1838 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Charles Lamb

Henry Fothergill Chorley, "Charles Lamb" The Authors of England (1838) 71-76.



Of all our modern writers who have lived and laboured during a period, each successive event of which has tended to foster a cosmopolitan spirit, Charles Lamb (or rather call him Elia) is, perhaps, the most indefeasibly and genuinely English. The racy, golden humour of his works, has, as yet, been sparingly tasted on the continent; but shall we wonder at this neglect, we, who have so lately begun to sympathise with the feelings and fantasies of Jean Paul Richter, who are still so far from regarding with a catholic and tolerant spirit, the literature of "la jeune France," in spite of all its extravagances, so full of vitality and character? Was not this delicious essayist, this clear-sighted and benevolent critic, compelled by neglect endured among his own countrymen to exclaim, "Damn the age! I will write for antiquity!" and has not the general public only began rightly to appreciate and love him, since the day when — his earnest, and whimsical, and heart — engaging tasks laid by — "Home he has gone, and ta'en his wages." It was the compensating good fortune of Elia, however, to be surrounded throughout his career by a circle of discriminating and gifted friends. From the reminiscences already published by one of these, a kindred spirit, whether in richness of imagination or sweetness of heart, we shall principally draw our present notice [author's note: A series of papers which appeared in the Athenaeum of 1835, which are understood to have been written by Mr. Procter, better known to the public as Barry Cornwall].

"Charles Lamb," says the writer referred to, "was born about the year 1774. His family were settled in Lincolnshire, as we learn by his reference to the family name in a pretty sonnet.

Perhaps some shepherd on Lincolnian plains,
In manners guileless as his own sweet flocks,
Received thee first, amid the merry mocks
And arch allusions of his fellow-swains.

In 1782, being then about eight years of age, he was sent to Christ's Hospital, and remained there till 1789. He has left us his "Recollections" of this place in two charming papers. These are evidently works of love; yet, being written with sincerity as well as regard, they communicate to the reader a veneration for the ancient school. One wishes, whilst reading them, to muse under the mouldering cloisters of the old Grey Friars, to gaze on the large pictures of Lely and Verrio, to hold colloquy with "the Grecians;" and, above all, there springs up within us a liking, a sympathy (something between pity and admiration) for the Bluecoat boy, toiling for College honours, or wandering homeless through the London streets, a result, perhaps, of more moment to the author, than that of upholding the reputation of his favourite school. In his second paper, on this subject, and where he apostrophizes some of his contemporaries, the following passage has just met our eyes. "Come back into memory, like as thou wert in the day-spring of thy fancies, with hope like a fiery column before thee, — the dark pillar not yet turned — Samuel Taylor Coleridge, logician, metaphysician, and bard!" It is thus that he invoked the most famous of his school companions; one whom he always held in close friendship, and who died — how short a time before him.

"It was not long after he quitted Christ's Hospital that he obtained the situation of clerk in the India House. Here he remained for many years, rising gradually from a small salary to a comfortable yearly stipend; until in 1825, or thereabouts, he was pensioned off liberally (with 'two thirds of my accustomed salary,' he says) by the Directors. During this period he dwelt in various places, sometimes in London, sometimes in the suburbs. He had (among other residences) chambers in the Temple, lodgings in Russell Street, Covent Garden, a house at Islington, on the border of the New River, lodgings at Dalston (or Shacklewell), at Enfield Chase, and finally at Edmonton, where he died of erysipelas on Saturday the 27th of December 1834, in the sixtyfirst year of his age."

"Mr. Lamb," (we are still literally following his friend Barry Cornwall,) "had one brother whom he lost many years before his death, and one sister; but he had no other, certainly no other near relations. His brother, Mr. John Lamb, of the South Sea House, was considerably his senior. 'You were figuring in the career of manhood,' he says, addressing his brother, 'when I was yet a little peevish boy.' The reader may remember that it was this brother, (otherwise James Elia) who, upon seeing some Eton boys at play, gave vent to his forebodings in that memorable sentence, 'What a pity to think that these fine ingenuous lads in a few years will be all changed into frivolous members of Parliament.' His sister, between whom and our friend there existed a long, deep, and untiring affection, and who is worthy in every respect to have been the sister of such a man, survives him. They lived together (being both single), read together, thought together, and crowned the natural tie that linked them to each other with the truest friendship. He has written down her qualities, some of them, at least, in a pleasant essay — she is the Bridget Elia of 'Mackery End.' And she is the person, also, to whom one of his early sonnets is addressed, in which he reproaches himself for some little inequality of temper towards her,

If from my lips some angry accents fell,
Peevish complaint, or harsh reproof unkind,
'Twas but the error of a sickly mind.

'Thou didst ever show to me (he proceeds) kindest affection;'

Weeping my sorrows with me, who repay
But ill the mighty debt of love I owe,
Mary, to thee, my sister and my friend!"

There is a strange, tender wish in reference to Miss Lamb (who was ten years older than himself) in the paper entitled "Mackery End." "I wish," says he, "that I could throw into a heap the remainder of our joint existences, that we might share them in equal division; but that is impossible!" These few notices of his family cannot so well be closed, as by reminding the reader of that beautiful passage in the paper "Old China," (one of the last essays of Elia,) in which his faithful household companion, under the show of complaining that increased riches have taken away from them the pleasures of self-denial and anticipation, is represented as indulging herself in looking back over the years of narrow circumstances, through which they had toiled in loving companionship; — reminding Elia of the precious folio edition of Beaumont and Fletcher, whose purchase had cost them many days of anxious doubt and deliberation, and had extended the date of a threadbare corbeau suit for some weeks; of those hearty bygone playgoings to see the Battle of Hexham and the Surrender of Calais, and Bannister and Mrs. Bland in The Children in the Wood, — when, says she, "we squeezed out our shillings apiece to sit three or four times in a season in the one shilling gallery, not to have brought me, and more strongly I felt obligation to you for having brought me; and the pleasure was the better for a little shame; and when the curtain drew up, what cared we for our place in the house, or what mattered it where we were sitting, when our thoughts were with Rosalind in Arden, or with Viola at the Court of Illyria?"

It has been pleasantly and truly observed, that some live for the uses of the romancer, — some for the gossip of the anecdote-monger. Charles Lamb belonged to the latter number. Being all his life, as much from choice as necessity, an inhabitant of London, or its immediate neighbourhood, and the possessor of humours that kept proportion with, and sharpened his intellectual powers, he was sure to draw round him all the choice spirits of his time with whom he had aught in common. He speaks most characteristically, though in somewhat an imaginative fashion, of his own tastes and habits in society, in his preface to the last Essays of Elia.

"My late friend was in many respects a singular character. Those who did not like him, hated him; and some who once liked him, afterwards became his bitterest haters. The truth is, he gave himself too little concern what he uttered and in whose presence. He observed neither time nor place, and would e'en out with what came uppermost. With the severe religionist he would pass for a Freethinker; while the other faction set him down for a bigot, or persuaded themselves that he belied his sentiments. Few understood him; and I am not certain that at all times he understood himself. He too much affected that dangerous figure — irony. He sowed doubtful speeches, and reaped plain, unequivocal hatred. He would interrupt the gravest discussion with some light jest; and yet, perhaps, not quite irrelevant in ears that could understand him. Your long and much talkers hated him. The informal habit of his mind, joined to an inveterate impediment of speech, forbade him to be an orator; and he seemed determined that no one else should play that part when he was present. He was petit and ordinary in his person and appearance. I have seen him sometimes in what is called good company, but where he has been a stranger, sit silent, and be suspected for an odd fellow; till, some unlucky occasion provoking it, he would stutter out some senseless pun, (not altogether senseless, perhaps, if rightly taken,) which has stamped his character for the evening."

Let us complete this unflattering, yet withal engaging personal sketch, by a picture of Elia among his intimates, drawn by his friend's hand; the scene being his lodgings in Russell Street, Covent Garden. "On certain evenings (Thursdays) one might reckon upon encountering at his rooms from six to a dozen unaffected people, including two or three men of letters. A game at whist and a cold supper, followed by a cheerful glass (glasses!) and 'good talk,' were the standing dishes on these occasions. If you came late you encountered the perfume of 'The Great Plant.' The pipe hid in smoke (the violet among its leaves) — a squadron of tumblers, fuming with various odours, and a score of quick intellectual glances saluted you. Here you might see Godwin, Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt, Coleridge (though rarely), Mr. Robinson, Serjeant Talfourd (his friend till death), Mr. Ayrton, Mr. Alsager, Mr. Manning, — sometimes Miss Kelly or Liston, — Admiral Burney, Charles Lloyd, Mr. Alsop, and various others, and if Wordsworth was in town you might stumble upon him also. Our friend's brother, John Lamb, was occasionally there; and his sister, his excellent sister, invariably presided. Questions of all kinds, with the exception of existing politics, were started, and fairly argued here: metaphysics and theology — poetry and the drama — and characters of all sorts. Lord Chatham and the fives'-player Cavanagh; Lord Foppington and the Lord St. Albans; Jack Bannister and Dicky Suett, were brought forward and separately discussed. Nothing came amiss that was good."

Among the thousand delightful anecdotes of bright things said and strange things done by these merry men of Cockaigne, whether at such jovial town meetings, or when some one among them, venturesome in his philanthropy, strayed out to visit Elia in his suburban abode, it is impossible to trust ourselves: and there is no need that we should, so recently have they been collected and laid before the world, by his highly-gifted and amiable executor, Mr. Serjeant Talfourd. To no more fitting hands could the task have been entrusted. We must now leave the man Elia, and say and steal a word or two concerning his works. Of these the following list includes the principal in prose and verse: "Specimens of the English Dramatic Poets," 1808; "The Works of Charles Lamb" (in two volumes), 1818; "Elia," 1823; '"The Last Essays of Elia," 1833; "The Adventures of Ulysses and Tales from Shakspeare," besides which he made a second gleaning from the old English dramatists, under the name of "The Garrick Papers" (published in Hone's Everyday Book), and collected his later poems in a little volume, "Album Verses," which also contains "The Wife's Trial," a short drama, founded upon Crabbe's admirable tale of "The Confidante:" this had previously been published in Blackwood's Magazine.

Of Lamb's poetry little could be said likely to recommend it to those who love it not already. He, with whom "the thrice noble, chaste, and virtuous, but again somewhat fantastical and original brained generous Margaret Newcastle," was "a dear favourite" — who was steeped to the heart's core in the spirit of Burton and Fuller, Jeremy Taylor, and Sir Thomas Browne, — and who, besides sympathizing with Haywood, Ben Jonson, and Ford, and Massinger, could also sympathize with Donne, and Quarles, and Cowley — it was natural that such an one should in his own poetical efforts cast himself back among "the rare and curious ancients," not only in spirit, but in letter also; — should not merely emulate their originality and freshness of thought, but also clothe his thoughts in the quaint costume of their obsolete phraseology: and it is not wonderful if his verses have obtained nothing more than the limited popularity they deserved.

A far different fate awaits his essays — the lucubrations of the incomparable Elia. They were written, says Barry Cornwall, "in his famous days. All that had been done before that time had met with comparative neglect: his rights as a critic were not recognized; his pretensions as a poet had been disputed; his wit, his fine observations, his consummate pathos had been shown in vain. He was in a fair way of cursing the age, when Mr. John Scott, then editor of the London Magazine, applied to him for support. His tasks at the India House, which occupied without wearying him, had left him ripe and vigorous for any mischief. He wanted excitement; and he was not unwilling, probably, to show the world what sort of man they had neglected. He was already the magician of a small circle; but he wished to enlarge it. The quick and sincere laugh of his hearers (that best and true echo of a jest), the judicious praises of highly-gifted friends, and 'the god within him,' prompted him to write. He wrote, and the Essays of Elia were the result."

Like his poems, these excellent and peculiar writings are imbued with the spirit of our older times: filled too, — filled to overflowing with the sympathies of the writer's heart and the crotchets of his brain. Many of them, too, are not merely exclusively English — but townish — belonging to London — Hogarth's, and Handel's, and Pope's London — the London of coffee houses and theatres, of the South Sea House and the bookstalls of Holborn — the same city as that whose fascinations held Johnson in such powerful thrall. They are, in short, whimsically, breathingly, kindly individual; and should (may our wishes be prophetic!) be always numbered amongst our selectest classics, were it only for the sake of the clear and nervous English in which they are written.

But Charles Lamb has, perhaps, a yet stronger claim to our notice as a critic. To speak somewhat hastily, the chance words which fell from his pen concerning our ancient writers, are worth to us quires of disquisition and analysis which other hands have elaborated; better reasoned and wrought out, it may be, but less intimately felt. Almost the last paragraph which he published — a few lines of Table Talk given to the Athenaeum in 1834, — contains an analysis of the close of Lear, short as a tombstone inscription, but entire, deep-thoughted, and sufficing. Once again, and for the last time, to borrow his friend's eulogy — "He had wit — human pathos (in a high degree)a delicate apprehension — a deep and curious vein of thought — a searching and, as it were, an attractive critical faculty, bringing out the beauties of an author (seldom his defects) as the sun brings forth or reproduces a flower. It has been said of him that in criticism he was 'a discoverer like Vasco Nunez or Magellan': and assuredly it was he who first brought the world acquainted with the wonders of the old dramatists of England.... No one will love the old English writers again as he did. Others may have a leaning towards them — a respect — an admiration — a sort of young man's love, but the true relishing is over; the close, familiar friendship is dissolved. He who went back into dim antiquity, and sought them out, and proclaimed their worth to the world — abandoning the gaudy rhetoric of popular authors for their sake, is now translated into the shadowy regions of the friends he worshipped. He who was once separated from them by a hundred lustres, hath surmounted that great interval of time and space, and is now — THEIR CONTEMPORARY!"