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- Charles Lamb - 2/25 -
_Introduction.--Biography: Few Events.--One predominant.--His Devotion to it.--Tendency to Literature.--First Studies.--Influence of Antique Dwellings.--Early Friends.--Humor.--Qualities of Mind.--Sympathy for neglected Objects.--A Nonconformist.--Predilections.--Character.--Taste.-- Style._
The biography of CHARLES LAMB lies within a narrow compass. It comprehends only few events. His birth and parentage, and domestic sorrows; his acquaintance with remarkable men; his thoughts and habits; and his migrations from one home to another,--constitute the sum and substance of his almost uneventful history. It is a history with one event, predominant.
For this reason, and because I, in common with many others, hold a book needlessly large to be a great evil, it is my intention to confine the present memoir within moderate limits. My aim is not to write the "Life and Times" of Charles Lamb. Indeed, Lamb had no influence on his own times. He had little or nothing in common with his generation, which was almost a stranger to him. There was no reciprocity between them. His contemplations were retrospective. He was, when living, the centre of a small social circle; and I shall therefore deal incidentally with some of its members. In other respects, this memoir will contain only what I recollect and what I have learned from authentic sources of my old friend.
The fact that distinguished Charles Lamb from other men was his entire devotion to one grand and tender purpose. There is, probably, a romance involved in every life. In his life it exceeded that of others. In gravity, in acuteness, in his noble battle with a great calamity, it was beyond the rest. Neither pleasure nor toil ever distracted him from his holy purpose. Everything was made subservient to it. He had an insane sister, who, in a moment of uncontrollable madness, had unconsciously destroyed her own mother; and to protect and save this sister--a gentle woman, who had watched like a mother over his own infancy--the whole length of his life was devoted. What he endured, through the space of nearly forty years, from the incessant fear and frequent recurrence of his sister's insanity, can now only be conjectured. In this constant and uncomplaining endurance, and in his steady adherence to a great principle of conduct, his life was heroic.
We read of men giving up all their days to a single object--to religion, to vengeance, to some overpowering selfish wish; of daring acts done to avert death or disgrace, or some oppressing misfortune. We read mythical tales of friendship; but we do not recollect any instance in which a great object has been so unremittingly carried out throughout a whole life, in defiance of a thousand difficulties, and of numberless temptations, straining the good resolution to its utmost, except in the case of our poor clerk of the India House.
This was, substantially, his life. His actions, thoughts, and sufferings were all concentred on this one important end. It was what he had to do; it was in his reach; and he did it, therefore, manfully, religiously. He did not waste his mind on too many things; for whatever too much expands the mind weakens it; nor on vague or multitudinous thoughts and speculations; nor on dreams or things distant or unattainable. However interesting, they did not absorb him, body and soul, like the safety and welfare of his sister.
Subject to this primary unflinching purpose, the tendency of Lamb's mind pointed strongly towards literature. He did not seek literature, however; and he gained from it nothing except his fame. He worked laboriously at the India House from boyhood to manhood; for many years without repining; although he must have been conscious of an intellect qualified to shine in other ways than in entering up a trader's books. None of those coveted offices, which bring money and comfort in their train, ever reached Charles Lamb. He was never under that bounteous shower which government leaders and persons of influence direct towards the heads of their adherents. No Dives ever selected him for his golden bounty. No potent critic ever shouldered him up the hill of fame. In the absence of these old-fashioned helps, he was content that his own unassisted efforts should gain for him a certificate of capability to the world, and that the choice reputation which he thus earned should, with his own qualities, bring round him the unenvying love of a host of friends.
Lamb had always been a studious boy and a great reader; and after passing through Christ's Hospital and the South Sea House, and being for some years in the India House, this instinctive passion of his mind (for literature) broke out. In this he was, without doubt, influenced by the example and counsel of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, his school-fellow and friend, for whom he entertained a high and most tender respect. The first books which he loved to read were volumes of poetry, and essays on serious and religious themes. The works of all the old poets, the history of Quakers, the biography of Wesley, the controversial papers of Priestley, and other books on devout subjects, sank into his mind. From reading he speedily rose to writing; from being a reader he became an author. His first writings were entirely serious. These were verses, or letters, wherein religious thoughts and secular criticisms took their places in turn; or they were grave dramas, which exhibit and lead to the contemplation of character, and which nourish those moods out of which humor ultimately arises.
So much has been already published, that it is needless to encumber this short narrative with any minute enumeration of the qualities which constitute his station in literature; but I shall, as a part of my task, venture to refer to some of those which distinguish him from other writers.
Lamb's very curious and peculiar humor showed itself early. It was perhaps born of the solitude in which his childhood passed away; perhaps cherished by the seeds of madness that were in him, that were in his sister, that were in the ancestry from which he sprung. Without doubt, it caught color from the scenes in the midst of which he grew up. Born in the Temple, educated in Christ's Hospital, and passed onwards to the South Sea House, his first visions were necessarily of antiquity. The grave old buildings, tenanted by lawyers and their clerks, were replaced by "the old and awful cloisters" of the School of Edward; and these in turn gave way to the palace of the famous Bubble, now desolate, with its unpeopled Committee Rooms, its pictures of Governors of Queen Anne's time, "its dusty maps of Mexico, dim as dreams, and soundings of the Bay of Panama." These things, if they impressed his mind imperfectly at first, in time formed themselves into the shape of truths, and assumed significance and importance; as words and things, glanced over hastily in childhood, grow and ripen, and enrich the understanding in after days.
Lamb's earliest friends and confidants, with one exception, were singularly void of wit and the love of jesting. His sister was grave; his father gradually sinking into dotage; Coleridge was immersed in religious subtilties and poetic dreams; and Charles Lloyd, sad and logical and analytical, was the antithesis of all that is lively and humorous. But thoughts and images stole in from other quarters; and Lamb's mind was essentially quick and productive. Nothing lay barren in it; and much of what was planted there, grew, and spread, and became beautiful. He himself has sown the seeds of humor in many English hearts. His own humor is essentially English. It is addressed to his own countrymen; to the men "whose limbs were made in England;" not to foreign intellects, nor perhaps to the universal mind. Humor, which is the humor of a man (of the writer himself or of his creations), must frequently remain, in its fragrant blossoming state, in the land of its birth. Like some of the most delicate wines and flowers, it will not bear travel.
Apart from his humor and other excellences, Charles Lamb combined qualities such as are seldom united in one person; which indeed seem not easily reconcilable with each other: namely, much prudence, with much generosity; great tenderness of heart, with a firm will. To these was superadded that racy humor which has served to distinguish him from other men. There is no other writer, that I know of, in whom tenderness, and good sense, and humor are so intimately and happily blended; no one whose view of men and things is so invariably generous, and true, and independent. These qualities made their way slowly and fairly. They were not taken up as a matter of favor or fancy, and then abandoned. They struggled through many years of neglect, and some of contumely, before they took their stand triumphantly, and as things not to be ignored by any one.
Lamb pitied all objects which had been neglected or despised. Nevertheless the lens through which he viewed the objects of his pity,--beggars, and chimney-sweepers, and convicts,--was always clear: it served him even when their short-comings were to be contemplated. For he never paltered with truth. He had no weak sensibilities, few tears for imaginary griefs. But his heart opened wide to real distress. He never applauded the fault; but he pitied the offender. He had a word of compassion for the sheep-stealer, who was arrested and lost his ill-acquired sheep, "his first, last, and only hope of a mutton pie;" and vented his feelings in that sonnet (rejected by the magazines) which he has called "The Gypsey's Malison." Although he was willing to acknowledge merit when it was successful, he preferred it, perhaps, when it was not clothed with prosperity.
By education and habit, he was a Unitarian. Indeed, he was a true Nonconformist in all things. He was not a dissenter by imitation, nor from any deep principle or obstinate heresy; nor was he made servile and obedient by formal logic alone. His reasoning always rose and streamed through the heart. He liked a friend for none of the ordinary reasons; because he was famous, or clever, or powerful, or popular. He at once took issue with the previous verdicts, and examined the matter in his own way. If a man was unfortunate, he gave him money. If he was calumniated, he accorded him sympathy. He gave freely; not to merit, but to want.
He pursued his own fancies, his own predilections. He did not neglect his own instinct (which is always true), and aim at things foreign to his nature. He did not cling to any superior intellect, nor cherish any inferior humorist or wit.
Perhaps no one ever thought more independently. He had great enjoyment in the talk of able men, so that it did not savor of form or pretension. He liked the strenuous talk of Hazlitt, who never descended to fine words. He liked the unaffected, quiet conversation of Manning, the vivacious, excursive talk of Leigh Hunt. He heard with wondering admiration the monologues of Coleridge. Perhaps he liked the simplest talk the best; expressions of pity or sympathy, or affection for others; from young people, who thought and said little or nothing about themselves.
He had no craving for popularity, nor even for fame. I do not recollect any passage in his writings, nor any expression in his talk, which runs counter to my opinion. In this respect he seems to have differed from Milton (who desired fame, like "Blind Thamyris and blind Maeonides"), and to have rather resembled Shakespeare, who was indifferent to fame or assured of it; but perhaps he resembled no one.
Lamb had not many personal antipathies, but he had a strong aversion to pretence and false repute. In particular, he resented the adulation of the epitaph-mongers who endeavored to place Garrick, the actor, on a level with Shakespeare. Of that greatest of all poets he has said such things as I imagine Shakespeare himself would have liked to hear. He has also uttered brave words in behalf of Shakespeare's contemporary dramatists; partly because they deserved them, partly because they were unjustly
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