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- Charles Lamb - 3/25 -


forgotten. The sentence of oblivion, passed by ignorant ages on the reputation of these fine authors, he has annulled, and forced the world to confess that preceding judges were incompetent to entertain the case.

I cannot imagine the mind of Charles Lamb, even in early boyhood, to have been weak or childish. In his first letters you see that he was a thinker. He is for a time made sombre by unhappy reflections. He is a reader of thoughtful books. The witticisms which he coined for sixpence each (for the Morning Chronicle) had, no doubt, less of metallic lustre than those which he afterwards meditated; and which were highly estimated. _Effodiuntur opes_. His jests were never the mere overflowings of the animal spirits, but were exercises of the mind. He brought the wisdom of old times and old writers to bear upon the taste and intellect of his day. What was in a manner foreign to his age, he naturalized and cherished. And he did this with judgment and great delicacy. His books never unhinge or weaken the mind, but bring before it tender and beautiful thoughts, which charm and nourish it as only good books can. No one was ever worse from reading Charles Lamb's writings; but many have become wiser and better. Sometimes, as he hints, "he affected that dangerous figure, irony;" and he would sometimes interrupt grave discussion, when he thought it too grave, with some light jest, which nevertheless was "not quite irrelevant." Long talkers, as he confesses, "hated him;" and assuredly he hated long talkers.

In his countenance you might sometimes read--what may be occasionally read on almost all foreheads--the letters and lines of old, unforgotten calamity. Yet there was at the bottom of his nature a buoyant self- sustaining strength; for although he encountered frequent seasons of mental distress, his heart recovered itself in the interval, and rose and sounded, like music played to a happy tune. Upon fit occasion, his lips could shut in a firm fashion; but the gentle smile that played about his face showed that he was always ready to relent. His quick eye never had any sullenness: his mouth, tender and tremulous, showed that there would be nothing cruel or inflexible in his nature.

On referring to his letters, it must be confessed that in literature Lamb's taste, like that of all others, was at first imperfect. For taste is a portion of our judgment, and must depend a good deal on our experience, and on our opportunities of comparing the claims of different pretenders. Lamb's affections swayed him at all times. He sympathized deeply with Cowper and his melancholy history, and at first estimated his verse, perhaps, beyond its strict value. He was intimate with Southey, and anticipated that he would rival Milton. Then his taste was at all times peculiar. He seldom worshipped the Idol which the multitude had set up. I was never able to prevail on him to admit that "Paradise Lost" was greater than "Paradise Regained;" I believe, indeed, he liked the last the best. He would not discuss the Poetry of Lord Byron or Shelley, with a view of being convinced of their beauties. Apart from a few points like these, his opinions must be allowed to be sound; almost always; if not as to the style of the author, then as to the quality of his book or passage which he chose to select. And his own style was always good, from the beginning, in verse as well as in prose. His first sonnets are unaffected, well sustained, and well written.

I do not know much of the opinion of others; but to my thinking the style of Charles Lamb, in his "Elia," and in the letters written by him in the later (the last twenty) years of his life, is full of grace; not antiquated, but having a touch of antiquity. It is self-possessed, choice, delicate, penetrating, his words running into the innermost sense of things. It is not, indeed, adapted to the meanest capacity, but is racy, and chaste, after his fashion. Perhaps it is sometimes scriptural: at all events it is always earnest and sincere. He was painfully in earnest in his advocacy of Hazlitt and Hunt, and in his pleadings for Hogarth and the old dramatists. Even in his humor, his fictitious (as well as his real) personages have a character of reality about them which gives them their standard value. They all ring like true coin. In conversation he loved to discuss persons or books, and seldom ventured upon the stormy sea of politics; his intimates lying on the two opposite shores, Liberal and Tory. Yet, when occasion moved him, he did not refuse to express his liberal opinions. There was little or nothing cloudy or vague about him; he required that there should be known ground even in fiction. He rejected the poems of Shelley (many of them so consummately beautiful), because they were too exclusively ideal. Their efflorescence, he thought, was not natural. He preferred Southey's "Don Roderick" to his "Curse of Kehama;" of which latter poem he says, "I don't feel that firm footing in it that I do in 'Roderick.' My imagination goes sinking and floundering in the vast spaces of unopened systems and faiths. I am put out of the pale of my old sympathies."

Charles Lamb had much respect for some of the modern authors. In particular, he admired (to the full extent of his capacity for liking) Coleridge, and Wordsworth, and Burns. But with these exceptions his affections rested mainly on writers who had lived before him; on _some_ of them; for there were "things in books' clothing" from which he turned away loathing. He was not a worshipper of the customs and manners of old times, so much as of the tangible objects that old times have bequeathed to us; the volumes tinged with decay, the buildings (the Temple, Christ's Hospital, &c.) colored and enriched by the hand of age. Apart from these, he clung to the time present; for if he hated anything in the extreme degree, he hated change.

He clung to life, although life had bestowed upon him no magnificent gifts; none, indeed, beyond books, and friends (a "ragged regiment"), and an affectionate, contented mind. He had, he confesses, "an intolerable disinclination to dying;" which beset him especially in the winter months. "I am not content to pass away like a weaver's shuttle. Any alteration in this earth of mine discomposes me. My household gods plant a terrible fixed foot, and are not rooted up without blood." He seems never to have looked into the Future. His eyes were on the present or (oftener) on the past. It was always thus from his boyhood. His first readings were principally Beaumont and Fletcher, Massinger, Isaac Walton, &c. "I gather myself up" (he writes) "unto the old things." He has indeed extracted the beauty and innermost value of Antiquity, whenever he has pressed it into his service.

CHAPTER II.

_Birth and Parentage.--Christ's Hospital.--South Sea House and India House.--Condition of Family.--Death of Mother.--Mary in Asylum.--John Lamb.--Charles's Means of Living.--His Home.--Despondency.--Alice W.-- Brother and Sister._

On the south side of Fleet Street, near to where it adjoins Temple Bar, lies the Inner Temple. It extends southward to the Thames, and contains long ranges of melancholy buildings, in which lawyers (those reputed birds of prey) and their followers congregate. It is a district very memorable. About seven hundred years ago, it was the abiding-place of the Knights Templars, who erected there a church, which still uplifts its round tower (its sole relic) for the wonder of modern times. Fifty years since, I remember, you entered the precinct through a lowering archway that opened into a gloomy passage--Inner Temple Lane. On the east side rose the church; and on the west was a dark line of chambers, since pulled down and rebuilt, and now called Johnson's Buildings. At some distance westward was an open court, in which was a sun-dial, and, in the midst, a solitary fountain, that sent its silvery voice into the air above, the murmur of which, descending, seemed to render the place more lonely. Midway, between the Inner Temple Lane and the Thames, was, and I believe still is, a range of substantial chambers (overlooking the gardens and the busy river), called Crown Office Row. In one of these chambers, on the 18th day of February, 1775, Charles Lamb was born.

He was the son of John and Elizabeth Lamb; and he and his brother John and his sister Mary (both of whom were considerably older than himself) were the only children of their parents. John was twelve years, and Mary (properly Mary Anne) was ten years older than Charles. Their father held the post of clerk to Mr. Samuel Salt, a barrister, one of the benchers of the Inner Temple; a mild, amiable man, very indolent, very shy, and, as I imagine, not much known in what is called "the profession."

Lamb sprang, paternally, from a humble stock, which had its root in the county of Lincoln. At one time of his life his father appears to have dwelt at Stamford. In his imaginary ascent from plain Charles Lamb to Pope Innocent, one of the gradations is Lord Stamford. His mother's family came from Hertfordshire, where his grandmother was a housekeeper in the Plumer family, and where several of his cousins long resided. He did not attempt to trace his ancestry (of which he wisely made no secret) beyond two or three generations. In an agreeable sonnet, entitled "The Family Name," he speaks of his sire's sire, but no further: "We trace our stream no higher." Then he runs into some pleasant conjectures as to his possible progenitors, of whom he knew nothing.

"Perhaps some shepherd on Lincolnian plains,"

he says, first received the name; perhaps some martial lord, returned from "holy Salem;" and then he concludes with a resolve,--

"No deed of mine shall shame thee, gentle Name,"

which he kept religiously throughout his life.

When Charles was between seven and eight years of age, he became a scholar in Christ's Hospital, a presentation having been given to his father, for the son's benefit. He entered that celebrated school on the 9th of October, 1782, and remained there until the 23d November, 1789, being then between fourteen and fifteen years old. The records of his boyhood are very scanty. He was always a grave, inquisitive boy. Once, when walking with his sister through some churchyard, he inquired anxiously, "Where do the naughty people lie?" the unqualified panegyrics which he encountered on the tombstones doubtless suggesting the inquiry. Mr. Samuel Le Grice (his schoolfellow) states that he was an amiable, gentle youth, very sensible, and keenly observing; that "his complexion was clear brown, his countenance mild, his eyes differing in color, and that he had a slow and peculiar walk." He adds that he was never mentioned without the addition of his Christian name, Charles, implying a general feeling of kindness towards him. His delicate frame and difficulty of utterance, it is said, unfitted him for joining in any boisterous sports.

After he left Christ's Hospital, he returned home, where he had access to the large miscellaneous library of Mr. Salt. He and his sister were (to use his own words) "tumbled into a spacious closet of good old English reading, and browsed at will on that fair and wholesome pasturage." This, however, could not have lasted long, for it was the destiny of Charles Lamb to be compelled to labor almost from, his boyhood. He was able to read Greek, and had acquired great facility in Latin composition, when he left the Hospital; but an unconquerable impediment in his speech deprived him of an "exhibition" in the school, and, as a consequence, of the benefit of a college education.

The state of Christ's Hospital, at the time when Lamb was a scholar there, may be ascertained with tolerable correctness from his two essays, entitled "Recollections of Christ's Hospital" and "Christ's Hospital five and thirty years ago." These papers when read together show the different (favorable and unfavorable) points of this great establishment. They leave no doubt as to its extensive utility. Although, strictly speaking, it was a charitable home for the sustenance and education of boys, slenderly


Charles Lamb - 3/25

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