1828 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Charles Lamb

Anonymous, "Some Account of Mr. Charles Lamb" Imperial Magazine 10 (March 1828) 201-05.



Biography is at all times, and under the most favourable circumstances, a task of great difficulty and delicacy; but it becomes peculiarly so when employed upon characters who have not yet passed the state of probation, into that region, where they can neither he elated by the praise, nor affected by the censure, of mortals. Unless a person condescends to be his own historian, and the recorder of his intellectual progress, his memoir, however elaborate in detail, or speciously written, will necessarily be defective, for the want of that freedom of delineation which can alone give interest to the subject, and without which all ornament is wasted in vain.

Of those persons who have figured in the public theatre of the world, either in the tented field or the councils of state, much may be said, drawn from the services in which they were employed, and the parties with whom they have been associated. But in regard to men who have passed their days in an unvaried course, "content," as the judicious Hooker said, "to see God's blessings spring out of their mother earth, and eat their bread in peace and privacy," little can be told to excite or gratify curiosity, out of the immediate circle enlivened by their talents and virtues. Even where an individual has, by the extraordinary display of genius, rendered himself an object of attention and inquiry, it seldom happens that the tenour of his private life affords incidents more remarkable than those of ordinary men. Of the finest writers of antiquity the memoirs are very scanty, and form a striking contrast to the tumid volumes of modern biography. The history of Horace, for instance, is only known from the casual hints thrown out by himself in his familiar epistles, where he tells us, accidentally as it were, that he was humble in his origin, and had been extremely fortunate in his connexions.

This is our apology, if an apology were necessary, for the brevity of the present narrative.

Mr. CHARLES LAMB was born in Crown-office Row, Inner Temple, in 1775, and in 1782 was admitted into Christ's Hospital, where he received his education. In this seminary, from which many celebrated characters have emanated, he was contemporary with Thomas Fanshaw Middleton, who afterwards became bishop of Calcutta, and also with Mr. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, two scholars of pre-eminent abilities, but of widely different characters. With the last of these distinguished gentlemen, he then formed an intimacy, which, ripening into friendship, has continued thus far through life. On quitting this foundation, Mr. Lamb became a junior clerk in the South Sea House, under his elder brother, who held the office of accountant there, but died a few years since. From this employment he was removed in 1792, to a situation in the accountant's office in the East India House, where he remained until 1825, when indisposition compelled him to retire. We however, have reason to believe, that as ill-health was the sole cause of his removing, he still enjoys a pension from the munificence of that liberal and wealthy company.

His first appearance as an author was in 1798, when he published, in conjunction, with his friend and schoolfellow Charles Lloyd, a small volume, entitled, "Blank Verses." In the same year Mr. Lamb produced, alone, the pleasing and moral tale of "Rosamond Grey and Old Blind Margaret." His next performance was the unacted tragedy of "John Woodville," printed in 1802. Five years afterwards he published two volumes, entitled, "Tales from Shakspeare," differing in many respects from the historical illustration of the great dramatist by Mrs. Charlotte Lenox. In 1808, Mr. Lamb gave to the public, "The Adventures of Ulysses," a pretty little book, in imitation of Fenelon, but the materials were taken from the Odyssey. About the same time he published "Specimens of English Dramatic Poets, with Notes." None of these works attracted much notice; nor does it seem that the author ever aimed at popularity.

The productions of his genius that have excited most attention, are those to which his name is not affixed. Some of his best essays in verse and prose, have been thrown out to take their chance in the world; and it has so happened, that these light and fugitive effusions are read and admired, while the more laborious performances of the writer are slighted and forgotten.

In the year 1820, the late unfortunate Mr. John Scott having projected the establishment of the "London Magazine," drew to his assistance Mr. Lamb, who, under the appellation of ELIA, enriched that periodical with some original pieces, satirical, descriptive, and pathetic. As one of the most happy specimens of this author's spirit, we shall select the following picture:—

"Reader, wouldst thou know what true peace and quiet mean; wouldst thou find a refuge from the noises and clamours of the multitude; wouldst thou enjoy at once solitude and society; wouldst thou possess the depth of thy own spirit in stillness, without being shut up from the consolatory faces of thy species; wouldst thou be alone, and yet accompanied; solitary, yet not desolate; singular, yet not without some to keep thee in countenance; a unit in aggregate; a simple in composite; — come with me into a Quaker's meeting.

"Dost thou love silence, deep as that before the winds were made? go not out into the wilderness, descend not into the profundities of the earth; shut not up thy casements, nor pour wax into the little cells of thy ears; — retire with me into a Quaker's meeting.

"For a man to refrain even from good words, and to hold his peace, it is commendable; but for a multitude, it is great mastery.

"What is the stillness of the desert compared with this place? What the uncommtmicating muteness of fishes? Here the goddess Silence reigns and revels. — 'Boreas and Cesias and Argestes loud,' do not with their interconfounding uproars more augment the brawl — nor the waves of the blown Baltic with their clubbed sounds — than their opposite, Silence her sacred self — is multiplied and rendered more intense by numbers and sympathy. She too hath her deeps, that call unto deeps. Negation itself hath a positive, more and less; and closed eyes would seem to obscure the great obscurity of midnight. There are wounds which an imperfect solitude cannot heal. By imperfect I mean, that which a man enjoyeth by himself. The perfect is that which he can sometimes attain in crowds, but no where so absolutely as in a Quaker's meeting. — Those first hermits did certainly understand this principle, when they retired into Egyptian solitudes, not singly, but in shoals, to enjoy one another's want of conversation. The Carthusian is bound to his brethren by this agreeing spirit of incommunicativeness. In secular occasions, what so pleasant as to be reading a book through a long winter evening, with a friend sitting by — say a wife — he, or she too (if that be probable) reading another, without interruption or oral communication? can there be no sympathy without the gabble of words? Give me a sympathetic solitude.

"To pace alone, in the cloisters or side aisles of some cathedral, time-stricken, is but a vulgar luxury compared with that which those enjoy, who come together for the purposes of more complete, abstracted solitude. The Abbey church of Westminster hath nothing so solemn, so spirit. soothing, as the naked walls and benches of a Quaker's meeting. Here are no tombs, no inscriptions; but here is something which throws antiquity herself into the fore-ground — SILENCE — eldest of things — language of Old Night — primitive discourser — to which the insolent decays of mouldering grandeur have but arrived by a violent, and, as we may say, unnatural progression.

—"If the spiritual pretensions of the Quakers have abated, at least they make few pretences. Hypocrites, they certainly are not in their preaching. It is seldom indeed that you shall see one get: up amongst them to hold forth. Only now and then a trembling female, generally ancient, voice is heard-you cannot guess from what part of the meeting it proceeds with a low, buzzing, musical sound, laying out a few words which 'she thought might suit the condition of some present,' with a quaking diffidence, which leaves no possibility of supposing that any thing of female vanity was mixed up, where the tones were so full of tenderness, and a restraining modesty. The men, for what I have observed, speak seldomer.

"Once only, and it was some years ago, I witnessed a sample of the old Foxian orgasm. It was a man of giant stature, who, as Wordsworth phrases it, might have danced 'from head to foot, equipt in iron mail.' His frame was of iron too. But he was malleable. I saw him shake all over with the spirit — I dare not say, of delusion — the strivings of the outer man were unutterable; — he seemed not to speak, but to be spoken from. I saw the strong man bowed down, and his knees to fail — his joints all seemed loosening, — it was a figure to set off against Paul preaching. The words he uttered were few and sound; he was evidently resisting his will — keeping down his own word, wisdom, with more mighty effort than the world's orators strain for theirs. 'He was a wit in his youth,' he told us, with expressions of a sober remorse. And it was not till long after the impression had begun to wear away, that I was enabled, with something like a smile, to recall the striking incongruity of the confession — understanding the term in its worldly acceptation — with the frame and physiognomy of the person before me.' His brow would have scared away the levities — the Joci Risusque — faster than the lovers fled the face of Dis at Enna. By wit, even in his youth, I will be sworn, he understood something far within the limits of an allowable liberty."

There is a solemn hue diffused over this sketch, which would lead one to suppose that the author must be of a saturnine cast of temper. But, if we have been rightly informed, the case is far otherwise, and so far from being himself a lover of silence or solitude, Mr. Lamb is one of the most sociable, the most pleasing, and most lively of mortals. He shines best, it is true, in serious conversation, but the sallies of his wit are brilliant, and Swift himself could not be fonder of a pun.

This peculiarity of combination may be gathered from the diversified articles of which "Elia" is composed. Among these we might instance, that the levity of his "Grace before Meat" is but badly compensated by the wit and humour with which it is encircled. His account, on the contrary, of "Christ's Hospital five-and-thirty Years ago," displays much originality of thinking, as well as singular acuteness of observation. In this, his vivacity of expression, and talents at description, appear to great advantage.