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- Charles Lamb - 22/25 -
harden the heart, wearying the attention, and mortifying the self-love. Such disturbances of the system interfere with the digestion of a truth.
Even Gulliver is sometimes too manifestly didactic. His adventures, simply told, would have emitted spontaneously a luminous atmosphere, and need not have been distilled into brilliant or pungent drops.
No history is barren of good. Even from the foregoing narrative some benefit may be gleaned, some sympathy may be excited, which naturally forms itself into a lesson.
Let us look at it cursorily.
Charles Lamb was born almost in penury, and he was taught by charity. Even when a boy he was forced to labor for his bread. In the first opening of manhood a terrible calamity fell upon him, in magnitude fit to form the mystery or centre of an antique drama. He had to dwell, all his days, with a person incurably mad. From poverty he passed at once to unpleasant toil and perpetual fear. These were the sole changes in his fortune. Yet he gained friends, respect, a position, and great sympathy from all; showing what one poor man of genius, under grievous misfortune, may do, if he be courageous and faithful to the end.
Charles Lamb never preached nor prescribed, but let his own actions tell their tale and produce their natural effects; neither did he deal out little apothegms or scraps of wisdom, derived from other minds. But he succeeded; and in every success there must be a mainstay of right or truth to support it; otherwise it will eventually fail.
It is true that in his essays and numerous letters many of his sincere thoughts and opinions are written down. These, however, are written down simply, and just as they occur, without any special design. Some persons exhibit only their ingenuity, or learning. It is not every one who is able, like the licentiate Pedro Garcias, to deposit his wealth of soul by the road-side.
Like all persons of great intellectual sensibility, Lamb responded to all impressions. To sympathize with Tragedy or Comedy only, argues a limited capacity. The mind thus constructed is partially lame or torpid. One hemisphere has never been reached.
It should not be forgotten that Lamb possessed one great advantage. He lived and died amongst _his equals_. This was what enabled him to exercise his natural strength, as neither a parasite nor a patron can. It is marvellous how freedom of thought operates; what strength it gives to the system; with what lightness and freshness it endues the spirit. Then, he was made stronger by trouble; made wiser by grief.
I have not attempted to fix the precise spot in which Charles Lamb is to shine hereafter in the firmament of letters. I am not of sufficient magnitude to determine his astral elevation--where he is to dwell--between the sun Shakespeare and the twinkling Zoilus. That must be left to time. Even the fixed stars at first waver and coruscate, and require long seasons for their consummation and final settlement.
Whenever he differs with us in opinion (as he does occasionally), let us not hastily pronounce him to be wrong. It is wise, as well as modest, not to show too much eagerness to adjust the ideas of all other thinkers to the (sometimes low) level of our own.
In the following pages will be found the opinions of several distinguished authors on the subject of Charles Lamb's genius and character, and also a contribution (by himself) to the _Athenaeum_, made in January, 1835. All the writers were contemporary with Lamb, and were personally intimate with him. The extracts may be accepted as corroborative, in some degree, of the opinions set forth in the foregoing Memoir.
[_From Hazlitt's "Spirit of the Age." Title, "Elia."_]
Mr. Lamb has the very soul of an antiquarian, as this implies a reflecting humanity. The film of the past hovers forever before him. He is shy, sensitive, the reverse of everything coarse, vulgar, obtrusive, and commonplace. His spirit clothes itself in the garb of elder time; homelier, but more durable. He is borne along with no pompous paradoxes, shines in no glittering tinsel of a fashionable phraseology, is neither fop nor sophist. He has none of the turbulence or froth of new-fangled opinions. His style runs pure and clear, though it may often take an underground course, or be conveyed through old-fashioned conduits.... There is a fine tone of chiaro-scuro, a moral perspective in his writings. He delights to dwell on that which is fresh to the eye of memory; he yearns after and covets what soothes the frailty of human nature. That touches him most nearly which is withdrawn to a certain distance, which verges on the borders of oblivion; that piques and provokes his fancy most which is hid from a superficial glance. That which, though gone by, is still remembered, is in his view more genuine, and has given more signs that it will live, than a thing of yesterday, which may be forgotten to- morrow. Death has in this sense the spirit of life in it; and the shadowy has to our author something substantial.
Mr. Lamb has a distaste to new faces, to new books, to new buildings, to new customs. He is shy of all imposing appearances, of all assumptions of self-importance, of all adventitious ornaments, of all mechanical advantages, even to a nervous excess. It is not merely that he does not rely upon, or ordinarily avail himself of them; he holds them in abhorrence: he utterly abjures and discards them. He disdains all the vulgar artifices of authorship, all the cant of criticism and helps of notoriety.
His affections revert to and settle on the past; but then even this must have something personal and local in it to interest him deeply and thoroughly. He pitches his tent in the suburbs of existing manners, and brings down his account of character to the few straggling remains of the last generation. No one makes the tour of our southern metropolis, or describes the manners of the last age, so well as Mr. Lamb,--with so fine, and yet so formal an air. How admirably he has sketched the former inmates of the South Sea House; what "fine fretwork he makes of their double and single entries!"
With what a firm yet subtle pencil he has embodied Mrs. Battle's opinions on Whist! With what well-disguised humor he introduces us to his relations, and how freely he serves up his friends!
The streets of London are his fairy-land, teeming with wonder, with life and interest to his retrospective glance, as it did to the eager eye of childhood: he has contrived to weave its tritest traditions into a bright and endless romance.
[_From Hazlitt's "Table Talk,"_ Vol. II.]
Mr. Lamb is the only imitator of old English style I can read with pleasure; and he is so thoroughly imbued with the spirit of his authors, that the idea of imitation is almost done away. There is an inward unction, a marrowy vein both in the thought and feeling, an intuition, deep and lively, of his subject, that carries off any quaintness or awkwardness arising from an antiquated style and dress. The matter is completely his own, though the manner is assumed. Perhaps his ideas are altogether so marked and individual, as to require their point and pungency to be neutralized by the affectation of a singular but traditional form of conveyance. Tricked out in the prevailing costume, they would probably seem more startling and out of the way. The old English authors, Burton, Fuller, Coryate, Sir Thomas Browne, are a kind of mediators between us and the more eccentric and whimsical modern, reconciling us to his peculiarities. I must confess that what I like best of his papers under the signature of Elia (still I do not presume, amidst such excellence, to decide what is most excellent) is the account of Mrs. Battle's "Opinions on Whist," which is also the most free from obsolete allusions and turns of expression,--
"A well of native English undefiled."
To those acquainted with his admired prototypes, these Essays of the ingenious and highly gifted author have the same sort of charm and relish that Erasmus's "Colloquies," or a fine piece of modern Latin, have to the classical scholar.--"_On Familiar Style_."
[_Hazlitt's "Plain Speaker,"_ Vol. I. p. 62.]
At Lamb's we used to have lively skirmishes at their Thursday evening parties. I doubt whether the Small Coal-man's musical parties could exceed them. O for the pen of John Buncle to consecrate a _petit souvenir_ to their memory! There was Lamb himself, the most delightful, the most provoking, the most witty and sensible of men. He always made the best pun and the best remark in the course of the evening. His serious conversation, like his serious writing, is his best. No one ever stammered out such fine, piquant, deep, eloquent things, in half a dozen sentences, as he does. His jests scald like tears, and he probes a question with a play upon words. What a keen, laughing, hair-brained vein of homefelt truth! What choice venom! How often did we cut into the haunch of letters! How we skimmed the cream of criticism! How we picked out the marrow of authors! Need I go over the names? They were but the old, everlasting set --Milton and Shakespeare, Pope and Dryden, Steele and Addison, Swift and Gay, Fielding, Smollett, Sterne, Richardson, Hogarth's prints, Claude's landscapes, the Cartoons at Hampton Court, and all those things that, having once been, must ever be. The Scotch Novels had not then been heard of: so we said nothing about them. In general we were hard upon the moderns. The author of the "Rambler" was only tolerated in Boswell's Life of him; and it was as much as any one could do to edge in a word for Junius. Lamb could not bear _Gil Blas_: this was a fault. I remember the greatest triumph I ever had was in persuading him, after some years' difficulty, that Fielding was better than Smollett. On one occasion he was for making out a list of persons famous in history that one would wish to see again, at the head of whom were Pontius Pilate, Sir Thomas Browne, and Dr. Faustus; but we black-balled most of his list! But with what a gusto would he describe his favorite authors, Donne or Sir Philip Sidney, and call their most crabbed passages _delicious_! He tried them on his palate, as epicures taste olives, and his observations had a smack in them, like a roughness on the tongue. With what discrimination he hinted a defect in what he admired most,--as in saying the display of the sumptuous banquet, in "Paradise Regained," was not in true keeping, as the simplest fare was all that was necessary to tempt the extremity of hunger; and stating that Adam and Eve in "Paradise Lost" were too much like married people. He has furnished many a text for Coleridge to preach upon. There was no fuss or cant about him; nor were his sweets or sours ever diluted with one particle of affectation.--_"On the Conversation of Authors."_
[_From "Autobiography of Leigh Hunt,"_ pp. 250-253.]
Let me take this opportunity of recording my recollections in general of my friend Lamb; of all the world's friend, particularly of his oldest friends, Coleridge and Southey; for I think he never modified or withheld any opinion (in private or bookwards) except in consideration of what he thought they might not like.
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