1845 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Charles Lamb

George Gilfillan, "Charles Lamb" Gallery of Literary Portraits (1845) 338-45.



It is a singular circumstance, in the present day, that the commercial and the literary character have, in certain instances, been blended, without destroying each other. Literature, in our strange era, has entered the counting-room. Wit, of the rarest grain, has assisted in unpacking bales of goods. Genius, of the true and sovereign seed, has seated itself upon the tall three-legged stool, and worn a quill, instead of laurel, behind its "trembling ears." The genius, thus enthroned, has not, to be sure, been of the most romantic or ethereal order. The idea is ridiculous, of a clerk, now with fire and fury enditing a Mystery, and now taking in a consignment of muslin; — dropping the pen, which had been dashing down the terrible syllables of a Walpurgis night, to make out an invoice of yarns. With all reverence for trade, in its various departments, we cannot believe it possible for a Goethe or a Schiller, a Byron or a Shelley, a Coleridge or a Wilson, to have been bred in a warehouse. Had they not been "wild and woodland rovers," known, through broad lands, to "every star and every wind that blows," with foot free to tread, as it listed, the deck or the heather, the soft sod or the incrusted lava, the sand or the snow; and, with faces imbrowned by the sunbeams which had smote them by day, and spiritualized by the starry eyes which had shot down influence upon them by night, they could not have been what, to the honour of their species and the glory of the universe, they have become. Only conceive Goethe, with that lofty forehead, and stately form, bending over a ledger; or the wizard Coleridge, with those dreamy eyes, deep in calculation of the price of stocks. And yet Charles Lamb, Coleridge's dear friend, thus spent the greater portion of his life. But then Charles Lamb, though as true a genius as any of those we have named, was a genius of quite a different and inferior order. And we know not how much greater he might have become, had he received a divers training, and instead of being the slave of a counting-room, had been free of that city, the builder and maker of which is God. Meanwhile let us be thankful for him as he was. If not a passionate, and earnest, and high-toned poet, he was a gay and chirruping rhymster, — the quaintest of humorists, — the most delicate and refined of critics, — the most delightful of essayists, — the most genial of companions.

We have a theory — nor do we hold it alone — that heart and soul are always found together, — that a man sees as he loves, and loves as he sees; that the distinction between cherubim, knowing ones, and seraphim, burning ones, (unknown to Scripture,) must be spurned away, as we mount up along the ladder of being, to the throne of Him, all whose perfections meet in that one transcendent love, which is his essence and his all. The heart has an eye of its own, and its vision is clear, far, and true. In Charles Lamb, at least, the two qualities were one. He reasoned with his heart, — with his heart he loved, with his heart he laughed, in heart he lived, moved, and had his being. And what a strange, wild, hot, large heart Lamb's was! It was only less than that which lies in Dumfries kirk-yard, belonging to the man of whom it was said, that if you touched his hand, it would have burnt yours. And, as this heart taught him to love the outcasts of society, to associate with its excommunicates, to cry halves to every pelt of calumny which assailed their devoted beads, so it led him, in search of matter for his genius, into the oddest and most out-of-the-way corners. From the beaten track of authorship he turned aside into a narrow zig-zag footpath, where he has, hitherto, had no follower. He shunned aerial heights of speculation, and vertigo raptures of passion; he cut no Gordian knots; he winked hard at all abstruse questions; he babbled not about green fields; he detested politics; he had small sympathies with the spirit and literature of his age; but he sat still in his study, with Ben Jonson and Webster, or he puffed out poetry from his inseparable pipe — or he looked into Mary's face till quiet tears bedimmed his eyelids — or he mounted the old Margate boy, and enjoyed its strange humours — or he strolled forth alone into the "sweet security of streets" — or he bent over a book-stall, rather in search of his former self than to read — or he threw in puns like small crackers between the cannonades of Coleridge's talk — or he shook poor Hazlitt by the hand till the blood was like to ooze out at his finger nails — or he threw forth the deepest strokes of sense and sagacity, as if he were ashamed of them — or he blurted out the strangest, wildest paradoxes till he made some people take him for a madman, and others for an atheist — or he revelled like a Rabelais in the regions of abysmal nonsense. Lamb's works excel all men's in this, that they fully reflect and embalm his own singular character. Every line, every word, is just like him. In fact, he could write nothing that was not instinct with himself. In his smallest composition you find all his qualities — his serious laugh — his quaint originality — his intolerance of cant — his instinctive attachment to all odd things, and all queer ambiguous people — his "very tragical mirth," the arabesque border of fun that edges his most serious speculations — his hatred of solitude — his love of cities — his shyness of all contested questions — his style so antique, yet racy, imitative yet original — his passion for old English authors — his enjoyment of recondite beauties, and the fine subtlety of his critical judgment.

His poetry is the least poetical thing he has written. He wants the highest form of the "vision and the faculty divine." And that very veering between the serious and the comic, which renders it difficult for you to tell whether he be in jest or earnest, though it be the life of his prose, is perdition to his poetry. A poet must either be manifestly in earnest, or manifestly in sport. Lamb is neither bard nor jester; or rather, the jingle of the cap and bells mingles with and mars the melody of the lyre. Yet there is much that is genuinely poetical in his verse, and more that is richly and uproariously comic.

His Rosamund Gray, it has been fashionable of late years to praise, and, as it is very short, even fashionable to read. We have striven hard to see its beauty, but, probably owing to the obtuseness of our optics, have striven in vain. We concede to it, however, the possession of simplicity, but it is the simplicity of nakedness, not precisely that of the story of Joseph and his brethren.

As a critic, Lamb's forte lay in seeing and showing new and unsuspected beauties in his author. He hangs and broods over the page, till all the secrets of its spirit are open to him. As Herschell seldom looked at the larger stars with that mighty telescope which swept the remoter firmaments, so Lamb's eye turns from the glare of the more prominent and dazzling qualities, to those far deep nooks and corners, in which the very marrow of meaning is or seems to be collected. Often, indeed, he attributes emphasis and intention to particular passages which never belonged to the author. And, as is natural to a discoverer, he sometimes exaggerates the value of what he has found. No man has ever seen Hogarth so clearly, or brought out so eloquently the moral and tragical qualities which lie like abysses beneath the thin, light, transparent ice of his humour.

Of the Essays of Elia, why need we say any thing? They are "nests of spicery," sweet, subtle extracts from that rarest of hearts, and most curiously-unique of intellects. Best in them, we like those reminiscences by which they are garnished: of his own early days, of Christ-church school, of his young companions, with whom he paced the cloisters, of the clerks who sat with him in the old South-Sea House, of dear sister Bridget, and, above all, of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "logician, metaphysician, bard; while Hope still rose before him like a fiery column, the dark side not yet turned." Lamb is the last essayist of England, and fitly and beautifully closes the fine line which Steele and Addison began.

It was to be expected that, as the essayist merges naturally into the letter-writer, the letters of Lamb should be worthy of his fame. We wish we could say something of this elegant species of literature, the letter; of the beauty of the first idea of extracting the private passages of one's life, recording, rolling up, sealing down into compact unity, and sending off by trusty transmission, little fragments of one's soul; of circulating the tinier griefs and fainter joys and more evanescent emotions, as well as the incidents and deeper passions of existence; of wings to conversation, and, by the soft soundless touch of a paper-wand, and the wave of a rod of feather, annihilating time and space, truly a "delicate thought, and softly bodied forth;" of the motley freightage which this little ark, once launched, has been compelled to bear: now called on to transmit a weight of written tears, and now of eager and expansive joys; now to "waft a sigh from Indus to the Pole," and now to echo a compliment or circulate a sneer; now to convey the gall of malice, and now to reflect the "bloom of young desire and purple light of love;" now to popularize the cogitations of the philosopher, and now to creak and tremble under the awful burdens of the inspired Apostle: — of the principal writers of this fine species of composition, — of Gray with his case, purity of style, and picturesqueness of description, — of the letters of Cowper, with their refined simplicity, and their depth of humour, — of Burns's, written on the top of deal tables, or chests of drawers, in wayside inns, and in the fire of potations pottle deep, coarse, consequently, wild, extravagant, but bold, forcible, sincere, — of the epistolary vein which at length opened in Byron, like the minor mouth of a volcano, and prompted those melancholy yet instructive missives of Venetian lewdness, infamy, and despair, over which the elite of London society met regularly to chuckle, in John Murray's back shop, — of Shelley's letters, so simple, stately, and eloquent, — of Sir Walter Scott's plain, downright, businesslike style of letter, — of Conversation Sharp's nice little morsels, — of Miss Seward's pert prettinesses, — of Mrs. Grant's lively and most feminine epistles, — and of the two finest letters ever written, both, strange to tell, proceeding from an artificial and scholastic man, — we refer to those addressed by Mackintosh to Hall, on his recovery from derangement, — solemn as offerings on a shrine, tinged with reverence toward the great spirit which had just come down from the "thunder hill" of Frenzy, touching with a bold, yet tender finger, the delicate and dangerous topic — breathing the purest spirit of attachment, and written with an elegance, a purity, and a pathos superior to aught in his more elaborate productions — they form among the sublimest memorials which genius has ever consecrated to friendship. What a cheering welcome did they furnish to the smitten and bewildered being, as he came back from that wild land to the experiences of the cold common world, and found his oldest and most congenial friend waiting on the border with a pressure of hand so soft and thrilling, and a smile of welcome so gravely sweet and reverently solemn, as must have melted his strong man to tears.

Lamb's letters are full of himself, and of his usual, incessant, and delightful mannerism. They abound in heart, peculiarity, unworldly pathos, humour, irony, fun, nonsense, balderdash, madness; yet all so deliciously fresh and rich, so peppered with old world condiments, so brimful of the sparkling "wine of life," so tartly singular in their spirit and style, that you sigh to think that they are included in that every thing which has an end.

Elia! we must reluctantly bid thee adieu! We have not done justice to thy inimitable merits; but assuredly it is from no defect of love! We feel almost as if we had known thee personally, sat at thy bounteous board, seen thy dark noble countenance, the "painful sweetness" of thy smile, thy small, slight, quivering form, seen by thy side, Mary, thy more than sister, linked to thee in "dual loneliness," thy tender nurse, thy mild companion, sometimes, alas! in her turn, the object of thy deep solicitude and awful care, — as if we had seen around the table "many glittering faces looking on," the faces of immortals — the serene front of Wordsworth, the mild mystic gaze of Coleridge, Hazlitt's pallid face and eager eye, Southey's Roman carriage, Hunt's thoughtful yet joyous visage, as if we had heard the colloquies which hung wings of gold upon each dark hour, as it chased the other away. For the dead we may not and need not pray; but surely, as we wave farewell, we may say, Blessings on thy kind heart, oblivion to thy errors, immortality to thy name.