Then at the close Elia says, "Reader, what if I have been playing with thee all this while—peradventure the very names, which I have summoned up before thee, are fantastic—insubstantial—like Henry Pimpernel and old John Naps of Greece; be satisfied that something answering to them has had a being. Their importance is from the past." The names may have been mostly fantastic—in one case we know that it was not, for "Henry Man, the wit, the polished man of letters" is known to delvers among dead books—the types are immortal. In this first essay we find in such sentences as "their sums in triple columniations, set down with formal superfluity of cyphers," an illustration of Lamb's wonderful use of what an antipathetic critic might term an informal superfluity of syllables.
The next essay, reflecting the atmosphere of "Oxford in the Vacation," was written presumably during a holiday visit to the University of Cambridge, though Elia touching upon matters concerning church holidays breaks off with—
... but I am wading out of my depths. I am not the man to decide the limits of civil and ecclesiastical authority—I am plain Elia—no Selden, nor Archbishop Usher—though at present in the thick of their books here in the heart of learning, under the shadow of mighty Bodley.
Then follows a passage eminently characteristic of Elia's happy manner of playing with a theme:
I can here play the gentleman, enact the student To such a one as myself, who has been defrauded in his young years of the sweet food of academic institution, nowhere is so pleasant to while away a few idle weeks at one or other of the universities. Their vacation, too, at this time of the year, falls in pat with ours. Here I can take my walks unmolested, and fancy myself of what degree of standing I please. I seem admitted ad eundem. I fetch up past opportunities. I can rise at the chapel-bell, and dream that it rings for me. In moods of humility I can be a Sizar, or a Servitor. When the peacock vein rises, I strut a Gentleman Commoner. In graver moments, I proceed Master of Arts. Indeed I do not think I am much unlike that respectable character. I have seen your dim-eyed vergers, and bed-makers in spectacles drop a bow or curtsey as I pass, wisely mistaking me for something of the sort. I go about in black, which favours the notion. Only in Christ Church reverend quadrangle I can be content to pass for nothing short of a Seraphic doctor.
The walks at these times are so much one's own—the tall trees of Christ's, the groves of Magdalen! The halls deserted, and with open doors inviting one to slip in unperceived, and pay a devoir to some Founder or noble or royal Benefactress (that should have been ours), whose portrait seems to smile upon their over-looked beadsman, and to adopt me for their own. Then, to take a peep in by the way at the butteries, and sculleries, redolent of antique hospitality: the immense caves of kitchens, kitchen fire-places, cordial recesses; ovens whose first pies were baked four centuries ago; and spits which have cooked for Chaucer! Not the meanest minister among the dishes but is hallowed to me through his imagination, and the Cook goes forth a Manciple.
The next essay, "Christ's Hospital Five and Thirty Years Ago," should be read along with an earlier one, which does not belong actually to the Elia series, "Recollections of Christ's Hospital." In the later essay Lamb affected to look at the school as it might have been to a scholar less fortunately circumstanced than himself, a boy far from his family and friends, and the boy whom he selected was that one of his school companions whom he knew best and with whom in manhood he had sustained the closest friendship—S. T. Coleridge. That friend he thus apostrophizes in a passage which has frequently been quoted:
Come back into memory, like as thou wert in the day-spring of thy fancies, with hope like a fiery column before thee—the dark pillar not yet turned—Samuel Taylor Coleridge—Logician, Metaphysician, Bard! How have I seen the casual passer through the Cloisters stand still, entranced with admiration (while he weighed the disproportion between the speech and the garb of the young Mirandula), to hear thee unfold, in thy deep and sweet intonations, the mysteries of Jamblichus or Plotinus (for even in those years thou waxedst not pale at such philosophic draughts), or reciting Homer in his Greek, or Pindar, while the walls of the old Grey Friars re-echoed to the accents of the inspired charity-boy!
"The Two Races of Men," divides men into those who borrow and those who lend, the theme being followed out with great humour, and going on to those "whose treasures are rather cased in leather covers than closed in iron coffers," and then giving pleasant bits about Coleridge—under his nomme de guerre of Comberbatch—and his theory that "the title to property in a book ... is in exact ratio to the claimant's powers of understanding and appreciating the same." "Should he go on acting upon this theory," adds Elia, "which of our shelves is safe?"
"New Year's Eve" suggests a train of reflections—not, in the platitudinous manner of looking back over the errors of the past year and making good resolutions for the coming one—but on mortality generally, and on the passing of time and the passing of life:
I am not content to pass away like a weaver's shuttle! These metaphors solace me not, nor sweeten the unpalatable draught of mortality. I care not to be carried with the tide, that smoothly bears human life to eternity; and reluct at the inevitable course of destiny. I am in love with this green earth; the face of town and country; the unspeakable rural solitude, and the sweet security of streets. I would set up my tabernacle here. I am content to stand still at the age to which I am arrived; I and my friends; to be no younger, no richer, no handsomer. I do not want to be weaned by age; or drop like mellow fruit, as they say, into the grave.
Next comes the immortal "Mrs. Battle's Opinions on Whist,"—Mrs. Battle, whose wish for "a clear fire, a clean hearth, and the rigour of the game" has become almost proverbial so commonly is it repeated, whose heart-whole devotion to her game will make true Elians whist players when bridge is forgotten. In "A Chapter on Ears," Elia expatiates upon his insensibility to music; in "All Fool's Day" he puts wisdom under motley in a truly Shakespearian fashion, with the fine conclusion, "and take my word for this, reader, and say a fool told it you, if you please, that he who hath not a dram of folly in his mixture, hath pounds of much worse matter in his composition."
"The Quakers' Meeting" is a delicate and impressive verbal representation of the spirit of Quakerdom as revealed to one not a Quaker but ready to appreciate the quietist spirit. Those who have never attended a meeting of the kind feel that they have realized its significance when they come across a passage such as this:
More frequently the meeting is broken up without a word having been spoken. But the mind has been fed. You go away with a sermon, not made with hands. You have been in the milder caverns of Trophonius; or as in some den, where that fiercest and savagest of all wild creatures, the Tongue, that unruly member, has strangely lain tied up and captive. You have bathed with stillness—O, when the spirit is sore fettered, even tired to sickness of the janglings and nonsense noises of the world, what a balm and a solace it is, to go and seat yourself for a quiet half hour, upon some undisputed corner of a bench, among the gentle Quakers!
Then follows a quaint Elian touch of humour in the application of a line of Wordsworth's far from that poet's intention: "Their garb and stillness conjoined, present an uniformity, tranquil and herd-like—as in the pasture—'forty feeding like one.'"
An encounter in a coach with a loquacious gentleman whom he took to be a school-master set Lamb musing on the differences between "The Old and the New School-Master," on the way in which the pedagogue is differentiated by the very conditions of his labours not only from his boys but from his fellows generally; he is a man for whom life is in a measure poisoned, "nothing comes to him not spoiled by the sophisticating medium of moral uses." Incidentally too, Elia informs us that the school-master
is so used to teaching that he wants to be teaching you. One of these professors, upon my complaining that these little sketches of mine were anything but methodical, and that I was unable to make them otherwise, kindly offered to instruct me in the method by which young gentlemen in his seminary were taught to compose English themes. The jests of a school-master are coarse or thin.
The next essay—the only one in "The Essays of Elia" volume which had not appeared in the "London Magazine"—is a pretty bit about "Valentine's Day." This is followed by an inquiry into the existence of "Imperfect Sympathies," the writer declaring that he had been trying all his life—without success—to like Scotsmen, and that he had the same imperfect sympathy with Jews. The Scotsmen are too precise, too matter of fact at once in their own statements and those to which alone they will attend. This would of itself be sufficient to establish the "imperfect sympathy," for in another connection Lamb had declared his preference for "a matter of lie man."
"Witches and Other Night Fears" is an examination, in which whimsicality is blent with deep seriousness, of the night terrors of imaginative childhood; Elia showed how a picture in an old time Bible history had shaped his fears and made his nights hideous for several years of his early childhood, though he holds that "It is not book, or picture, or the stories of foolish servants, which create these terrors in children. They can at most but give them direction." He suggests that the kind of fear is purely spiritual, and incidentally gives a characteristically quaint turn in "My night-fancies have long ceased to be afflictive. I confess an occasional nightmare; but I do not, as in early youth, keep a stud of them."
In "My Relations" we have an excellent instance of Lamb's veiled autobiography; he begins by saying that he has no brother or sister and at once proceeds to a close and analytical portrait of his "cousin," James Elia, that supposed personage being Charles Lamb's own brother John, who died in November, 1821, a few months after the original appearance of this essay. "Mackery End in Hertfordshire," continues the theme of relations with another striking piece of portraiture in another supposed cousin of Elia's, Bridget (really Mary Lamb). In limning his sister he was of course hampered somewhat by her terrible affliction, but wonderfully has he surmounted it, and delightful indeed it is to follow the narrative of the "cousins'" visit to unknown cousins at the old place in "the green plains of pleasant Hertfordshire."
Dealing with the subject of "Modern Gallantry" Elia shows how it is wanting in the true spirit of gallantry which should consist not in compliments to youth and beauty but in reverence to sex.
"The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple" is one of the essays richest at once in personal recollections, in wonderful portraiture, and in those subtle literary touches which impart their peculiar flavour to the whole. A sketch of the author's father as Lovel was quoted from this essay in the opening chapter. Elia's observation, his felicity of expression, his originality of thought, a hint of his playfulness, may all be recognized in the very commencement of this delicious essay:
I was born, and passed the first seven years of my life in the Temple. Its church, its halls, its gardens, its fountain, its river, I had almost said—for in those young years, what was this king of rivers to me but a stream that watered our pleasant places?—these are my oldest recollections. I repeat, to this day, no verses to myself more frequently, or with kindlier emotion, than those of Spenser, where he speaks of this spot:
"There when they came, whereas those bricky towers, The which on Themmes brode aged back doth ride, Where now the studious lawyers have their bowers, There whylome wont the Templar knights to bide, Till they decayd through pride."
Indeed, it is the most elegant spot in the metropolis. What a transition for a countryman visiting London for the first time—the passing from the crowded Strand or Fleet Street, by unexpected avenues, into its magnificent ample squares, its classic green recesses! what a cheerful, liberal look hath that portion of it, which, from three sides, overlooks the greater garden, that goodly pile
"Of building strong, albeit of Paper hight,"
confronting, with massy contrast, the lighter, older, more fantastically shrouded one named of Harcourt, with the cheerful Crown Office Row (place of my kindly engendure) right opposite the stately stream, which washes the garden-foot with her yet scarcely trade-polluted waters, and seems but just weaned from her Twickenham Naiades! a man would give something to have been born in such places. What a collegiate aspect has that fine Elizabethan hall, where the fountain plays, which I have made to rise and fall, how many times! to the astoundment of the young urchins, my contemporaries, who, not being able to guess at its recondite machinery, were almost tempted to hail the wondrous work as magic! What an antique air had the now almost effaced sun-dials with their moral inscriptions, seeming co-evals with that Time which they measured, and to take their revelations of its flight immediately from heaven, holding correspondence with the fountain of light! How would the dark line steal imperceptibly on, watched by the eye of childhood, eager to detect its movement, never catched, nice as an evanescent cloud, or the first arrests of sleep!
"Ah! yet doth beauty like a dial-hand Steal from his figure, and no pace perceived!"
What a dead thing is a clock, with its ponderous embowelments of lead and brass, its pert or solemn dullness of communication, compared with the simple altar-like structure and silent heart-language of the old dial! It stood as the garden god of Christian gardens. Why is it almost everywhere vanished?
In this essay, too, we have a happy sentence where, noting an error into which his memory had betrayed him, Elia wrote of his own narratives: "They are, in truth, but shadows of fact—verisimilitudes, not verities—or sitting but upon the remote edges and outskirts of history."
Dealing with "Grace Before Meat" Elia takes up an unconventional position and defends it with spirit. It is something of an impertinence to offer up thanks before an orgy of superfluous luxuries, a "grace" is only fitting for a poor man sitting down before the necessaries for which he may well feel thankful. Even such a theme Lamb finds a fruitful occasion for pertinent literary illustration and criticism, contrasting—from Milton's "Paradise Lost"—the feast proffered by the Tempter to Christ in the wilderness with "the temperate dreams of the divine Hungerer."
With "My First Play" Elia returned to one of those autobiographic themes in which he is so often at his happiest. He represents the emotions of the child of six or seven at the theatre and contrasts them with those that follow when the child has reached his teens. "At school all play-going was inhibited." He concludes, and, most readers will agree, concludes with justice, that "we differ from ourselves less at sixty and sixteen, than the latter does from six."
"Dream Children," again, has much in it of the story of the writer's childhood, blent with sorrow over his brother's recent death and interwoven with a fanciful imagining of what might have been. Elia pictures himself talking to his two children of his own childhood's days when visiting grandmother Field:
When suddenly, turning to Alice, the soul of the first Alice looked out at her eyes with such a reality of re-presentment, that I became in doubt which of them stood there before me, or whose that bright hair was; and while I stood gazing, both the children gradually grew fainter to my view, receding, and still receding till nothing at last but two mournful features were seen in the uttermost distance, which, without speech, strangely impressed upon me the effects of speech: "We are not of Alice, nor of thee, nor are we children at all. The children of Alice call Bartrum father. We are nothing, less than nothing, and dreams. We are only what might have been, and must wait upon the tedious shores of Lethe millions of ages before we have existence, and a name"—and immediately awaking, I found myself quietly seated in my bachelor arm-chair, where I had fallen asleep, with the faithful Bridget unchanged by my side—but John L. (or James Elia) was gone for ever.
This little essay, the most beautiful of the series, is as essentially pathetic as anything in our literature, bringing tears to the eyes at every reading though known almost by heart.
The essay on "Distant Correspondents," in the form of a playful epistle to a friend, B. F. (i.e., Barron Field, also a contributor to the "London Magazine") has much that is characteristic of the writer. In it he plays—as he does in other letters to distant friends—on the way in which "this confusion of tenses, this grand solecism of two presents" renders writing difficult; in it he airs his fondness for a pun and enlarges upon the fugacity of that form of fun, its inherent incapacity for travel; and in it, too, he gives some indication—we have several such indications in his letters—of his fondness for hoaxing his friends with invented news about other friends, or with questions on supposititious problems set forth as actualities.
The next essay, "The Praise of Chimney-Sweepers," might be cited as one of those most fully representing the characteristics of Lamb's work as essayist. It has its touches of personal reminiscences, it deals with an out-of-the-way subject in a surprisingly engaging manner, and it is full of those quaint turns of expression, those more or less recondite words which Elia re-introduced from the older writers, Jeremy Taylor, Sir Thomas Browne, etc., as he had re-introduced the dramatic writings of the seventeenth century. Here is a passage which may be said to be thoroughly representative at once of Elia's manner of looking at things, as well as his own manner of describing them. Elia is discussing "Saloop."
I know not by what particular conformation of the organ it happens, but I have always found that this composition is surprisingly gratifying to the palate of a young chimney-sweeper—whether the oily particles (sassafras is slightly oleaginous) do attenuate and soften the fuliginous concretions, which are sometimes found (in dissections) to adhere to the roof of the mouth in these unfledged practitioners; or whether Nature, sensible that she had mingled too much of bitter wood in the lot of these raw victims, caused to grow out of the earth her sassafras for a sweet lenitive; but so it is, that no possible taste or odour to the senses of a young chimney-sweeper can convey a delicate excitement comparable to this mixture. Being penniless, they will yet hang their black heads over the ascending steam, to gratify one sense if possible, seemingly no less pleased than those domestic animals—cats—when they purr over a new-found sprig of valerian. There is something more in these sympathies than philosophy can inculcate.
In this essay also we have an example—one of how many!—of Lamb's happiness in hitting upon an illustration, even though it be of the ludicrous; mentioning the wonderful white of the sweep-boy's teeth he adds, "It is, as when
'A sable cloud Turns forth her silver lining on the night.'"
"A Dissertation upon Roast Pig" is perhaps the most widely known of all the essays of Elia. Its delightful drollery, its very revelling in the daintiness of sucking-pig, its wonderfully rich literary presentation, its deliberate acceptance of wild improbability as historic basis, all unite to give it special place in the regard of readers. The theme is of course familiar. It is that of a small Chinese boy playing with fire who burnt down his father's flimsy hut so that a whole litter of piglings was roasted in the conflagration. The boy touched one of the incinerated little ones to feel if it were alive; burnt his fingers and applied them to his mouth. His father returned and did the same, and thus roast sucking-pig became a new dish. Lamb plays with his subject with an inimitable mock earnestness.
Our ancestors were nice in their method of sacrificing these tender victims. We read of pigs whipt to death with something of a shock, as we hear of any other obsolete custom. The age of discipline is gone by, or it would be curious to inquire (in a philosophical light merely) what effect this process might have towards intenerating and dulcifying a substance, naturally so mild and dulcet as the flesh of young pigs. It looks like refining a violet. Yet we should be cautious, while we condemn the inhumanity, how we censure the wisdom of the practice. It might impart a gusto.
The subject Charles Lamb professed to take from a Chinese manuscript of his friend Manning's, and there have not been wanting critics who have sought for literary germs from which this essay might have sprung. Such will find in the seventeenth-century "Letters writ by a Turkish Spy" the origin of roasted meat referred to the days of sacrifice when one of the priests touching a burning beast hurt his fingers and applied them to his mouth—with precisely the same sequel which followed on Bo-bo's escapade.
"A Bachelor's Complaint of the Behaviour of Married People" is a delicate—perhaps partly ironical—description of a bachelor's objections to his married friends flaunting their happiness in his face. In the last three of the essays we have Lamb as critic of the stage—partly, as in the Dramatic Specimens, of its literature, "On the Artificial Comedy of the Last Century;" and partly on its actors, "On some of the Old Actors" and "On the Acting of Munden." Here again we have proofs of his instinctive critical power, his finely perfected method of expressing his appreciation of men and books.
The "Last Essays of Elia," published the year before Lamb's death, open with a "Character of the late Elia"—an admirable piece of self-portraiture in which Lamb hit off with great felicity some of his own characteristics, physical and intellectual. In the first of the essays, "Blakesmoor in H——shire," the author let his memory and fancy play about the old house, lately razed, in which his grandmother Field had held sway as housekeeper, in which as child he had passed many happy holidays. Its tapestries, its haunted room, its "tattered and diminished 'Scutcheon," its Justice Hall, its "costly fruit garden, with its sun-baked southern wall," its "noble Marble Hall, with its Mosaic pavements, and its Twelve Caesars—stately busts in marble—ranged round," each of these recalled by memory suggests some deep thought or some pleasant turn. The opening passage at once sets the note of the whole, and may be taken as a representation of Lamb's contemplative mood:
I do not know a pleasure more affecting than to range at will over the deserted apartments of some fine old family mansion. The traces of extinct grandeur admit of a better passion than envy; and contemplations on the great and good, whom we fancy in succession to have been its inhabitants, weave for us illusions, incompatible with the bustle of modern occupancy, and vanities of foolish present aristocracy. The same difference of feeling, I think, attends us between entering an empty and a crowded church. In the latter it is chance but some present human frailty—an act of inattention on the part of some of the auditory—or a trait of affectation, or worse, vain-glory on that of the preacher—puts us by our best thoughts, disharmonizing the place and the occasion. But wouldst thou know the beauty of holiness? go alone on some week-day, borrowing the keys of good Master Sexton, traverse the cool aisles of some country church: think of the piety that has kneeled there—the congregations, old and young, that have found consolation there—the meek pastor, the docile parishioner. With no disturbing emotions, no cross conflicting comparisons, drink in the tranquillity of the place, till thou thyself become as fixed and motionless as the marble effigies that kneel and weep around thee.
"Poor Relations" is a beautiful example of humour—provoking to smiles while touching to tears—with a wonderful introductory piling up of definitions: "A Poor Relation—is the most irrelevant thing in nature,—a piece of impertinent correspondency,—a preposterous shadow, lengthening in the noontide of your prosperity,—an unwelcome remembrancer," and so on. "This theme of poor relations is replete with so much matter for tragic as well as comic associations that it is difficult to keep the account distinct without blending." The essay includes three or four admirable examples of Elia's felicity in drawing typical characters with just that touch of oddity that makes them live as individuals. The theatre which we have seen always made its triple appeal to Lamb—from the study, from the front, and from the boards—inspired the next three essays, "Stage Illusions," "To the Shade of Elliston," and "Ellistoniana." The first is an example of subtle criticism showing how it is that we get enjoyment out of unlovely attributes on the stage, thanks to the "exquisite art of the actor in a perpetual sub-insinuation to us," that things are not altogether what they seem to be. In the two essays on Elliston we have at once an eloquent tribute to a stage-magnate of his day and a fine character portrait.
"Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading," might be cited as one of the most characteristic of the essays of Elia. It illustrates the writer's happiest style, and indicates his taste. In its opening passages are words and phrases which have become quotations "familiar in the mouth as household words" to all book-lovers. Lamb takes as his text a remark made by Lord Foppington in Vanbrugh's "Relapse": "To mind the inside of a book is to entertain one's self with the forced products of another man's brain. Now I think a man of quality and breeding may be much amused with the natural sprouts of his own."
An ingenious acquaintance was so much struck with this bright sally of his Lordship, that he has left off reading altogether, to the great improvement of his originality. At the hazard of losing some credit on this head, I must confess that I dedicate no inconsiderable portion of my time to other people's thoughts. I dream away my life in others' speculations. I love to lose myself in other men's minds. When I am not walking, I am reading; I cannot sit and think. Books think for me.
I have no repugnances. Shaftesbury is not too genteel for me, nor Jonathan Wild too low. I can read anything which I call a book. There are things in that shape which I cannot allow for such.
In this catalogue of books which are no books—biblia a-biblia—I reckon Court Calendars, Directories, Pocket Books, Draught Boards, bound and lettered on the back, Scientific Treatises, Almanacks, Statutes at Large; the works of Hume, Gibbon, Robertson, Beattie, Soame Jenyns, and, generally, all those volumes which "no gentleman's library should be without"; the Histories of Flavius Josephus (that learned Jew), and Paley's "Moral Philosophy." With these exceptions, I can read almost anything. I bless my stars for a taste so catholic, so unexcluding.
I confess that it moves my spleen to see these things in books' clothing perched upon shelves, like false saints, usurpers of true shrines, intruders into the sanctuary, thrusting out the legitimate occupants. To reach down a well-bound semblance of a volume, and hope it some kind-hearted playbook; then, opening what "seem its leaves," to come bolt upon a withering Population Essay. To expect a Steele, or a Farquhar, and find—Adam Smith; to view a well-arranged assortment of block-headed Encyclopaedias (Anglicanas or Metropolitanas) set out in an array of Russia, or Morocco, when a tithe of that good leather would comfortably re-clothe my shivering folios; would renovate Paracelsus himself, and enable old Raymund Lully to look himself again in the world. I never see these impostors, but I long to strip them to warm my ragged veterans in their spoils.
He passes on to a consideration of the fitting habiliments of books; the sizes which appealed to him; the where and when to read: "I should not care to be caught in the serious avenues of some cathedral alone and reading 'Candide'!"—"The Old Margate Hoy" gives reminiscences of a visit to the popular resort—with some uncomplimentary asides at Hastings—in the days of the boy, "ill-exchanged for the foppery and freshwater niceness of the modern steampacket," the boy that asked "no aid of magic fumes, and spells, and boiling cauldrons." "The Convalescent" expatiates upon the allowable egoism of the occupant of a sick bed, upon his "regal solitude," and goes on to show "how convalescence shrinks a man back to his primitive state." The essay was inspired by that ill-health which led to Lamb's retirement from the India House in 1825. At the close he indulged his pen in his conversational fondness for a pun:
In this flat swamp of convalescence, left by the ebb of sickness, yet far enough removed from the terra firma of established health, your note, dear Editor, reached me, requesting—an article. In articulo mortis, thought I; but it is something hard—and the quibble, wretched as it was, relieved me.
In the "Sanity of True Genius" Elia set out to controvert the idea expressed by Dryden in his best remembered line—
"Great wits to madness nearly are allied,"
and does so in a most convincing manner if, with him, we understand by the greatness of wit poetic talent. As he says: "It is impossible for the mind to conceive of a mad Shakespeare."
The ground of the mistake is, that men, finding in the raptures of the higher poetry a condition of exaltation, to which they have no parallel in their own experience, besides the spurious resemblance of it in dreams and fevers, impute a state of dreaminess and fever to the poet. But the true poet dreams being awake. He is not possessed by his subject but has dominion over it. In the groves of Eden he walks familiar as in his native paths. He ascends the empyrean heaven, and is not intoxicated. He treads the burning marl without dismay; he wins his flight without self-loss through realms of chaos "and old night." Or if, abandoning himself to that severer chaos of a "human mind untuned," he is content awhile to be mad with Lear, or to hate mankind (a sort of madness) with Timon; neither is that madness, nor this misanthropy, so unchecked, but that—never letting the reins of reason wholly go, while most he seems to do so—he has his better genius whispering at his ear, with the good servant Kent suggesting saner counsels; or with the honest steward Flavius recommending kindlier resolutions. Where he seems most to recede from humanity, he will be found the truest to it.
"Captain Jackson" is an unforgettable picture of a poor man who would not be poor; his manners made a plated spoon appear as silver sugar-tongs, a homely bench a sofa, and so on. As Elia concludes:
There is some merit in putting a handsome face upon indigent circumstances. To bully and swagger away the sense of them before strangers, may not always be discommendable. Tibbs and Bobadil, even when detected, have more of our admiration than contempt. But for a man to put the cheat upon himself; to play the Bobadil at home; and, steeped in poverty up to the lips, to fancy himself all the while chin-deep in riches, is a strain of constitutional philosophy, and a mastery over fortune, which was reserved for my old friend Captain Jackson.
With the next essay of this collection, that on "The Superannuated Man," we come to one of the most notable of the series of Elia's transmutations of matters of private experience into precious literature. The paper is as autobiographic as any of his letters: some slight changes—as of the East India House to the name of a city firm—are made, but for the rest it is a record of his retirement with a revelation of the feelings attendant upon the change from having to go daily to an office for thirty-six years to being suddenly free:
For the first day or two I felt stunned, overwhelmed. I could only apprehend my felicity; I was too confused to taste it sincerely. I wandered about, thinking I was happy and knowing that I was not. I was in the condition of a prisoner in the old Bastile, suddenly let loose after a forty years' confinement. I could scarce trust myself with myself. It was like passing out of Time into Eternity—for it is a sort of Eternity for a man to have all his Time to himself. It seemed to me that I had more time on my hands than I could ever manage. From a poor man, poor in Time, I was suddenly lifted up into a vast revenue; I could see no end of my possessions; I wanted some steward, or judicious bailiff, to manage my estates in Time for me. And here let me caution persons grown old in active business, not lightly, nor without weighing their own resources, to forego their customary employment all at once, for there may be danger in it. I feel it by myself, but I know that my resources are sufficient; and now that those first giddy raptures have subsided, I have a quiet home-feeling of the blessedness of my condition. I am in no hurry. Having all holidays, I am as though I had none. If Time hung heavy upon me I could walk it away; but I do not walk all day long, as I used to do in those old transient holidays, thirty miles a day, to make the most of them. If Time were troublesome, I could read it away, but I do not read in that violent measure, with which, having no Time my own but candlelight Time, I used to weary out my head and eyesight in bygone winters. I walk, read, or scribble (as now) just when the fit seizes me. I no longer hunt after pleasure; I let it come to me. I am like the man
"—— that's born, and has his years come to him, In some green desert."
"The Genteel Style in Writing" is a delightful enforcement of the "ordinary criticism" that "my Lord Shaftesbury, and Sir William Temple, are models of the genteel style in writing," though Elia prefers to differentiate them as "the lordly and the gentlemanly." The essay is, for the most part, a plea, with illustrations, for a consideration of Sir William Temple as an easy and engaging writer. "Barbara S——" is a slight anecdote expanded into a sympathetic little story of a child-actress who, instead of her half-guinea salary, being once handed a guinea in error, virtuously took it back and received the moiety.
"The Tombs in the Abbey" is an indignant protest—in the form of a letter to Southey—against the closing of Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's Cathedral, except during service times, to all but those who could afford to pay for admission; it closes with a touch of humour where Elia suggests that the Abbey had been closed because the statue of Major Andre had been disfigured, and adds: "The mischief was done about the time that you were a scholar there. Do you know anything about the unfortunate relic?" Then, in "Amicus Redivivus," we have an accident to a friend, George Dyer, who had walked absent-mindedly into the New River opposite Lamb's very door, made to supply matter for treatment in Elia's pleasantest vein.
"Some Sonnets of Sir Philip Sydney" gives a dozen of Sidney's sonnets with appreciatory comment. "Newspapers Thirty Years Ago" is particularly interesting for its reminiscences of the days when Lamb wrote half a dozen daily jests for "The Morning Post" at sixpence per jest, and for its sketches of Daniel Stuart and Fenwick, two diversely typical journalists of a century since. "Barrenness of the Imaginative Faculty in the Productions of Modern Art" is a criticism of the prevailing taste in art matters, inspired by Martin's "Belshazzar's Feast," and contrasts the modern methods of painting as—a Dryad, "a beautiful naked figure recumbent under wide-stretched oaks" (a figure that with a different background would do just as well as a Naiad), with the older method illustrated by Julio Romano's dryad, in which was "an approximation of two natures." "Rejoicings Upon the New Year's Coming of Age" is a graceful, sparkling piece of humorous fancy:
I should have told you, that cards of invitation had been issued. The carriers were the Hours; twelve little, merry whirligig foot-pages, as you should desire to see, that went all round, and found out the persons invited well enough, with the exception of Easter Day, Shrove Tuesday, and a few such Moveables, who had lately shifted their quarters.
Well, they all met at last, foul Days, fine Days, all sorts of Days, and a rare din they made of it. There was nothing but, Hail! fellow Day,—well met—brother Day—sister Day,—only Lady Day kept a little on the aloof, and seemed somewhat scornful. Yet some said Twelfth Day cut her out and out, for she came in a tiffany suit, all white and gold, like a queen on a frost-cake—all royal, glittering, and Epiphanous. The rest came—some in green, some in white—but old Lent and his family were not yet out of mourning. Rainy Days came in, dripping; and sun-shiny Days helped them to change their stockings. Wedding Day was there in his marriage finery, a little the worse for wear. Pay Day came late, as he always does; and Doomsday sent word—he might be expected.
"The Wedding" describes such a ceremony at which Elia had assisted, and illustrates at once his sympathy with the young people and with their parents—"is there not something untender, to say no more of it, in the hurry which a beloved child is in to tear herself from the paternal stock and commit herself to strange graftings." "The Child Angel" is a beautiful poetic apologue in the form of a dream.
In "Old China," one of the most attractive of this varied series, Elia is ready with reminiscences of the days when the purchase of the books, pictures, or old china that they loved, meant a real sacrifice, and the things purchased were therefore the more deeply prized.
Do you remember the brown suit, which you made to hang upon you, till all your friends cried shame upon you, it grew so threadbare—and all because of that folio Beaumont and Fletcher, which you dragged home late at night from Barker's in Covent Garden? Do you remember how we eyed it for weeks before we could make up our minds to the purchase, and had not come to a determination till it was near ten o'clock of the Saturday night, when you set off from Islington, fearing you should be too late—and when the old bookseller, with some grumbling, opened his shop, and by the twinkling taper (for he was setting bedwards) lighted out the relic from his dusty treasures—and when you lugged it home wishing it were twice as cumbersome—and when you presented it to me; and when we were exploring the perfectness of it (collating you called it)—and while I was repairing some of the loose leaves with paste, which your impatience would not suffer to be left till daybreak—was there no pleasure in being a poor man? or can those neat black clothes you wear now, and are so careful to keep brushed, since we have become rich and finical, give you half the honest vanity, with which you flaunted it about in that overworn suit—your old corbeau—for four or five weeks longer than you should have done, to pacify your conscience for the mighty sum of fifteen—or sixteen shillings, was it?—a great affair we thought it then—which you had lavished on the old folio. Now you can afford to buy any book that pleases you, but I do not see that you ever bring me home any nice old purchases now.
When you came home with twenty apologies for laying out a less number of shillings upon that print after Lionardo, which we christened the "Lady Blanch"; when you looked at the purchase, and thought of the money,—and thought of the money, and looked again at the picture—was there no pleasure in being a poor man? Now, you have nothing to do but walk into Colnaghi's, and buy a wilderness of Lionardos. Yet do you?
"Confessions of a Drunkard" and "Popular Fallacies" complete the tale of the "Essays of Elia" that were collected into volume form as such. The first-named essay had been issued originally in 1813. It is an attempt to set forth from a drunkard's point of view the evils of drunkenness, and was first published in a periodical with a purpose over twenty years before its inclusion in the second edition of the "Last Essays of Elia." To accentuate the fact that it was purely a literary performance—an attempt to project himself into the mind of a drunkard willing to allow others to profit by his example—Lamb reprinted it in the "London Magazine" as one of his ordinary contributions. There have not been wanting matter-of-fact people (with whom our Elia has recorded his imperfect sympathy) who have accepted this essay as pure biography; because details tally with the author's life they think the whole must do so. We have but to follow the story of Lamb's life with understanding to realize how wrong is this impression. The closing dozen of essays in brief, grouped under the title of "Popular Fallacies," discuss certain familiar axioms and show them—in the light of fun and fancy—to be wholly fallacious.
Such is the variety of those two volumes which by common consent—by popular appreciation and by critical judgement—have their place as Lamb's most characteristic work. Throughout both series we find delicate unconventionality, the same choice of subjects from among the simplest suggestions of everyday life, lifted by his method of treatment, his manner of looking at and treating things, out of the sphere of every day into that of all days. However simple may be the subject chosen it is always made peculiarly his own.
The style is the man. The rule was thus confined within the compass of a brief sentence by a distinguished French naturalist, and if there be examples which form exceptions to that rule, Charles Lamb is certainly not one of them. Markedly individual himself he reveals that individuality in his writings so strongly that there are not wanting critics who consider themselves able to decide from the turn of a phrase or the use of a word whether Lamb did or did not write any particular piece of work which it may have been sought to father on him. In the manner of presentation of his writings we have at once the revelation of catholic literary taste and wide reading combined with the deep seriousness and the almost irresponsible whimsicality of the man himself. The man who was loved by all who knew him in the flesh—so true is it that le style c'est l'homme—reveals himself as a man to be loved by those who can only know him through the medium of the written word. Where he has given rein to his fancy or his imagination, he is humorous, whimsical, inventive; where he is dealing with matters of serious fact or criticism he is simple, clear, and to the point. Quotations already given would go to illustrate this, but two further contrasting passages may be added. The first is from "Table Talk," the second from a critical essay on the acting of Shakespeare's tragedies.
It is a desideratum in works that treat de re culinaria, that we have no rationale of sauces, or theory of mixed flavours; as to show why cabbage is reprehensible with roast beef, laudable with bacon; why the haunch of mutton seeks the alliance of currant jelly, the shoulder civilly declineth it; why a loin of veal (a pretty problem), being itself unctuous, seeketh the adventitious lubricity of melted butter; and why the same part in pork, not more oleaginous, abhorreth it; why the French bean sympathizes with the flesh of deer; why salt fish points to parsnip, brawn makes a dead set at mustard; why cats prefer valerian to heartsease, old ladies vice versa—though this is rather travelling out of the road of the dietetics, and may be thought a question more curious than relevant; why salmon (a strong sapor per se) fortifieth its condition with the mighty lobster sauce, whose embraces are fatal to the delicater relish of the turbot; why oysters in death rise up against the contamination of brown sugar, while they are posthumously amorous of vinegar; why the sour mango and the sweet jam, by turns, court and are accepted by the compilable mutton hash—she not yet decidedly declaring for either. We are as yet but in the empirical stage of cookery.
* * * * *
So to see Lear acted—to see an old man tottering about the stage with a walking-stick, turned out of doors by his daughters on a rainy night, has nothing in it but what is painful and disgusting. We want to take him into shelter and relieve him. That is all the feeling which the acting of Lear ever produced on me. But the Lear of Shakespeare cannot be acted. The contemptible machinery by which they mimic the storm which he goes out in, is not more inadequate to represent the horrors of the real elements, than any actor can be to represent Lear: they might more easily propose to personate the Satan of Milton upon a stage, or one of Michael Angelo's terrible figures. The greatness of Lear is not in corporal dimension but in intellectual: the explosions of his passions are terrible as a volcano; they are storms turning up and disclosing to the bottom that sea, his mind, with all its vast riches. It is his mind which is laid bare. This case of flesh and blood seems too insignificant to be thought on; even as he himself neglects it. On the stage we see nothing but corporal infirmities and weakness, the impotence of rage: while we read it, we see not Lear, but we are Lear—we are in his mind, we are sustained by a grandeur which baffles the malice of daughters and storms; in the aberrations of his reason, we discover a mighty irregular power of reasoning, immethodized from the ordinary purposes of life, but exerting its powers, as the wind bloweth where it listeth, at will upon the corruptions and abuses of mankind. What have looks or tones to do with that sublime identification of his age with that of the heavens themselves, when in his reproaches to them for conniving at the injustice of his children, he reminds them that "they themselves are old"? What gesture shall we appropriate to this? What has the voice or the eye to do with such things?
From the olden time Of Authorship thy Patent should be dated, And thou with Marvell, Browne, and Burton mated.
Thus did Bernard Barton, the Quaker poet, close a sonnet which he addressed to Elia, and there is keen criticism in the few words. With the three writers mentioned Lamb was in rarest sympathy; many are the references to them in his books and in his letters. With Andrew Marvell he shows his kinship in his verse, with the authors of "The Religio Medici" and of "The Anatomy of Melancholy," in diverse ways in his prose. Now fanciful and euphemistic with these, he is, as soon as occasion calls for plainer statement, clear and simple in expression. As one critic has put it, he was so steeped in the literature of the past that it became natural for him to deal with a theme more or less in the manner in which that theme would have been dealt with by that writer in the past most likely to have made it his own. This is perhaps slightly exaggerated, but it has something of truth in it. "For with all his marked individuality of manner there are perhaps few English writers who have written so differently on different themes." Placing special emphasis on his favourites—which besides the three named included Jeremy Taylor, Chapman, and Wither, to say nothing of the whole body of the dramatists of our literary renaissance—it may be said that his wide reading, his loving study, among the authors of our richest literary periods went far towards forming his style, though it must be remembered—it cannot be forgotten with a volume of his essays or letters in hand—that there is always that marked but indescribable "individuality of manner" which pervades the varied whole.
Hazlitt, touching upon the characteristics of Charles Lamb, in the essay in which he—not very felicitously—brackets Elia and Geoffrey Crayon in the "Spirit of the Age," says:
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 conduit pipes. Mr. Lamb does not court popularity, nor strut in gaudy plumes, but shrinks from every kind of ostentatious and obvious pretension into the retirement of his own mind.
That mind was, as has been said, stored with a wealth from among the best of English literature, and when Lamb expressed himself it was always in pure literary fashion. He was a bookman writing for those who love things of the mind which can only be passed from generation to generation by means of books. In this we may recognize the reason—wholly unconscious to the writer—for the allusiveness of his style: it is often that subtle allusiveness which takes for granted as much knowledge in the reader as in the writer of the thing or passage to which allusion is made. In the sixteenth century such allusiveness was generally fruit of an extensive knowledge of the ancient classics; but though the references differ, the manner is much the same in Charles Lamb as in Jeremy Taylor and Sir Thomas Browne.
Less confident critics than those mentioned at the beginning of this section may yet readily recognize the general individuality of the style in which Elia revealed himself through the medium of his pen. To his lifelong habit of browsing among old books, his especial fondness for the writers of the sixteenth century, he owed no small part of the richness of his vocabulary, which enabled him frequently to use with fine effect happy old words in place of current makeshifts. In one of his early letters to Coleridge where he mentions having just finished reading Chapman's Homer, Lamb, seizing upon a phrase in that translation, says with gusto, "what endless egression of phrases the dog commands." The word arrided him (to employ another, the use of which he recovered for us), and he could not forbear making a note of it. He had, indeed, something of an instinctive genius for finding words that had passed more or less into desuetude, and a happy way of re-introducing them to enrich the plainer prose of his day. He did it naturally, even as though inevitably, and without any such air of coxcombical affectation as would have destroyed the flavour of the whole. Lamb was so thoroughly imbued with the thought and modes of expression of the rich Elizabethan and Stuart periods that his use of obsolescent words was probably more often than not quite unconscious.
The egotism of Elia's style in addressing his readers has been said to be founded on that of Sir Thomas Browne, and in a measure there can be little doubt that it was so—but only in a measure, for it is something the same egotism as that of Montaigne, is, indeed, the natural attitude of the familiar essayist who must be egotistic, not from self-consciousness but from the lack of it. In putting his opinions and experiences in the first person, we feel that Lamb did so almost unconsciously, because it was for him the easiest way of expressing himself. It was not, in fact, egotism at all in the commonly accepted sense of meaning, too frequent or self-laudatory use of the personal pronoun.
CHRONOLOGICAL LIST OF WORKS
Those books with an asterisk against their date were only in part the work of Charles Lamb.
*1796. Poems on Various Subjects, by S. T. Coleridge (included four sonnets signed C. L., described in the preface as by "Mr. Charles Lamb of the India House").
*1796. Poems on the Death of Priscilla Farmer, by her grandson, Charles Lloyd (included "The Grandame," by Lamb).
*1797. Poems by S. T. Coleridge, second edition, to which are now added Poems by Charles Lamb and Charles Lloyd.
*1798. Blank Verse by Charles Lloyd and Charles Lamb.
1798. A Tale of Rosamund Gray and Old Blind Margaret (afterwards simply entitled "Rosamund Gray").
1802. John Woodvil, a Tragedy; with Fragments of Burton.
1805. The King and Queen of Hearts: Showing how notably the Queen made her Tarts and how scurvily the Knave stole them away with other particulars belonging thereunto.
*1807. Tales from Shakespear, designed for the use of young Persons. 2 vols. (By Charles and Mary Lamb, though only the name of the former appeared on the original title-page.)
*1807 or 1808. Mrs. Leicester's School, or the History of several young Ladies related by themselves (by Charles and Mary Lamb).
1808. The Adventures of Ulysses.
1808. Specimens of English Dramatic Poets who lived about the Time of Shakespeare.
*1809. Poetry for Children. Entirely original. By the author of "Mrs. Leicester's School."
1811. Prince Dorus; or Flattery put out of Countenance. A Poetical Version of an Ancient Tale.
[1811. Beauty and the Beast; or a Rough Outside with Gentle Heart. A Poetical Version of an Ancient Tale; credited to Lamb by some authorities but on inconclusive evidence.]
1818. The Works of Charles Lamb. In 2 vols.
1823. Elia. Essays which have appeared under that title in the "London Magazine" (now known as "Essays of Elia"):
The South-Sea House. Oxford in the Vacation. Christ's Hospital Five-and-Thirty Years ago. The Two Races of Men. New Year's Eve. Mrs. Battle's Opinions on Whist. A Chapter on Ears. All Fools' Day. A Quakers' Meeting. The Old and the New Schoolmaster. Valentine's Day. Imperfect Sympathies. Witches and other Night Fears. My Relations. Mackery End in Hertfordshire. Modern Gallantry. The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple. Grace before Meat. My First Play. Dream-Children: a Reverie. Distant Correspondents. The Praise of Chimney-Sweepers. A Complaint of the Decay of Beggars in the Metropolis. A Dissertation upon Roast Pig. A Bachelor's Complaint of the Behaviour of Married People. On some of the Old Actors. On the Artificial Comedy of the Last Century. On the Acting of Munden.
1830. Album Verses, with a few others.
1831. Satan in Search of a Wife.
1833. The Last Essays of Elia.
Preface. Blakesmoor in H——shire. Poor Relations. Stage Illusion. To the Shade of Elliston. Ellistoniana. Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading. The Old Margate Hoy. The Convalescent. Sanity of True Genius. Captain Jackson. The Superannuated Man. The Genteel Style in Writing. Barbara S——. The Tombs in the Abbey. Amicus Redivivus. Some Sonnets of Sir Philip Sydney. Newspapers Thirty-five Years Ago. Barrenness of the Imaginative Faculty in the Productions of Modern Art. Rejoicings upon the New Year's Coming of Age. The Wedding. The Child Angel. Old China. Confessions of a Drunkard. Popular Fallacies.
II. POSTHUMOUS WORKS AND COLLECTED EDITIONS
1837. Poetical Works of Charles Lamb.
1837. Letters of Charles Lamb, with a Sketch of his Life, by Thomas Noon Talfourd. 2 vols.
1848. The Final Memorials of Charles Lamb. By T. N. Talfourd.
1865. Eliana. Collected by J. E. Babson.
1875. Works. Centenary edition, with Memoir by Charles Kent.
1876. Life, Letters and Writings of Lamb. Edited by Percy Fitzgerald.
1883-8. Lamb's Works and Correspondence. Edited by Alfred Ainger. 12 vols.
1886. Letters of Charles Lamb (being Talfourd's two works in one with additions). Edited by W. Carew Hazlitt. Bohn's Standard Library.
1893. Bon Mots of Charles Lamb, etc. Edited by Walter Jerrold.
1903-4. The Works of Charles Lamb. Edited by William Macdonald. 12 vols.
1903-5. The Works of Charles Lamb. Edited by E. V. Lucas. 7 vols.
1904. Letters of Charles Lamb. Edited by Alfred Ainger. New edition. 2 vols. Eversley Series.
III. BIOGRAPHY AND CRITICISM
See entries under 1837 and 1848, etc., in preceding section.
1866. Charles Lamb: a Memoir. By Barry Cornwall.
1866. Lamb, his Friends, Haunts, Books. By Percy Fitzgerald.
1882. Charles Lamb. By Alfred Ainger in the English Men of Letters Series (revised and enlarged edition, 1888).
1891. In the Footprints of Lamb. By B. E. Martin.
1897. The Lambs: New Particulars. By W. C. Hazlitt.
1898. Charles Lamb and the Lloyds. Edited by E. V. Lucas.
1900. Lamb and Hazlitt: Further Letters and Records, hitherto Unpublished. Edited by W. C. Hazlitt.
1903. Sidelights on Charles Lamb. By Bertram Dobell.
1905. Life of Charles Lamb. By E. V. Lucas. 2 vols.
The above list does not include separate editions of the "Essays" and other works; most of Lamb's writings are obtainable to-day in cheap and convenient forms.