1838 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Charles Lamb

S. C. Hall, in The Book of Gems. The Modern Poets and Artists of Great Britain (1838) 72.



CHARLES LAMB was born in the Temple, London, on the 10th of February, 1775. He received his education at Christ's Hospital; and was, for the greater portion of his life, a clerk in the office of the Accountant-General at the India House. His earliest and his latest associate was his school-mate, Coleridge: — the last, or nearly the last, lines he ever penned contained a brief but deeply earnest and pathetic tribute tothe memory of his "fifty years old friend without a dissension;" and the grass had not time to grow over the grave of the one before it was opened to receive all that was mortal of the other. The life of Charles Lamb contains no startling incident; — it was calm, comparatively untroubled, even and unobtrusive; a story is told, indeed, of some mystery that hung as a dark cloud over his merry heart, bringing and keeping care and despondency under his roof — but it is one with which the world had no concern; his pecuniary circumstances were easy; and literature was to him the staff but not the crutch. To the fact that he was never compelled to write, we are indebted for the high degree of finish which distinguishes all he produced: but to this cause also must be attributed that he wrote so little. Partly from choice, and partly from the necessity of attending daily to his official duties, he was a constant resident in London; and, consequently, neither in his poetry nor his prose do we find many proofs of that inspiration which is drawn from familiar intercourse with Nature. He loved the country far less than he loved the town; and found in the streets and alleys of the Metropolis themes as fertile as some of his contemporaries had sought and obtained among the hills and valleys of Westmoreland. He knew every spot the great men of former days had made "hallowed ground." Many a dingy building of brick was to him more sacred than "the temple not made with hands," as being the birth-place or intellectual laboratory of some mighty master of the past. His delicious Essays, therefore, open to us sources of peculiar delight, and show that as much exquisite enjoyment may be derived from a contemplative stroll down Fleet Street, as from a pensive ramble "mid flower-enamelled lands and blooming thickets." They are full of wisdom, pregnant with genuine wit, abound in true pathos, and have a rich vein of humour running through them all. The kindliness of his heart, and the playfulness of his fancy are spread over every page. As a critic, he was sound yet gentle. If his maturer taste and extensive reading compelled him to try all modern writers by a standard terribly severe, he reproved with a mildly persuasive bearing;

Of right and wrong he taught
Truths as refined as ever Athens heard.

If his style reminds us forcibly of the "old inventive Poets," he never strikes us as an imitator of them. His mind was akin to theirs; and he lived his days and nights in their company: naturally and unconsciously, therefore, he thought as they thought, and adopted their manner. — His "Tragedy," as he calls it, John Woodvil, will almost bear comparison with the happiest efforts of our dramatists, in the high and palmy days of the drama. Few of them have done more within the same space; or produced finer effects by simple touches.

The personal character of Lamb must have been amiable to a degree; — the evidence of his writings, and the testimony of many friends, prove it to have been so. He died at his residence in Islington, on the 27th of December, 1834. His personal appearance was remarkable: his figure was diminutive and ungraceful; but his head was of the finest and most intellectual cast; "his face," writes one of his most esteemed friends, "was deeply marked and full of noble lines, — traces of sensibility, imagination, suffering, and much thought. His wit was in his eye, luminous, quick, and restless. The smile that played about his month was ever cordial and good-humoured." Leigh Hunt has happily characterized both his person and his mind; — "as his frame so is his genius. It is as fit for thought as can be, and equally as unfit for action."

The Poetical productions of Charles Lamb are very limited; but they are sufficient both in quantity and quality to secure for him a prominent station among the Poets of Great Britain. He did not consider it beneath him to scribble "Album verses;" but his judgment in publishing them has been arraigned. If among them we find a few puerilities, and numerous affectations, it will not require a very close search to perceive many graceful and beautiful flowers lurking tinder leaves which are certainly uninviting. He loved to trifle, both in verse and prose; yet his trifling was that of a philosopher, — desiring to unbend, but retaining a consciousness of power.