notwithstanding the enormous changes and revolutions taking place in some or other of its demesnes—notwithstanding Waterspouts whirlpools and mighty rivers emptying themselves into it—still is made up of the same bulk, nor ever varies the number of its atoms—and as a certain bulk of water was instituted at the creation—so very likely a certain portion of intellect was spun forth into the thin air, for the brains of man to prey upon it. You will see my drift without any unnecessary parenthesis. That which is contained in the Pacific could not lie in the hollow of the Caspian—that which was in Milton’s head could not find room in Charles the Second’s—He like a Moon attracted intellect to its flow—it has not ebbed yet, but has left the shore-pebbles all bare—I mean all Bucks, Authors of Hengist, and Castlereaghs of the present day; who without Milton’s gormandising might have been all wise men—Now forasmuch as I was very predisposed to a country I had heard you speak so highly of, I took particular notice of everything during my journey, and have bought some folio asses’ skins for memorandums. I have seen everything but the wind—and that, they say, becomes visible by taking a dose of acorns, or sleeping one night in a hog-trough, with your tail to the Sow Sow-West. Some of the little Bar-maids look’d at me as if I knew Jem Rice…. Well, I can’t tell! I hope you are showing poor Reynolds the way to get well. Send me a good account of him, and if I can, I’ll send you one of Tom—Oh! for a day and all well!
I went yesterday to Dawlish fair.
Over the Hill and over the Dale,
And over the Bourne to Dawlish,
Where ginger-bread wives have a scanty sale,
And ginger-bread nuts are smallish, etc. etc.
Tom’s remembrances and mine to you all.
Your sincere friend