1835 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Charles Lamb

William Maginn, "Gallery of Literary Characters: Charles Lamb, Esq." Fraser's Magazine 11 (February 1835) 136.



Accident or caprice has delayed our notice of Charles Lamb until he was no more. We should have wished to record our great esteem for that kind-hearted, generous, and honourable man, during his life; but we now can do no more than offer up our tribute to his tomb.

Charles Lamb was one of those who in the beginning of his career thought that the French revolution was destined to bring about the reign of peace and good will; and with brighter, or at least more famous spirits, he underwent the imputation of being a Jacobin. The muse of Canning called upon "Southey and Coleridge, Lloyd and Lamb, and Co.," to praise some forgotten creature who was at one period a member of the Directory. What were Southey's feelings at the time, he has immortally laid down in his letter to William Smith, whose worthless name is thereby preserved in our literature — we know from the tenor of Coleridge's life how little he deserved to be confounded by Canning with the crew of Jacobinism — as little did Lamb merit the censure; but those who love his name will not be sorry to find it on any pretence yoked to such company.

He was born in London, and educated in Christ's Hospital, as he has told us in some of his charming essays. Be it observed, however, that when an affected knot of pestilent scribblers intruded itself upon the public, some sixteen or seventeen years ago, and earned the title of the Cockney School, nobody was more solicitous than Lamb (who wrote, with some of the crew, for the London Magazine) to rid himself of all suspicion of being connected with them. Professor Wilson tells a droll story about Lamb's anxiety on this subject, but we have not room for it here.

From his situation in the office of the accountant-general in the India House, he derived a handsome income. He was very diligent and attentive in his department, being always to be found at his desk in the forepart of the day. He complained occasionally of the regularity imposed upon him. "I have had my little month already," he says in a letter to a friend; "and, without incurring disagreeable favour, I cannot so much as get a single holiday till the season returns with the next year. Even our half hour's absences from office are noted in a book!" And we know quite enough of the policy and prudence of the governing powers in the underling departments of the India Company, to be quite aware that the favours bestowed without scruple upon some libelling Whig or tail-kissing Papist whom they rejoice to employ, would be made matter of grudge or insult if requested by a gentleman or a man of genius. At four o'clock he was emancipated, and away he went to Islington, there to dine with his sister — the sister, and friend, and admirer, and housekeeper, all in one. Then pleasant were the little parties, agreeable the ever varying chatter, endless the puns, made with good or bad fortune, as the case might be — then all the old favourite books (at some of which he is poring in our accompanying sketch, and eagerly expounding their merits in his eyes with flashing glance and eloquent tongue, the old familiar bottles being before him) were quoted and requoted with infinite delight; until at last, the good drink having done its office, the due quantity of tobacco having been smoked to its last white ashes, he broke his pipe and wended to his bed, to rise again in the morning, fresh for the accounts of Mother Company.

Truly was he possessed of a quaint expression, a guileless wit, a gentle appreciation of the good things said and done in the old days by the old masters of the English tongue; and his verses, published with those of Lloyd, his Rosamond Grey, his Old Blind Margaret, his John Woodville, his odd lines, full of feeling and thought — (who forgets his Verses for an Album, or his Old Familiar Faces?) — his essays under the signature of Elia (he was, we believe, of Jewish family, and his real name Lomb), or his stories from Shakespeare, well deserve that he should take a rank among those of whom he loved to speak. Adieu, then, kind Charles Lamb! long will thy conversations abide in the mind of those who heard them as (to use thine own words in the preface to the Tales from Shakespeare) "enrichers of the fancy, strengtheners of virtue, a withdrawing from all selfish feelings and thoughts, a lesson of all sweet and honourable actions to teach courtesy, benignity, generosity, humanity" — for of examples teaching these virtues "thy life" was full.