1880 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Charles Lamb

Edward Dowden, in The English Poets: Selections with Critical Introductions, ed. Thomas Humphry Ward (1880) 4:326-27.



Charles Lamb's nosegay of verse may be held by the small hand of a maiden, and there is not in it one flaunting, gallant-flower; it is, however, fragrant with charities of home, like blossoms gathered in some old cottage croft. To know his varying subtleties, his play of intellect, his lambent humour, one must turn to his prose writings; but the gentle heart, the unworldly temper, the fine courtesy, betray themselves in every utterance of Lamb. It was in early manhood and in snatches of time that his first verses were written; he speaks of them as creatures of the fancy and the feeling in life's more vacant hours, as derivatives from the poetry of Coleridge. And certainly there is less in them of Lamb's own favourite, Burns, than of Bowles, whom Coleridge at one time idolised. In Coleridge's volume they modestly made their appearance. "My friend Lloyd and myself came into our first battle under cover of the greater Ajax." The larger number of his poems are occasional; a few are interesting records of a love in idleness that gave unusual charm to the memory of some months in Lamb's prime of youth. From the India House desk it was pleasant to wander in fancy along some forest-glade by the side of a fair-haired Anna. But after all, his dear sister, even his good and pious grandame, was closer to Lamb than any beloved "mild-eyed maid." And did there not remain to console him that life-long comrade, his pipe, the parting from which for a season he celebrates in a piece of mirthful fantasy that would readily run from verse into the quaint prose of Elia? For less pensive companionship he had now and again little Hartley Coleridge, or Thornton Hunt, a guileless traitor enduring imprisonment with his father when Lamb addressed him in verse. Nor in those innocent days of albums was Elia unacquainted with maiden-petitioners — Edith Southey, Dora Wordsworth, Lucy Barton — bashful yet intent to acquire the autograph. Lamb's deeper and sadder heart lay for the most part in quiet concealment; but once at least, in the mournful music of his Old Familiar Faces, its monody is heard.