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- Charles Lamb - 6/25 -
entitled to; he even passes some commendation on the frontispiece, which is undoubtedly a very poor specimen of art. It is remarkable how Lamb, who was able to enter so completely into Hogarth's sterling humor, could ever have placed any value upon this counterfeit coin.
But Lamb had a great regard for Jem White. They had been boys together, school-fellows in Christ's Hospital; and these very early friendships seldom undergo any severe critical tests. At all events, Lamb thought highly of White's book, which he used often to purchase and give away to his friends, in justification of his own taste and to extend the fame of the author. The copy which he gave me I have still. White, it seems, after leaving Christ's Hospital as a scholar, took some office there; but eventually left it, and became an agent for newspapers.
In one of the Elia essays, "The Praise of Chimney-sweepers," Lamb has set forth some of the merits of his old friend. Undoubtedly Jem White must have been a thoroughly kind-hearted man, since he could give a dinner every year, on St. Bartholomew's day, to the little chimney-sweepers of London; waiting on them, and cheering them up with his jokes and lively talk; creating at least one happy day annually in each of their poor lives. At the date of the essay (May, 1822) he had died. In Lamb's words, "James White is extinct; and with him the suppers have long ceased. He carried away with him half the fun of the world when he died--of my world, at least. His old clients look for him among the pens; and, missing him, reproach the altered feast of St. Bartholomew, and the glory of Smithfield departed forever."
The great friend and Mentor, however, of Charles Lamb's youth, was (as has frequently been asserted) Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was a philosopher, and who was considered, almost universally, to be the greater genius of the two. It may be so; and there is little doubt that in mere capacity, in the power of accumulating and disbursing ideas, and in the extent and variety of his knowledge, he exceeded Lamb, and also most of his other contemporaries; but the mind of Lamb was quite as original, and more compact. The two friends were very dissimilar, the one wandering amongst lofty, ill-defined objects, whilst the other "clung to the realities of life." It is fortunately not necessary to enter into any comparative estimate of these two remarkable persons. Each had his positive qualities and peculiarities, by which he was distinguishable from other men; and by these he may therefore be separately and more safely judged.
In his mature age (when I knew him) Coleridge had a full, round face, a fine, broad forehead, rather thick lips, and strange, dreamy eyes, which were often lighted up by eagerness, but wanted concentration, and were adapted apparently for musing or speculation, rather than for precise or rapid judgment. Yet he was very shrewd, as well as eloquent; was (slightly) addicted to jesting; and would talk "at sight" upon any subject with extreme fluency and much knowledge. "His white hair," in Lamb's words, "shrouded a capacious brain."
Coleridge had browsed and expatiated over all the rich regions of literature, at home and abroad. In youth his studies had, in the first instance, been mainly in theology, he having selected the "Church" for his profession. Although he was educated in the creed and rites of the Church of England, he became for a time a Unitarian preacher, and scattered his eloquent words over many human audiences. He was fond of questions of logic, and of explaining his systems and opinions by means of diagrams; but his projects were seldom consummated; and his talk (sometimes) and his prose writing (often) were tedious and diffuse. His "Christabel," from which he derived much of his fame, remained, after a lapse of more than thirty years, incomplete at his death. He gained much reputation from the "Ancient Mariner" (which is perhaps his best poem); but his translation of Schiller's "Wallenstein" is the only achievement that shows him capable of a great prolonged effort. Lamb used to boast that he supplied one line to his friend in the fourth scene of that tragedy, where the description of the Pagan deities occurs. In speaking of Satan, he is figured as "an old man melancholy." "That was _my_ line," Lamb would say, exultingly. I forget how it was originally written, except that it had not the extra (or eleventh) syllable, which it now possesses.
There is some beautiful writing in this fourth scene, which may be read after Mr. Wordsworth's equally beautiful reference to the Olympian gods and goddesses, in the fourth book of the "Excursion," entitled "Despondency Corrected." The last explains more completely than the other the attributes of the deities specially named.
The most elaborate (perhaps impartial) sketches of Coleridge--his great talents, combined with his great weaknesses--may be found in Hazlitt's Essays, "The Spirit of the Age" and "My First Acquaintance with Poets;" and in the eighth chapter of Mr. Carlyle's "Life of John Sterling."
In Lamb's letters it is easy to perceive that the writer soon became aware of the foibles of his friend. "Cultivate simplicity, Coleridge," is his admonition as early as 1796. In another place his remark is, "You have been straining your faculties to bring together things infinitely distant and unlike." Again, "I grieve from my very soul to observe you in your plans of life veering about from this hope to the other, and settling nowhere." Robert Southey, whose prose style was the perfection of neatness, and who was intimate with Coleridge throughout his life, laments that it is "extraordinary that he should write in so rambling and inconclusive a manner;" his mind, which was undoubtedly very pliable and subtle, "turning and winding, till you get weary of following his mazy movements."
Charles Lamb, however, always sincerely admired and loved his old schoolfellow, and grieved deeply when he died. The recollection of this event, which happened many years afterwards (in 1834), never left Lamb until his own death: he used perpetually to exclaim, "Coleridge is dead, Coleridge is dead," in a low, musing, meditative voice. These exclamations (addressed to no one) were, as Lamb was a most unaffected man, assuredly involuntary, and showed that he could not get rid of the melancholy truth.
At this distance of time, many persons (judging by what he has left behind him) wonder at the extent of admiration which possessed some of Coleridge's contemporaries: Charles Lamb accorded to his genius something scarcely short of absolute worship; Robert Southey considered his capacity as exceeding that of almost all other writers; and Leigh Hunt, speaking of Coleridge's personal appearance, says, "He had a mighty intellect put upon a sensual body." Persons who were intimate with both have suggested that even Wordsworth was indebted to him for some of his philosophy. As late as 1818, Lamb, when dedicating his works to him, says that Coleridge "first kindled in him, if not the power, the love, of poetry, and beauty, and kindness." He must be judged, however, by what he has actually _done_.
I am not here as the valuer of Coleridge's merits. I have no pretensions and no desire to assume so delicate an office. His dreams and intentions were undoubtedly good, and, had he been able to carry them out for the benefit of the world, would have entitled himself to the name of a great poet, a great genius. His readiness to discuss _all_ subjects, and his ability to talk on most of them with ease, were marvellous. But he was always infirm of purpose, and never did justice to his own capacity.
Amongst other men of talent who have sung Coleridge's praises should be named Hazlitt, who knew him in 1798, and has enshrined him in the first of his charming papers, entitled "Winterslow Essays." Hazlitt admits his feebleness of purpose, but speaks of his genius, shining upon his own (then) dumb, inarticulate nature, as the sun "upon the puddles of the road." Coleridge at that time was a Unitarian minister, and had come to preach, instead of the minister for the time being, at Shrewsbury. Hazlitt rose before daylight (it was in January), and walked from Wem to Shrewsbury, a distance of ten miles, to hear the "celebrated" man, who combined the inspirations of poet and preacher in one person, enlighten a Shropshire congregation. "Never, the longest day I have to live" (says he), "shall I have such another walk as this cold, raw, comfortless one, in the winter of 1798. When I got there [to the Chapel], the organ was playing the one hundredth Psalm; and when it was done, Mr. Coleridge rose and gave out his text--'And he went up into the mountain to pray, HIMSELF ALONE.' The preacher then launched into his subject, like an eagle dallying with the wind," &c. Coleridge was at that time only five and twenty years of age; yet he seems even then to have been able to decide on many writers in logic and rhetoric, philosophy and poetry. Of course he was familiar with the works of his friend Wordsworth, of whom he cleverly observed, in reply to the depreciating opinion of Mackintosh, "He strides on so far before you, that he dwindles in the distance." 
It would be very interesting, were it practicable, to trace with certainty the sources that supplied Charles Lamb's inspiration. But this must always be impossible. For inspiration, in all cases, proceeds from many sources, although there may be one influence predominating. It is clear that a great Tragedy mainly determined his conduct through life, and operated, therefore, materially on his thoughts as well as actions. The terrible death of his mother concentrated and strengthened his mind, and prevented its dissipation into trifling and ignoble thoughts. The regularity of the India House labor upheld him. The extent and character of his acquaintance also helped to determine the quality of the things which he produced. Had he seen less, his mind might have become warped and rigid, as from want of space. Had he seen too much, his thoughts might have been split and exhausted upon too many points, and would thus have been so perplexed and harassed, that the value of his productions, now known and current through all classes, might scarcely have exceeded a negative quantity.
Then, in his companions he must be accounted fortunate. Coleridge helped to unloose his mind from too precise notions: Southey gave it consistency and correctness: Manning expanded his vision: Hazlitt gave him daring: perhaps even poor George Dyer, like some unrecognized virtue, may have kept alive and nourished the pity and tenderness which were originally sown within him. We must leave the difficulty, as we must leave the great problems of Nature, unexplained, and be content with what is self-evident before us. We know, at all events, that he had an open heart, and that the heart is a fountain which never fails.
The earliest productions of Lamb which have come down to us, namely, verses, and criticism, and letters, are all in a grave and thoughtful tone. The letters, at first, are on melancholy subjects, but afterwards stray into criticism or into details of his readings, or an account of his predilections for books and authors. At one or two and twenty, he had read and formed opinions on Shakespeare, on Beaumont and Fletchcr, on Massinger, Milton, Cowley, Isaac Walton, Burns, Collins, and others; some of these, be it observed, lying much out of the ordinary course of a young man's reading. He was also acquainted with the writings of Priestley and Wesley, and Jonathan Edwards; for the first of whom he entertained the deepest respect.
Lamb's verses were always good, steady, and firm, and void of those magniloquent commonplaces which so clearly betray the immature writer. They were at no time misty nor inconsequent, but contained proof that he had reasoned out his idea. From the age of twenty-one to the age of fifty- nine, when he died, he hated fine words and flourishes of rhetoric. His imagination (not very lofty, perhaps) is to be discovered less in his verse than in his prose humor, than in his letters and essays. In these it was never trivial, but was always knit together by good sense, or softened by tenderness. Real humor seldom makes its appearance in the first literary ventures of young writers. Accordingly, symptoms of humor (which, nevertheless, were not long delayed) are not to be discovered in Charles Lamb's first letters or poems; the latter, when prepared for publication in 1796, being especially grave. They are entitled "Poems by Charles Lamb of the India House," and are inscribed to "Mary Anne Lamb, the author's best friend and sister."
After some procrastination, the book containing them was published in
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