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- Charles Lamb - 20/25 -


After the transfer to Mr. Southern of the "London Magazine," Lamb was prevailed upon to allow some short papers to be published in the "New Monthly Magazine."

They were entitled "Popular Fallacies," and were subsequently published conjointly with the "Elia Essays." He also sent brief contributions to the "Athenaeum" and the "Englishman," and wrote some election squibs for Serjeant Wilde, during his then contest for "Newark." But his animal spirits were not so elastic as formerly, when his time was divided between official work and companionable leisure; the latter acting as a wholesome relief to his mind when wearied by labor.

On this subject hear him speaking to Bernard Barton, to whom, as to others, he had formerly complained of his harassing duties at the India House, and of his delightful prospect of leisure. Now he writes, "Deadly long are the days, with but half an hour's candle-light and no fire-light. The streets, the shops remain, but old friends are gone." "I assure you" (he goes on) "_no_ work is worse than overwork. The mind preys on itself-- the most unwholesome food. I have ceased to care almost for anybody." To remedy this tedium, he tries visiting; for the houses of his old friends were always open to him, and he had a welcome everywhere. But this visiting will not revive him. His spirits descended to zero--below it. He is convinced that happiness is not to be found abroad. It is better to go "to my hole at Enfield, and hide like a sick cat in my corner." Again he says, "Home, I have none. Never did the waters of heaven pour down on a forlornes head. What I can do, and overdo, is to walk. I am a sanguinary murderer of time. But the snake is vital. Your forlorn--C. L."

These are his meditations in 1829, four years only after he had rushed abroad, full of exaltation and delight, from the prison of a "work-a-day" life, into the happy gardens of boundless leisure. Time, which was once his friend, had become his enemy. His letters, which were always full of goodness, generally full of cheerful humor, sink into discontent. "I have killed an hour or two with this poor scrawl," he writes. It is unnecessary to inflict upon the reader all the points of the obvious moral that obtrudes itself at this period of Charles Lamb's history. It is clear that the Otiosa Eternitas was pressing upon his days, and he did not know how to find relief. Although a good Latin scholar,--indeed, fond of writing letters in Latin,--he did not at this period resort to classical literature. I heard him indeed once (and once only) quote the well-known Latin verse from the Georgics, "O Fortunatos," &c., but generally he showed himself careless about Greeks and Romans; and when (as Mr. Moxon states) "a traveller brought him some acorns from an ilex that grew over the tomb of Virgil, he valued them so little that he threw them at the hackney coachmen as they passed by his window."

I have been much impressed by Lamb's letters to Bernard Barton, which are numerous, and which, taken altogether, are equal to any which he has written. The letters to Coleridge do not exhibit so much care or thought; nor those to Wordsworth or Manning, nor to any others of his intellectual equals. These correspondents could think and speculate for themselves, and they were accordingly left to their own resources. "The Volsces have much corn." But Bernard Barton was in a different condition; he was poor. His education had been inferior, his range of reading and thinking had been very confined, his knowledge of the English drama being limited to Shakespeare and Miss Baillie. He seems, however, to have been an amiable man, desirous of cultivating the power, such as it was, which he possessed; and Lamb therefore lavished upon him--the poor Quaker clerk of a Suffolk banker--all that his wants or ambition required; excellent worldly counsel, sound thoughts upon literature and art, critical advice on his own verses, letters which in their actual value surpass the wealth of many more celebrated collections. Lamb's correspondence with Barton, whom he had first known in 1822, continued until his death.

In 1830 (September 18th) Hazlitt died. It is unnecessary to enter into any enumeration of his remarkable qualities. They were known to all his friends, and to some of his enemies. In Sir Edward Lytton's words, "He went down to the dust without having won the crown for which he so bravely struggled. He who had done so much for the propagation of thought, left no stir upon the surface when he sank." I will not in this place attempt to weave the moral which nevertheless lies hid in his unrequited life. At that time the number of Lamb's old intimates was gradually diminished. The eternally recurring madness of his sister was more frequent. The hopelessness of it--if hope indeed ever existed--was more palpable, more depressing. His own spring of mind was fast losing its power of rebound. He felt the decay of the active principle, and now confined his efforts to morsels of criticism, to verses for albums, and small contributions to periodicals, which (excepting only the "Popular Fallacies") it has not been thought important enough to reprint. To the editor of the "Athenaeum," indeed, he laments sincerely over the death of Munden. This was in February, 1832, and was a matter that touched his affections. "He was not an actor" (he writes), "but something better." To a reader of the present day--even to a contemporary of Lamb himself--there was something almost amounting to extravagance in the terms of his admiration. Yet Munden was, in his way, a remarkable man; and although he was an actor in farce, he often stood aloof and beyond the farce itself. The play was a thing merely on which to hang his own conceptions. These did not arise from the drama, but were elsewhere cogitated, and were interleaved, as it were, with the farce or comedy which served as an excuse for their display. The actor was to all intents and purposes _sui generis_.

To speak of my own impressions, Munden did not affect me much in some of his earlier performances; for then he depended on the play. Afterwards, when he took the matter into his own hands, and created personages who owed little or nothing to the playwright, then he became an inventor. He rose with the occasion. _Sic ivit ad astra_. In the drama of "Modern Antiques," especially, space was allowed him for his movements. The words were nothing. The prosperity of the piece depended exclusively on the genius of the actor. Munden enacted the part of an old man credulous beyond ordinary credulity; and when he came upon the stage there was in him an almost sublime look of wonder, passing over the scene and people around him, and settling apparently somewhere beyond the moon. What he believed in, improbable as it was to mere terrestrial visions, you at once conceived to be quite possible,--to be true. The sceptical idiots of the play pretend to give him a phial nearly full of water. He is assured that this contains Cleopatra's tear. Well; who can disprove it? Munden evidently recognized it. "What a large tear!" he exclaimed, Then they place in his hands a druidical harp, which to vulgar eyes might resemble a modern gridiron. He touches the chords gently; "pipes to the spirit ditties of no tone;" and you imagine Aeolian strains. At last William Tell's cap is produced. The people who affect to cheat him, apparently cut the rim from a modern hat, and place the skull-cap in his hands; and then begins the almost finest piece of acting that I ever witnessed. Munden accepts the accredited cap of Tell with confusion and reverence. He places it slowly and solemnly on his head, growing taller in the act of crowning himself. Soon he swells into the heroic size,--a great archer,--and enters upon his dreadful task. He weighs the arrow carefully; he tries the tension of the bow, the elasticity of the string; and finally, after a most deliberate aim, he permits the arrow to fly, and looks forward at the same time with intense anxiety. You hear the twang, you see the hero's knitted forehead, his eagerness; you tremble: at last you mark his calmer brow, his relaxing smile, and are satisfied that the son is saved! It is difficult to paint in words this extraordinary performance, which I have several times seen; but you feel that it is transcendent. You think of Sagittarius, in the broad circle of the Zodiac; you recollect that archery is as old as Genesis; you are reminded that Ishmael, the son of Hagar, wandered about the Judaean deserts, and became an archer.

The old actor is now dead; but on his last performance, when he was to act Sir Robert Bramble, on the night of his taking final leave of the stage, Lamb greatly desired to be present. He had always loved the actors, especially the old actors, from his youth; and this was the last of the Romans. Accordingly Lamb and his sister went to the Drury Lane; but there being no room in the ordinary parts of the house (boxes or pit), Munden obtained places for his two visitors in the orchestra, close to the stage. He saw them carefully ushered in, and well posted; then acted with his usual vigor, and no doubt enjoyed the plaudits wrung from a thousand hands. Afterwards, in the interval between the comedy and the farce, he was seen to appear cautiously, diffidently, at the low door of the orchestra (where the musicians enter), and beckon to his friends, who then perceived that he was armed with a mighty pot of porter, for their refreshment. Lamb, grateful for the generous liquid, drank heartily, but not ostentatiously, and returned the pot of beer to Munden, who had waited to remove it from fastidious eyes. He then retreated into the farce; and then he retired--forever.

After Munden's retirement Lamb almost entirely forsook the theatre; and his habits became more solitary. He had not relinquished society, nor professedly narrowed the circle of his friends. But insensibly his visitors became fewer in number, and came less frequently. Some had died; some had grown old; some had increased occupation to care for. His old Wednesday evenings had ceased, and he had placed several miles of road between London (the residence of their families) and his own home. The weight of years, indeed, had its effect in pressing down his strength and buoyancy; his spirit no longer possessed its old power of rebound. Even the care of housekeeping (not very onerous, one would suppose) troubled Charles and his sister so much, that they determined to abandon it. This occurred in 1829. Then they became boarders and lodgers, with an old person (T. W.), who was their next-door neighbor at Enfield; and of him Lamb has given an elaborate description. T. W., his new landlord or housekeeper, he says, is seventy years old; "he has something, under a competence;" he has one joke, and forty pounds a year, upon which he retires in a green old age: he laughs when he hears a joke, and when (which is much oftener) he hears it not. Having served the greater parish offices, Lamb and his sister become greater, being _his_ lodgers, than they were when substantial householders. The children of the village venerate him for his gentility, but wonder also at him for a gentle indorsation of the person, not amounting to a hump, or, if one, then like that of the buffalo, and coronative of as mild qualities.

Writing to Wordsworth (and speaking as a great landed proprietor), he says, "We have ridded ourselves of the dirty acres; settled down into poor boarders and lodgers; confiding ravens." The distasteful country, however, still remains, and the clouds still hang over it. "Let not the lying poets be believed, who entice men from the cheerful streets," he writes. The country, he thinks, does well enough when he is amongst his books, by the fire and with candle-light; but day and the green fields return and restore his natural antipathies; then he says, "In a calenture I plunge into St. Giles's." So Lamb and his sister leave their comfortable little house, and subside into the rooms of the Humpback. Their chairs, and tables, and beds also retreat; all except the ancient bookcase, full of his "ragged veterans." This I saw, years after Charles Lamb's death, in the possession of his sister, Mary. "All our furniture has faded," he writes, "under the auctioneer's hammer; going for nothing, like the tarnished frippery of the prodigal." Four years afterwards (in 1833) Lamb moves to his last home, in Church Street, Edmonton, where he is somewhat nearer to his London friends.

Very curious was the antipathy of Charles to objects that are generally so pleasant to other men. It was not a passing humor, but a life-long dislike. He admired the trees, and the meadows, and murmuring streams in poetry. I have heard him repeat some of Keats's beautiful lines in the Ode to the Nightingale, about the "pastoral eglantine," with great delight. But that was another thing: that was an object in its proper place: that was a piece of art. Long ago he had admitted that the mountains of Cumberland were grand objects "to look at;" but (as he said) "the houses in streets were the places to live in." I imagine that he would no more have received the former as an equivalent for his own modest home, than he would have accepted a portrait as a substitute for a friend. He was,


Charles Lamb - 20/25

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