Biography, History, Literature, Quote of the Day

April 1, 2023: “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool”

The quote in the title is from As You Like It, but that’s not really the Quote of the Day.

April Fool!

Today’s actual quote of the day comes from Charles Lamb, who was born in 1775, in London, to a middle-class lawyer’s clerk and his wife, in a house in which he lived in an extended family, and where he was cared for mostly by his paternal Aunt Hetty. When he wasn’t in London, the young Charles visited his grandmother’s large country house in Hertfordshire, spending enjoyable days exploring the house in what, according to his writings, must have been something like the children’s adventures in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Clearly, in the young boy’s imagination, the house had almost supernatural properties:

Why, every plank and panel of that house for me had magic in it. The tapestried bed-rooms – tapestry so much better than painting – not adorning merely, but peopling the wainscots – at which childhood ever and anon would steal a look, shifting its coverlid (replaced as quickly) to exercise its tender courage in a momentary eye-encounter with those stern bright visages, staring reciprocally – all Ovid on the walls, in colours vivider than his descriptions**–Charles Lamb, Last Essays of Elia

In spite of his loving relatives, and what was in many ways an idyllic childhood, Charles’s life was clouded by continuing illness of one family member or another. He contracted smallpox as a child, but recovered. He had an incapacitating stutter, and had to cut his studies short because he could not complete school. His father suffered a stroke, and was mentally and physically compromised for the rest of his life. Charles himself suffered a degree of mental illness, and was institutionalized at least once. His sister Mary, eleven years older, was much more profoundly affected, and one day, in an episode of rage, stabbed their mother in the heart, killing her instantly. Mary was institutionalized in a private asylum, until Charles, who committed to all his resources to getting her released, pledged himself to caring for his sister for the rest of his life. And he did, looking after at home her until her illness progressed to the point where he had to place her back in the asylum, an act which broke his heart and which caused him to exclaim, “I almost wish that Mary were dead!”

Somewhere along the way in this cacophony of misery, the first great love of Charles’s life rejected him when she left to him to marry a silversmith and to move to the other side of England. He fell in love once more in later life, was rejected again, and never married.

Charles Lamb died of an infection in 1834. He was 54. Due to his care, Mary was provided for, and survived him for thirteen years, dying in 1847 at the age of 82. She is buried next to her brother.

Although Charles was part of the English Romantic set of poets (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, et. al.) his poetic output was small, and mainly confined to his youth. Lamb is known for his prose, and most famously for two contributions to English Literature: Tales from Shakespeare, which he co-wrote with his sister Mary, and his own Essays of Elia and Last Essays of Elia. (There is, at the current time, a renewed academic interest in some of his literary criticism, and research on his Letters is ongoing.)

Tales from Shakespeare has introduced untold millions of little English children to the Bard, from the sad tale of “Juliet and her Romeo” to Shylock’s “pound of flesh,” and to the “sound and fury” of Macbeth. It retells the stories of twenty plays (Mary did the comedies, Charles the tragedies and histories), in language the young would understand, and it’s been a beloved textbook and nighttime reader ever since it was first published in 1807.

Essays of Elia, and Last Essays of Elia, were a series of essays published first in a magazine, and then in book form, in the mid 1820’s. They cover many different subjects, the majority of them personal reflections, and their tone is so conversational and sweet that they earned Lamb the sobriquet, from E.V. Lucas, one of his biographers, as “the most lovable figure in English Literature.”

One of Lamb’s well known Essays of Elia was titled “All Fools Day,” and an excerpt follows. I’ve eliminated the center section, which is an extended enumeration of odd (for our time) classical references and metaphors for strange historical situations and scenarios. It’s a bit lengthy, and obscure. But if you’re tempted, you can read the entire essay here; just search the page for the second instance of “All Fools’ Day.”

Here, at last, is the Quote of the Day for April 1, 2019. And this time, there’s no fooling:

The compliments of the season to my worthy masters, and a merry first of April to us all!

Many happy returns of this day to you, and you, and you, Sir. Nay, never frown, man, nor put a long face upon the matter. Do not we know one another? What need of ceremony among friends? We have all a touch of that same–you understand me–a speck of the motley. Beshrew the man who on such a day as this, the general festival, should affect to stand aloof. I am none of those sneakers. I am free of the corporation, and care not who knows it. He that meets me in the forest today, shall meet with no wise-acre, I can tell him. Stultus sum. Translate me that, and take the meaning of it to yourself for your pains. What, man, we have four quarters of the globe on our side, at the least computation.

Fill us a cup of that sparkling gooseberry. We will drink no wise, melancholy, politic port on this day, and let us troll the catch of Amiens–duc ad me, duc ad me–how goes it? {Note: “duc ad me” comes from As You Like It, and is described by one of the characters as a “Greek (!) invocation to call fools into a circle”}

Here shall he see Gross fools as he.

Now would I give a trifle to know historically and authentically, who was the greatest fool that ever lived. I would certainly give him in a bumper. Marry, of the present breed, I think I could without much difficulty name you the party.

Remove your cap a little further, if you please: it hides my bauble. And now each man bestride his hobby, and dust away his bells to what tune he pleases. I will give you, for my part, the crazy old church clock. And the bewildered chimes.

Good master Empedocles, you are welcome. It is long since you went a salamander-gathering down Ætna. Worse than samphire-picking by some odds. ‘Tis a mercy your worship did not singe your mustachios.

A note from RWKJ: Here begins the series of classical references. The above one is to Empedocles, a pre-Socratic Sicilian philosopher who’s supposed to have thrown himself into Mount Ætna thereby disappearing mysteriously and adding to his legend. (The jury’s out on whether he actually did it, so I suppose Lamb includes it as a possible “fooling,” although I don’t think it’s alleged to have occurred on April 1.) “Salamander-gathering” is a reference to lizards who can survive in a fire. Samphire-picking refers to the dangerous operation of gathering Samphire (a herb) found on rocky cliffs, to pluck which the collectors had to suspend themselves over the side from ropes. The reference “tis a mercy your worship did not singe your mustachios” is, thankfully, relatively self-explanatory (in comparison to the rest), and can be discerned from studying any image of the gentlemen himself, in all of which he’s represented with a full beard and as much facial hair as possible.

So, as you can see, you are fortunate that I have spared you the next dozen or so of these playful references. But if you’d like to indulge yourselves, I remind you that the link is above.

 . . . .

To descend from these altitudes, and not to protract our Fools’ Banquet beyond its appropriate day–for I fear the second of April is not many hours distant–in sober verity I will confess a truth to thee, reader. I love a Fool–as naturally, as if I were of kith and kin to him. When a child, with child-like apprehensions, that dived not below the surface of the matter, I read those Parables–not guessing at their involved wisdom–I had more yearnings towards that simple architect, that built his house upon the sand, than I entertained for his more cautious neighbour; I grudged at the hard censure pronounced upon the quiet soul that kept his talent; and–prizing their simplicity beyond the more provident, and, to my apprehension, somewhat unfeminine wariness of their competitors–I felt a kindliness, that almost amounted to a tendre, for those five thoughtless virgins. I have never made an acquaintance since, that lasted; or a friendship, that answered; with any that had not some tincture of the absurd in their characters. I venerate an honest obliquity of understanding. The more laughable blunders a man shall commit in your company, the more tests he giveth you, that he will not betray or overreach you. I love the safety, which a palpable hallucination warrants; the security, which a word out of season ratifies. And take my word for this, reader, and say a fool told it you, if you please, that he who hath not a dram of folly in his mixture, hath pounds of much worse matter in his composition. It is observed, that “the foolisher the fowl or fish, woodcocks, dotterels, cod’s-heads, &c. the finer the flesh thereof,” and what are commonly the world’s received fools, but such whereof the world is not worthy? And what have been some of the kindliest patterns of our species, but so many darlings of absurdity, minions of the goddess?–Reader, if you wrest my words beyond their fair construction, it is you, and not I, that are the April Fool.

Have a great April 1. And may all your fooling, among you and yours, be joyous!

**As a girl (the only girl in a class of high school boys, taught by a rather embarrassed and very handsome young male teacher) who read Ovid’s Ars Amatoria in the original Latin, somewhere in about 1971, I should think the wall paintings broadened Lamb’s viewpoint at a rather young age.  (We read a fair amount of Catullus, too.  Oh, the microaggressions!  Pretty sure I’m scarred for life…)

5 thoughts on “April 1, 2023: “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool””

  1. Possibly the greatest mainstream media April 1 hoax of all time (there’s some competition today, April 1, 2023, as it happens), was the 1957 “Spaghetti Harvest” segment of the BBC weekly night-time news program Panorama (something on the order of CBS’s “60 Minutes” as originally envisioned).

  2. Thank you. I haven’t read Lamb’s essays since Form 4 at the Abbey School (with Miss Lansdale). My favourite was A dissertation on roast pig.

    1. Miss Lansdale was one of the few teachers who spanned the decades between my mother’s attendance at the Abbey (WWII) and my own in the 1960s. She was an oldtimer, but I remember her as a gentle and very erudite lady who had a passion for her subject. Not a thing wrong with that. Thanks for weighing in.

      1. I think I was in the 6th form (1966-7) when Miss Lansdale invited small groups to her cottage for tea. It was in an idyllic spot on the other side of the hills. I remember her love for cow parsley and we took armfuls to her. The tea was amazing. Home made scones and fruit cake. She was a delightful lady.

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