Monday, May 25, 2015

Cleanliness - Charles Lamb

Come my little Robert near -
Fie! what filthy hands are here!
Who that e'er could understand
The rare structure of a hand,
With its branching fingers fine,
Work itself of hands divine,
Strong, yet delicately knit,
For ten thousand uses fit,
Overlaid with so clear skin
You may see the blood within,
And the curious palm, disposed
In such lines, some have supposed
You may read the fortunes there
By the figures that appear -
Who this hand would choose to cover
With a crust of dirt all over,
Till it look'd in hue and shape
Like the fore-foot of an Ape?
Man or boy that works or plays
In the fields or the highways
May, without offence or hurt,
From the soil contract a dirtm
Which the next clear spring or river
Washes out and out for ever -
But to cherish stains impure,
Soil deliberate to endure,
On the skin to fix a stain
Till it works into the grain,
Argues a degenerate mind,
Sordid, slothful, ill inclin'd,
Wanting in that self-respect
Which does virtue best protect.

     All-endearing Cleanliness,
Virtue next to Godliness,
Easiest, cheapest, needful'st duty,
To the body health and beauty,
Who that's human would refuse it,
When a little water does it?

This is a reminder from Charles Lamb to wash your hands, readers.  From the detailed description of the intricacies of the hand to the crusty dirt descriptions, this poem is packed full of imagery.  The whole poem is framed as talking to a child who has presumably entered the house with dirty hands, and who now receives a stern lecture on the importance of hand-washing.  It's a charming poem, and one can imagine it being read to a child with dirt-encrusted fingers quite easily.


  1. Serendipity! I have just, thirty minutes before this poem popped into my inbox, started researching attitudes to hygiene in the nineteenth and early twentieth century for a chapter in a book I'm working on. I am definitely going to use this. Delightful poem, too.

    1. Serendipitous indeed! You write, Tig? If you're willing or able to share, I'd love to give it a read.

  2. Thanks for that offer, Christopher. It's a very niche book that might not be of interest to you, but we are looking for people to test out a chapter on, once we've completed it so once we have I will send more details to see if you're interested. I am really a book editor, specialising in period children's literature but a friend asked me to co-author this book as it plays to my speciality: I mainly work on period children's literature. That may sound like something that doesn't need editing, but I edit new editions, compile anthologies, write introductions and edit critical or biographical works about the books.

    1. Don't worry, I undersatnd; all books need editing. I'd love to check it out when such a time as it's ready comes. Even if it's something I know little about, I'm always willing to learn.