It sounds paradoxical, but is not so in a bad sense, to say, that in every literature of large compass some authors will be found to rest much of the interest which surrounds them on their essential non-popularity. They are good for the very reason that they are not in conformity to the current taste. They interest because to the world they are not interesting. They attract by means of their repulsion. Not as though it could separately furnish a reason for loving a book, that the majority of men had found it repulsive. Prima facie, it must suggest some presumption against a book, that it has failed to gain public attention. To have roused hostility indeed, to have kindled a feud against its own principles or its temper, may happen to be a good sign. That argues power. Hatred may be promising. The deepest revolutions of mind sometimes begin in hatred. But simply to have left a reader unimpressed, is in itself a neutral result, from which the inference is doubtful. Yet even that, even simple failure to impress, may happen at times to be a result from positive powers in a writer, from special originalities, such as rarely reflect themselves in the mirror of the ordinary understanding. It seems little to be perceived, how much the great scriptural [Endnote: 1] idea of the worldly and the unworldly is found to emerge in literature as well as in life. In reality the very same combinations of moral qualities, infinitely varied, which compose the harsh physiognomy of what we call worldliness in the living groups of life, must unavoidably present themselves in books. A library divides into sections of worldly and unworldly, even as a crowd of men divides into that same majority and minority. The world has an instinct for recognizing its own; and recoils from certain qualities when exemplified in books, with the same disgust or defective sympathy as would have governed it in real life. From qualities for instance of childlike simplicity, of shy profundity, or of inspired self-communion, the world does and must turn away its face towards grosser, bolder, more determined, or more intelligible expressions of character and intellect; and not otherwise in literature, nor at all less in literature, than it does in the realities of life.
Charles Lamb, if any ever was is amongst the class here contemplated; he, if any ever has, ranks amongst writers whose works are destined to be forever unpopular, and yet forever interesting; interesting, moreover, by means of those very qualities which guarantee their non-popularity. The same qualities which will be found forbidding to the worldly and the thoughtless, which will be found insipid to many even amongst robust and powerful minds, are exactly those which will continue to command a select audience in every generation. The prose essays, under the signature of Elia, form the most delightful section amongst Lamb’s works. They traverse a peculiar field of observation, sequestered from general interest; and they are composed in a spirit too delicate and unobtrusive to catch the ear of the noisy crowd, clamoring for strong sensations. But this retiring delicacy itself, the pensiveness chequered by gleams of the fanciful, and the humor that is touched with cross-lights of pathos, together with the picturesque quaintness of the objects casually described, whether men, or things, or usages, and, in the rear of all this, the constant recurrence to ancient recollections and to decaying forms of household life, as things retiring before the tumult of new and revolutionary generations; these traits in combination communicate to the papers a grace and strength of originality which nothing in any literature approaches, whether for degree or kind of excellence, except the most felicitous papers of Addison, such as those on Sir Roger de Coverly, and some others in the same vein of composition. They resemble Addison’s papers also in the diction, which is natural and idiomatic, even to carelessness. They are equally faithful to the truth of nature; and in this only they differ remarkably—that the sketches of Elia reflect the stamp and impress of the writer’s own character, whereas in all those of Addison the personal peculiarities of the delineator (though known to the reader from the beginning through the account of the club) are nearly quiescent. Now and then they are recalled into a momentary notice, but they do not act, or at all modify his pictures of Sir Roger or Will Wimble. They are slightly and amiably eccentric; but the Spectator him-self, in describing them, takes the station of an ordinary observer.
Everywhere, indeed, in the writings of Lamb, and not merely in his Elia, the character of the writer cooperates in an under current to the effect of the thing written. To understand in the fullest sense either the gaiety or the tenderness of a particular passage, you must have some insight into the peculiar bias of the writer’s mind, whether native and original, or impressed gradually by the accidents of situation; whether simply developed out of predispositions by the action of life, or violently scorched into the constitution by some fierce fever of calamity. There is in modern literature a whole class of writers, though not a large one, standing within the same category; some marked originality of character in the writer become a coefficient with what he says to a common result; you must sympathize with this personality in the author before you can appreciate the most significant parts of his views. In most books the writer figures as a mere abstraction, without sex or age or local station, whom the reader banishes from his thoughts. What is written seems to proceed from a blank intellect, not from a man clothed with fleshly peculiarities and differences. These peculiarities and differences neither do, nor (generally speaking)could intermingle with the texture of the thoughts so as to modify their force or their direction. In such books, and they form the vast majority, there is nothing to be found or to be looked for beyond the direct objective. (Sit venia verbo!) But, in a small section of books, the objective in the thought becomes confluent with the subjective in the thinker—the two forces unite for a joint product; and fully to enjoy that product, or fully to apprehend either element, both must be known. It is singular, and worth inquiring into, for the reason that the Greek and Roman literature had no such books. Timon of Athens, or Diogenes, one may conceive qualified for this mode of authorship, had journalism existed to rouse them in those days; their “articles” would no doubt have been fearfully caustic. But, as they failed to produce anything, and Lucian in an after age is scarcely characteristic enough for the purpose, perhaps we may pronounce Rabelais and Montaigne the earliest of writers in the class described. In the century following theirs, came Sir Thomas Brown, and immediately after him La Fontaine. Then came Swift, Sterne, with others less distinguished; in Germany, Hippel, the friend of Kant, Harmann, the obscure; and the greatest of the whole body—John Paul Fr. Richter. In him, from the strength and determinateness of his nature as well as from the great extent of his writing, the philosophy of this interaction between the author as a human agency and his theme as an intellectual reagency, might best be studied. From him might be derived the largest number of cases, illustrating boldly this absorption of the universal into the concrete—of the pure intellect into the human nature of the author. But nowhere could illustrations be found more interesting—shy, delicate, evanescent—shy as lightning, delicate and evanescent as the colored pencillings on a frosty night from the northern lights, than in the better parts of Lamb.
To appreciate Lamb, therefore, it is requisite that his character and temperament should be understood in their coyest and most wayward features. A capital defect it would be if these could not be gathered silently from Lamb’s works themselves. It would be a fatal mode of dependency upon an alien and separable accident if they needed an external commentary. But they do not. The syllables lurk up and down the writings of Lamb which decipher his eccentric nature. His character lies there dispersed in anagram; and to any attentive reader the regathering and restoration of the total word from its scattered parts is inevitable without an effort. Still it is always a satisfaction in knowing a result, to know also its why and how; and in so far as every character is likely to be modified by the particular experience, sad or joyous, through which the life has travelled, it is a good contribution towards the knowledge of that resulting character as a whole to have a sketch of that particular experience. What trials did it impose? What energies did it task? What temptations did it unfold? These calls upon the moral powers, which in music so stormy, many a life is doomed to hear, how were they faced? The character in a capital degree moulds oftentimes the life, but the life always in a subordinate degree moulds the character. And the character being in this case of Lamb so much of a key to the writings, it becomes important that the life should be traced, however briefly, as a key to the character.
That is one reason for detaining the reader with some slight record of Lamb’s career. Such a record by preference and of right belongs to a case where the intellectual display, which is the sole ground of any public interest at all in the man, has been intensely modified by the humanities and moral personalities distinguishing the subject. We read a Physiology, and need no information as to the life and conversation of its author; a meditative poem becomes far better understood by the light of such information; but a work of genial and at the same time eccentric sentiment, wandering upon untrodden paths, is barely intelligible without it. There is a good reason for arresting judgment on the writer, that the court may receive evidence on the life of the man. But there is another reason, and, in any other place, a better; which reason lies in the extraordinary value of the life considered separately for itself. Logically, it is not allowable to say that here; and, considering the principal purpose of this paper, any possible independent value of the life must rank as a better reason for reporting it. Since, in a case where the original object is professedly to estimate the writings of a man, whatever promises to further that object must, merely by that tendency, have, in relation to that place, a momentary advantage which it would lose if valued upon a more abstract scale. Liberated from this casual office of throwing light upon a book—raised to its grander station of a solemn deposition to the moral capacities of man in conflict with calamity—viewed as a return made into the chanceries of heaven—upon an issue directed from that court to try the amount of power lodged in a poor desolate pair of human creatures for facing the very anarchy of storms—this obscure life of the two Lambs, brother and sister, (for the two lives were one life,) rises into a grandeur that is not paralleled once in a generation.
Rich, indeed, in moral instruction was the life of Charles Lamb; and perhaps in one chief result it offers to the thoughtful observer a lesson of consolation that is awful, and of hope that ought to be immortal, viz., in the record which it furnishes, that by meekness of submission, and by earnest conflict with evil, in the spirit of cheerfulness, it is possible ultimately to disarm or to blunt the very heaviest of curses—even the curse of lunacy. Had it been whispered, in hours of infancy, to Lamb, by the angel who stood by his cradle—“Thou, and the sister that walks by ten years before thee, shall be through life, each to each, the solitary fountain of comfort; and except it be from this fountain of mutual love, except it be as brother and sister, ye shall not taste the cup of peace on earth!”—here, if there was sorrow in reversion, there was also consolation.
But what funeral swamps would have instantly ingulfed this consolation, had some meddling fiend prolonged the revelation, and, holding up the curtain from the sad future a little longer, had said scornfully—“Peace on earth! Peace for you two, Charles and Mary Lamb! What peace is possible under the curse which even now is gathering against your heads? Is there peace on earth for the lunatic—peace for the parenticide—peace for the girl that, without warning, and without time granted for a penitential cry to heaven, sends her mother to the last audit?” And then, without treachery, speaking bare truth, this prophet of woe might have added—“Thou also, thyself, Charles Lamb, thou in thy proper person, shalt enter the skirts of this dreadful hail-storm; even thou shalt taste the secrets of lunacy, and enter as a captive its house of bondage; whilst over thy sister the accursed scorpion shall hang suspended through life, like Death hanging over the beds of hospitals, striking at times, but more often threatening to strike; or withdrawing its instant menaces only to lay bare her mind more bitterly to the persecutions of a haunted memory!” Considering the nature of the calamity, in the first place; considering, in the second place, its life-long duration; and, in the last place, considering the quality of the resistance by which it was met, and under what circumstances of humble resources in money or friends—we have come to the deliberate judgment, that the whole range of history scarcely presents a more affecting spectacle of perpetual sorrow, humiliation, or conflict, and that was supported to the end, (that is, through forty years,) with more resignation, or with more absolute victory.
Charles Lamb was born in February of the year 1775. His immediate descent was humble; for his father, though on one particular occasion civilly described as a “scrivener,” was in reality a domestic servant to Mr. Salt—a bencher (and therefore a barrister of some standing) in the Inner Temple. John Lamb the father belonged by birth to Lincoln; from which city, being transferred to London whilst yet a boy, he entered the service of Mr. Salt without delay; and apparently from this period throughout his life continued in this good man’s household to support the honorable relation of a Roman client to his patronus, much more than that of a mercenary servant to a transient and capricious master. The terms on which he seems to live with the family of the Lambs, argue a kindness and a liberality of nature on both sides. John Lamb recommended himself as an attendant by the versatility of his accomplishments; and Mr. Salt, being a widower without children, which means in effect an old bachelor, naturally valued that encyclopaedic range of dexterity which made his house independent of external aid for every mode of service. To kill one’s own mutton is but an operose way of arriving at a dinner, and often a more costly way; whereas to combine one’s own carpenter, locksmith, hair-dresser, groom, &c., all in one man’s person,—to have a Robinson Crusoe, up to all emergencies of life, always in waiting, —is a luxury of the highest class for one who values his ease.
A consultation is held more freely with a man familiar to one’s eye, and more profitably with a man aware of one’s peculiar habits. And another advantage from such an arrangement is, that one gets any little alteration or repair executed on the spot. To hear is to obey, and by an inversion of Pope’s rule—
“One always is, and never to be, blest.”
People of one sole accomplishment, like the homo unius libri, _ are usually within that narrow circle disagreeably perfect, and therefore apt to be arrogant. People who can do all things, usually do every one of them ill; and living in a constant effort to deny this too palpable fact, they become irritably vain. But Mr. Lamb the elder seems to have been bent on perfection. He did all things; he did them all well; and yet was neither gloomily arrogant, nor testily vain. And being conscious apparently that all mechanic excellencies tend to illiberal results, unless counteracted by perpetual sacrifices to the muses, he went so far as to cultivate poetry; he even printed his poems, and were we possessed of a copy, (which we are _not, nor probably is the Vatican,) it would give us pleasure at this point to digress for a moment, and to cut them up, purely on considerations of respect to the author’s memory. It is hardly to be supposed that they did not really merit castigation; and we should best show the sincerity of our respect for Mr. Lamb, senior, in all those cases where we could conscientiously profess respect by an unlimited application of the knout in the cases where we could not.
The whole family of the Lambs seem to have won from Mr. Salt the consideration which is granted to humble friends; and from acquaintances nearer to their own standing, to have won a tenderness of esteem such as is granted to decayed gentry. Yet naturally, the social rank of the parents, as people still living, must have operated disadvantageously for the children. It is hard, even for the practised philosopher, to distinguish aristocratic graces of manner, and capacities of delicate feeling, in people whose very hearth and dress bear witness to the servile humility of their station. Yet such distinctions as wild gifts of nature, timidly and half-unconsciously asserted themselves in the unpretending Lambs. Already in their favor there existed a silent privilege analogous to the famous one of Lord Kinsale. He, by special grant from the crown, is allowed, when standing before the king, to forget that he is not himself a king; the bearer of that peerage, through all generations, has the privilege of wearing his hat in the royal presence. By a general though tacit concession of the same nature, the rising generation of the Lambs, John and Charles, the two sons, and Mary Lamb, the only daughter, were permitted to forget that their grandmother had been a housekeeper for sixty years, and that their father had worn a livery. Charles Lamb, individually, was so entirely humble, and so careless of social distinctions, that he has taken pleasure in recurring to these very facts in the family records amongst the most genial of his Elia recollections. He only continued to remember, without shame, and with a peculiar tenderness, these badges of plebeian rank, when everybody else, amongst the few survivors that could have known of their existence, had long dismissed them from their thoughts.
Probably, through Mr. Salt’s interest, Charles Lamb, in the autumn of 1782, when he wanted something more than four months of completing his eighth year, received a presentation to the magnificent school of Christ’s Hospital. The late Dr. Arnold, when contrasting the school of his own boyish experience, Winchester, with Rugby, the school confided to his management, found nothing so much to regret in the circumstances of the latter as its forlorn condition with respect to historical traditions. Wherever these were wanting, and supposing the school of sufficient magnitude, it occurred to Dr. Arnold that something of a compensatory effect for impressing the imagination might be obtained by connecting the school with the nation through the link of annual prizes issuing from the exchequer. An official basis of national patronage might prove a substitute for an antiquarian or ancestral basis. Happily for the great educational foundations of London, none of them is in the naked condition of Rugby. Westminster, St. Paul’s, Merchant Tailors’, the Charter-House, &c., are all crowned with historical recollections; and Christ’s Hospital, besides the original honors of its foundation, so fitted to a consecrated place in a youthful imagination—an asylum for boy-students, provided by a boy-king—innocent, religious, prematurely wise, and prematurely called away from earth—has also a mode of perpetual connection with the state. It enjoys, therefore, both of Dr. Arnold’s advantages. Indeed, all the great foundation schools of London, bearing in their very codes of organization the impress of a double function—viz., the conservation of sound learning and of pure religion—wear something of a monastic or cloisteral character in their aspect and usages, which is peculiarly impressive, and even pathetic, amidst the uproars of a capital the most colossal and tumultuous upon earth.
Here Lamb remained until his fifteenth year, which year threw him on the world, and brought him alongside the golden dawn of the French Revolution. Here he learned a little elementary Greek, and of Latin more than a little; for the Latin notes to Mr. Cary (of Dante celebrity) though brief, are sufficient to reveal a true sense of what is graceful and idiomatic in Latinity. We say this, who have studied that subject more than most men. It is not that Lamb would have found it an easy task to compose a long paper in Latin—nobody can, find it easy to do what he has no motive for habitually practising; but a single sentence of Latin wearing the secret countersign of the “sweet Roman hand,” ascertains sufficiently that, in reading Latin classics, a man feels and comprehends their peculiar force or beauty. That is enough. It is requisite to a man’s expansion of mind that he should make acquaintance with a literature so radically differing from all modern literatures as is the Latin. It is not requisite that he should practise Latin composition. Here, therefore, Lamb obtained in sufficient perfection one priceless accomplishment, which even singly throws a graceful air of liberality over all the rest of a man’s attainments: having rarely any pecuniary value, it challenges the more attention to its intellectual value. Here also Lamb commenced the friendships of his life; and, of all which he formed, he lost none. Here it was, as the consummation and crown of his advantages from the time-honored hospital, that he came to know “Poor S. T. C.” [Greek text: ton thaumasiotaton.]
Until 1796, it is probable that he lost sight of Coleridge, who was then occupied with Cambridge, having been transferred thither as a “Grecian” from the house of Christ Church. That year, 1796, was a year of change and fearful calamity for Charles Lamb. On that year revolved the wheels of his after-life. During the three years succeeding to his school days, he had held a clerkship in the South Sea House. In 1795, he was transferred to the India House. As a junior clerk, he could not receive more than a slender salary; but even this was important to the support of his parents and sister. They lived together in lodgings near Holborn; and in the spring of 1796, Miss Lamb, (having previously shown signs of lunacy at intervals,) in a sudden paroxysm of her disease, seized a knife from the dinner table, and stabbed her mother, who died upon the spot. A coroner’s inquest easily ascertained the nature of a case which was transparent in all its circumstances, and never for a moment indecisive as regarded the medical symptoms. The poor young lady was transferred to the establishment for lunatics at Hoxton. She soon recovered, we believe; but her relapses were as sudden as her recoveries, and she continued through life to revisit, for periods of uncertain seclusion, this house of woe. This calamity of his fireside, followed soon after by the death of his father, who had for some time been in a state of imbecility, determined the future destiny of Lamb. Apprehending, with the perfect grief of perfect love, that his sister’s fate was sealed for life—viewing her as his own greatest benefactress, which she really had been through her advantage by ten years of age—yielding with impassioned readiness to the depth of his fraternal affection, what at any rate he would have yielded to the sanctities of duty as interpreted by his own conscience—he resolved forever to resign all thoughts of marriage with a young lady whom he loved, forever to abandon all ambitious prospects that might have tempted him into uncertainties, humbly to content himself with the certainties of his Indian clerkship, to dedicate himself for the future to the care of his desolate and prostrate sister, and to leave the rest to God. These sacrifices he made in no hurry or tumult, but deliberately, and in religious tranquillity. These sacrifices were accepted in heaven—and even on this earth they had their reward. She, for whom he gave up all, in turn gave up all for him. She devoted herself to his comfort. Many times she returned to the lunatic establishment, but many times she was restored to illuminate the household hearth for him; and of the happiness which for forty years and more he had, no hour seemed true that was not derived from her. Hence forwards, therefore, until he was emancipated by the noble generosity of the East India Directors, Lamb’s time, for nine-and-twenty years, was given to the India House.
“O fortunati nimium, sua si bona narint,” is applicable to more people than “agricolae.” Clerks of the India House are as blind to their own advantages as the blindest of ploughmen. Lamb was summoned, it is true, through the larger and more genial section of his life, to the drudgery of a copying clerk—making confidential entries into mighty folios, on the subject of calicoes and muslins. By this means, whether he would or not, he became gradually the author of a great “serial” work, in a frightful number of volumes, on as dry a department of literature as the children of the great desert could have suggested. Nobody, he must have felt, was ever likely to study this great work of his, not even Dr. Dryasdust. He had written in vain, which is not pleasant to know. There would be no second edition called for by a discerning public in Leadenhall Street; not a chance of that. And consequently the opera omnia of Lamb, drawn up in a hideous battalion, at the cost of labor so enormous, would be known only to certain families of spiders in one generation, and of rats in the next. Such a labor of Sysyphus,—the rolling up a ponderous stone to the summit of a hill only that it might roll back again by the gravitation of its own dulness,—seems a bad employment for a man of genius in his meridian energies. And yet, perhaps not. Perhaps the collective wisdom of Europe could not have devised for Lamb a more favorable condition of toil than this very India House clerkship. His works (his Leadenhall street works) were certainly not read; popular they could not be, for they were not read by anybody; but then, to balance that, they were not reviewed. His folios were of that order, which (in Cowper’s words) “not even critics criticise.” Is that nothing? Is it no happiness to escape the hands of scoundrel reviewers? Many of us escape being read; the worshipful reviewer does not find time to read a line of us; but we do not for that reason escape being criticised, “shown up,” and martyred. The list of errata again, committed by Lamb, was probably of a magnitude to alarm any possible compositor; and yet these errata will never be known to mankind. They are dead and buried. They have been cut off prematurely; and for any effect upon their generation, might as well never have existed. Then the returns, in a pecuniary sense, from these folios—how important were they! It is not common, certainly, to write folios; but neither is it common to draw a steady income of from 300 l. to 400 l. per annum from volumes of any size. This will be admitted; but would it not have been better to draw the income without the toil? Doubtless it would always be more agreeable to have the rose without the thorn. But in the case before us, taken with all its circumstances, we deny that the toil is truly typified as a thorn; so far from being a thorn in Lamb’s daily life, on the contrary, it was a second rose ingrafted upon the original rose of the income, that he had to earn it by a moderate but continued exertion. Holidays, in a national establishment so great as the India House, and in our too fervid period, naturally could not be frequent; yet all great English corporations are gracious masters, and indulgences of this nature could be obtained on a special application. Not to count upon these accidents of favor, we find that the regular toil of those in Lamb’s situation, began at ten in the morning and ended as the clock struck four in the afternoon. Six hours composed the daily contribution of labor, that is precisely one fourth part of the total day. Only that, as Sunday was exempted, the rigorous expression of the quota was one fourth of six-sevenths, which makes sixty twenty-eighths and not six twenty-fourths of the total time. Less toil than this would hardly have availed to deepen the sense of value in that large part of the time still remaining disposable. Had there been any resumption whatever of labor in the evening, though but for half an hour, that one encroachment upon the broad continuous area of the eighteen free hours would have killed the tranquillity of the whole day, by sowing it (so to speak) with intermitting anxieties—anxieties that, like tides, would still be rising and falling. Whereas now, at the early hour of four, when daylight is yet lingering in the air, even at the dead of winter, in the latitude of London, and when the enjoying section of the day is barely commencing, everything is left which a man would care to retain. A mere dilettante or amateur student, having no mercenary interest concerned, would, upon a refinement of luxury—would, upon choice, give up so much time to study, were it only to sharpen the value of what remained for pleasure. And thus the only difference between the scheme of the India House distributing his time for Lamb, and the scheme of a wise voluptuary distributing his time for himself, lay, not in the amount of time deducted from enjoyment, but in the particular mode of appropriating that deduction. An intellectual appropriation of the time, though casually fatiguing, must have pleasures of its own; pleasures denied to a task so mechanic and so monotonous as that of reiterating endless records of sales or consignments not essentially varying from each other. True; it is pleasanter to pursue an intellectual study than to make entries in a ledger. But even an intellectual toil is toil; few people can support it for more than six hours in a day. And the only question, therefore, after all, is, at what period of the day a man would prefer taking this pleasure of study. Now, upon that point, as regards the case of Lamb, there is no opening for doubt. He, amongst his Popular Fallacies, admirably illustrates the necessity of evening and artificial lights to the prosperity of studies. After exposing, with the perfection of fun, the savage unsociality of those elder ancestors who lived (if life it was) before lamp-light was invented, showing that “jokes came in with candles,” since “what repartees could have passed” when people were “grumbling at one another in the dark,” and “when you must have felt about for a smile, and handled a neighbor’s cheek to be sure that he understood it?”—he goes on to say,” This accounts for the seriousness of the elder poetry, “viz., because they had no candle-light. Even eating he objects to as a very imperfect thing in the dark; you are not convinced that a dish tastes as it should do by the promise of its name, if you dine in the twilight without candles. Seeing is believing.” The senses absolutely give and take reciprocally. “The sight guarantees the taste. For instance,” Can you tell pork from veal in the dark, or distinguish Sherries from pure Malaga? “To all enjoyments whatsoever candles are indispensable as an adjunct; but, as to reading,” there is, “says Lamb,” absolutely no such thing but by a candle. We have tried the affectation of a book at noon-day in gardens, but it was labor thrown away. It is a mockery, all that is reported of the influential Phoebus. No true poem ever owed its birth to the sun’s light. The mild internal light, that reveals the fine shapings of poetry, like fires on the domestic hearth, goes out in the sunshine. Milton’s morning hymn in Paradise, we would hold a good wager, was penned at midnight; and Taylor’s rich description of a sunrise smells decidedly of the taper. “This view of evening and candle-light as involved in literature may seem no more than a pleasant extravaganza; and no doubt it is in the nature of such gayeties to travel a little into exaggeration, but substantially it is certain that Lamb’s feelings pointed habitually in the direction here indicated. His literary studies, whether taking the color of tasks or diversions, courted the aid of evening, which, by means of physical weariness, produces a more luxurious state of repose than belong to the labor hours of day, and courted the aid of lamp-light, which, as Lord Bacon remarked, gives a gorgeousness to human pomps and pleasures, such as would be vainly sought from the homeliness of day-light. The hours, therefore, which were withdrawn from his own control by the India House, happened to be exactly that part of the day which Lamb least valued, and could least have turned to account.
The account given of Lamb’s friends, of those whom he endeavored to love because he admired them, or to esteem intellectually because he loved them personally, is too much colored for general acquiescence by Sergeant Talfourd’s own early prepossessions. It is natural that an intellectual man like the Sergeant, personally made known in youth to people, whom from childhood he had regarded as powers in the ideal world, and in some instances as representing the eternities of human speculation, since their names had perhaps dawned upon his mind in concurrence with the very earliest suggestion of topics which they had treated, should overrate their intrinsic grandeur. Hazlitt accordingly is styled “The great thinker.” But had he been such potentially, there was an absolute bar to his achievement of that station in act and consummation. No man can be a great thinker in our days upon large and elaborate questions without being also a great student. To think profoundly, it is indispensable that a man should have read down to his own starting point, and have read as a collating student to the particular stage at which he himself takes up the subject. At this moment, for instance, how could geology be treated otherwise than childishly by one who should rely upon the encyclopaedias of 1800? or comparative physiology by the most ingenious of men unacquainted with Marshall Hall, and with the apocalyptic glimpses of secrets unfolding under the hands of Professor Owen? In such a condition of undisciplined thinking, the ablest man thinks to no purpose. He lingers upon parts of the inquiry that have lost the importance which once they had, under imperfect charts of the subject; he wastes his strength upon problems that have become obsolete; he loses his way in paths that are not in the line of direction upon which the improved speculation is moving; or he gives narrow conjectural solutions of difficulties that have long since received sure and comprehensive ones. It is as if a man should in these days attempt to colonize, and yet, through inertia or through ignorance, should leave behind him all modern resources of chemistry, of chemical agriculture, or of steam-power. Hazlitt had read nothing. Unacquainted with Grecian philosophy, with Scholastic philosophy, and with the recomposition of these philosophies in the looms of Germany during the last sixty and odd years, trusting merely to the unrestrained instincts of keen mother-wit—whence should Hazlitt have had the materials for great thinking? It is through the collation of many abortive voyages to polar regions that a man gains his first chance of entering the polar basin, or of running ahead on the true line of approach to it. The very reason for Hazlitt’s defect in eloquence as a lecturer, is sufficient also as a reason why he could not have been a comprehensive thinker. “He was not eloquent,” says the Sergeant, “in the true sense of the term.” But why? Because it seems “his thoughts were too weighty to be moved along by the shallow stream of feeling which an evening’s excitement can rouse,”—an explanation which leaves us in doubt whether Hazlitt forfeited his chance of eloquence by accommodating himself to this evening’s excitement, or by gloomily resisting it. Our own explanation is different, Hazlitt was not eloquent, because he was discontinuous. No man can he eloquent whose thoughts are abrupt, insulated, capricious, and (to borrow an impressive word from Coleridge) non-sequacious. Eloquence resides not in separate or fractional ideas, but in the relations of manifold ideas, and in the mode of their evolution from each other. It is not indeed enough that the ideas should be many, and their relations coherent; the main condition lies in the key of the evolution, in the law of the succession. The elements are nothing without the atmosphere that moulds, and the dynamic forces that combine. Now Hazlitt’s brilliancy is seen chiefly in separate splinterings of phrase or image which throw upon the eye a vitreous scintillation for a moment, but spread no deep suffusions of color, and distribute no masses of mighty shadow. A flash, a solitary flash, and all is gone. Rhetoric, according to its quality, stands in many degrees of relation to the permanencies of truth; and all rhetoric, like all flesh, is partly unreal, and the glory of both is fleeting. Even the mighty rhetoric of Sir Thomas Brown, or Jeremy Taylor, to whom only it has been granted to open the trumpet-stop on that great organ of passion, oftentimes leaves behind it the sense of sadness which belongs to beautiful apparitions starting out of darkness upon the morbid eye, only to be reclaimed by darkness in the instant of their birth, or which belongs to pageantries in the clouds. But if all rhetoric is a mode of pyrotechny, and all pyrotechnics are by necessity fugacious, yet even in these frail pomps, there are many degrees of frailty. Some fireworks require an hour’s duration for the expansion of their glory; others, as if formed from fulminating powder, expire in the very act of birth. Precisely on that scale of duration and of power stand the glitterings of rhetoric that are not worked into the texture, but washed on from the outside. Hazlitt’s thoughts were of the same fractured and discontinuous order as his illustrative images—seldom or never self-diffusive; and that is a sufficient argument that he had never cultivated philosophic thinking.
Not, however, to conceal any part of the truth, we are bound to acknowledge that Lamb thought otherwise on this point, manifesting what seemed to us an extravagant admiration of Hazlitt, and perhaps even in part for that very glitter which we are denouncing—at least he did so in a conversation with ourselves. But, on the other hand, as this conversation travelled a little into the tone of a disputation, and our frost on this point might seem to justify some undue fervor by way of balance, it is very possible that Lamb did not speak his absolute and most dispassionate judgment. And yet again, if he did, may we, with all reverence for Lamb’s exquisite genius, have permission to say—that his own constitution of intellect sinned by this very habit of discontinuity. It was a habit of mind not unlikely to be cherished by his habits of life. Amongst these habits was the excess of his social kindness. He scorned so much to deny his company and his redundant hospitality to any man who manifested a wish for either by calling upon him, that he almost seemed to think it a criminality in himself if, by accident, he really was from home on your visit, rather than by possibility a negligence in you, that had not forewarned him of your intention. All his life, from this and other causes, he must have read in the spirit of one liable to sudden interruption; like a dragoon, in fact, reading with one foot in the stirrup, when expecting momentarily a summons to mount for action. In such situations, reading by snatches, and by intervals of precarious leisure, people form the habit of seeking and unduly valuing condensations of the meaning, where in reality the truth suffers by this short-hand exhibition, or else they demand too vivid illustrations of the meaning. Lord Chesterfield himself, so brilliant a man by nature, already therefore making a morbid estimate of brilliancy, and so hurried throughout his life as a public man, read under this double coercion for craving instantaneous effects. At one period, his only time for reading was in the morning, whilst under the hands of his hair-dresser; compelled to take the hastiest of flying shots at his author, naturally he demanded a very conspicuous mark to fire at. But the author could not, in so brief a space, be always sure to crowd any very prominent objects on the eye, unless by being audaciously oracular and peremptory as regarded the sentiment, or flashy in excess as regarded its expression. “Come now, my friend,” was Lord Chesterfield’s morning adjuration to his author;” come now, cut it short—don’t prose—don’t hum and haw. “The author had doubtless no ambition to enter his name on the honorable and ancient roll of gentlemen prosers; probably he conceived himself not at all tainted with the asthmatic infirmity of humming and hawing; but, as to “cutting it short,” how could he be sure of meeting his lordship’s expectations in that point, unless by dismissing the limitations that might be requisite to fit the idea for use, or the adjuncts that might be requisite to integrate its truth, or the final consequences that might involve some deep arriere pensee, which, coming last in the succession, might oftentimes be calculated to lie deepest on the mind. To be lawfully and usefully brilliant after this rapid fashion, a man must come forward as a refresher of old truths, where his suppressions are supplied by the reader’s memory; not as an expounder of new truths, where oftentimes a dislocated fraction of the true is more dangerous than the false itself.
To read therefore habitually, by hurried instalments, has this bad tendency—that it is likely to found a taste for modes of composition too artificially irritating, and to disturb the equilibrium of the judgment in relation to the colorings of style. Lamb, however, whose constitution of mind was even ideally sound in reference to the natural, the simple, the genuine, might seem of all men least liable to a taint in this direction. And undoubtedly he was so, as regarded those modes of beauty which nature had specially qualified him for apprehending. Else, and in relation to other modes of beauty, where his sense of the true, and of its distinction from the spurious, had been an acquired sense, it is impossible for us to hide from ourselves—that not through habits only, not through stress of injurious accidents only, but by original structure and temperament of mind, Lamb had a bias towards those very defects on which rested the startling characteristics of style which we have been noticing. He himself, we fear, not bribed by indulgent feelings to another, not moved by friendship, but by native tendency, shrank from the continuous, from the sustained, from the elaborate.
The elaborate, indeed, without which much truth and beauty must perish in germ, was by name the object of his invectives. The instances are many, in his own beautiful essays, where he literally collapses, literally sinks away from openings suddenly offering themselves to flights of pathos or solemnity in direct prosecution of his own theme. On any such summons, where an ascending impulse, and an untired pinion were required, he refuses himself (to use military language) invariably. The least observing reader of Elia cannot have failed to notice that the most felicitous passages always accomplish their circuit in a few sentences. The gyration within which his sentiment wheels, no matter of what kind it may be, is always the shortest possible. It does not prolong itself, and it does not repeat itself. But in fact, other features in Lamb’s mind would have argued this feature by analogy, had we by accident been left unaware of it directly. It is not by chance, or without a deep ground in his nature, common to all his qualities, both affirmative and negative, that Lamb had an insensibility to music more absolute than can have been often shared by any human creature, or perhaps than was ever before acknowledged so candidly. The sense of music,—as a pleasurable sense, or as any sense at all other than of certain unmeaning and impertinent differences in respect to high and low, sharp or flat, —was utterly obliterated as with a sponge by nature herself from Lamb’s organization. It was a corollary, from the same large substratum in his nature, that Lamb had no sense of the rhythmical in prose composition. Rhythmus, or pomp of cadence, or sonorous ascent of clauses, in the structure of sentences, were effects of art as much thrown away upon him as the voice of the charmer upon the deaf adder. We ourselves, occupying the very station of polar opposition to that of Lamb, being as morbidly, perhaps, in the one excess as he in the other, naturally detected this omission in Lamb’s nature at an early stage of our acquaintance. Not the fabled Regulus, with his eyelids torn away, and his uncurtained eye-balls exposed to the noon-tide glare of a Carthaginian sun, could have shrieked with more anguish of recoil from torture than we from certain sentences and periods in which Lamb perceived no fault at all. Pomp, in our apprehension, was an idea of two categories; the pompous might be spurious, but it might also be genuine. It is well to love the simple—we love it; nor is there any opposition at all between that and the very glory of pomp. But, as we once put the case to Lamb, if, as a musician, as the leader of a mighty orchestra, you had this theme offered to you—“Belshazzar the king gave a great feast to a thousand of his lords”—or this,” And on a certain day, Marcus Cicero stood up, and in a set speech rendered solemn thanks to Caius Caesar for Quintus Ligarius pardoned, and for Marcus Marcellus restored “—surely no man would deny that, in such a case, simplicity, though in a passive sense not lawfully absent, must stand aside as totally insufficient for the positive part. Simplicity might guide, even here, but could not furnish the power; a rudder it might be, but not an oar or a sail. This, Lamb was ready to allow; as an intellectual quiddity, he recognized pomp in the character of a privileged thing; he was obliged to do so; for take away from great ceremonial festivals, such as the solemn rendering of thanks, the celebration of national anniversaries, the commemoration of public benefactors, &c., the element of pomp, and you take away their very meaning and life; but, whilst allowing a place for it in the rubric of the logician, it is certain that, sensuously, Lamb would not have sympathized with it, nor have felt its justification in any concrete instance. We find a difficulty in pursuing this subject, without greatly exceeding our limits. We pause, therefore, and add only this one suggestion as partly explanatory of the case. Lamb had the dramatic intellect and taste, perhaps in perfection; of the Epic, he had none at all. Here, as happens sometimes to men of genius preternaturally endowed in one direction, he might be considered as almost starved. A favorite of nature, so eminent in some directions, by what right could he complain that her bounties were not indiscriminate? From this defect in his nature it arose, that, except by culture and by reflection, Lamb had no genial appreciation of Milton. The solemn planetary wheelings of the Paradise Lost were not to his taste. What he did comprehend, were the motions like those of lightning, the fierce angular coruscations of that wild agency which comes forward so vividly in the sudden peripetteia, in the revolutionary catastrophe, and in the tumultuous conflicts, through persons or through situations, of the tragic drama.
There is another vice in Mr. Hazlitt’s mode of composition, viz., the habit of trite quotation, too common to have challenged much notice, were it not for these reasons: 1st, That Sergeant Talfourd speaks of it in equivocal terms, as a fault perhaps, but as a “felicitous” fault, “trailing after it a line of golden associations;” 2dly, because the practice involves a dishonesty. On occasion of No. 1, we must profess our belief that a more ample explanation from the Sergeant would have left him in substantial harmony with ourselves. We cannot conceive the author of Ion, and the friend of Wordsworth, seriously to countenance that paralytic “mouth-diarrhoea,” (to borrow a phrase of Coleridge’s)—that fluxe de bouche(to borrow an earlier phrase of Archbishop Huet’s) which places the reader at the mercy of a man’s tritest remembrances from his most school-boy reading. To have the verbal memory infested with tags of verse and “cues” of rhyme is in itself an infirmity as vulgar and as morbid as the stableboy’s habit of whistling slang airs upon the mere mechanical excitement of a bar or two whistled by some other blockhead in some other stable. The very stage has grown weary of ridiculing a folly, that having been long since expelled from decent society has taken refuge amongst the most imbecile of authors. Was Mr. Hazlitt then of that class? No; he was a man of great talents, and of capacity for greater things than he ever attempted, though without any pretensions of the philosophic kind ascribed to him by the Sergeant. Meantime the reason for resisting the example and practice of Hazlitt lies in this—that essentially it is at war with sincerity, the foundation of all good writing, to express one’s own thoughts by another man’s words. This dilemma arises. The thought is, or it is not, worthy of that emphasis which belongs to a metrical expression of it. If it is not, then we shall be guilty of a mere folly in pushing into strong relief that which confessedly cannot support it. If it is, then how incredible that a thought strongly conceived, and bearing about it the impress of one’s own individuality, should naturally, and without dissimulation or falsehood, bend to another man’s expression of it! Simply to back one’s own view by a similar view derived from another, may be useful; a quotation that repeats one’s own sentiment, but in a varied form, has the grace which belongs to the idem in alio, the same radical idea expressed with a difference—similarity in dissimilarity; but to throw one’s own thoughts, matter, and form, through alien organs so absolutely as to make another man one’s interpreter for evil and good, is either to confess a singular laxity of thinking that can so flexibly adapt itself to any casual form of words, or else to confess that sort of carelessness about the expression which draws its real origin from a sense of indifference about the things to be expressed. Utterly at war this distressing practice is with all simplicity and earnestness of writing; it argues a state of indolent ease inconsistent with the pressure and coercion of strong fermenting thoughts, before we can be at leisure for idle or chance quotations. But lastly, in reference to No. 2, we must add that the practice is signally dishonest. It “trails after it a line of golden associations.” Yes, and the burglar, who leaves an army-tailor’s after a midnight visit, trails after him perhaps a long roll of gold bullion epaulettes which may look pretty by lamplight. But that, in the present condition of moral philosophy amongst the police, is accounted robbery; and to benefit too much by quotations is little less. At this moment we have in our eye a work, at one time not without celebrity, which is one continued cento of splendid passages from other people. The natural effect from so much fine writing is, that the reader rises with the impression of having been engaged upon a most eloquent work. Meantime the whole is a series of mosaics; a tessellation made up from borrowed fragments: and first, when the reader’s attention is expressly directed upon the fact, he becomes aware that the nominal author has contributed nothing more to the book than a few passages of transition or brief clauses of connection.
In the year 1796, the main incident occurring of any importance for English literature was the publication by Southey of an epic poem. This poem, the Joan of Arc, was the earliest work of much pretension amongst all that Southey wrote; and by many degrees it was the worst. In the four great narrative poems of his later years, there is a combination of two striking qualities, viz., a peculiar command over the visually splendid, connected with a deep-toned grandeur of moral pathos. Especially we find this union in the Thalaba and the Roderick; but in the Joan of Arc we miss it. What splendor there is for the fancy and the eye belongs chiefly to the Vision, contributed by Coleridge, and this was subsequently withdrawn. The fault lay in Southey’s political relations at that era; his sympathy with the French Revolution in its earlier stages had been boundless; in all respects it was a noble sympathy, fading only as the gorgeous coloring faded from the emblazonries of that awful event, drooping only when the promises of that golden dawn sickened under stationary eclipse. In 1796, Southey was yet under the tyranny of his own earliest fascination: in his eyes the Revolution had suffered a momentary blight from refluxes of panic; but blight of some kind is incident to every harvest on which human hopes are suspended. Bad auguries were also ascending from the unchaining of martial instincts. But that the Revolution, having ploughed its way through unparalleled storms, was preparing to face other storms, did but quicken the apprehensiveness of his love—did but quicken the duty of giving utterance to this love. Hence came the rapid composition of the poem, which cost less time in writing than in printing. Hence, also, came the choice of his heroine. What he needed in his central character was, a heart with a capacity for the wrath of Hebrew prophets applied to ancient abuses, and for evangelic pity applied to the sufferings of nations. This heart, with this double capacity—where should he seek it? A French heart it must be, or how should it follow with its sympathies a French movement? There lay Southey’s reason for adopting the Maid of Orleans as the depositary of hopes and aspirations on behalf of France as fervid as his own. In choosing this heroine, so inadequately known at that time, Southey testified at least his own nobility of feeling; [Endnote: 3] but in executing his choice, he and his friends overlooked two faults fatal to his purpose. One was this: sympathy with the French Revolution meant sympathy with the opening prospects of man—meant sympathy with the Pariah of every clime—with all that suffered social wrong, or saddened in hopeless bondage.
That was the movement at work in the French Revolution. But the movement of Joanne d’Arc took a different direction. In her day also, it is true, the human heart had yearned after the same vast enfranchisement for the children of labor as afterwards worked in the great vision of the French Revolution. In her days also, and shortly before them, the human hand had sought by bloody acts to realize this dream of the heart. And in her childhood, Joanna had not been insensible to these premature motions upon a path too bloody and too dark to be safe. But this view of human misery had been utterly absorbed to her by the special misery then desolating France. The lilies of France had been trampled under foot by the conquering stranger. Within fifty years, in three pitched battles that resounded to the ends of the earth, the chivalry of France had been exterminated. Her oriflamme had been dragged through the dust. The eldest son of Baptism had been prostrated. The daughter of France had been surrendered on coercion as a bride to her English conqueror. The child of that marriage, so ignominious to the land, was King of France by the consent of Christendom; that child’s uncle domineered as regent of France; and that child’s armies were in military possession of the land. But were they undisputed masters? No; and there precisely lay the sorrow of the time. Under a perfect conquest there would have been repose; whereas the presence of the English armies did but furnish a plea, masking itself in patriotism, for gatherings everywhere of lawless marauders; of soldiers that had deserted their banners; and of robbers by profession. This was the woe of France more even than the military dishonor. That dishonor had been palliated from the first by the genealogical pretensions of the English royal family to the French throne, and these pretensions were strengthened in the person of the present claimant. But the military desolation of France, this it was that woke the faith of Joanna in her own heavenly mission of deliverance. It was the attitude of her prostrate country, crying night and day for purification from blood, and not from feudal oppression, that swallowed up the thoughts of the impassioned girl. But that was not the cry that uttered itself afterwards in the French Revolution. In Joanna’s days, the first step towards rest for France was by expulsion of the foreigner. Independence of a foreign yoke, liberation as between people and people, was the one ransom to be paid for French honor and peace. That debt settled, there might come a time for thinking of civil liberties. But this time was not within the prospects of the poor shepherdess The field—the area of her sympathies never coincided with that of the Revolutionary period. It followed therefore, that Southey could not have raided Joanna (with her condition of feeling) by any management, into the interpreter of his own. That was the first error in his poem, and it was irremediable. The second was—and strangely enough this also escaped notice—that the heroine of Southey is made to close her career precisely at the point when its grandeur commences. She believed herself to have a mission for the deliverance of France; and the great instrument which she was authorized to use towards this end, was the king, Charles VII. Him she was to crown. With this coronation, her triumph, in the plain historical sense, ended. And there ends Southey’s poem. But exactly at this point, the grander stage of her mission commences, viz., the ransom which she, a solitary girl, paid in her own person for the national deliverance. The grander half of the story was thus sacrificed, as being irrelevant to Southey’s political object; and yet, after all, the half which he retained did not at all symbolize that object. It is singular, indeed, to find a long poem, on an ancient subject, adapting itself hieroglyphically to a modern purpose; 2dly, to find it failing of this purpose; and 3dly, if it had not failed, so planned that it could have succeeded only by a sacrifice of all that was grandest in the theme.
To these capital oversights, Southey, Coleridge, and Lamb, were all joint parties; the two first as concerned in the composition, the last as a frank though friendly reviewer of it in his private correspondence with Coleridge. It is, however, some palliation of these oversights, and a very singular fact in itself, that neither from English authorities nor from French, though the two nations were equally brought into close connection with the career of that extraordinary girl, could any adequate view be obtained of her character and acts. The official records of her trial, apart from which nothing can be depended upon, were first in the course of publication from the Paris press during the currency of last year. First in 1847, about four hundred and sixteen years after her ashes had been dispersed to the winds, could it be seen distinctly, through the clouds of fierce partisanships and national prejudices, what had been the frenzy of the persecution against her, and the utter desolation of her position; what had been the grandeur of her conscientious resistance.
Anxious that our readers should see Lamb from as many angles as possible, we have obtained from an old friend of his a memorial—slight, but such as the circumstances allowed—of an evening spent with Charles and Mary Lamb, in the winter of 1821-22. The record is of the most unambitious character; it pretends to nothing, as the reader will see, not so much as to a pun, which it really required some singularity of luck to have missed from Charles Lamb, who often continued to fire puns, as minute guns, all through the evening. But the more unpretending this record is, the more appropriate it becomes by that very fact to the memory of him who, amongst all authors, was the humblest and least pretending. We have often thought that the famous epitaph written for his grave by Piron, the cynical author of La Metromanie, might have come from Lamb, were it not for one objection; Lamb’s benign heart would have recoiled from a sarcasm, however effective, inscribed upon a grave-stone; or from a jest, however playful, that tended to a vindictive sneer amongst his own farewell words. We once translated this Piron epitaph into a kind of rambling Drayton couplet; and the only point needing explanation is, that, from the accident of scientific men, Fellows of the Royal Society being usually very solemn men, with an extra chance, therefore, for being dull men in conversation, naturally it arose that some wit amongst our great-grandfathers translated F. R. S. into a short-hand expression for a Fellow Remarkably Stupid; to which version of the three letters our English epitaph alludes. The French original of Piron is this:
“Ci git Piron; qui ne fut rien; Pas meme acadamicien.”
The bitter arrow of the second line was feathered to hit the French Acadamie, who had declined to elect him a member. Our translation is this:
“Here lies Piron; who was—nothing; or, if that could be, was less: How!—nothing? Yes, nothing; not so much as F. R. S.”
But now to our friend’s memorandum:
October 6, 1848.
MY DEAR X.—You ask me for some memorial, however trivial, of any dinner party, supper party, water party, no matter what, that I can circumstantially recall to recollection, by any features whatever, puns or repartees, wisdom or wit, connecting it with Charles Lamb. I grieve to say that my meetings of any sort with Lamb were few, though spread through a score of years. That sounds odd for one that loved Lamb so entirely, and so much venerated his character. But the reason was, that I so seldom visited London, and Lamb so seldom quitted it. Somewhere about 1810 and 1812 I must have met Lamb repeatedly at the Courier Office in the Strand; that is, at Coleridge’s, to whom, as an intimate friend, Mr. Stuart (a proprietor of the paper) gave up for a time the use of some rooms in the office. Thither, in the London season, (May especially and June,) resorted Lamb, Godwin, Sir H. Davy, and, once or twice, Wordsworth, who visited Sir George Beaumont’s Leicestershire residence of Coleorton early in the spring, and then travelled up to Grosvenor Square with Sir George and Lady Beaumont; spectatum veniens, veniens spectetur ut ipse.
But in these miscellaneous gatherings, Lamb said little, except when an opening arose for a pun. And how effectual that sort of small shot was from him, I need not say to anybody who remembers his infirmity of stammering, and his dexterous management of it for purposes of light and shade. He was often able to train the roll of stammers into settling upon the words immediately preceding the effective one; by which means the key-note of the jest or sarcasm, benefiting by the sudden liberation of his embargoed voice, was delivered with the force of a pistol shot. That stammer was worth an annuity to him as an ally of his wit. Firing under cover of that advantage, he did triple execution; for, in the first place, the distressing sympathy of the hearers with his distress of utterance won for him unavoidably the silence of deep attention; and then, whilst he had us all hoaxed into this attitude of mute suspense by an appearance of distress that he perhaps did not really feel, down came a plunging shot into the very thick of us, with ten times the effect it would else have had. If his stammering, however, often did him true “yeoman’s service,” sometimes it led him into scrapes. Coleridge told me of a ludicrous embarrassment which it caused him at Hastings. Lamb had been medically advised to a course of sea-bathing; and accordingly at the door of his bathing machine, whilst he stood shivering with cold, two stout fellows laid hold of him, one at each shoulder, like heraldic supporters; they waited for the word of command from their principal, who began the following oration to them: “Hear me, men! Take notice of this—I am to be dipped.” What more he would have said is unknown to land or sea or bathing machines; for having reached the word dipped, he commenced such a rolling fire of Di—di—di—di, that when at length he descended a plomb upon the full word dipped, the two men, rather tired of the long suspense, became satisfied that they had reached what lawyers call the “operative” clause of the sentence; and both exclaiming at once, “Oh yes, Sir, we’re quite aware of that,” down they plunged him into the sea. On emerging, Lamb sobbed so much from the cold, that he found no voice suitable to his indignation; from necessity he seemed tranquil; and again addressing the men, who stood respectfully listening, he began thus: “Men! is it possible to obtain your attention?” “Oh surely, Sir, by all means.” “Then listen: once more I tell you, I am to be di—di—di—”—and then, with a burst of indignation,” dipped, I tell you,”—“Oh decidedly, Sir,” rejoined the men, “decidedly,” and down the stammerer went for the second time. Petrified with cold and wrath, once more Lamb made a feeble attempt at explanation—” Grant me pa—pa—patience; is it mum—um—murder you me—me—mean? Again and a—ga—ga—gain, I tell you, I’m to be di—di—di—dipped,” now speaking furiously, with the voice of an injured man. “Oh yes, Sir,” the men replied, “we know that, we fully understood it,” and for the third time down went Lamb into the sea.” Oh limbs of Satan!” he said, on coming up for the third time, “it’s now too late; I tell you that I am—no, that I was—to be di—di—di—dipped only once.”
Since the rencontres with Lamb at Coleridge’s, I had met him once or twice at literary dinner parties. One of these occurred at the house of Messrs. Taylor & Hessey, the publishers. I myself was suffering too much from illness at the time to take any pleasure in what passed, or to notice it with any vigilance of attention. Lamb, I remember, as usual, was full of gayety; and as usual he rose too rapidly to the zenith of his gayety; for he shot upwards like a rocket, and, as usual, people said he was “tipsy.” To me Lamb never seemed intoxicated, but at most arborily elevated. He never talked nonsense, which is a great point gained; nor polemically, which is a greater; for it is a dreadful thing to find a drunken man bent upon converting oneself; nor sentimentally, which is greatest of all. You can stand a man’s fraternizing with you; or if he swears an eternal friendship, only once in an hour, you do not think of calling the police; but once in every three minutes is too much (period omitted here in original, but there is a double space following for a new sentence) Lamb did none of these things; he was always rational, quiet, and gentlemanly in his habits. Nothing memorable, I am sure, passed upon this occasion, which was in November of 1821; and yet the dinner was memorable by means of one fact not discovered until many years later. Amongst the company, all literary men, sate a murderer, and a murderer of a freezing class; cool, calculating, wholesale in his operations, and moving all along under the advantages of unsuspecting domestic confidence and domestic opportunities. This was Mr. Wainwright, who was subsequently brought to trial, but not for any of his murders, and transported for life. The story has been told both by Sergeant Talfourd, in the second volume of these “Final Memoirs,” and previously by Sir Edward B. Lytton. Both have been much blamed for the use made of this extraordinary case; but we know not why. In itself it is a most remarkable case for more reasons than one. It is remarkable for the appalling revelation which it makes of power spread through the hands of people not liable to suspicion, for purposes the most dreadful. It is remarkable also by the contrast which existed in this case between the murderer’s appearance and the terrific purposes with which he was always dallying. He was a contributor to a journal in which I also had written several papers. This formed a shadowy link between us; and, ill as I was, I looked more attentively at him than at anybody else. Yet there were several men of wit and genius present, amongst whom Lamb (as I have said) and Thomas Hood, Hamilton Reynolds, and Allan Cunningham. But them I already knew, whereas Mr. W. I now saw for the first time and the last. What interested me about him was this, the papers which had been pointed out to me as his, (signed Janus Weathercock, Vinklooms, &c.) were written in a spirit of coxcombry that did not so much disgust as amuse. The writer could not conceal the ostentatious pleasure which he took in the luxurious fittings-up of his rooms, in the fancied splendor of his bijouterie, &c. Yet it was easy for a man of any experience to read two facts in all this idle etalage; one being, that his finery was but of a second-rate order; the other, that he was a parvenu, not at home even amongst his second-rate splendor. So far there was nothing to distinguish Mr. W—‘s papers from the papers of other triflers. But in this point there was, viz., that in his judgments upon the great Italian masters of painting, Da Vinci, Titian, &c., there seemed a tone of sincerity and of native sensibility, as in one who spoke from himself, and was not merely a copier from books. This it was that interested me; as also his reviews of the chief Italian engravers, Morghen, Volpato, &c.; not for the manner, which overflowed with levities and impertinence, but for the substance of his judgments in those cases where I happened to have had an opportunity of judging for myself. Here arose also a claim upon Lamb’s attention; for Lamb and his sister had a deep feeling for what was excellent in painting. Accordingly Lamb paid him a great deal of attention, and continued to speak of him for years with an interest that seemed disproportioned to his pretensions. This might be owing in part to an indirect compliment paid to Miss Lamb in one of W—‘s papers; else his appearance would rather have repelled Lamb; it was commonplace, and better suited to express the dandyism which overspread the surface of his manner, than the unaffected sensibility which apparently lay in his nature. Dandy or not, however, this man, on account of the schism in his papers, so much amiable puppyism on one side, so much deep feeling on the other, (feeling, applied to some of the grandest objects that earth has to show,) did really move a trifle of interest in me, on a day when I hated the face of man and woman. Yet again, if I had known this man for the murderer that even then he was, what sudden loss of interest, what sudden growth of another interest, would have changed the face of that party! Trivial creature, that didst carry thy dreadful eye kindling with perpetual treasons! Dreadful creature, that didst carry thy trivial eye, mantling with eternal levity, over the sleeping surfaces of confiding household life—oh, what a revolution for man wouldst thou have accomplished had thy deep wickedness prospered! What was that wickedness? In a few words I will say.
At this time (October, 1848) the whole British island is appalled by a new chapter in the history of poisoning. Locusta in ancient Rome, Madame Brinvilliers in Paris, were people of original genius: not in any new artifice of toxicology, not in the mere management of poisons, was the audacity of their genius displayed. No; but in profiting by domestic openings for murder, unsuspected through their very atrocity. Such an opening was made some years ago by those who saw the possibility of founding purses for parents upon the murder of their children. This was done upon a larger scale than had been suspected, and upon a plausible pretence. To bury a corpse is costly; but of a hundred children only a few, in the ordinary course of mortality, will die within a given time. Five shillings a-piece will produce 25L annually, and that will bury a considerable number. On this principle arose Infant Burial Societies. For a few shillings annually, a parent could secure a funeral for every child. If the child died, a few guineas fell due to the parent, and the funeral was accomplished without cost of his. But on this arose the suggestion—Why not execute an insurance of this nature twenty times over? One single insurance pays for the funeral—the other nineteen are so much clear gain, a lucro ponatur, for the parents. Yes; but on the supposition that the child died! twenty are no better than one, unless they are gathered into the garner. Now, if the child died naturally, all was right; but how, if the child did not die? Why, clearly this, —the child that can die, and won’t die, may be made to die. There are many ways of doing that; and it is shocking to know, that, according to recent discoveries, poison is comparatively a very merciful mode of murder. Six years ago a dreadful communication was made to the public by a medical man, viz., that three thousand children were annually burned to death under circumstances showing too clearly that they had been left by their mothers with the means and the temptations to set themselves on fire in her absence. But more shocking, because more lingering, are the deaths by artificial appliances of wet, cold, hunger, bad diet, and disturbed sleep, to the frail constitutions of children. By that machinery it is, and not by poison, that the majority qualify themselves for claiming the funeral allowances. Here, however, there occur to any man, on reflection, two eventual restraints on the extension of this domestic curse:—1st, as there is no pretext for wanting more than one funeral on account of one child, any insurances beyond one are in themselves a ground of suspicion. Now, if any plan were devised for securing the publication of such insurances, the suspicions would travel as fast as the grounds for them. 2dly, it occurs, that eventually the evil checks itself, since a society established on the ordinary rates of mortality would be ruined when a murderous stimulation was applied to that rate too extensively. Still it is certain that, for a season, this atrocity has prospered in manufacturing districts for some years, and more recently, as judicial investigations have shown, in one agricultural district of Essex. Now, Mr. W—‘s scheme of murder was, in its outline, the very same, but not applied to the narrow purpose of obtaining burials from a public fund He persuaded, for instance, two beautiful young ladies, visitors in his family, to insure their lives for a short period of two years. This insurance was repeated in several different offices, until a sum of 18,000 pounds had been secured in the event of their deaths within the two years. Mr. W—took care that they should die, and very suddenly, within that period; and then, having previously secured from his victims an assignment to himself of this claim, he endeavored to make this assignment available. But the offices, which had vainly endeavored to extract from the young ladies any satisfactory account of the reasons for this limited insurance, had their suspicions at last strongly roused. One office had recently experienced a case of the same nature, in which also the young lady had been poisoned by the man in whose behalf she had effected the insurance; all the offices declined to pay; actions at law arose; in the course of the investigation which followed, Mr. W—‘s character was fully exposed. Finally, in the midst of the embarrassments which ensued, he committed forgery, and was transported.
From this Mr. W—, some few days afterwards, I received an invitation to a dinner party, expressed in terms that were obligingly earnest. He mentioned the names of his principal guests, and amongst them rested most upon those of Lamb and Sir David Wilkie. From an accident I was unable to attend, and greatly regretted it. Sir David one might rarely happen to see, except at a crowded party. But as regarded Lamb, I was sure to see him or to hear of him again in some way or other within a short time. This opportunity, in fact, offered itself within a month through the kindness of the Lambs themselves. They had heard of my being in solitary lodgings, and insisted on my coming to dine with them, which more than once I did in the winter of 1821-22.
The mere reception by the Lambs was so full of goodness and hospitable feeling, that it kindled animation in the most cheerless or torpid of invalids. I cannot imagine that any memorabilia occurred during the visit; but I will use the time that would else be lost upon the settling of that point, in putting down any triviality that occurs to my recollection. Both Lamb and myself had a furious love for nonsense, headlong nonsense. Excepting Professor Wilson, I have known nobody who had the same passion to the same extent. And things of that nature better illustrate the realities of Lamb’s social life than the gravities, which weighing so sadly on his solitary hours he sought to banish from his moments of relaxation.
There were no strangers; Charles Lamb, his sister, and myself made up the party. Even this was done in kindness. They knew that I should have been oppressed by an effort such as must be made in the society of strangers; and they placed me by their own fireside, where I could say as little or as much as I pleased.
We dined about five o’clock, and it was one of the hospitalities inevitable to the Lambs, that any game which they might receive from rural friends in the course of the week, was reserved for the day of a friend’s dining with them.
In regard to wine, Lamb and myself had the same habit—perhaps it rose to the dignity of a principle—viz., to take a great deal during dinner—none after it. Consequently, as Miss Lamb (who drank only water) retired almost with the dinner itself, nothing remained for men of our principles, the rigor of which we had illustrated by taking rather too much of old port before the cloth was drawn, except talking; amoebaean colloquy, or, in Dr. Johnson’s phrase, a dialogue of “brisk reciprocation.” But this was impossible; over Lamb, at this period of his life, there passed regularly, after taking wine, a brief eclipse of sleep. It descended upon him as softly as a shadow. In a gross person, laden with superfluous flesh, and sleeping heavily, this would have been disagreeable; but in Lamb, thin even to meagreness, spare and wiry as an Arab of the desert, or as Thomas Aquinas, wasted by scholastic vigils, the affection of sleep seemed rather a network of aerial gossamer than of earthly cobweb—more like a golden haze falling upon him gently from the heavens than a cloud exhaling upwards from the flesh. Motionless in his chair as a bust, breathing so gently as scarcely to seem certainly alive, he presented the image of repose midway between life and death, like the repose of sculpture; and to one who knew his history a repose affectingly contrasting with the calamities and internal storms of his life. I have heard more persons than I can now distinctly recall, observe of Lamb when sleeping, that his countenance in that state assumed an expression almost seraphic, from its intellectual beauty of outline, its childlike simplicity, and its benignity. It could not be called a transfiguration that sleep had worked in his face; for the features wore essentially the same expression when waking; but sleep spiritualized that expression, exalted it, and also harmonized it. Much of the change lay in that last process. The eyes it was that disturbed the unity of effect in Lamb’s waking face. They gave a restlessness to the character of his intellect, shifting, like northern lights, through every mode of combination with fantastic playfulness, and sometimes by fiery gleams obliterating for the moment that pure light of benignity which was the predominant reading on his features. Some people have supposed that Lamb had Jewish blood in his veins, which seemed to account for his gleaming eyes. It might be so; but this notion found little countenance in Lamb’s own way of treating the gloomy medieval traditions propagated throughout Europe about the Jews, and their secret enmity to Christian races. Lamb, indeed, might not be more serious than Shakspeare is supposed to have been in his Shylock; yet he spoke at times as from a station of wilful bigotry, and seemed (whether laughingly or not) to sympathize with the barbarous Christian superstitions upon the pretended bloody practices of the Jews, and of the early Jewish physicians. Being himself a Lincoln man, he treated Sir Hugh [Endnote: 4] of Lincoln, the young child that suffered death by secret assassination in the Jewish quarter rather than suppress his daily anthems to the Virgin, as a true historical personage on the rolls of martyrdom; careless that this fable, like that of the apprentice murdered out of jealousy by his master, the architect, had destroyed its own authority by ubiquitous diffusion. All over Europe the same legend of the murdered apprentice and the martyred child reappears under different names—so that in effect the verification of the tale is none at all, because it is unanimous; is too narrow, because it is too impossibly broad. Lamb, however, though it was often hard to say whether he were not secretly laughing, swore to the truth of all these old fables, and treated the liberalities of the present generation on such points as mere fantastic and effeminate affectations, which, no doubt, they often are as regards the sincerity of those who profess them. The bigotry, which it pleased his fancy to assume, he used like a sword against the Jew, as the official weapon of the Christian, upon the same principle that a Capulet would have drawn upon a Montague, without conceiving it any duty of his to rip up the grounds of so ancient a quarrel; it was a feud handed down to him by his ancestors, and it was their business to see that originally it had been an honest feud. I cannot yet believe that Lamb, if seriously aware of any family interconnection with Jewish blood, would, even in jest, have held that one-sided language. More probable it is, that the fiery eye recorded not any alliance with Jewish blood, but that disastrous alliance with insanity which tainted his own life, and laid desolate his sister’s.
On awakening from his brief slumber, Lamb sat for some time in profound silence, and then, with the most startling rapidity, sang out—“Diddle, diddle, dumpkins;” not looking at me, but as if soliloquizing. For five minutes he relapsed into the same deep silence; from which again he started up into the same abrupt utterance of—“Diddle, diddle, dumpkins.” I could not help laughing aloud at the extreme energy of this sudden communication, contrasted with the deep silence that went before and followed. Lamb smilingly begged to know what I was laughing at, and with a look of as much surprise as if it were I that had done something unaccountable, and not himself. I told him (as was the truth) that there had suddenly occurred to me the possibility of my being in some future period or other called on to give an account of this very evening before some literary committee. The committee might say to me—(supposing the case that I outlived him)—“You dined with Mr. Lamb in January, 1822; now, can you remember any remark or memorable observation which that celebrated man made before or after dinner?”
I as respondent. “Oh yes, I can.”
Com. “What was it?”
Resp. “Diddle, diddle, dumpkins.”
Com. “And was this his only observation? Did Mr. Lamb not strengthen this remark by some other of the same nature?”
Resp. “Yes, he did.”
Com. “And what was it?”
Resp. “Diddle, diddle, dumpkins.”
Com. “What is your secret opinion of Dumpkins?”
Com. “Do you conceive Dumpkins to have been a thing or a person?”
Resp. “I conceive Dumpkins to have been a person, having the rights of a person.”
Com. “Capable, for instance, of suing and being sued?”
Resp. “Yes, capable of both; though I have reason to think there would have been very little use in suing Dumpkins.”
Com. “How so? Are the committee to understand that you, the respondent, in your own case, have found it a vain speculation, countenanced only by visionary lawyers, to sue Dumpkins?”
Resp. “No; I never lost a shilling by Dumpkins, the reason for which may be that Dumpkins never owed me a shilling; but from his pronomen of ‘diddle,’ I apprehend that he was too well acquainted with joint-stock companies!”
Com. “And your opinion is, that he may have diddled Mr. Lamb?”
Resp. “I conceive it to be not unlikely.”
Com. “And, perhaps, from Mr. Lamb’s pathetic reiteration of his name, ‘Diddle, diddle,’ you would be disposed to infer that Dumpkins had practised his diddling talents upon Mr. L. more than once?”
Resp. “I think it probable.”
Lamb laughed, and brightened up; tea was announced; Miss Lamb returned. The cloud had passed away from Lamb’s spirits, and again he realized the pleasure of evening, which, in his apprehension, was so essential to the pleasure of literature.
On the table lay a copy of Wordsworth, in two volumes; it was the edition of Longman, printed about the time of Waterloo. Wordsworth was held in little consideration, I believe, amongst the house of Longman; at any rate, their editions of his works were got up in the most slovenly manner. In particular, the table of contents was drawn up like a short-hand bill of parcels. By accident the book lay open at a part of this table, where the sonnet beginning—
“Alas! what boots the long laborious quest”—
had been entered with mercantile speed, as—
“Alas! what boots,”——
“Yes,” said Lamb, reading this entry in a dolorous tone of voice, “he may well say that. I paid Hoby three guineas for a pair that tore like blotting paper, when I was leaping a ditch to escape a farmer that pursued me with a pitch-fork for trespassing. But why should W. wear boots in Westmoreland? Pray, advise him to patronize shoes.”
The mercurialities of Lamb were infinite, and always uttered in a spirit of absolute recklessness for the quality or the prosperity of the sally. It seemed to liberate his spirits from some burthen of blackest melancholy which oppressed it, when he had thrown off a jest: he would not stop one instant to improve it; nor did he care the value of a straw whether it were good enough to be remembered, or so mediocre as to extort high moral indignation from a collector who refused to receive into his collection of jests and puns any that were not felicitously good or revoltingly bad.
After tea, Lamb read to me a number of beautiful compositions, which he had himself taken the trouble to copy out into a blank paper folio from unsuccessful authors. Neglected people in every class won the sympathy of Lamb. One of the poems, I remember, was a very beautiful sonnet from a volume recently published by Lord Thurlow—which, and Lamb’s just remarks upon it, I could almost repeat verbatim at this moment, nearly twenty-seven years later, if your limits would allow me. But these, you tell me, allow of no such thing; at the utmost they allow only twelve lines more. Now all the world knows that the sonnet itself would require fourteen lines; but take fourteen from twelve, and there remains very little, I fear; besides which, I am afraid two of my twelve are already exhausted. This forces me to interrupt my account of Lamb’s reading, by reporting the very accident that did interrupt it in fact; since that no less characteristically expressed Lamb’s peculiar spirit of kindness, (always quickening itself towards the ill-used or the down-trodden,) than it had previously expressed itself in his choice of obscure readings. Two ladies came in, one of whom at least had sunk in the scale of worldly consideration. They were ladies who would not have found much recreation in literary discussions; elderly, and habitually depressed. On their account, Lamb proposed whist, and in that kind effort to amuse them, which naturally drew forth some momentary gayeties from himself, but not of a kind to impress themselves on the recollection, the evening terminated.
We have left ourselves no room for a special examination of Lamb’s writings, some of which were failures, and some were so memorably beautiful as to be unique in their class. The character of Lamb it is, and the life-struggle of Lamb, that must fix the attention of many, even amongst those wanting in sensibility to his intellectual merits. This character and this struggle, as we have already observed, impress many traces of themselves upon Lamb’s writings. Even in that view, therefore, they have a ministerial value; but separately, for themselves, they have an independent value of the highest order. Upon this point we gladly adopt the eloquent words of Sergeant Talfourd:—
“The sweetness of Lamb’s character, breathed through his writings, was felt even by strangers; but its heroic aspect was unguessed even by many of his friends. Let them now consider it, and ask if the annals of self-sacrifice can show anything in human action and endurance more lovely than its self-devotion exhibits? It was not merely that he saw, through the ensanguined cloud of misfortune which had fallen upon his family, the unstained excellence of his sister, whose madness had caused it; that he was ready to take her to his own home with reverential affection, and cherish her through life; and he gave up, for her sake, all meaner and more selfish love, and all the hopes which youth blends with the passion which disturbs and ennobles it; not even that he did all this cheerfully, without pluming himself upon his brotherly nobleness as a virtue, or seeking to repay himself (as some uneasy martyrs do) by small instalments of long repining; but that he carried the spirit of the hour in which he first knew and took his course to his last. So far from thinking that his sacrifice of youth and love to his sister gave him a license to follow his own caprice at the expense of her feelings, even in the lightest matters, he always wrote and spoke of her as his wiser self, his generous benefactress, of whose protecting care he was scarcely worthy.”
It must be remembered, also, which the Sergeant does not overlook, that Lamb’s efforts for the becoming support of his sister lasted through a period of forty years. Twelve years before his death, the munificence of the India House, by granting him a liberal retiring allowance, had placed his own support under shelter from accidents of any kind. But this died with himself; and he could not venture to suppose that, in the event of his own death, the India House would grant to his sister the same allowance as by custom is granted to a wife. This they did; but not venturing to calculate upon such nobility of patronage, Lamb had applied himself through life to the saving of a provision for his sister under any accident to himself. And this he did with a persevering prudence, so little known in the literary class, amongst a continued tenor of generosities, often so princely as to be scarcely known in any class.
Was this man, so memorably good by life-long sacrifice of himself, in any profound sense a Christian? The impression is, that he was not. We, from private communications with him, can undertake to say that, according to his knowledge and opportunities for the study of Christianity, he was. What has injured Lamb on this point is, that his early opinions (which, however, from the first were united with the deepest piety) are read by the inattentive, as if they had been the opinions of his mature days; secondly, that he had few religious persons amongst his friends, which made him reserved in the expression of his own views; thirdly, that in any case where he altered opinions for the better, the credit of the improvement is assigned to Coleridge. Lamb, for example, beginning life as a Unitarian, in not many years became a Trinitarian. Coleridge passed through the same changes in the same order; and, here, at least, Lamb is supposed simply to have obeyed the influence, confessedly great, of Coleridge. This, on our own knowledge of Lamb’s views, we pronounce to be an error. And the following extracts from Lamb’s letters will show, not only that he was religiously disposed on impulses self-derived, but that, so far from obeying the bias of Coleridge, he ventured, on this one subject, firmly as regarded the matter, though humbly as regarded the manner, affectionately to reprove Coleridge.
In a letter to Coleridge, written in 1797, the year after his first great affliction, he says:
“Coleridge, I have not one truly elevated character among my acquaintance; not one Christian; not one but undervalues Christianity. Singly, what am I to do? Wesley—[have you read his life?]—was not he an elevated character? Wesley has said religion was not a solitary thing. Alas! it is necessarily so with me, or next to solitary. ‘Tis true you write to me; but correspondence by letter and personal intimacy are widely different. Do, do write to me; and do some good to my mind—already how much ‘warped and relaxed’ by the world!”
In a letter written about three months previously, he had not scrupled to blame Coleridge at some length for audacities of religious speculation, which seemed to him at war with the simplicities of pure religion. He says:
“Do continue to write to me. I read your letters with my sister, and they give us both abundance of delight. Especially they please us two when you talk in a religious strain. Not but we are offended occasionally with a certain freedom of expression, a certain air of mysticism, more consonant to the conceits of pagan philosophy than consistent with the humility of genuine piety.”
Then, after some instances of what he blames, he says:
About a month later, he says:
“Few but laugh at me for reading my Testament. They talk a language I understand not; I conceal sentiments that would be a puzzle to them.”
We see by this last quotation where it was that Lamb originally sought for consolation. We personally can vouch that, at a maturer period, when he was approaching his fiftieth year, no change had affected his opinions upon that point; and, on the other hand, that no changes had occurred in his needs for consolation, we see, alas! in the records of his life. Whither, indeed, could he fly for comfort, if not to his Bible? And to whom was the Bible an indispensable resource, if not to Lamb? We do not undertake to say, that in his knowledge of Christianity he was everywhere profound or consistent, but he was always earnest in his aspirations after its spiritualities, and had an apprehensive sense of its power.
Charles Lamb is gone; his life was a continued struggle in the service of love the purest, and within a sphere visited by little of contemporary applause. Even his intellectual displays won but a narrow sympathy at any time, and in his earlier period were saluted with positive derision and contumely on the few occasions when they were not oppressed by entire neglect. But slowly all things right themselves. All merit, which is founded in truth, and is strong enough, reaches by sweet exhalations in the end a higher sensory; reaches higher organs of discernment, lodged in a selecter audience. But the original obtuseness or vulgarity of feeling that thwarted Lamb’s just estimation in life, will continue to thwart its popular diffusion. There are even some that continue to regard him with the old hostility. And we, therefore, standing by the side of Lamb’s grave, seemed to hear, on one side, (but in abated tones, ) strains of the ancient malice—“This man, that thought himself to be somebody, is dead—is buried—is forgotten!” and, on the other side, seemed to hear ascending, as with the solemnity of an anthem—“This man, that thought himself to be nobody, is dead—is buried; his life has been searched; and his memory is hallowed forever!”
“Scriptural” we call it, because this element of thought, so indispensable to a profound philosophy of morals, is not simply more used in Scripture than elsewhere, but is so exclusively significant or intelligible amidst the correlative ideas of Scripture, as to be absolutely insusceptible of translation into classical Greek or classical Latin. It is disgraceful that more reflection has not been directed to the vast causes and consequences of so pregnant a truth.
“Poor S T. C.“-The affecting expression by which Coleridge indicates himself in the few lines written during his last illness for an inscription upon his grave, lines ill constructed in point of diction and compression, but otherwise speaking from the depths Of his heart.
It is right to remind the reader of this, for a reason applying forcibly to the present moment Michelet has taxed Englishmen with yielding to national animosities in the case of Joan, having no plea whatever for that insinuation but the single one drawn from Shakspeare’s Henry VI. To this the answer is, first, that Shakspeare’s share in that trilogy is not nicely ascertained Secondly, that M Michelet forgot (or, which is far worse, not forgetting it, he dissembled) the fact, that in undertaking a series of dramas upon the basis avowedly of national chronicles, and for the very purpose of profiting by old traditionary recollections connected with ancestral glories, it was mere lunacy to recast the circumstances at the bidding of antiquarian research, so as entirely to disturb these glories. Besides that, to Shakspeare’s age no such spirit of research had blossomed. Writing for the stage, a man would have risked lapidation by uttering a whisper in that direction. And, even if not, what sense could there have been in openly running counter to the very motive that had originally prompted that particular class of chronicle plays? Thirdly, if one Englishman had, in a memorable situation, adopted the popular view of Joan’s conduct, (popular as much in France as in England;) on the other hand, fifty years before M. Michelet was writing this flagrant injustice, another Englishman (viz., Southey) had, in an epic poem, reversed this mis-judgment, and invested the shepherd girl with a glory nowhere else accorded to her, unless indeed by Schiller. Fourthly, we are not entitled to view as an attack upon Joanna, what, in the worst construction, is but an unexamining adoption of the contemporary historical accounts. A poet or a dramatist is not responsible for the accuracy of chronicles. But what is an attack upon Joan, being briefly the foulest and obscenest attempt ever made to stifle the grandeur of a great human struggle, viz., the French burlesque poem of La Pucelle—what memorable man was it that wrote that? Was he a Frenchman, or was he not? That M. Michelet should pretend to have forgotten this vilest of pasquinades, is more shocking to the general sense of justice than any special untruth as to Shakspeare can be to the particular nationality of an Englishman.
The story which furnishes a basis to the fine ballad in Percy’s Reliques, and to the Canterbury Tale of Chaucer’s Lady Abbess.
De Quincey, Thomas. “Charles Lamb.” . Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 3 Jun 2015. 29 Mar 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/dequincey/charles_lamb/>.
[Charles Lamb] does not march boldly along with the crowd, but steals off the pavement to pick his way in the contrary direction.
So far from the position holding true, that great wit (or genius, in our modern way of speaking), has a necessary alliance with insanity, the greatest wits, on the contrary, will ever be found to be the sanest writers.
Better it is, that a writer should be natural in a self-pleasing quaintness, than to affect a naturalness (so called) that should be strange to him.
For it was enough for me this morning just to write; with spring coming in through the open windows and my good Canadian quill in my hand.
The beauty of this unlimited power of suggestion in writing is, that you may take up the driest and most commonplace of all possible subjects, and strike a light out of it to warm your intellect and your heart by.