1851 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Charles Lamb

David Macbeth Moir, in Sketches of the Poetical Literature of the Past Half-Century (1851; 1852) 89-90.



Charles Lamb was a true poet, but not a great one. His genius was peculiar and wayward; and his mind seemed so impregrated with the dramatists preceding or cotemporary with Shakspeare — Marlowe, Webster, Ford, Shirley, Marston, Massinger, and their compeers — that he could not help imitating their trains of thought. Yet he struck out a few exquisite things — sparks from true genius, which can never be extinguished; as The Old Familiar Faces, To Hester, The Virgin of the Rocks, and the descriptive forest-scene in John Woodvil, which, it is said, Godwin, having found somewhere extracted, was so enchanted with, that he hunted — of course vainly — through almost all the earlier poets in search of it.

To see the sun to bed, and to arise,
Like some hot amorist, with glowing eyes,
Bursting the lazy bands of sleep that bound him,
With all his fires and travelling glories round him....

Sometimes out-stretched, in very idleness,
Naught doing, saying little, thinking less,
To view the leaves, thin dancers upon air,
Go eddying round; and small birds how they fare
When mother Autumn fills their beaks with corn,
Filched from the careless Amalthea's horn;
And how the wood-berries and worms provide
Without their pains, when Earth hath naught beside,
To answer their small wants.
To view the graceful deer come tripping by,
Then stop and gaze, then turn they know not why,
Like bashful younkers in society.
To mark the structure of a plant or tree,
And all fair things of earth, how fair they be.

As a dramatic writer, Lamb was sadly deficient in plot and constructiveness. But, as a critic, his merits were of a higher order, and he is entitled to stand nearly in the first rank. His reputation will, however, ultimately rest on the Essays of Elia, than which our literature rejoices in few things finer.