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Introduction

LAUREL-CROWNED LETTERS

CHARLES LAMB

It may well be that the "Essays of Elia" will be found to have kept their perfume, and the LETTERS OF CHARLES LAMB to retain their old sweet savor, when "Sartor Resartus" has about as many readers as Bulwer's "Artificial Changeling," and nine tenths even of "Don Juan" lie darkening under the same deep dust that covers the rarely troubled pages of the "Secchia Rapita."

A.C. SWINBURNE

No assemblage of letters, parallel or kindred to that in the hands of the reader, if we consider its width of range, the fruitful period over which it stretches, and its typical character, has ever been produced.

W.C. HAZLITT ON LAMB'S LETTERS.

THE BEST LETTERS OF CHARLES LAMB

Edited with an Introduction

BY EDWARD GILPIN JOHNSON

A.D. 1892.



INTRODUCTION.

No writer, perhaps, since the days of Dr. Johnson has been oftener brought before us in biographies, essays, letters, etc., than Charles Lamb. His stammering speech, his gaiter-clad legs,--"almost immaterial legs," Hood called them,--his frail wisp of a body, topped by a head "worthy of Aristotle," his love of punning, of the Indian weed, and, alas! of the kindly production of the juniper-berry (he was not, he owned, "constellated under Aquarius"), his antiquarianism of taste, and relish of the crotchets and whimsies of authorship, are as familiar to us almost as they were to the group he gathered round him Wednesdays at No. 4, Inner Temple Lane, where "a clear fire, a clean hearth, and the rigor of the game" awaited them. Talfourd has unctuously celebrated Lamb's "Wednesday Nights." He has kindly left ajar a door through which posterity peeps in upon the company,--Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt, "Barry Cornwall," Godwin, Martin Burney, Crabb Robinson (a ubiquitous shade, dimly suggestive of that figment, "Mrs. Harris"), Charles Kemble, Fanny Kelly ("Barbara S."), on red-letter occasions Coleridge and Wordsworth,--and sees them discharging the severer offices of the whist-table ("cards were cards" then), and, later, unbending their minds over poetry, criticism, and metaphysics. Elia was no Barmecide host, and the serjeant dwells not without regret upon the solider business of the evening,--"the cold roast lamb or boiled beef, the heaps of smoking roasted potatoes, and the vast jug of porter, often replenished from the foaming pots which the best tap of Fleet Street supplied," hospitably presided over by "the most quiet, sensible, and kind of women," Mary Lamb.

The terati Talfourd's day were clearly hardier of digestion than their descendants are. Roast lamb, boiled beef, "heaps of smoking roasted potatoes," pots of porter,--a noontide meal for a hodman,--and the hour midnight! One is reminded, propos of Miss Lamb's robust viands, that Elia somewhere confesses to "an occasional nightmare;" "but I do not," he adds, "keep a whole stud of them." To go deeper into this matter, to speculate upon the possible germs, the first vague intimations to the mind of Coleridge of the weird spectra of "The Ancient Mariner," the phantasmagoria of "Kubla Khan," would be, perhaps, over-refining. "Barry Cornwall," too, Lamb tells us, "had his tritons and his nereids gambolling before him in nocturnal visions." No wonder!

It is not intended here to re-thresh the straw left by Talfourd, Fitzgerald, Canon Ainger, and others, in the hope of discovering something new about Charles Lamb. In this quarter, at least, the wind shall be tempered to the reader,--shorn as he is by these pages of a charming letter or two. So far as fresh facts are concerned, the theme may fairly be considered exhausted. Numberless writers, too, have rung the changes upon "poor Charles Lamb," "dear Charles Lamb," "gentle Charles Lamb," and the rest,--the final epithet, by the way being one that Elia, living, specially resented:

"For God's sake," he wrote to Coleridge. "don't make me ridiculous any more by terming me gentle-hearted in print, or do it in better verses. It did well enough five years ago, when I came to see you, and was moral coxcomb enough at the time you wrote the lines to feed upon such epithets; but besides that the meaning of 'gentle' is equivocal at best, and almost always means poor-spirited, the very quality of gentleness is abhorrent to such vile trumpetings. My sentiment is long since vanished. I hope my virtues have done sucking. I can scarce think but you meant it in joke. I hope you did, for I should be ashamed to believe that you could think to gratify me by such praise, fit only to be a cordial to some green-sick sonneteer."

The indulgent pity conventionally bestowed upon Charles Lamb--one of the most manly, self-reliant of characters, to say nothing of his genius--is absurdly' misplaced.

Still farther be it from us to blunt the edge of appetite by sapiently essaying to "analyze" and account for Lamb's special zest and flavor, as though his writings, or any others worth the reading, were put together upon principles of clockwork. We are perhaps over-fond of these arid pastimes nowadays. It is not the "sweet musk-roses," the "apricocks and dewberries" of literature that please us best; like Bottom the Weaver, we prefer the "bottle of hay." What a mockery of right enjoyment our endless prying and sifting, our hunting of riddles in metaphors, innuendoes in tropes, ciphers in Shakspeare! Literature exhausted, we may turn to art, and resolve, say, the Sistine Madonna (I deprecate the Manes of the "Divine Painter") into some ingenious and recondite rebus. For such critical chopped-hay--sweeter to the modern taste than honey of Hybla--Charles Lamb had little relish. "I am, sir," he once boasted to an analytical, unimaginative proser who had insisted upon explaining some quaint passage in Marvell or Wither, "I am, sir, a matter-of-lie man." It was his best warrant to sit at the Muses' banquet. Charles Lamb was blessed with an intellectual palate as fine as Keats's, and could enjoy the savor of a book (or of that dainty, "in the whole mundus edibilis the most delicate," Roast Pig, for that matter) without pragmatically asking, as the king did of the apple in the dumpling, "how the devil it got there." His value as a critic is grounded in this capacity of nave enjoyment (not of pig, but of literature), of discerning beauty and making us discern it,--thus adding to the known treasures and pleasures of mankind.

Suggestions not unprofitable for these later days lurk in these traits of Elia the student and critic. How worthy the imitation, for instance, of those disciples who band together to treat a fine poem (of Browning, say, or Shelley) as they might a chapter in the Revelation,--speculating sagely upon the import of the seven seals and the horns of the great beast, instead of enjoying the obvious beauties of their author. To the schoolmaster--whose motto would seem too often to be the counsel of the irate old lady in Dickens, "Give him a meal of chaff!"--Charles Lamb's critical methods are rich in suggestion. How many ingenuous boys, lads in the very flush and hey-day of appreciativeness of the epic virtues, have been parsed, declined, and conjugated into an utter detestation of the melodious names of Homer and Virgil! Better far for such victims had they, instead of aspiring to the vanities of a "classical education," sat, like Keats, unlearnedly at the feet of quaint Chapman, or Dryden, or even of Mr. Pope.

Perhaps, by way of preparative to the reading of Charles Lamb's letters, it will be well to run over once more the leading facts of his life. First let us glance at his outward appearance. Fortunately there are a number of capital pieces of verbal portraiture of Elia.

Referring to the year 1817, "Barry Cornwall" wrote:

"Persons who had been in the habit of traversing Covent Garden at that time of night, by extending their walk a few yards into Russell Street have noticed a small, spare man clothed in black, who went out every morning, and returned every afternoon as the hands of the clock moved toward certain hours. You could not mistake him. He was somewhat stiff in his manner, and almost clerical in dress, which indicated much wear. He had a long, melancholy face, with keen, penetrating eyes; and he walked with a short, resolute step citywards. He looked no one in the face for more than a moment, yet contrived to see everything as he went on. No one who ever studied the human features could pass him by without recollecting his countenance; it was full of sensibility, and it came upon you like new thought, which you could not help dwelling upon afterwards: it gave rise to meditation, and did you good. This small, half-clerical man was--Charles Lamb."

His countenance is thus described by Thomas Hood:

"His was no common face, none of those willow-pattern ones which Nature turns out by thousands at her potteries, but more like a chance specimen of the Chinese ware,--one to the set; unique, antique, quaint, you might have sworn to it piecemeal,--a separate affidavit to each feature."

Mrs. Charles Mathews, wife of the comedian, who met Lamb at a dinner, gives an amusing account of him:--

"Mr. Lamb's first appearance was not prepossessing. His figure was small and mean, and no man was certainly ever less beholden to his tailor. His 'bran' new suit of black cloth (in which he affected several times during the day to take great pride, and to cherish as a novelty that he had looked for and wanted) was drolly contrasted with his very rusty silk stockings, shown from his knees, and his much too large, thick shoes, without polish. His shirt rejoiced in a wide, ill-plaited frill, and his very small, tight, white neckcloth was hemmed to a fine point at the ends that formed part of a little bow. His hair was black and sleek, but not formal, and his face the gravest I ever saw, but indicating great intellect, and resembling very much the portraits of Charles I."

From this sprightly and not too flattering sketch we may turn to Serjeant Talfourd's tender and charming portrait,--slightly idealized, no doubt; for the man of the coif held a brief for his friend, and was a poet besides:--

"Methinks I see him before me now as he appeared then, and as he continued without any perceptible alteration to me, during the twenty years of intimacy which followed, and were closed by his death. A light frame, so fragile that it seemed as if a breath would overthrow it, clad in clerk-like black, was surmounted by a head of form and expression the most noble and sweet. His black hair curled crisply about an expanded forehead; his eyes, softly brown, twinkled with varying expression, though the prevalent expression was sad; and the nose, slightly curved, and delicately carved at the nostril, with the lower outline of the face delicately oval, completed a head which was finely placed upon the shoulders, and gave importance and even dignity to a diminutive and shadowy stem. Who shall describe his countenance, catch its quivering sweetness, and fix it forever in words? There are none, alas! to answer the vain desire of friendship. Deep thought, striving with humor; the lines of suffering wreathed into cordial mirth, and a smile of painful sweetness, present an image to the mind it can as little describe as lose. His personal appearance and manner are not unjustly characterized by what he himself says in one of his letters to Manning, [1] 'a compound of the Jew, the gentleman, and the angel.'"

The writings of Charles Lamb abound in passages of autobiography. "I was born," he tells us in that delightful sketch, "The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple," "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 of my oldest recollections." His father, John Lamb, the "Lovel" of the essay cited, had come up a little boy from Lincolnshire to enter the service of Samuel Salt,--one of those "Old Benchers" upon whom the pen of Elia has shed immortality, a stanch friend and patron to the Lambs, the kind proprietor of that "spacious closet of good old English reading" upon whose "fair and wholesome pasturage" Charles and his sister, as children, "browsed at will."

John Lamb had married Elizabeth Field, whose mother was for fifty years housekeeper at the country-seat of the Plumers, Blakesware, in Hertfordshire, the "Blakesmoor" of the Essays, frequent scene of Lamb's childish holiday sports,--a spacious mansion, with its park and terraces and "firry wilderness, the haunt of the squirrel and day-long murmuring wood-pigeon;" an Eden it must have seemed to the London-bred child, in whose fancy the dusty trees and sparrows and smoke-grimed fountain of Temple Court had been a pastoral. Within the cincture of its excluding garden-walls, wrote Elia in later years, "I could have exclaimed with that garden-loving poet, [2]--

"'Bind me, ye woodbines, in your twines; Curl me about, ye gadding vines; And oh, so close your circles lace That I may never leave this place: But lest your fetters prove too weak, Ere I your silken bondage break, Do you, O brambles, chain me too, And, courteous briers, nail me through.'"

At Blakesware, too, was the room whence the spirit of Sarah Battle--that "gentlewoman born"--winged its flight to a region where revokes and "luke-warm gamesters" are unknown.

To John and Elizabeth Lamb were born seven children, only three of whom, John, Mary, and Charles, survived their infancy. Of the survivors, Charles was the youngest, John being twelve and Mary ten years his senior,--a fact to be weighed in estimating the heroism of Lamb's later life. At the age of seven, Charles Lamb, "son of John Lamb, scrivener, and Elizabeth, his wife," was entered at the school of Christ's Hospital,--"the antique foundation of that godly and royal child King Edward VI." Of his life at this institution he has left us abundant and charming memorials in the Essays, "Recollections of Christ's Hospital," and "Christ's Hospital Five-and-thirty Years Ago,"--the latter sketch corrective of the rather optimistic impressions of the former.

With his schoolfellows Charles seems to have been, despite his timid and retiring disposition (he said of himself, "while the others were all fire and play, he stole along with all the self-concentration of a young monk"), a decided favorite. "Lamb," wrote C. V. Le Grice, a schoolmate often mentioned in essay and letter, "was an amiable, gentle boy, very sensible and keenly observing, indulged by his schoolfellows and by his master on account of his infirmity of speech.... I never heard his name mentioned without the addition of Charles, although, as there was no other boy of the name of Lamb, the addition was unnecessary; but there was an implied kindness in it, and it was a proof that his gentle manners excited that kindness."

For us the most important fact of the Christ's Hospital school-days is the commencement of Lamb's life-long friendship with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, two years his senior, and the object of his fervent hero-worship. Most of us, perhaps, can find the true source of whatever of notable good or evil we have effected in life in the moulding influence of one of these early friendships or admirations. It is the boy's hero, the one he loves and reverences among his schoolfellows,-- not his taskmaster,--that is his true teacher, the setter of the broader standards by which he is to abide through life. Happy the man the feet of whose early idols have not been of clay.

It was under the quickening influence of the eloquent, precocious genius of the "inspired charity boy" that Charles Lamb's ideals and ambitions shaped themselves out of the haze of a child's conceptions. Coleridge at sixteen was already a poet, his ear attuned to the subtlest melody of verse, and his hand rivalling, in preluding fragments, the efforts of his maturer years; he was already a philosopher, rapt in Utopian, schemes and mantling hopes as enchanting--and as chimerical--as the pleasure-domes and caves of ice decreed by Kubla Khan; and the younger lad became his ardent disciple.

Lamb quitted Christ's Hospital, prematurely, in November, 1787, and the companionship of the two friends was for a time interrupted. To part with Coleridge, to exchange the ease and congenial scholastic atmosphere of the Hospital for the res angusta domi, for the intellectual starvation of a life of counting-house drudgery, must have been a bitter trial for him. But the shadow of poverty was upon the little household in the Temple; on the horizon of the future the blackening clouds of anxieties still graver were gathering; and the youngest child was called home to share the common burden.

Charles Lamb was first employed in the South Sea House, where his brother John [3]--a cheerful optimist, a dilettante in art, genial, prosperous, thoroughly selfish, in so far as the family fortunes were concerned an outsider--already held a lucrative post. It was not long before Charles obtained promotion in the form of a clerkship with the East India Company,--one of the last kind services of Samuel Salt, who died in the same year, 1792,--and with the East India Company he remained for the rest of his working life.

Upon the death of their generous patron the Lambs removed from the Temple and took lodgings in Little Queen Street, Holborn; and for Charles the battle of life may be said to have fairly begun. His work as a junior clerk absorbed, of course, the greater part of his day and of his year. Yet there were breathing-spaces: there were the long evenings with the poets; with Marlowe, Drayton, Drummond of Hawthornden, and Cowley,--"the sweetest names, which carry a perfume in the mention;" there were the visits to the play, the yearly vacation jaunts to sunny Hertfordshire. The intercourse with Coleridge, too, was now occasionally renewed. The latter had gone up to Cambridge early in 1791, there to remain--except the period of his six months' dragooning--for the nest four years. During his visits to London it was the habit of the two schoolfellows to meet at a tavern near Smithfield, the "Salutation and Cat" to discuss the topics dear to both: and it was about this time that Lamb's sonnet to Mrs Siddons, his first appearance in print, was published in the "Morning Chronicle."

The year 1796 was a terribly eventful one for the Lambs. There was a taint of insanity in the family on the father's side, and on May 27, 1796, we find Charles writing to Coleridge these sad words,--doubly sad for the ring of mockery in them:--

"My life has been somewhat diversified of late. The six weeks that finished last year and began this, your very humble servant spent very agreeably in a madhouse at Hoxton. I am got somewhat rational now and don't bite any one. But mad I was!" [4]

Charles, thanks to the resolution with which he combated the tendency, and to the steadying influence of his work at the desk,--despite his occasional murmurs, his best friend and sheet-anchor in life,--never again succumbed to the family malady; but from that moment, over his small household, Madness--like Death in Milton's vision--continually "shook its dart," and at best only "delayed to strike." [5]

It was in the September of 1796 that the calamity befell which has tinged the story of Charles and Mary Lamb with the sombrest hues of the Greek tragedy. The family were still in the Holborn lodgings,--the mother an invalid, the father sinking into a second childhood. Mary, in addition to the burden of ministering to her parents, was working for their support with her needle.

At this point it will be well to insert a prefatory word or two as to the character of Mary Lamb; and here the witnesses are in accord. There is no jarring of opinion, as in her brother's case; for Charles Lamb has been sorely misjudged,--often, it must be admitted, with ground of reason; sometimes by persons who might and should have looked deeper. In a notable instance, the heroism of his life has been meanly overlooked by one who preached to mankind with the eloquence of the Prophets the prime need and virtue of recognizing the hero. If self-abnegation lies at the root of true heroism, Charles Lamb--that "sorry phenomenon" with an "insuperable proclivity to gin" [6]--was a greater hero than was covered by the shield of Achilles. The character of Mary Lamb is quickly summed Up. She was one of the most womanly of women. "In all its essential sweetness," says Talfourd, "her character was like her brother's; while, by a temper more placid, a spirit of enjoyment more serene, she was enabled to guide, to counsel, to cheer him, and to protect him on the verge of the mysterious calamity, from the depths of which she rose so often unruffled to his side. To a friend in any difficulty she was the most comfortable of advisers, the wisest of consolers." Hazlitt said that "he never met with a woman who could reason, and had met with only one thoroughly reasonable,--Mary Lamb." The writings of Elia are strewn, as we know, with the tenderest tributes to her worth. "I wish," he says, "that I could throw into a heap the remainder of our joint existences, that we might share them in equal division."

The psychology of madness is a most subtle inquiry. How slight the mysterious touch that throws the smooth-running human mechanism into a chaos of jarring elements, that transforms, in the turn of an eyelash, the mild humanity of the gentlest of beings into the unreasoning ferocity of the tiger.

The London "Times" of September 26, 1796, contained the following paragraph:--

"On Friday afternoon the coroner and a jury sat on the body of a lady in the neighborhood of Holborn, who died in consequence of a wound from her daughter the preceding day. It appeared by the evidence adduced that while the family were preparing for dinner, the young lady seized a case-knife lying on the table, and in a menacing manner pursued a little girl, her apprentice, round the room. On the calls of her infirm mother to forbear, she renounced her first object, and with loud shrieks approached her parent. The child, by her cries, quickly brought up the landlord of the house, but too late. [7] The dreadful scene presented him the mother lifeless, pierced to the heart, on a chair, her daughter yet wildly standing over her with the fatal knife, and the old man, her father, weeping by her side, himself bleeding at the forehead from the effects of a severe blow he received from one of the forks she had been madly hurling about the room.

"For a few days prior to this, the family had observed some symptoms of insanity in her, which had so much increased on the Wednesday evening that her brother, early the next morning, went to Dr. Pitcairn; but that gentleman was not at home.

"The jury of course brought in their verdict,--Lunacy."

I need not supply the omitted names of the actors in this harrowing scene. Mary Lamb was at once placed in the Asylum at Hoxton, and the victim of her frenzy was laid to rest in the churchyard of St. Andrew's, Holborn. It became necessary for Charles and his father to make an immediate change of residence, and they took lodgings at Pentonville. There is a pregnant sentence in one of Lamb's letters that flashes with the vividness of lightning into the darkest recesses of those early troubles and embarrassments. "We are," he wrote to Coleridge, "in a manner marked."

Charles Lamb after some weeks obtained the release of his sister from the Hoxton Asylum by formally undertaking her future guardianship,--a charge which was borne, until Death released the compact, with a steadfastness, a cheerful renunciation of what men regard as the crowning blessings of manhood, [8] that has shed a halo more radiant even than that of his genius about the figure--it was "small and mean," said sprightly Mrs. Mathews--of the India House clerk.

As already stated, the mania that had once attacked Charles never returned; but from the side of Mary Lamb this grimmest of spectres never departed. "Mary A is again from home;" "Mary is fallen ill again:" how often do such tear-fraught phrases--tenderly veiled, lest! some chance might bring them to the eye of the blameless sufferer--recur in the Letters! Brother and sister were ever on the watch for the symptoms premonitory of the return of this "their sorrow's crown of sorrows." Upon their little holiday excursions, says Talfourd, a strait-waistcoat, carefully packed by Miss Lamb herself, was their constant companion. Charles Lloyd relates that he once met them slowly pacing together a little footpath in Hoxton fields, both weeping bitterly, and found on joining them that they were taking their solemn way to the old asylum. Thus, upon this guiltless pair were visited the sins of their fathers.

With the tragical events just narrated, the storm of calamity seemed to have spent its force, and there were thenceforth plenty of days of calm and of sunshine for Charles Lamb. The stress of poverty was lightened and finally removed by successive increases of salary at the India House; the introductions of Coleridge and his own growing repute in the world of letters gathered about him a circle of friends--Southey, Wordsworth, Hazlitt, Manning, Barton, and the rest--more congenial, and certainly more profitable, than the vagrant intimados, "to the world's eye a ragged regiment," who had wasted his substance and his leisure in the early Temple days.

Lamb's earliest avowed appearance as an author was in Coleridge's first volume of poems, published by Cottle, of Bristol, in 1796. "The effusions signed C.L.," says Coleridge in the preface, "were written by Mr. Charles Lamb, of the India House. Independently of the signature, their superior merit would have sufficiently distinguished them." The "effusions" were four sonnets, two of them--the most noteworthy-- touching upon the one love-romance of Lamb's life, [9]--his early attachment to the "fair-haired" Hertfordshire girl, the "Anna" of the Sonnets, the "Alice W---n" of the Essays. We remember that Ella in describing the gallery of old family portraits, in the essay, "Blakesmoor in H---shire," dwells upon "that beauty with the cool, blue, pastoral drapery, and a lamb, that hung next the great bay window, with the bright yellow Hertfordshire hair, so like my Alice."

In 1797 Cottle issued a second edition of Coleridge's poems, this time with eleven additional pieces by Lamb,--making fifteen of his in all,--and containing verses by their friend Charles Lloyd. "It is unlikely," observes Canon Ainger, "that this little venture brought any profit to its authors, or that a subsequent volume of blank verse by Lamb and Lloyd in the following year proved more remunerative." In 1798 Lamb, anxious for his sister's sake to add to his slender income, composed his "miniature romance," as Talfourd calls it, "Rosamund Gray;" and this little volume, which has not yet lost its charm, proved a moderate success. Shelley, writing from Italy to Leigh Hunt in 1819, said of it: "What a lovely thing is his 'Rosamund Gray'! How much knowledge of the sweetest and deepest part of our nature in it! When I think of such a mind as Lamb's, when I see how unnoticed remain things of such exquisite and complete perfection, what should I hope for myself if I had not higher objects in view than fame?"

It is rather unpleasant, in view of this generous--if overstrained-- tribute, to find the object of it referring later to the works of his encomiast as "thin sown with profit or delight." [10]

In 1802 Lamb published in a small duodecimo his blank-verse tragedy, "John Woodvil,"--it had previously been declined by John Kemble as unsuited to the stage,--and in 1806 was produced at the Drury Lane Theatre his farce "Mr. H.," the summary failure of which is chronicled with much humor in the Letters. [11]

The "Tales from Shakspeare," by Charles and Mary Lamb, were published by Godwin in 1807, and a second edition was called for in the following year. Lamb was now getting on surer--and more remunerative--ground; and in 1808 he prepared for the firm of Longmans his masterly "Specimens of the English Dramatic Poets contemporary with Shakspeare." Concerning this work he wrote to Manning:--

"Specimens are becoming fashionable. We have Specimens of Ancient English Poets, Specimens of Modern English Poets, Specimens of Ancient English Prose Writers, without end. They used to be called 'Beauties.' You have seen Beauties of Shakspeare? so have many people that never saw any beauties in Shakspeare,"

From Charles Lamb's "Specimens" dates, as we know, the revival of the study of the old English dramatists other than Shakespeare. He was the first to call attention to the neglected beauties of those great Elizabethans, Webster, Marlowe, Ford, Dekker, Massinger,--no longer accounted mere "mushrooms that sprang up in a ring under the great oak of Arden." [12]

The opportunity that was to call forth Lamb's special faculty in authorship came late in life. In January, 1820, Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy, the publishers, brought out the first number of a new monthly journal under the name of an earlier and extinct periodical, the "London Magazine," and in the August number appeared an article, "Recollections of the South Sea House." over the signature Elia. [13] With this delightful sketch the essayist Elia may be said to have been born. In none of Lamb's previous writings had there been, more than a hint of that unique vein,--wise, playful, tender, fantastic, "everything by starts, and nothing long," exhibited with a felicity of phrase certainly unexcelled in English prose literature,--that we associate with his name. The careful reader of the Letters cannot fail to note that it is there that Lamb's peculiar quality in authorship is first manifest. There is a letter to Southey, written as early as 1798, that has the true Elia ring. [14] With the "London Magazine," which was discontinued in 1826.

Elia was born, and with it he may be said to have died,--although some of his later contributions to the "New Monthly" [15] and to the "Englishman's Magazine" were included in the "Last Essays of Elia," collected and published in 1833. The first series of Lamb's essays under the title of Elia had been published in a single volume by Taylor and Hessey, of the "London Magazine," in 1823.

The story of Lamb's working life--latterly an uneventful one, broken chiefly by changes of abode and by the yearly holiday jaunts, "migrations from the blue bed to the brown"--from 1796, when the correspondence with Coleridge begins, is told in the letters. For thirty-three years he served the East India Company, and he served it faithfully and steadily. There is, indeed, a tradition that having been reproved on one occasion for coming to the office late in the morning, he pleaded that he always left it "so very early in the evening." Poets, we know, often "heard the chimes at midnight" in Elia's day, and the plea has certainly a most Lamb-like ring. That the Company's directors, however, were more than content with the service of their literate clerk, the sequel shows.

It is manifest in certain letters, written toward the close of 1824 and in the beginning of 1825, that Lamb's confinement was at last telling upon him, and that he was thinking of a release from his bondage to the "desk's dead wood." In February, 1825, he wrote to Barton,--

"Your gentleman brother sets my mouth watering after liberty. Oh that I were kicked out of Leadenhall with every mark of indignity, and a competence in my fob! The birds of the air would not be so free as I should. How I would prance and curvet it, and pick up cowslips, and ramble about purposeless as an idiot!"

Later in March we learn that he had signified to the directors his willingness to resign,

"I am sick of hope deferred. The grand wheel is in agitation that is to turn up my fortune; but round it rolls, and will turn up nothing, I have a glimpse of freedom, of becoming a gentleman at large, but I am put off from day to day. I have offered my resignation, and it is neither accepted nor rejected. Eight weeks am I kept in this fearful suspense. Guess what an absorbing state I feel it. I am not conscious of the existence of friends, present or absent. The East India directors alone can be that thing to me. I have just learned that nothing will be decided this week. Why the next? Why any week?"

But the "grand wheel" was really turning, to some purpose, and a few days later, April 6, 1825, he joyfully wrote to Barton,--

"My spirits are so tumultuary with the novelty of my recent emancipation that I have scarce steadiness of hand, much more mind, to compose a letter, I am free, B.B.,--free as air!

"'The little bird that wings the sky Knows no such liberty,'

I was set free on Tuesday in last week at four o'clock. I came home forever!"

The quality of the generosity of the East India directors was not strained in Lamb's case. It should be recorded as an agreeable commercial phenomenon that these officials, men of business acting in "a business matter,"--words too often held to exclude all such Quixotic matters as sentiment, gratitude, and Christian equity between man and man,--were not only just, but munificent. [16] From the path of Charles and Mary Lamb--already beset with anxieties grave enoughthey removed forever the shadow of want. Lamb's salary at the time of his retirement was nearly seven hundred pounds a year, and the offer made to him was a pension of four hundred and fifty, with a deduction of nine pounds a year for his sister, should she survive him.

Lamb lived to enjoy his freedom and the Company's bounty nearly nine years. Soon after his retirement he settled with his sister at Enfield, within easy reach of his loved London, removing thence to the neighboring parish of Edmonton,--his last change of residence. Coleridge's death, in July, 1834, was a heavy blow to him. "When I heard of the death of Coleridge," he wrote, "it was without grief. It seemed to me that he had long been on the confines of the next world, that he had a hunger for eternity. I grieved then that I could not grieve; but since, I feel how great a part he was of me. His great and dear spirit haunts me. I cannot think a thought, I cannot make a criticism on men or books, without an ineffectual turning and reference to him. He was the proof and touchstone of all my cogitations." Lamb did not long outlive his old schoolfellow. Walking in the middle of December along the London road, he stumbled and fell, inflicting a slight wound upon his face. The injury at first seemed trivial; but soon after, erysipelas appearing, it became evident that his general health was too feeble to resist. On the 27th of December, 1834, he passed quietly away, whispering in his last moments the names of his dearest friends.

Mary Lamb survived her brother nearly thirteen years, dying, at the advanced age of eighty-two, on May 20, 1847. With increasing years her attacks had become more frequent and of longer duration, till her mind became permanently weakened. After leaving Edmonton, she lived chiefly in a pleasant house in St. John's Wood, surrounded by old books and prints, under the care of a nurse. Her pension, together with the income from her brother's savings, was amply sufficient for her support.

Talfourd, who was present at the burial of Mary Lamb, has eloquently described the earthly reunion of the brother and sister:--

"A few survivors of the old circle, then sadly thinned, attended her remains to the spot in Edmnonton churchyard where they were laid above those of her brother. In accordance with Lamb's own feeling, so far as it could be gathered from his expressions on a subject to which he did not often or willingly refer, he had been interred in a deep grave, simply dug and wattled round, but without any affectation of stone or brickwork to keep the human dust from its kindred earth. So dry, however, is the soil of the quiet churchyard that the excavated earth left perfect walls of stiff clay, and permitted us just to catch a glimpse of the still untarnished edges of the coffin, in which all the mortal part of one of the most delightful persons who ever lived was contained, and on which the remains of her he had loved with love 'passing the love of woman' were henceforth to rest,--the last glances we shall ever have even of that covering,--concealed from us as we parted by the coffin of the sister. We felt, I believe, after a moment's strange shuddering, that the reunion was well accomplished; although the true-hearted son of Admiral Burney, who had known and loved the pair we quitted from a child, and who had been among the dearest objects of existence to him, refused to be comforted."

There are certain handy phrases, the legal-tender of conversation, that people generally use without troubling themselves to look into their title to currency. It is often said, for instance, with an air of deploring a phase of general mental degeneracy, that "letter-writing is a lost art." And so it is,---not because men nowadays, if they were put to it, could not, on the average, write as good letters as ever (the average although we certainly have no Lambs, and perhaps no Walpoles or Southeys to raise it, would probably be higher), but because the conditions that call for and develop the epistolary art have largely passed away. With our modern facility of communication, the letter has lost the pristine dignity of its function. The earth has dwindled strangely since the advent of steam and electricity, and in a generation used to Mr. Edison's devices, Puck's girdle presents no difficulties to the imagination. In Charles Lamb's time the expression "from Land's End to John O'Groat's" meant something; to-day it means a few comfortable hours by rail, a few minutes by telegraph. Wordsworth in the North of England was to Lamb, so far as the chance of personal contact was concerned, nearly as remote as Manning in China. Under such conditions a letter was of course a weighty matter; it was a thoughtful summary of opinion, a rarely recurring budget of general intelligence, expensive to send, and paid for by the recipient; and men put their minds and energies into composing it. "One wrote at that time," says W.C. Hazlitt, "a letter to an acquaintance in one of the home counties which one would only write nowadays to a settler in the Colonies or a relative in India."

But to whatever conditions or circumstances we may owe the existence of Charles Lamb's letters, their quality is of course the fruit of the genius and temperament of the writer. Unpremeditated as the strain of the skylark, they have almost to excess (were that possible) the prime epistolary merit of spontaneity. From the brain of the writer to the sheet before him flows an unbroken Pactolian stream. Lamb, at his best, ranges with Shakspearian facility the gamut of human emotion, exclaiming, as it were at one moment, with Jaques, "Motley's the only wear!"--in the next probing the source of tears. He is as ejaculatory with his pen as other men are with their tongues. Puns, quotations, conceits, critical estimates of the rarest insight and suggestiveness, chase each other over his pages like clouds over a summer sky; and the whole is leavened with the sterling ethical and aesthetic good sense that renders Charles Lamb one of the wholesomest of writers.

As to the plan on which the selections for this volume have been made, it needs only to be said that, in general, the editor has aimed to include those letters which exhibit most fully the writer's distinctive charm and quality. This plan leaves, of course, a residue of considerable biographical and critical value; but it is believed that to all who really love and appreciate him, Charles Lamb's "Best Letters" are those which are most uniquely and unmistakably Charles Lamb's.

E. G. J. September, 1891.

[1] Letter L.

[2] Cowley.

[3] The James Elia of the essay "My Relations."

[4] Letter I.

[5] Talfourd's Memoir.

[6] Carlyle.

[7] It would seem from Lamb's letter to Coleridge (Letter IV.) that it was he, not the landlord, who appeared thus too late, and who snatched the knife from the unconscious hand.

[8] The reader is referred to Lamb's beautiful essay, "Dream Children."

[9] If we except his passing tenderness for the young Quakeress, Hester Savory, Lamb admitted that he had never spoken to the lady in his life.

[10] Letter LXXXIII.

[11] Letters LXV IL., LXVIII., LXIX.

[12] W. S. Landor.

[13] In assuming this pseudonym Lamb borrowed the name of a fellow-clerk who had served with him thirty years before in the South Sea House,--an Italian named Elia. The name has probably never been pronounced as Lamb intended. "Call him Ellia," he said in a letter to J. Taylor, concerning this old acquaintance.

[14] Letter XVII.

[15] The rather unimportant series, "Popular Fallacies," appeared in the "New Monthly."

[16] In the essay "The Superannuated Man" Lamb describes, with certain changes and modifications, his retirement from the India House.


Charles Lamb

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