The Best-Written Description of a Head Cold You Will Read Today

In January 1824, English essayist Charles Lamb had had a bad cold for several weeks, and this letter to his friend Bernard Barton suggests that the illness hadn’t yet reached his sense of humor or hyperbole. (I’ve added the paragraph breaks because the white space will help you enjoy the whole, marvelous complaint.)

January 9th, 1824

Dear B.B.—

Do you know what it is to succumb under an insurmountable day-mare,—”a whoreson lethargy,” Falstaff calls it,—an indisposition to do anything, or to be anything,—a total deadness and distaste,—a suspension of vitality,—an indifference to locality,—a numb, soporifical, good-for-nothingness,—an ossification all over,—an oyster-like insensibility to the passing events,—a mind-stupor,—a brawny defiance to the needles of a thrusting-in conscience. Did you ever have a very bad cold, with a total irresolution to submit to water-gruel processes?

This has been for many weeks my lot, and my excuse; my fingers drag heavily over this paper, and to my thinking it is three-and-twenty furlongs from here to the end of this demi-sheet. I have not a thing to say; nothing is of more importance than another; I am flatter than a denial or a pancake; emptier than Judge Parke’s wig when the head is in it; duller than a country stage when the actors are off it; a cipher, an o! I acknowledge life at all, only by an occasional convulsional cough, and a permanent phlegmatic pain in the chest. I am weary of the world; life is weary of me. My day is gone into twilight, and I don’t think it worth the expense of candles. My wick hath a thief in it, but I can’t muster courage to snuff it. I inhale suffocation; I can’t distinguish veal from mutton; nothing interests me.

‘Tis twelve o’clock, and Thurtell is just now coming out upon the New Drop, Jack Ketch alertly tucking up his greasy sleeves to do the last office of mortality, yet cannot I elicit a groan or a moral reflection. If you told me the world will be at an end to-morrow, I should just say, “Will it?” I have not volition enough left to dot my i‘s, much less to comb my eyebrows; my eyes are set in my head; my brains are gone out to see a poor relation in Moorfields, and they did not say when they’d come back again; my skull is a Grub-street attic to let—not so much as a joint-stool or a crack’d jordan left in it; my hand writes, not I, from habit, as chickens run about a little, when their heads are off. O for a vigorous fit of gout, cholic, toothache,—an earwig in my auditory, a fly in my visual organs; pain is life—the sharper, the more evidence of life; but this apathy, this death! Did you ever have an obstinate cold,—a six or seven weeks’ unintermitting chill and suspension of hope, fear, conscience, and everything?

Yet do I try all I can to cure it; I try wine, and spirits, and smoking, and snuff in unsparing quantities, but they all only seem to make me worse, instead of better. I sleep in a damp room, but it does me no good; I come home late o’nights, but do not find any visible amendment! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death? …

C. L.

(Found at Letters of Note.)

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