1828 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Charles Lamb

P. P., "The Writings of Charles Lamb" Philadelphia Monthly Magazine 2 (September 1828) 334-36.



READER, — a word with you. Seat yourself in your easy chair, for I don't know how long I shall detain you in speaking of Charles Lamb.

And to begin, where every body ought to, at the beginning, we will discourse a little on these bits of poems which meet us at the opening of the volume. And now a little explanation, reader, or we part on the threshold. Are you a lover of nature and simplicity, or of art and splendour in composition? unless you are an ardent lover of downright, pure, unadulterated nature, never open a volume of Charles Lamb. You will never be able to relish a line of him. But if you are what you ought to be, with what pleasure will you seize upon every line of the little pieces that make up this portion of the volume. You will make a pet of every wild-flower that blossoms in this green wreath of song.

There is more purity of style and thought in these little pieces than in any other composition with which we are acquainted in the whole range of modern English literature. There is a neatness and compactness about them which is now rarely to be met with. There is much in them that is worthy the best of the good old writers. And by good old writers, we mean those who are good in spite of being old, not because they are old. They are highly simple and chaste. The verses are correct and flowing. All weak passages and incorrect expressions are removed. All redundancies are lopped off — all superfluities, retrenched. Our ear is not pained by harsh language, nor our understanding insulted by unfinished composition. A spirit is in them which will long preserve them.

John Woodvil, a tragedy, is the next in the volume and the next therefore in our consideration of it. We like it much. The faithful and undying love of Margaret is excellently described. The immediate ills to which the wantonness and luxury of Woodvil exposed him and the consequences in which they resulted — his remorse at the betrayal of his father — his despair — and subsequent revival of hope — and regaining of a religious confidence — are drawn with the pen of a master. There are detached passages of great beauty and pathos to be met with on every page. There is the same delicacy of finish perceptible in this that is remarkable in all the other productions of this writer.

But, loveliest of all earth's creatures, Rosamund Gray! who can read without tears the story of thy terrible wrongs! Rosamund was a beautiful being in mind as well as in form. She is described as of a gentle, modest and sweet expression, but with a half-way melancholy mingling in the sweetness of her smile. Bright and curling clusters of golden hair rolled down her neck and shaded her alabaster forehead; and her mild eye beamed expressive of thought and feeling beneath the long silken lashes that bound it.

Rosamund was loved by every body, "and young Allen Clare, when but a boy, sighed for her." Holy and pure and deep was his boyish passion. With all the fire of youthful love it possessed the strength of a maturer attachment. But that the years of sentiment were almost over with me, I should have been tempted to fall in love, merely from the vivid picture our author has drawn of the happiness these two young hearts found in each other. But cold must be the youth, and heartless the maiden who could not find in these few small pages rich food for "joy or tears." So much deep feeling and pathos breathe in every line of these descriptions that one can never be tired of recurring to them again and again. Each repetition but developes hitherto unnoticed beauties.

It is now, while I am writing, midnight. The stars are veiled with darkness as with a mantle, — and the moon-beams in vain struggle to pierce the thick blackness which envelopes their silver glories. It was but a few hours earlier, — on a for different night, for then the little brooks murmured quietly and the silver stars shone sweetly — that Rosamund Gray left the cottage of her aged grandmother to ramble awhile among the green fields and the beautiful flowers. The events of that night, — how could its author conceive or his pencil sketch a tale so fraught with misery! There is an immense deal of power and pathos exhibited in the manner in which this relation is wrought up; but the issue is too shocking. It is too trying to our feelings to be carried to a height of joy and expectancy, and then so cruelly disappointed by so sad a reverse.

The Essays on Shakspeare and Hogarth that follow this tale are highly interesting and original. Among the shorter essays we think the one "ON CONFOUNDING MORAL WITH PERSONAL DEFORMITY" is the best.

We are told by an Introductory Note that the Farce which follows these Essays was damned on the first night of its representation. We must allow that we are not much astonished at this circumstance. The humour of the piece is too gentlemanly and delicate, — there is too little of stage trick and display in the getting up of the scenes to please a mixed audience. There are few farces however that please more in the closet. A man of taste will much prefer it to most of the popular acted farces.

The Essays which have appeared in the London Magazine under the signature of Elia, and have been lately collected in a volume, were also written by Charles Lamb. Of this book we have time to say but a few words. It is frequently quaint, but never affected; and there is such an everlasting fund of good nature, good humour and wit in it, that it must necessarily be a favourite with whoever reads it. These articles are not made up of stale jokes and poor conceits and stolen bits from popular authors. There is an originality in them, and a freshness, which is the true test of genius. Lamb is a copier of no favourite writer. He has drawn his materials from himself and his inspiration from nature, and has built a beautiful and perhaps an enduring monument.