1828 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Charles Lamb

Leigh Hunt, "Mr. Charles Lamb" Lord Byron and Some of his Contemporaries (1828) 296-99.



CHARLES LAMB has a head worthy of Aristotle, with as fine a heart as ever beat in human bosom, and limbs very fragile to sustain it. There is a caricature of him sold in the shops, which pretends to be a likeness. P—r went into the shop in a passion, and asked the man what he meant by putting forth such a libel. The man apologized, and said that the artist meant no offence. The face is a gross misrepresentation. Mr. Lamb's features are strongly yet delicately cut: he has a fine eye as well as forehead; and no face carries in it greater marks of thought and feeling. It resembles that of Bacon, with less worldly vigour, and more sensibility.

As his frame, so is his genius. It is as fit for thought as can be, and equally as unfit for action; and this renders him melancholy, apprehensive, humorous, and willing to make the best of every thing as it is, both from tenderness of heart and abhorrence of alteration. His understanding is too great to admit an absurdity; his frame is not strong enough to deliver it from a fear. His sensibility to strong contrasts is the foundation of his humour, which is that of a wit at once melancholy and willing to be pleased. He will beard a superstition, and shudder at the old phantasm while he does it. One could imagine him cracking a jest in the teeth of a ghost, and melting into thin air himself, out of a sympathy with the awful. His humour and his knowledge both, are those of Hamlet, of Moliere, of Carlin, who shook a city with laughter, and, in order to divert his melancholy, was recommended to go and hear himself. Yet he extracts a real pleasure out of his jokes, because good-heartedness retains that privilege, when it fails in every tiling else. I should say he condescended to be a punster, if condescension were a word befitting wisdom like his. Being told that somebody had lampooned him, he said, "Very well; I'll Lamb-pun him." His puns are admirable, and often contain as deep things as the wisdom of some who have greater names. Such a man, for instance, as Nicole the Frenchman, was a baby to him. He would have cracked a score of jokes at him, worth his whole book of sentences; pelted his head with pearls. Nicole would not have understood him, but Rochefoucault would, and Pascal too; and some of our old Englishmen would have understood him still better. He would have been worthy of hearing Shakspeare read one of his scenes to him, hot from the brain. Commonplace finds a great comforter in him, as long as it is good-natured; it is to the ill-natured or the dictatorial only that he is startling. Willing to see society go on as it does, because he despairs of seeing it otherwise, but not at all agreeing in his interior with the common notions of crime and punishment, he "dumbfounded" a long tirade one evening, by taking the pipe out of his mouth, and asking the speaker, "Whether he meant to say that a thief was not a good man?" To a person abusing Voltaire, and indiscreetly opposing his character to that of Jesus Christ, he said admirably well, (though he by no means overrates Voltaire, nor wants reverence in the other quarter,) that "Voltaire was a very good Jesus Christ for the French." He likes to see the church-goers continue to go to church, and has written a tale in his sister's admirable little book (Mrs. Leicester's School) to encourage the rising generation to do so: but to a conscientious deist he has nothing to object; and if an atheist found every other door shut against him, he would assuredly not find his. I believe he would have the world remain precisely as it is, provided it innovated no farther; but this spirit in him is any thing but a worldly one, or for his own interest. He hardly contemplates with patience the fine new buildings in the Regent's Park; and, privately speaking, he has a grudge against official heaven expounders, or clergymen. He would rather, however, be with a crowd that he dislikes, than feel himself alone. He said to me one day, with a face of solemnity, "What must have been that man's feelings who thought himself the first deist!" Finding no footing in certainty, he delights to confound the borders of theoretical truth and falsehood. He is fond of telling wild stories to children, engrafted on things about them; writes letters to people abroad, telling them that a friend of theirs; has come out in genteel comedy; and persuaded G. D. that Lord Castlereagh was the author of Waverley! The same excellent person, walking one evening out of his friend's house into the New River, Mr. Lamb (who was from home at the time) wrote a paper under his signature of Elia (now no longer anonymous), stating, that common friends would have stood dallying on the bank, have sent for neighbours, &c.; but that he, in his magnanimity, jumped in and rescued his friend after the old noble fashion. He wrote in the same magazine two Lives of Liston and Munden, which the public took for serious, and which exhibit an extraordinary jumble of imaginary facts and truth of bye-painting. Munden he makes born at "Stoke-Pogeis;" the very sound of which is like the actor speaking and digging his words. He knows how many false conclusions and pretensions are made by men who profess to be guided by facts only, as if facts could not be misconceived, or figments taken for them; and therefore one day, when somebody was speaking of a person who valued himself on being a matter-of-fact man, "Now," says he, "I value myself on being a matter-of-lie man." This does not hinder his being a man of the greatest veracity, in the ordinary sense of the word; but "truth," he says, "is precious, and ought not to be wasted on every body." Those who wish to have a genuine taste of him, and an insight into his modes of life, should read his essays on Hogarth and King Lear, his article on the London Streets, on Whist-Playing, which he loves, and on Saying Grace Before Meat, which he thinks a strange moment to select for being grateful. He said once to a brother whist player, who was a hand more clever than clean, and who had enough in him to afford the joke, "M., if dirt were trumps, what hands you would hold!"

This is an article very short of what I should wish to write on my friend's character; but perhaps I could not do it better. There is something in his modesty as well as wisdom, which hinders me from saying more. He has seen strange faces of calamity; but they have not made him love those of his fellow-creatures the less. The ingenious artist who has presented the public with his, will excuse one of his friends for thinking that he has done more justice to the moral than the intellectual character of it; which, in truth, it is very difficult to do, whether with pencil or with pen. A celebrated painter has said, that no one but Raphael could have done full justice to Raphael's face: which is a remark at once startling and consolatory to us inferior limners.