A melancholy title for a living man to affix to a work; — and how soon was the implied presage made good in death! The last enemy has been dealing wrathfully with the great authors of our day; they have been shot at like marks, — cut off like overtopping flowers, — till the two or three that survive seem solitary and deserted, — their fellows strown around them, — themselves memorials at once and specimens of a by-gone or a fast receding age. Long may those remain to us that do remain! We have sore need of them all to stein the muddy current of vulgar authorship that sets so strongly upon us, — and to vindicate literature from the mountebank sciolism of science in caricature. We forgive all differences of opinion, overlook all animosities of party, — Tros Tyriusve, we regard it not, — may we but find in a writer a due sense of the dignity and lofty uses of his vocation, and the manliness to abate no jot of its rightful claims to superiority over the penny-diffused quackery of these our times.
Charles Lamb was not the greatest, nor equal to the greatest, among his famous contemporaries, either in splendour or in depth; but he was, perhaps, the most singular and individual. He was one of nature's curiosities, and amongst her richest and rarest. Other men act by their faculties, and you can easily distinguish the predominance of one faculty over another: A.'s genius is greater than his talent, though that is considerable; B.'s talent is beyond his genius, though that be respectable; — we dissect the author, take so much of him as we like, and throw the rest away. But you could not so deal with Lamb. He was all-compact — inner and outer man in perfect fusion, — all the powers of the mind, — the sensations of the body, interpenetrating each other. His genius was talent, and his talent genius; his imagination and fancy one and indivisible; the finest scalpel of the metaphysician could not have separated them. His poems, his criticisms, his essays, — call them his Elias, to distinguish them from anything else in the world, — these were not merely written by Lamb,. — they were and are Lamb, — just the gentle, fantastic, subtle creature himself printed off. In a library of a thousand volumes you shall not find two that will give you such a bright and living impress of the author's own very soul. Austin's, Rousseau's, — all the Confessions on record, are false and hollow in comparison. There he is, as he was, the working or the superannuated clerk, — very grave and very wild, — tender and fierce at a flash, — learned enough, and more so than you thought, — yet ignorant, may be, of school-boy points, and glorious in his ignorance, — seeming to halt behind all, and then with one fling overleaping the most approved doctor of the room; witty and humorous. But Lamb's wit requires a word or two of analysis for itself. Wit is not humour, nor is humour wit. Punning is neither, and the grotesque is a fourth power, different from all. Lamb had all these, not separately each as such, but massed together into the strangest intellectual compound ever seen in man. And even besides these he had an indefinable something, — a Lambism, — about him, which defied naming or description. He stammered, — the stammer went for something in producing the effect; he would adjure a small piece for the nonce, — it gave weight; — perhaps he drank a glass of punch; believe us, it all told. It follows that Lamb's good things cannot be repeated.
But a small part, — and that not the best, — of Lamb's writings, will ever be genially received out of England. If we were to confine him even to London, — the olden, playgoing London, — we should not do him wrong in respect of some of his happiest efforts.
He was born in Crown-Office Row, in the Temple, and he loved London to his heart; — not the West End, understand; — he cared little for Pall-Mall; May Fair was nothing to him. Give him the kindly Temple with its fair garden, and its church and cloisters, before they were lightened of their proper gloominess. He sorely grudged the whitewashing spirit of the modern masters of the Bench. Why gothicise the entrance to the Inner Temple hall, and the library front? ''What is become," he says, "of the winged horse that stood over the former? — a stately arms! And who has removed those frescoes of the Virtues, which Italianized the end of Paper Buildings? — my first hint of allegory! They must account to me for these things which I miss so greatly."
Lamb loved the town as well as Johnson — but he had a keen eye, and loved the country too; yet not absolutely the country at large; but so it were suburban, within dim sight of St. Paul's — transcending a stone's throw the short coach and the omnibus. He had seen Cumberland and Westmoreland; but Hornsey satisfied his soul. And who may not — if his spirit be but tuned aright — take his full measure of delight in the quietude and natural imagery of the humblest rural district? If ambition or depraved appetite pervert him not, trees and fields, flowers and streams-the most ordinary of their kind — may waken all the sensibilities of his deepest life, and steep them in Paradise. No man ever had a livelier apprehension of the charms of this our earthly existence than Lamb; he clung to upper air; he could not bring himself to contemplate death with that calm expectancy of soul which he venerated in his friend Coleridge. The most deeply pathetic, the most singularly characteristic of all Charles Lamb's effusions, is the essay on New Year's Eve in the first volume of Elia. Take this passage, which we dare say will be new to thousands of our readers: — "The elders, with whom I was brought up, were of a character not likely to let slip the sacred observance of any old institution; and the ringing out of the old year was kept by them with circumstances of peculiar ceremony. — In those days the sound of those midnight chimes, though it seemed to rouse hilarity in all around me, never failed to bring a train of pensive imagery into my fancy. Yet I then scarce conceived what it meant, or thought of it as a reckoning that concerned me. Not childhood alone, but the young man till thirty, never feels practically that he is mortal. He knows it indeed, and, if need were, he could preach a homily on the fragility of life; but he brings it not home to himself, any more than in a hot June we can appropriate to our imagination the freezing days of December. But now, shall I confess a truth? — I feel these audits but too powerfully. I begin to count the probabilities of my duration, and to grudge at the expenditure of moments, like miser's farthings. In proportion as the years both lessen and shorten, I set more count upon their periods, and would fain lay my ineffectual finger upon the spoke of the great wheel. I am not content to pass away like a weaver's shuttle. Those metaphors solace me not, nor sweeten the unpalatable draft of mortality. I care not to be carried with the tide, that smoothly bears human life to eternity; and reluct at the inevitable course of destiny. I am in love with this green earth, the face of town and country, the unspeakable rural solitudes, and the sweet security of streets. I would set up my tabernacle here. I am content to stand still at the age to which I am arrived, — I and my friends; to be no younger, no richer, no handsomer. I do not want to be weaned by age, or drop, like mellow fruit, as they say, into the grave. Any alteration on this earth of mine, in diet or in lodging, puzzles and discomposes me. My household-gods plant a terrible fixed foot, and are not rooted up without blood. They do not willingly seek Lavinian shores. A new state of being staggers me.
"Sun, and sky, and breeze, and solitary walks, and summer holidays, and the greenness of fields, and the delicious juices of meats and fishes, and society, and the cheerful glass, and candle-light, and fire-side conversations, and innocent vanities, and jests, and irony itself — do these things go out with life?
"Can a ghost laugh, or shake his gaunt sides, when you are pleasant with him?
"And you, my midnight darlings, my folios! must I part with the intense delight of having you (huge armfulls) in my embraces? Must knowledge come to me, if it come at all, by some awkward experiment of intuition, and no longer by this familiar process of reading?
"Shall I enjoy friendships there, wanting the smiling indications which point me to them here, — the recognizable face-the sweet assurance of a look?
"In winter this intolerable disinclination to dying — to give it its mildest name — does more especially haunt and beset me. In a genial August noon, beneath a sweltering sky, death is almost problematic. At those times do such poor snakes as myself enjoy an immortality. Then we expand and burgeon. Then are we as strong again, as valiant again, as wise again, and a great deal taller. The blast that nips and shrinks me, puts me in thoughts of death. All things allied to the unsubstantial wait upon that roaster feeling; cold, numbness, dreams, perplexity; moonlight itself, with its shadowy and spectral appearances, — that cold ghost of the sun, or Phoebus's sickly sister, like that innutritious one denounced in the Canticles: — I am none of her minions — I hold with the Persian.
"Whatsoever thwarts or puts me out of my way, brings death into my mind. All partial evils, like humours, run into that capital plague-sore. I have heard some profess an indifference to life. Such hail the end of their existence as a port of refuge; and speak of the grave as of some soft arms, in which they may slumber as on a pillow. Some have wooed death — but out upon thee, I say, thou foul, ugly phantom! I detest, abhor, execrate, and (with Friar John) give thee to six-score thousand devils, as in no instance to be excused or tolerated, but shunned as a universal viper; to be branded, proscribed, and evil spoken of! In no way can I be brought to digest thee, thou thin, melancholy Privation, or more frightful and confounding Positive!
"Those antidotes, prescribed against the fear of thee, are altogether frigid and insulting, like thyself. For what satisfaction hath a man that he shall 'lie down with kings and emperors in death,' who in his life-time never greatly coveted the society of such bed-fellows? — or, forsooth, that 'so shall the fairest face appear?' — why, to comfort me, must Alice W—n be a goblin? More than all, I conceive disgust at those impertinent and misbecoming familiarities, inscribed upon your ordinary tomb-stones. Every dead man must take upon himself to be lecturing me with his odious truism, that 'such as he now is, I must shortly be.' Not so shortly, friend, perhaps, as thou imaginest. In the mean time, I am alive. I move about. I am worth twenty of thee. Know thy betters! Thy new year's days are past. I survive, a jolly candidate for 1821. Another cup of wine — and while that turncoat bell, that just now mournfully chaunted the obsequies of 1820 departed, with changed notes lustily rings in a successor, let us attune to its peal the song made on a like occasion, by hearty, cheerful Mr. Cotton
Hark, the cock crows, &c.
"How say you, reader — do not these verses smack of the rough magnanimity of the old English vein? Do they not fortify like a cordial — enlarging the heart, and productive of sweet blood and generous spirits in the concoction? Where be those puling fears of death, just now expressed or affected? — Passed like a cloud — absorbed in the purging sunlight of clear poetry — clean washed away by a wave of genuine Helicon, your only Spa for these hypochondries. And now another cup of the generous! and a merry new year, and many of them, to you all, my masters! — Elia, p. 71.
Here are themes for thought; but we touch them not. There are, however, peculiarities of manner which requite a moment's attention. The readers even of this passage — much more those who peruse the writings of Lamb generally, and his Essays in particular — must be struck with a certain air and trick of the antique phrase, unlike anything in the style of any contemporary writer. This manner has been called affected; many think it forced, quaint, unnatural. They suppose it all done on purpose. Now nothing can be farther from the fact. That the cast of language distinguishing almost all Lamb's works is not the style of the present day is very true; but it was his style nevertheless. It is altogether a curious matter one strongly illustrating the assimilative power of genius — that a man, very humbly born, humbly educated, and from boyhood till past middle life nailed, as a clerk, to a desk in the South Sea or India Houses, should so perfectly appropriate to himself, to the expression of his own most intimate emotions and thoughts, the tone and turn of phrase of the writers, pre-eminently the dramatic writers, of the times of James and Charles I. Their style was as natural to him as the air he breathed. It was a part of his intellect; it entered into and modified his views of all things — it was the necessary dialect of his genius.
"Crude they are, I grant you," says he (as the friend of the late Elia) of these Essays, "a sort of unlicked, incondite things — villainously pranked in an affected array of antique words and phrases. They had not been his if they had been other than such; and better it is that a writer should be natural in a self-pleasing quaintness, than to affect a naturalness (so called) that should be strange to him."
Very early in life, Lamb had been directed, by his senior schoolfellow, Coleridge, to the perusal of Beaumont and Fletcher, Massinger, and the other great contemporary dramatists of that marvellous age; and he studied them page by page, as we believe they have never been studied from their first publication to the present day. In the essay entitled "Old China," in the second Elia, there is the following graphic reminiscence put into the mouth of his most excellent and highly-gifted sister — the Cousin Bridget of the Elias — with whom he lived out his life. The reader must remember that by this time Lamb had retired with honours and a pension from the service "of his kind and munificent masters, Messieurs Boldero, Merryweather, Bosanquet, and Lacy, of Mincing Lane" — that is, the East India Company. (By the bye, the whole conduct of Messieurs Boldero and Co. to Elia, and since his death to Bridget, has been delicate and generous in the highest degree, deserving all praise; and we give it with good will.)
"Do you remember," says Bridget, with an air of remonstrance, "do you remember the brown suit which you made to hang upon you till all your friends cried shame upon you — it grew so thread-bare — and all because of that folio Beaumont and Fletcher, which you dragged home late at night from Barker's in Covent Garden? Do you remember how we eyed it for weeks before we could make up our minds to the purchase, and had not come to a determination till it was near ten o'clock of the Saturday night, when you set off from Islington, fearing you should be too late; and when the old bookseller, with some grumbling, opened his shop, and by the twinkling taper (for he was setting bedwards) lighted out the relic from his dusty treasures — and when you lugged it home, wishing it were twice as cumbersome — and when you presented it to me — and when we were exploring the perfectness of it (collating you called it) — and while I was repairing some of the loose leaves with paste, which your impatience would not suffer to be left till day-break — was there no pleasure in being a poor man? Or can those neat black clothes which you wear now, and are so careful to keep brushed, since we have become rich and finical, give you half the honest vanity with which you flaunted it about in that over-worn suit — your old corbeau — for four or five weeks longer than you should have done, to pacify your conscience for the mighty sum of fifteen-or sixteen shillings, was it? — a great affair, we thought it then — which you had lavished on the old folio. Now you can afford to buy any book that pleases you; but I do not see that you ever bring me home any nice old purchases now." — Last Essays, &c. p. 219.
In his dedication of the two volumes of his works published in 1818, Lamb speaks of his having "dwindled" into criticism. It was doing himself very great injustice. Nor is it enough to say, that the various critical essays contained in his works are beautiful in themselves — they are little text-books of sound principles in the judgment of works of literature and general art; equally profound, discriminating, and original, it is to these essays, and his judicious selection of Specimens, published in 1808, that we are pre-eminently indebted for the exhuming of the old dramatic writers of the Shakspearian age, and the restoration of the worthiest of them at least to their most deserved station in our literature. The "Retrospective Review," which did so much good service in its day in this line, took the leading hint from what Lamb and Coleridge had written and spoken concerning the then almost unexplored or forgotten treasures of thought and imagination, produced in England in the lust half of the seventeenth century. Sundry lively sketches also, in Mr. Southey's "Omniana," concurred in creating the impulse; and by a coincidence, equally singular and fortunate, Mr. Gifford, about the same time, brought out his admirable editions of Ben Jonson, Ford, Massinger, &c.; works, the merit of which, in the cause of sound English literature, those only can duly appreciate who have perused any of the prior editions of these great authors. What a foul mass of stupid prejudice and half-witted criticism did he for ever discharge from the pages and the name of Jonson, in particular! Nor did an occasional narrowness and ungeniality of spirit in some parts of his general criticism — as, for example, in the comparison of Shakspeare with his contemporaries, in the Preface to Massinger — materially obstruct the beneficial influence of Gifford's learning, taste, and accomplishments, as a dramatic editor. He has given us a highly corrected text, and annotations, the least merit of which — and that not an inconsiderable one — is, that they rarely or never mislead. Lamb's Essays and Gifford's editions have each most powerfully contributed to strengthen the other's influence in producing a reviviscence of works of genius without parallel in our literary history. Massinger's exquisite dramas, in particular, were scarcely more known to the public, thirty years ago, than a chapter in Thomas Aquinas. These are great benefits, and ought not to be lightly forgotten.
Lamb's criticism partook largely of the spirit of Coleridge — not, indeed, troubling itself with any special psychological definitions, nor caring to reconcile all the varying appearances upon some common ground of moral or intellectual action — the everlasting struggle and devotion of Coleridge's mind — but entering, with a most learned spirit of human dealing, into the dramatic being of the characters of the play, and bringing out, with an incomparable delicacy and accuracy of touch, their places of contact and mutual repulsion. The true point of view Lamb always seized with unerring precision — a high praise for a critic of any sort — and this led him, with equal success, to detect the real centre, whether a character or an event, round which the orb of the drama revolved. Hence he was one of the most original of critics, and threw more and newer light upon the genuine meaning of some of the great masterpieces of the theatre than any other man; and yet we do not remember a single instance in which any of his positions have been gainsaid. Like all critics who have a real insight into their subject, Lamb helps you, in a few words, to a principle — a master-key — by which you may work out the details of the investigation yourself. You are not merely amused with a brilliant description of a character or passage, but become a discerning judge in the light of your own perceptions and convictions. Take, for example, the beautiful essay "On the Tragedies of Shakspeare, considered with reference to their fitness for stage representation;" in which he puts the reader in possession of principles, which, if constantly borne in mind and well reasoned out, might be of inestimable service to poets, painters, actors, and managers — every one, in short, concerned in knowing and observing the limits which separate mental and visual sublimity — the conditions under which, and the extent to which, the creations of poetry can be embodied or actualized on the stage or by the pencil; and more especially the applicability of these distinctions to the characters in the Shakspearian drama, and generally to works of the highest range of imagination.
"It is common," he says, " for people to talk of Shakspeare's plays being so natural, — that everybody can understand them. They are natural indeed — they are grounded deep in nature, so deep, that the depth of them lies out of the reach of most of us. You shall hear the same persons say, that George Barnwell is very natural, and Othello is very natural, that they are both very deep; and to them they are the same kind of thing. At the one, they sit and shed tears, because a good sort of young man is tempted by a naughty woman to commit a trifling peccadillo — the murder of an uncle or so — that is all, and so comes to an untimely end — which is so moving; and at the other, because a blackamoor, in a fit of jealousy, kills his innocent white wife: and the odds are, that ninety-nine out of a hundred would willingly behold the same catastrophe happen to both the heroes, and have thought the rope more due to Othello than to Barnwell. For of the texture of Othello's mind — the inward construction marvellously laid open with all its strengths and weaknesses, its heroic confidences, and its human misgivings, its agonies of hate springing from the depths of love — they see no more than the spectators at a cheaper rate, who pay their pennies apiece to look through the man's telescope in Leicester Fields, see into the inward plot and topography of the moon. Some dim thing or other they see; they see an actor personating a passion — of grief or anger, for instance — and they recognize it as a copy of the usual external effects of such passions; or at least, as being true to that symbol of the emotion which passes current at the theatre for it — for it is often no more than that: but of the grounds of the passion, its correspondence to a great or heroic nature, which is the only worthy object of tragedy — that common auditors know anything of this, or can have any such notions dinned into them by the mere strength of an actor's lungs — that apprehensions foreign to them should be thus infused into them by storm — I can neither believe, nor understand how it can be possible.
"We talk of Shakspeare's admirable observation of life, when we should feel, that not from a petty inquisition into those cheap and every-day characters which surrounded him, as they surround us, but from his own mind — which was, to borrow a phrase of Ben Jonson's, the very 'sphere of humanity' — he fetched those images of virtue and of knowledge, of which every one of us, recognizing a part, think we comprehend in our natures the whole; and oftentimes mistake the powers which he positively creates in us, for nothing more than indigenous faculties of our own minds, which only waited the application of corresponding virtues in him to return a full and clear echo of the same. * * * *
"I mean no disrespect to any actor; but the sort of pleasure which Shakspeare's plays give in the acting seems to me not at all to differ from that which the audience receive from those of other writers; and, they being in themselves essentially so different from all others, I must conclude that there is something in the nature of acting which levels all distinctions. And, in fact, who does not speak indifferently of the Gamester and of Macbeth, as fine stage performances; and praise the Mrs. Beverley in the same way as the Lady Macbeth of Mrs. Siddons? Belvidera, and Calista, and Isabella, and Euphrasia, are they less liked than Imogen, or than Juliet, or than Desdemona? Are they not spoken of and remembered in the same way? Is not the female performer as great (as they call it) in one as in the other? Did not Garrick shine, and was he not ambitious of shining, in every drawling tragedy that his wretched day produced — the productions of the Hills, the Murphys, and the Browns? — and shall he have that honour to dwell in our minds for ever as an inseparable concomitant with Shakspeare? — A kindred mind!
"The truth is, the characters of Shakspeare are so much the objects of meditation rather than of interest or curiosity, as to their actions, that while we are reading any of his great criminal characters — Macbeth, Richard, even Iago — we think not so much of the crimes which they commit, as of the ambition, the aspiring spirit, the intellectual activity, which prompts them to overleap those moral fences. Barnwell is a wretched murderer; there is a certain fitness between his neck and the rope-he is the legitimate heir to the gallows; nobody who thinks at all can think of any alleviating circumstances in his case to make him a fit object of mercy. Or, to take an instance from the higher tragedy, what else but a mere assassin is Glenalvon? — Do we think of anything but of the crime which he commits, and the rack which he deserves? That is all which we really think about him. Whereas, in corresponding characters in Shakspeare, so little do the actions comparatively affect us, that while the impulses, the inner mind, in all its perverted greatness, solely seems real and is exclusively attended to, the crime is comparatively nothing. But when we see these things represented, the acts which they do are comparatively everything, their impulses nothing. The state of sublime emotion into which we are elevated by those images of fright and horror which Macbeth is made to utter — that solemn prelude with which lie entertains the time till the bell shall strike which is to call him to murder Duncan; — when we no longer read it in a book — when we have given up that vantage-ground of abstraction which reading possesses over seeing, and come to see a man, in his bodily shape before our eyes, actually preparing to commit a murder — if the acting be true and impressive, as I have witnessed it in Mr. Kemble's performance of that part — the painful anxiety about the act, the natural longing to prevent it while it yet seems unperpetrated, the too close pressing semblance of reality, gives a pain and an uneasiness which totally destroy all the delight which the words in the book convey, where the deed-doing never presses upon us with the painful sense of Presence; it rather seems to belong to history — to something past and inevitable — if it has anything to do with time at all. The sublime images, the poetry alone, is that which is present to our minds in the reading.
"So, to see Lear acted — to see an old man tottering about the stage with a walking-stick, turned out of doors by his daughters, in a rainy night — has nothing in it but what is painful and disgusting. We want to take him into shelter, and relieve him — that is all the feeling which the acting of Lear ever produced in me: but the Lear of Shakspeare cannot be acted. The contemptible machinery by which they mimic the storm which he goes out in, is not more inadequate to represent the horrors of the real elements, than any actor can be to represent Lear: they might more easily propose to personate the Satan of Milton upon a stage, or one of Michael Angelo's terrible figures. The greatness of Lear is not in corporal dimensions, but in intellectual; the explosions of his passion are terrible as a volcano — they are storms turning up and disclosing to the bottom that sea, his mind, with all its vast riches. It is his mind which is laid bare. This case of flesh and blood seems too insignificant to he thought on — even as he himself neglects it. On the stage we see nothing but corporal infirmities and weakness, the impotence of rage; while we read it, we see not Lear, but we are Lear — we are in his mind — we are sustained by a grandeur which baffles the malice of daughters and storms; in the aberrations of his reason we discover a mighty irregular power of reasoning, immethodized from the ordinary purposes of life, but exerting its powers, as the wind blows where it listeth, at will upon the corruptions and abuses of mankind. What have looks or tones to do with that sublime identification of his age with that of the heavens themselves, when, in his reproaches to them for conniving at the injustice of his children, he reminds them that 'they themselves are old?' What gesture shall we appropriate to this? — what has the voice or the eye to do with such things? But the play is beyond all art, as the tamperings with it show; it is too hard and stony — it must have love-scenes, and a happy ending. It is not enough that Cordelia is a daughter, she must shine as a lover too. Tate has put his hook in the nostrils of this Leviathan, for Garrick and his followers, the showmen of the scene, to draw the mighty beast about more easily. A happy ending! — as if the living martyrdom that Lear had gone through — the flaying of his feelings alive — did not make a fair dismissal from the stage of life the only decorous thing for him. If he is to live and be happy after — if he could sustain this world's burden after — why all this pudder and preparation? — why torment us with all this unnecessary sympathy? — as if the childish pleasure of getting his gilt robes and sceptre again could tempt him to act over again his misused station — as if, at his years, and with his experience, anything was left but to die." — Works (1818), vol. ii. p. 13.
The whole of this essay, and that "On the Artificial Comedy of the last Century," in the first Elia, cannot be surpassed. Like the essay on the genius of Hogarth, which is now, we believe, in part at least, a constant accompaniment to every collection of Hogarth's prints, its practical excellence is such, that, when you have once read it, you are inclined to wonder how you could ever have methodized your feelings and taste upon the subject without the light which it has imparted. It sets you right at once and for ever. One consequence of its pregnant brevity was that a swarm of imitators fastened upon it, sullying its purity and caricaturing its manner, — writers who added nothing to what Lamb bad shortly yet adequately done, but who materially injured his fame by being vulgarly associated with him; and whose showy, disproportioned, rhapsodical essays upon Shakspeare and the contemporary dramatists, disgusted all persons of sound judgment, and went very far to bury again under a prejudice what their discriminating leader had but newly recovered from oblivion. We have been more earnest in bringing forward, in the prominent light which they deserve, Lamb's merits as a critic and restorer of much of our most valuable old literature, not only to vindicate them from a derogatory association, but because they have been greatly overlooked in the more general popularity which attended and will, we predict, constantly attend the miscellaneous essays of Elia. From the same cause, and in more than an equal degree, his poetry, exquisite as much of it is, is really almost entirely forgotten; in fact, "nocuit sibi," — just as the transcendant popularity of Waverley, Guy Mannering, and Old Mortality made the world almost lose sight for a time of the splendid chivalry, the minstrel ease, the Homeric liveliness of the Lady of the Lake, the Lay, and of Marmion. Lamb's poems are comparatively few in number and inconsiderable in length; but in our deliberate judgment there are amongst them some pieces as near perfection in their kinds as anything in our literature, — specimens of exceeding artifice and felicity in rhythm, metre, and diction. His poetic vein was, we think, scanty, and perhaps he exhausted it; he was not what is called great, yet he was, if we may make such a distinction, eminent. He has a small, well-situated parterre on Parnassus, belonging exclusively to himself. He is not amongst the highest, but then he is alone and aloof from all others. We cite the following piece, though it may perchance not please all palates, as an instance of the very peculiar power of which the seven-syllable line, — so well used by George Wither, and sometimes by Ambrose Philips, though branded as namby-pamby by Pope and Swift, — is capable. It is, we conceive, the metre in which the most continuity of thought and feeling can be expressed in our language:—
A FAREWELL TO TOBACCO
May the Babylonish curse
Straight confound my stammering verse
If I can a passage see
In this word-perplexity,
Or a fit expression find,
Or a language to my mind,
(Still the phrase is wide or scant,)
To take leave of thee, GREAT PLANT;
Or in any terms relate
Half my love or half my hate:
For I hate, yet love, thee so,
That, whichever thing I show,
The plain truth will seem to be
A constrained hyperbole,
And the passion to proceed
More from a mistress than a weed.
Sooty retainer to the vine,
Bacchus' black servant, negro fine;
Sorcerer, that mak'st us dote upon
Thy begrimed complexion,
And, for thy pernicious sake,
More and greater oaths to break
Than reclaimed lovers take
'Gainst women: thou thy siege dost lay
Much, too, in the female way,
Whilst thou suck'st the lab'ring breath
Faster than kisses or than death.
Thou in such a cloud dost bind us,
That our worst foes cannot find us,
And ill fortune, that would thwart us,
Shoots at covers, shooting at us;
While each man, thro' thy height'ning steam,
Does like a smoking Etna seem,
And all about us does express
(Fancy and wit in richest dress)
A Sicilian fruitfulness.
Thou through such a mist dost show us,
That our best friends do not know us;
And for those allowed features,
Due to reasonable creatures,
Liken'st us to fell Chimeras,
Monsters that, who see us, fear us;
Worse than Cerberus or Geryon,
Or, who first lov'd a cloud, Ixion.
Bacchus we know, and we allow
His tipsy rites. But what art thou,
That but by reflex canst show
What his deity can do,
As the false Egyptian spell
Aped the true Hebrew miracle?
Some few vapours thou may'st raise,
The weak brain may serve to amaze,
But to the veins and nobler heart
Canst nor life nor heat impart.
Brother of Bacchus, later born,
The old world was sure forlorn,
Wanting thee, that aidest more
The god's victories than before
All his panthers, and the brawls
Of his piping Bacchanals.
These, as stale, we disallow,
Or judge of thee meant: only thou
His true Indian conquest art
And for ivy round his dart,
The reformed god now weaves
A finer thyrsus of thy leaves.
Scent to match thy rich perfume
Chemic art did ne'er presume
Through her quaint alembic strain,
None so sovereign to the brain.
Nature, that did in thee excel,
Framed again no second smell;
Roses, violets, but toys
For the smaller sort of boys,
Or for greener damsels meant;
Thou art the only manly scent.
Stinking'st of the stinking kind,
Filth of the mouth and fog of the mind,
Africa, that brags her foyson,
Breeds no such prodigious poison,
Henbane, nightshade, both together,
Plant divine, of rarest virtue;
Blisters on the tongue would hurt you!
'Twas but in a sort I blamed thee;
None e'er prosper'd who defamed thee;
Irony all and feign'd abuse,
Such as perplex'd lovers use,
At a need, when, in despair
To paint forth their fairest fair,
Or in part but to express
That exceeding comeliness
Which their fancies does so strike,
They borrow language of dislike;
And instead of Dearest Miss,
Jewel, Honey, Sweetheart, Bliss,
And those forms of old admiring,
Call her Cockatrice, and Siren,
Basilisk, and all that's evil,
Witch, Hyena, Mermaid, Devil,
Ethiop Wench, and Blackamoor,
Monkey, Ape, and twenty more;
Friendly Trait'ress, loving Foe,—
Not that she is truly so,
But no other way they know
A contentment to express
Borders so upon excess,
That they do not rightly wot
Whether it be pain or not.
Or, as men, constrain'd to part
With what's nearest to their heart,
While their sorrow's at the height,
Lose discrimination quite,
And their hasty wrath let fall
To appease their frantic gall,
On the darling thing whatever,
Whence they feel it death to sever,
Though it be, as they, perforce,
Guiltless of the sad divorce.
For I must (nor let it grieve thee,
Friendliest of plants, that I must) leave thee,
For thy sake, TOBACCO, I
Would do anything but die,
And but seek to extend my days
Long enough to sing thy praise.
But, as she, who once hath been
A king's consort, is a queen
Ever after, nor will bate
Any tittle of her state,
Though a widow, or divorced,—
So I, from thy converse forced,
The old name and style retain,
A right Catherine of Spain;
And a seat, too, 'mongst the joys
Of the blest Tobacco Boys;
Where, though I, by sour physician,
Am debarr'd the full fruition
Of thy favours, I may catch
Some collateral sweets, and snatch
Sidelong odours, that give life
Like glances from a neighbour's wife;
And still live in the by-places
And the suburbs of thy graces;
And in thy borders take delight,
An uncooquer'd Canaanite.
Works, vol. 1. p. 32.
To pass to things in a very different strain — his Sonnet "On the Family Name" is another great favourite of ours:—
What reason first imposed thee, gentle name,—
Name that my father bore, and his sire's sire,
Without reproach? we trace our stream no higher;
And I, a childless man, may end the same.
Perchance 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.
Perchance from Salem's holier fields return'd,
With glory gotten on the heads abhorr'd
Of faithless Saracens, some martial lord
Took HIS meek title, in whose zeal he burn'd.
Whate'er the fount whence thy beginnings came,
No deed of mine shall shame thee, gentle name. — ib. p. 65.
We are sensible how largely we have filled our pages with quotations; but our object is to do justice to Lamb, and to put those of our readers, — and we fear there are many, — to whom Lamb's writings generally are unknown, in possession of specimens of his genius which may speak for themselves. The following beautiful lines must please every one:—
THE SABBATH BELLS.
The cheerful sabbath bells, wherever heard,
Strike pleasant on the sense, most like the voice
Of one, who from the far-off hills proclaims
Tidings of good to Zion: chiefly when
Their piercing tones fall sudden on the ear
Of the contemplant, solitary man,
Whom thoughts abstruse or high have chanced to lure
Forth from the walks of men, revolving oft,
And oft again, hard matter, which eludes
And baffles his pursuit — thought-sick and tired
Of controversy, where no end appears,
No clue to his research, the lonely man
Half wishes for society again.
Him, thus engaged, the sabbath bells salute
Sudden! his heart awakes, his ears drink in
The cheering music; his relenting soul
Yearns after all the joys of social life,
And softens with the love of human kind. — ibid. p. 74.
Of equal, or even greater beauty are the lines "On an Infant Dying as soon as Born;" — but we can only venture to place before our readers two sonnets pre-eminently characteristic of Charles Lamb, and condensing in little the feelings and aspirations scattered throughout almost all his works, and especially his most charming essays in Elia. We commend the perusal, with our best wishes, to the Utilitarians of England and America:—
Who first invented Work, and bound the free
And holiday-rejoicing spirit down
To the ever-haunting importunity
Of business in the green fields, and the town—
To plough, loom, anvil, spade — and oh! most sad,
To that dry drudgery at the desk's dead wood?—
Who but the Being unblest, alien from good,
Sabbathless Satan! he who his unglad
Task ever plies 'mid rotatory burnings,
That round and round incalculably reel—
For wrath divine hath made him like a wheel—
In that red realm from which are no returnings;
Where toiling, and turmoiling, ever and aye,
He, and his thoughts, keep pensive working-day.
They talk of time, and of time's galling yoke,
That like a mill-stone on man's mind doth press,
Which only works and business can redress:—
Of divine Leisure such foul lies are spoke,
Wounding her fair gifts with calumnious stroke.
But might I, fed with silent meditation,
Assoiled live from that fiend Occupation—
"Improbus labor," which hath my spirit broke—
I'd drink of time's rich cup, and never surfeit;
Fling in more days than went to make the gem
That crown'd the white top of Methusalem;—
Yea, on my weak neck take, and never forfeit,
Like Atlas bearing up the dainty sky,
The heaven-sweet burthen of eternity.
"Deus nobis haec otia fecit," — he adds, after he had retired from his labours in the India-House.
Now let the reader, curious in the characteristics of oddity and genius, turn to the essay "On the Superannuated Man" in the second Elia. Hear a little of the old Clerk's account of himself shortly after his liberation:—
"A fortnight has passed since the date of my first communication. At that period I was approaching to tranquillity, but had not reached it. I boasted of a calm indeed, but it was comparative only. Something of the first flutter was left; an unsettling sense of novelty; the dazzle to weak eyes of unaccustomed light. I missed my old chains, forsooth, as if they had been some necessary part of my apparel. I was a poor Carthusian, from strict cellular discipline suddenly, by some revolution, returned upon the world. I am now, as if I had never been other than my own master. It is natural to me to go where I please, — to do what I please. I find myself at eleven o'clock in the day in Bond-street, and it seems to me that I have been sauntering there at that very hour for years past. I digress into Soho, to explore a book-stall. Methinks I have been thirty years a collector. There is nothing strange nor new in it. I find myself before a fine picture in a morning. Was it ever otherwise? What is become of Fish-street Hill? Where is Fenchurch-street? Stones of old Mincing-lane, which I have worn with my daily pilgrimage for six and thirty years, to the footsteps of what toil-worn clerk are your everlasting flints now vocal? I indent the gayer flags of Pall-Mall. It is Change time, and I am strangely among the Elgin marbles. It was no hyperbole when I ventured to compare the change in my condition to a passing into another world. Time stands still in a manner to me. I have lost all distinction of season. I do not know the day of the week, or of the month. Each day used to be individually felt by me in its reference to the foreign post days; in its distance from or propinquity to the next Sunday. I had my Wednesday feelings, my Saturday night's sensations. The genius of each day was upon me distinctly during the whole of it, affecting my appetite, spirits, &c. The phantom of the next day, with the dreary five to follow, sat as a load upon my poor Sabbath recreations. What charm has washed that Aethiop white? What is gone of Black Monday? All days are the same. Sunday itself — that unfortunate failure of a holiday as it too often proved, what with my sense of its fugitiveness, and over care to get the greatest quantity out of it, — is melted down into a week day. I can spare to go to church now, without grudging the huge cantle which it used to seem to cut out of the holiday. I have time for everything. I can visit a sick friend. I can interrupt the man of much occupation when he is busied. I can insult over him with an invitation to take a day's pleasure with me to Windsor this fine May morning. It is Lucretian pleasure to behold the poor drudges whom I have left behind in the world, carking and caring; like horses in a mill, drudging on in the same eternal round — and what is it all for? A man can hover have too much time to himself, nor too little to do. Had I a little son, I would christen him NOTHING-TO-DO; he should do nothing. Man, I verily believe, is out of his element as long as he is operative. I am altogether for the life contemplative. Will no kindly earthquake come and swallow up those accursed cotton-mills? Take me that lumber of a desk there, and bowl it down "As low as to the fiends."
I am no longer ******, clerk to the firm of &c. I am Retired Leisure. I am to be met with in trim gardens. I am already come to be known by my vacant face and careless gesture, perambulating at no fixed pace, nor with any settled purpose. I walk about; not to and from. They tell me, a certain 'cum dignitate' air, that has been buried so long with my other good arts, has begun to shoot forth in my person. I grow into gentility perceptibly. When I take up a newspaper, it is to read the state of the opera. 'Opus operatum est.' I have done all that I came into this world to do. I have worked task-work, and have the rest of the day to myself." — Last Essays, p. 101.
Lamb excelled in drawing what he himself delighted in contemplating — and indeed partly in being — a veritable Ben Jonsonian Humor. The extreme delicacy of his touch in such sketches is particularly admirable; he very seldom, indeed, slips into caricature; it is rather by bringing out the otherwise evanescent lines of the character than by charging the strong ones, that he contrives to present such beautifully quaint excerpts from the common mass of humanity. His "Captain Jackson," in the second Elia, is a masterpiece; you have no sense or suspicion of any exaggeration; the touches are so slight in themselves, and each laid on so quietly and unconcernedly, that you are scarcely conscious, as you go on, how the result is growing upon you. Just before you come to the end of the essay, the entire creation stands up alive before you — true in every trick to the life, the life of the Fancy. You may not have met exactly such a personage in society, but you see no reason why you should not meet him. You cannot doubt Lamb's own intimate acquaintance with him. Indeed, you perceive he was a relation. Poor Elliston was another of Elia's happiest subjects. Elliston was of the true blood of the humorous, and Lamb has him in enamel, alive and dead.
"Oh, it was a rich scene that I was witness to, in the tarnished room (that had once been green) of that same little Olympic. There, after his deposition from Imperial Drury, he substituted a throne. The Olympic Hill was 'his highest heaven;' himself 'Jove in his chair.' There he sat in state, while before him, on complaint of prompter, was brought for judgment — how shall I describe her? — one of those little tawdry things that flirt at the tails of choruses — a probationer for the town, in either of its senses — the pertest little drab — a dirty fringe and appendage of the lamps' smoke — who, it seems, on some disapprobation expressed by a 'highly respectable' audience, had precipitately quitted her station on the boards, and withdrawn her small talents in disgust.
"'And how dare you,' said her manager — assuming a censorial severity which would have crushed the confidence of a Vestris, and disarmed that beautiful rebel herself of her professional caprices — I verily believe he thought her standing before him — 'how dare you, Madam, withdraw yourself without a notice from your theatrical duties?' 'I was hissed, Sir.' 'And you have the presumption to decide upon the taste of the Town?' 'I don't know that, Sir, but I will never stand to be hissed' — was the subjoinder of young Confidence — when, gathering up his features into one significant mass of wonder, pity, and expostulatory indignation — in a lesson never to have been lost upon a creature less forward than she who stood before him — his words were these, 'They have hissed ME.'...
"'Quite an Opera pit,' he said to me, as he was courteously conducting me over the benches of his Surrey Theatre, the last retreat and recess of his every-day waning grandeur....
"In green rooms, impervious to mortal eye, the muse beholds thee wielding posthumous empire.
"Thin ghosts of figurantes (never plump on earth) circle thee endlessly, and still their song is 'Fye on silent phantasy.'
"Magnificent were thy capriccios on this globe of earth, ROBERT WILLIAM ELLIST0N! for as yet we know not thy new name in heaven.
"It irks me to think that, stript of thy regalities, thou shouldst ferry over, a poor forked shade, in crazy Stygian wherry. Methinks I tear the old boatman, paddling by the weedy wharf, with raucid voice, bawling 'SCULLS, SCULLS!' — to which, with waving hand and majestic action, thou deignest no reply, other than in two curt monosyllables, 'No; OARS!'"
The essay "On some of the Old Actors" is even still richer and fuller of theatrical recollections of upwards of thirty years ago. Mrs. Jordan, Bensley (with the criticism on Malvolio), Dicky Suett, the Palmers, Jack Bannister, above all, Dodd and his Aguecheek — how racily! how tenderly drawn!
"In expressing slowness of apprehension Dodd surpassed all others. You could see the first dawn of an idea stealing slowly over his countenance, climbing up by little and little, with a painful process, till it cleared up at last to the fullness of a twilight conception — its highest meridian. He seemed to keep back his intellect, as some have had the power to retard their pulsation. The balloon takes less time in filling than it took to cover the expansion of his broad moony face over all its quarters with expression. A glimmer of understanding would appear in a corner of his eye, and for lack of fuel go out again. A part of his forehead would catch a little intelligence, and be a long time in communicating it to the remainder.
"I am ill at dates, but I think it is now better than five and twenty years ago that, walking in the gardens of Gray's Inn — they were then far finer than they are now — the accursed Verulam Buildings had not encroached upon all the east side of them, cutting out delicate green crankles, and shouldering away one or two of the stately alcoves of the terrace — the survivor stands gaping and relationless, as if it remembered its brother — they are still the best gardens of any of the Inns of Court, my beloved Temple not forgotten — have the gravest character, their aspect being altogether reverend and law-breathing — Bacon has left the impress of his foot on their gravel walks. Taking my afternoon solace on a summer-day upon the aforesaid terrace, a comely sad personage came towards me, whom, from his grave air and deportment, I judged to be one of the Benchers of the Inn. He had a serious, thoughtful forehead, and seemed to be in meditations of mortality. As I have an instinctive awe of old Benchers, I was passing him with that sort of subindicative token of respect which one is apt to demonstrate towards a venerable stranger, and which rather denotes an inclination to greet him, than any positive motion of the body to that effect — a species of humility and will-worship which, I observe, nine times out of ten, rather puzzles than pleases the person it is offered to — when the face, turning full upon me, strangely identified itself with that of Dodd. Upon close inspection I was not mistaken. But could this sad, thoughtful countenance be the same vacant face of folly which I had hailed so often under circumstances of gaiety; which I had never seen without a smile, or recognized but as the usher of mirth; that looked cut so formally flat in Foppington, so frothily pert in Tattle, so impotently busy in Backbite, so blankly divested of all meaning, or resolutely expressive of none, in Acres, in Fribble, and a thousand agreeable impertinences? Was this the face — full of thought and carefulness — that had so often divested itself at will of every trace of either to give me diversion, to clear my cloudy face for two or three hours at least of its furrows? Was this the face — manly, sober, intelligent — which I had so often despised, made mocks at, made merry with? The remembrance of the freedoms which I had taken with it came upon me with a reproach of insult. I could have asked it pardon. I thought it looked upon me with a sense of injury. There is something strange as well as sad in seeing actors — your pleasant fellows particularly — subjected to and suffering the common lot — their fortunes, their casualties, their deaths, seem to belong to the scene, their actions to be amenable to poetic justice only. We can hardly connect them with more awful responsibilities. The death of this fine actor took place shortly after this meeting. He had quitted the stage some months; and, as I learned afterwards, had been in the habit of resorting daily to these gardens almost to the day of his decease. In these serious walks, probably, he was divesting himself of many scenic and some real vanities — weaning himself from the frivolities of the lesser and the greater theatre — doing gentle penance for a life of no very reprehensible fooleries — taking off by degrees the buffoon mask which he might feel he had worn too long — and rehearsing for a more solemn cast of part. Dying 'he put on the weeds of Dominic.'" — Elia, p. 314.
Let us conclude with a few just and graceful words about an actor of a very different order:—
"No man could deliver brilliant dialogue — the dialogue of Congreve or of Wycherley — because none understood it — half so well as John Kemble. His Valentine, in Love for Love, was, to my recollection, faultless. He flagged sometimes in the intervals of tragic passion. He would slumber over the level parts of an heroic character. His Macbeth has been known to nod. But he always seemed to me to be particularly alive to pointed and witty dialogue. The relaxing levities of tragedy have not been touched by any since him — the playful court-bred spirit in which he condescended to the players in Hamlet — the sportive relief which he threw into the darker shades of Richard — disappeared with him. He had his sluggish moods — his torpors — but they were the halting-stones and resting-place of his tragedy — politic savings, and fetches of the breath-husbandry of the lungs, where nature pointed him to be an economist — rather, I think, than errors of the judgment. They were, at worst, less painful than the eternal tormenting unappeasable vigilance, — the 'lidless dragon eyes,' of present fashionable tragedy." — Elia, p. 336.
Many of Lamb's best essays were worked up from letters written by him to his friends. The Superannuated Man was a letter, if we mistake not, to Mr. Wordsworth. The Two Races of Men, the Dissertation on Roast Pig, and one or two others, were letters. Sometimes he bettered the original thought — sometimes a little overlaid it (as in the essay on Munden's acting) — and sometimes his letters, not otherwise used by him, are as good as his printed efforts. We heartily hope that the enterprising publisher of his later works, and who has a peculiar interest in Lamb's fame, will give us as good a collection of these letters as can with propriety be made known to the world they would constitute, at least, one charming additional volume to his friend's writings.
One word more. We have no vocation to speak beyond an author's merits; but there are passages in Lamb's works which may cause surmises which would be most unjust as well as injurious to his memory. No man knew Lamb so thoroughly well as his schoolfellow and life-long friend, Coleridge; and it is of Lamb, no question, that Mr. C. was speaking, when he said that "that gentle creature looked upon the degraded men and things around him like moonshine on a dunghill, which shines and takes no pollution." Elia himself confesses that some of his intimados were a lagged regiment. We can add, that, upon another occasion, when Mr. C. entered into an eloquent and affectionate analysis of Lamb's mind and character, he said,—
"Believe me, no one is competent to judge of poor dear Charles, who has not known him long and well as I have done. His heart is as whole as his head. The wild words which sometimes come from him on religious subjects might startle you from the mouth of any other man; but in him they are mere flashes of firework. If an argument seems to him not fully true, he will burst out in that odd way; yet his will — the inward man — is, I well know, profoundly religious and devout. Catch him when alone, and the great odds are, you will find him with a Bible or an old divine before him — or may be, and that is next door in excellence, an old English poet: — in such is his pleasure."