Charles Lamb

William Bates, after William Maginn; Maclise Gallery (1883; 1898) 290-300.

The etching before us, which looks woundily as if the head, at least, had been taken from the full-length, "scratched on copper from life, in 1825, by his friend, Brook Pulham," — gives the outward form of that delightful being, to whom the fine lines above were indited by one of his oldest and best-loved friends, — of a writer who has excited a warmer personal feeling, and been more frequently brought before us by "biographies," "reminiscences," "letters" and "essays," than any other man since the days of Johnson. Dear Charles Lamb! Who is not familiar with thy outward form? — those gaiter-clad legs, which Hood called "immaterial;" that noble head, which Leigh Hunt said was "worthy of Aristotle, — with as fine a heart as ever beat in human bosom, and limbs very fragile to sustain it;" that "slim, middle-aged man, in quaint uncontemporary habiliments," as Mr. Westwood, a neighbour, described him; those mobile and sensitive features, whence beamed forth, as he himself said of the glorious singer, Braham, — "a compound of the Jew, the Gentleman and the Angel." What is there yet unknown about Charles Lamb? Talfourd has given us his Life and Letters, and then, — when the British Quarterly had opened the cupboard-door, — in his Final Memorials, disclosed the skeleton within, in all its ghastly hideousness, and gave the world that life's lesson of affection, devotion and self-sacrifice. De Quincey then came with his reminiscences; Barry Cornwall "with his loving record; Percy Fitzgerald, who tells of "his homes, his haunts and his books" — the Halls, with their ever pleasant and genial "Memories;" Barron Field, with his short but excellent memoir in the Annual Biography and Obituary, 1836; Percy Fitzgerald's Life, Letters and Writings (6 vols., 1876, 8vo); Mr. Alfred Ainger's essay, English Men of Letters (1882, 8vo); not to forget Carlyle's "unhappy tattle;" — together with a host of articles in Reviews and Magazines, — Mr. Procter in the Athenaeum, Mr. Forster in the New Monthly, Mr. Patmore in the Court Magazine, Mr. Moxon in Leigh Hunt's London Journal, and the Rev. J. Fuller Russell in Notes and Queries (April 1st, 1882).

—quo fit ut omnis
Votiva pateat veluti descripta tabella,
Vita senis.

What, then, can be said that has not been said before? what dish concocted that shall not prove a crambe repetita?

A word more about the outward man, — let me finish with the shell before I attempt to penetrate to the kernel.

One of his best pen-portraits is that given by Mrs. Mathews, in the Life and Correspondence of her husband, the celebrated monologuist (1800, p. 245). "Mr. Lamb's first appearance," the lady writes, "was not prepossessing. His figure was small and mean, and no man certainly was ever less beholden to his tailor. His 'bran' new suit of black cloth (in which he affected several times during the day to take great pride, and to cherish as a novelty that he had looked for and wanted), was drolly contrasted with his very rusty silk stockings, shown from his knees, and his much too large thick shoes without polish. His shirt rejoiced in a wide ill-plaited frill, and his very small tight, white neck-cloth was hemmed to a fine point at the ends that formed part of a little bow. His hair was black and sleek, but not formal, and his face the gravest I ever saw, but indicating great intellect, and resembling very much the portraits of King Charles I." — "His was no common face," said Thomas Hood, "none of those willow-pattern ones which Nature turns out by thousands at her potteries; but more like a chance specimen of the Chinese ware, — one to the set, — unique, antique, quaint. You might have sworn to it piecemeal, — a separate affidavit to each feature."

Lamb hated "facts," and proclaimed himself "a matter-of-lie man" to some egotistical bore who was boasting, we may suppose, of his contempt for the imaginative. He elsewhere confesses that he is "ill at dates ;" but I hope not to offend his peaceful shade by adducing a few both facts and dates, from a little autobiographical sketch, in his own handwriting, once in the manuscript collection of the late William Upcott, for whom it was written. It is as follows:—

"Charles Lamb, born in the Inner Temple, 10th February, 1775; educated at Christ's Hospital; afterwards a clerk in the Accountants' Office, East India House; pensioned off from that service, 1825, after thirty-three years' service; is now a gentleman-at-large; — can remember but few specialties in his life worth noting, except that he once caught a swallow flying (teste sua manu), below the middle stature; cast of face slightly Jewish, with no Judaic tinge in his complexional religion; stammers abominably, and is therefore more apt to discharge his occasional conversation in a quaint aphorism, or a poor quibble, than in set and edifying speeches; has consequently been libelled as a person always aiming at wit, which, as he told a dull fellow that charged him with it, is at least as good as aiming at dullness. A small eater, but not drinker; confesses a partiality for the production of the juniper berry; was a fierce smoker of tobacco, but may be resembled to a volcano burnt out, emitting only now and then a casual puff. Has been guilty of obtruding upon the public a tale in prose, called Rosamund Gray, a dramatic sketch, called John Woodvil; a Farewell Ode to Tobacco; with sundry other poems, and light prose matter, collected in two slight crown octavos, and pompously christened his works, though in fact they were his recreations, and his true works may be found on the shelves of Leadenhall Street, filling some hundred folios. He is also the true Elia whose essays are extant in a little volume, published a year or two since, and rather better known from that name without a meaning, than from anything he has done, or can hope to do, in his own. He also was the first to draw public attention to the old English Dramatists, in a work called Specimens of English Dramatic Writers, who lived about the time of Shakespeare, published about fifteen years since. In short, all his merits and demerits to set forth, would take to the end of Mr. Upcott's book, and then not be told truly."

Was he, by the way, of Hebrew extraction? Maginn expresses his belief that his family was Jewish, and that his real name was "Lomb." But this could hardly be the case. Read his fine paper on Imperfect Sympathies, where he classes Jews with Scotchmen, Negroes and Quakers. He was, he said, "a bundle of prejudices, made up of likings and dislikings, — the veriest thrall to sympathies, apathies, antipathies." He had not the nerve, he said, to enter a Jewish synagogue, — he did not care to be in habits of familiar intercourse with any of that nation, — and he confessed that he did not "relish the approximation of Jew and Christian which had become so fashionable." He thought of his favourite, Braham, that he would have been "more in keeping if he had abided by the faith of his forefathers," and saw "the Hebrew spirit strong in him in spite of his proselytism!" No, Charles Lamb was not consciously at least, of Jewish origin, — he did not belong to that wonderful, hardly used, and greatly misunderstood people, — except, indeed, in so far as we may all form part of the missing Tribes.

We get a good glimpse of him from the description of "Barry Cornwall," who, referring to the year 1817, writes: — "Persons who had been in the habit of traversing Covent Garden at that time might, by extending their walk a few yards into Russell Street, have noticed a small, spare man, clothed in black, who went out every morning, and returned every afternoon as the hands of the clock moved towards certain hours. You could not mistake him. He was somewhat stiff in his manner, and almost clerical in dress; which indicated much wear. He had a long, melancholy face, with keen, penetrating eyes; and he walked with a short, resolute step city-wards. He looked no one in the face for more than a moment, yet contrived to see everything as he went on. No one who ever studied the human features could pass him by without recollecting his countenance: it was full of sensibility, and it came upon you like new thought, which you could not help dwelling upon afterwards; it gave rise to meditation, and did you good. This small, half-clerical man, was — Charles Lamb."

Was he, by the way, quite as regular in his hours as Maginn and Procter assert? There is a tale of an interview with his "Directors," and a gentle reprimand for his late arrival at the desk, with Lamb's stuttered reply, "But if I do come late, gentlemen, you should take into consideration how soon I go away!" But here, probably, we may say of him what he said of Coleridge, when Leigh Hunt was complaining of his religious fervour: "N-n-never mind what he says, — he's full of f-f-fun." Any way, the alleged rejoinder is full of 'ovine' humour, and has so much of the bovine in it that it might well find a place among the stories in Miss Edgeworth's bucolic essay on Irish Bulls.

As an ESSAYIST, Lamb was already known to a small circle by his magazine contributions; but it was not till these were issued in a collected form, in 1818, that their merits became generally appreciated, and they then took the world by surprise. This might well be the case, for the Essays of Elia are productions perfectly sui generis, — unique in literature. They are unlike those of Montaigne, Addison, Cowley or Goldsmith, and yet possess points of resemblance to each. Many of them are worked up from letters written to his friends; are eminently "nonsequaceous," — as Coleridge would say, — exhibit very little constructive power, — and are of extremely narrow grasp. But they have compensating merits peculiar to themselves, and these of the highest order. If critical, they have a marvellous faculty of at once hitting the central point, as it were, of their subject with unerring accuracy; and shedding a light upon the meaning which it never received before. Take, for instance, the essays on Shakespeare, and the Dramatic Writers, where more is said in fewer words than is to be found in any other commentator, and positions laid down, not one of which has ever been gainsaid. The same may be predicated of the Essay en Hogarth, which must henceforth be a constant accompaniment of every edition of that unequalled humorist, such a necessary help is it to the direction and methodisation of our own feelings and judgment upon the subject. Mr. Swinburne, in the hyper-eulogistic style of one all of whose geese are swans, says of Lamb that he was "the most supremely competent judge, and exquisite critic of lyrical and dramatic art that we have ever had." Without going quite to this length, one may safely say that he manifested a most subtle and penetrative insight into the recondite beauties of the narrow range of the authors in whom he especially delighted, and that, with rare discrimination, he has, in his admirable Specimens, and his Garrick Plays (subsequently contributed to the Table Book of his friend Hone), garnered up for us many a precious gem from the dramatic dustheap of time. As Coleridge said of him, — "he now and then irradiates; and the beam, though single, and fine as a hair, is yet rich with colours, and I both see and feel it." What need be said of his more discursive essays, — "unlicked, incondite things, — villainously pranked in an affected array of antique words and phrases," as he himself called them — tricksome and joyous in guise, intense in pathos, delicious in paradox? Wilful, errant, playful disquisitions they are, — where the humorist takes his stand upon some punctum indifferens, — a tertium quid, — midway between fact and fiction, truth and falsity, and makes no search for any eternal principles to which he may refer discrepant thought and feeling. Hence he who reads to "improve his mind" will hold them of little value; though, strangely enough, they have come now to be classed among the very books which their author so hated, — those 'which no gentleman's library can be without." Truth, he held, was precious; not to be wasted on anybody. "Here comes a fool," said he, "let us be grave;" and wanted to examine phrenologically the head of the man who asked him if he did not think Milton was a clever fellow. It was Lamb, I believe, — pray excuse the interpolation as an obiter dictum, — who exclaimed to the grimy fisted whist-player, "My dear sir, if dirt were trumps, what hands you would hold!"

Of these essays, it is remarked by "A. K. H. B.," that "they would have wanted a great part of their indefinable charm, if their writer had not been trembling on the verge of insanity." This is probably true. We all know the story of the awful calamity which fell upon the house of Charles Lamb, and the shadow which it threw over his life: — the murder of his mother by his insane sister, the recurring insanity of the latter, and the periodical visits of the brother and sister, strait-waistcoat in hand, to the asylum at Hoxton. We know that Charles himself was once deprived of his reason, and placed, for a time, under control; and that the preservation of his recovered intellect was, as we would fondly believe, the reward of his life of self-abnegation and fraternal devotion. In some minds, moreover, the partition between wit and madness is very slender. Genius, it has been remarked, is, like the pearl in the oyster, a disease of the animal by which it is produced; — but Lamb himself, who wrote a paper on the Sanity of True Genius, would have denied the analogy and contested the point. It was in 1795, that the sad occurrence to which I have alluded took place, and he, too,-like his sister, was confined in Hoxton. Writing in the following year to Coleridge, he said: — "The six weeks that finished last year, and began this, your humble servant passed very agreeably in a madhouse. I am somewhat rational now, and don't bite any one; but mad I was."

As a POET, Charles Lamb is once again original. He has produced but little, it is true; but that little is perfect in its own way, and ensures for its author a niche all to himself in the temple of Parnassus. What more pathetic than his lines on his mother, first printed in the Final Memorials (p. 77); his Old Familiar Faces; The Three Friends; and The Sabbath Bells? Then there is the fierce energy of the Farewell to Tobacco, and The Gipsy's Malison, with its almost demoniacal force of expression. These are all pieces of perfect finish, and are marked by a wondrously refined artifice of rhyme, rhythm, phrase, and condensation of thought. One little bit of Lamb's poetry, by the way, has escaped the industry of the editor of Eliana, — the song of Thekla, in the Piccolomini of Coleridge (act ii., scene vii.), which that poet gives, as having been contributed by the author of Rosamund Gray and appearing to him "to have caught the happiest manner of the old poets." Another piece, too, may be mentioned, and this, as I hold it, one of the happiest and most characteristic pieces that Lamb ever wrote. I allude to the little poem, — "scarcely worth recollecting," says Talfourd, — alluded to by Lamb in a letter to Moxon, October 24th, 1831 when hinting at a certain sum accruing to him for "Devil's money." The title of this is Satan in Search of a Wife, with the whole Process of his Courtship and Marriage, and who Danced at the Wedding, by an Eye-witness (Moxon, 1831, 12mo, pp. 36). This little book has somehow become exceedingly rare. I never saw but my own copy, which was first pointed out to me by the brother of the publisher; and the editor of Eliana, — who consoles himself, fox and grape fashion, with the supposition that it was probably "the poorest thing the author ever printed" — was not able to recover one, and had to content himself with a few stanzas, which chanced to be quoted in an old number of the Athenaeum. (APPENDIX E.)

The literary associations of Charles Lamb with his friends Southey, Coleridge, and Lloyd, naturally involved him in the charge of political, religious, and even moral heresy, which, with somewhat greater show of justice, had been brought against them. Thus, in the first number of The Anti-Jacobin Magazine and Review, was an etching by Gillray, in which Coleridge and Southey are represented with asses' heads; and Lloyd and Lamb as "Toad" and "Frog." In the number for July, these associated poets were introduced as paying homage to Lepaux, a French charlatan of the day:—

And ye five other wandering bards, that move
In sweet accord of harmony and love;
C—dge and S—th—y, L—d. and L—b and Co.,
Tune all your mystic harps to praise Lepaux—'
"Yet, let them not to vulgar Wordsworth stoop
The meanest object of the lowly group
Whose verse, of all but childish prattle void,
Seems blessed harmony to Lambe and Lloyd."

This Charles Lloyd was the son of a well-known banker at Birmingham, belonging to the Society of Friends. He became a student at the University of Cambridge, and was introduced by Coleridge to Lamb, who conceived a great friendship for him. He was an easy writer of verse, and manifested considerable analytical power in his London, and later pieces. He was author of a novel, entitled Edmund Oliver, long consigned to Ogygian limbo, of which the earlier career of Coleridge, and his military adventure, form the chief points of interest.

Touching Lamb's poetry, another curious bibliographical fact may be recorded. In 1809, at Godwin's Juvenile Library, appeared two small volumes, entitled Poetry for Children. By Charles and Mary Lamb. The entire edition was speedily sold off, and the work became absolutely lost. In 1877, however, a copy was discovered in South Australia, in the possession of the Hon. Mr. Sandover, of Adelaide. The poems are eighty-four in number; and of these only twenty-nine were previously known. The circumstance altogether may be regarded as one of the most extraordinary in literature.

Willingly would I linger with Charles Lamb in his haunts; — the little pot-house, the "Salutation and Cat," near Smithfield, in whose sanded parlour he and Coleridge, full of bright hopes and glorious schemes, drank "egg-hot," and puffed "Oronoko," long after the chimes at midnight, while the Platonist built up his Pantisocracy in lofty talk; — or his various homes, especially that high, dark chamber, "No. 4, Inner Temple Lane," where, surrounded by old books and black-framed Hogarths, he and his sister regaled "with cold roast lamb or boiled beef, heaps of smoking roasted potatoes, and the vast jug of porter, often replenished by Becky, from the best tap in Fleet Street," such guests as Hazlitt, Rickman, Cary, Allan Cunningham, "Christopher North," Coleridge, Godwin, Wordsworth, "Barry Cornwall," Hood, Kenney, George Dyer, Talfourd, Charles Lloyd, Leigh Hunt, Liston (the actor), Miss Kelly, Basil Montague, Charles Kemble, Barnes of the Times, B. R. Haydon (the unfortunate painter), Thelwall (the orator), Jem White, Manning, and "the gentlemanly murderer," Thomas Griffiths Wainwright, and others. Here was to be found neither the lurid splendour of Kensington Gore, nor the courtly learning and politics of Holland House; — but furniture, that you were not afraid to spoil, — a welcome, hearty and homely, — talk, "farsed with pleasaunce," — and books which were not to be referred to without a grace before and after, whose ragged coats the owner would piously kiss, and which, like those wherewith Pliny lined his Laurentian villa (Ep. ii. 17), were "non legendi, sed lectitandi."

According to Cowper, "man made the town," and man is naturally fond of his own creation. Dr. Johnson said, "Sir, the man that is tired of London is tired of existence." Dr. Moseley complained of "the maddening noise of nothing which haunted you in the country." The Duke of Queensbury when told that London was "empty," replied with truth, "Yes, but it's fuller than the country! And Jekyll, — or some one else, it doesn't matter who, — on being left an estate on the condition that he resided upon it, had the approach to the house paved like the streets of London, and hired a cab to drive up and down it all day. So, Lamb also was a dear lover of the town, with its never ceasing suggestiveness and haunting memories. We cannot conceive existence possible for him elsewhere. "I would live in London," said he, "shirtless, bookless. I love the sweet security of streets, and would set up my tabernacle there." We can well believe what he states of himself, — "My household gods plant a terrible fixed foot, and are not to be rooted up without blood, — a new state of things staggers me." Nevertheless, in 1822 he managed to get as far as Paris. There was a certain family which he refused to visit, because, as he said, "he could not take Mary, — and there seemed a kind of dishonesty in any pleasure he took without her." The much-loved sister therefore accompanied the brother on his trip; neither of the pair speaking a single word of the language. He thought Paris "a glorious, picturesque old city," to which London looked "mean and new." But he somewhat consoled himself with the reflection that the former had no St. Paul's, or Westminster Abbey. With the Quaker sect, with its supposed simplicity and artlessness, he confessed to "imperfect sympathy," and strove to account for it. "I am all over sophisticated," he said, "with humours, fancies craving hourly sympathy. I must have books, pictures, theatres, chit-chat, scandal, jokes, ambiguities, and a thousand whimwhams, which their simpler tastes could do without; I should starve at their simple banquet." With what a puzzled expression, as of one who strives to decipher a hieroglyph, would he read that stanza of Shelley—

Hell is a city much like London—
A populous and a smoky city;
There are all sorts of people undone
And there is little or no fun done—
Small justice shown, and still less pity."

One who knew him less well (a right good scholar, too), — the late Walter Savage Landor, — has left some fine lines to commemorate his solitary interview:—

Once, and once only have I seen thy face,
Elia! Once only has thy tripping tongue
Run o'er my heart yet never has been left
Impression on it stronger or more sweet.
Cordial old man! What youth was in thy years
What wisdom in thy levity what soul
In every utterance of thy purest breast!
Of all that ever wore man's form, tis thee
I first would spring to at the gate of heaven!

and goes on to say, "The world will never see again two such delightful volumes as the Essays of Elia; no man living is capable of writing the worst twenty pages of them. The Continent has Zadig, and Gil Blas; we have Elia, and Sir Roger de Coverley"....

The love between Lamb and Coleridge was a touching and beautiful thing. "The gentle creature," said the latter of his old friend, "who looked upon the degraded men and things around him like moonshine on a dunghill, which shines and takes no pollution." Coleridge died in 1834; and the event was a shock to Lamb which he never rightly overgot To lose his sister was a calamity to the possibility of which he could not look forward. "I wish that I could throw into a heap, said he, — "a sort of hotch-pot, the remainder of our several existences, and so share them in equal divisions." But this fond desire was not to be realized. In 1833, cough and cramp had attacked him; — "We sleep three in a bed," he wrote. In this year he moved to his last abode, Church Street, Edmonton; and here he continued to enjoy, as he might, the otiosa aeternitas of these later years, until, as Mr. Procter expresses it, "this lapsed into the great deep beyond," on December 27th, 1834. The sister, whom he had loved so purely, and for whom he had sacrificed so much, survived her brother thirteen years, her calamity hiding from her the magnitude of her loss, and her comforts watched over by their remaining friends. Landor has left some charming stanzas—

Comfort thee, O thou mourner, yet awhile!
Again shall Elia's smile
Refresh thy heart, where heart can ache no more.
What is it we deplore?

He leaves behind him, freed from griefs and years,
Far worthier things than tears,
The love of friends without a single foe:
Unequalled lot below !

His gentle soul, his genius, these are thine:
For these dost thou repine?
He may have left the lowly walks of men;
Left them he has; what then?

Are not his footsteps followed by the eyes
Of all the good and wise?
Tho' the warm day is over, yet they seek
Upon the lofty peak

Of his pure mind the roseate light that glows
O'er deaths perennial snows,
Behold him ! from the region of the blest
He speaks, — he bids thee rest.

In the parish burial-ground of Edmonton there is a turfed grave, on the head and foot-stone of which are inscriptions which record the birth and death-dates of the loving pair, who slumber beneath in "dual loneliness." Wordsworth wrote some exquisite lines for the epitaph of his friend, but these do not appear. A writer in Notes and Queries (September 22nd, 1866), communicates the actual inscription, saying, perhaps somewhat too severely: — "How the above doggrel, as ungrammatical as nonsensical, came to be substituted ... is a question I am unable to determine. As it is, the grave, etc., bespeak neither good taste nor charity on the part of his executors." This is surely not as it should be.

There are spots on the sun, and they say that the character of Charles Lamb was not altogether free from infirmity. Walter Thornbury tells that he "sotted over his nightly grog;" Talfourd himself seeks not to deny that the excellencies of his friend, moral and intellectual, "were blended with a single frailty; Kenealy speaks of "the only stigma" on his memory; and we know that The Confessions of a Drunkard, and The Farewell to Tobacco, — he staggered Parr, even, with his ten pipes a night, — were the tear-blurred records of a self-accusing spirit. Be it so. "Summi enim sunt homines tantum" is an axiom as full of truth now as in the days of Quintilian, and needs no further illustration. Indeed, we love Lamb the better for the revelation; the better, that, not seeking to conceal his follies, as men love to do, so as to "present no mark to the foeman," or to palliate, or shuffle with, them, he admitted them in a touching and manly spirit: and frankly appealed for compassion to those, who yet standing, have to take heed lest they themselves fall. But enough; this is a subject on which I would fain have been silent, and should have said nothing, had not all been told already. Apelles painted Antigonus in profile that the loss of one of his eyes might not be visible; and Fuller speaks of such a "handsome folding up of discourse," that "virtues are shown outside, and vices wrapped up in silence." Thus would I treat the memory of dear CHARLES LAMB, and all the sons of genius, inheritors in common of the frailties of lesser mortals. Farewell, then, to thee for a time, thou gentle spirit, in thy own words—

Free from self-seeking, envy low design,
We have not met a whiter soul than thine!