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CHARLES LAMB (1775-1834)
“The frolic and the gentle."—Wordsworth.
“Love and charity ripened in that nature as peaches ripen on the wall that fronts the sun."-A. Smith.
CHARLES LAMB, one of the most engaging personalities in English literature, on April 18, 1827, wrote his autobiography for a dictionary of eminent Britons. It is as follows:
“ Charles Lamb, born in the Inner Temple, 10th February, 1775; educated in Christ's Hospital; afterwards a clerk in the Accountants' Office, East India House; pensioned off from that service, 1825, after thirty-three years' service; is now a gentleman at large; can remember few specialties in his life worth noting, except that he once caught a swallow flying (testê suâ manû): below the middle stature; cast of countenance slightly Jewish, with no Judaic tinge in his complexional religion; stammers abominably, and is therefore more apt to discharge his occasional conversation in a quaint aphorism, or a poor quibble, than in set and edifying speeches; has consequently been libelled as a person always aiming at wit, which, as he told a dull fellow that charged him with it, is at least as good as aiming at dullness. A small eater, but not drinker; confesses a partiality for the product of the juniper berry; was a fierce smoker of tobacco; but may be resembled to a volcano burnt out, emitting only now and then a casual puff. Has been guilty of obtruding on the public a tale in prose, called “Rosamund Gray”; a dramatic sketch, named "John Woodvil”; a “Farewell Ode to Tobacco," with sundry other poems, and light prose matter collected in two slight crown octavos, and pompously christened his works, though in fact they were his recreations; and his true works may be found on the shelves of Leadenhall Street, filling some hundred folios. He is also the true Elia, whose essays are extant in a little volume, published a year or two since, and rather better known
from that name without a meaning than from anything he has done, or can hope to do, in his own. He was also the first to draw the public attention to the old English dramatists, in a work called “Specimens of English Dramatic Writers who lived about the time of Shakespeare,” published about fifteen years since. In short, all his merits and demerits to set forth would take to the end of Mr. Upcott's book, and then not be told truly. He died — 18—, much lamented. 18th April 1827.
Witness his hand,
CHARLES LAMB. 1 To anybody-please to fill up these blanks.—C. L.
This tells everything except that he was almost the best letterwriter who ever lived, one of the most charming of essayists, and a good man, if ever a good man lived. In both him and his sister Mary
there was a strain of hereditary insanity. In the latter this culminated 1796 in a terrible tragedy. A maid irritated her; their mother intervened; and she killed the latter with a knife. Charles by becoming her guardian saved her from an asylum, and sacrificed all other ties and ambitions during thirty-eight years to the fulfillment of this trust. She was not unworthy of such love, being herself a woman of genius, as is evident from three books which the two wrote together: “ Tales from Shakespeare," 1807; “Mrs. Leicester's School,” 1807; and “Poetry for Children," 1809.
In Lamb's essays and letters we have an autobiography as complete as Boswell's account of Johnson and as attractive as Burns's poems. The first of the “
Essays of Elia,” that on the South Sea House,” contains several sketches of his official superiors and fellow clerks. We read of a certain Vice-superintendent, who had a stoop like a nobleman's and an intellect that did not reach to a saw or a proverb; of an accountant who thought an accountant the greatest character in the world and himself the greatest of all accountants; and of the inimitable solemn Hepworth, from whose gravity Newton might have deduced the law of gravitation.
The paper on “Oxford in the Vacation" is full of good phrases and sentences. Toying with the theme of Elia's identity he invents the quaint punning verb, “ agnize," agna being Latin for lamb." He rhymes red-letter days with dead letter days. He speaks of the sweet food of academic instruction. He finds a quaint delight in the spits that have cooked for Chaucer. "Above all thy rarities, old Oxenford,” he says,
“ what do most arride and solace me are thy repositories of old learning, thy shelves" ending the sentence with a dash. In the paper on “Christ's Hospital” he draws a picture of his own school days and of two of his masters. One was the Reverend Matthew Field, who never made the boys work, whose only care was to shut himself up from their uproar, and who so mixed the useful with the agreeable that it would have made the souls of Rousseau and John Locke chuckle. The other was the Reverend James Boyer, a harsh pedant, who laughed at jokes of Terence that were too thin to have moved a Roman muscle even when they were new, who borrowed whips from Field with the sarcastic comment that they had not been much used, and who applied them with rabidus furor to poor trembling children (the maternal milk hardly dry upon their lips). “Poor J. B.! May all his faults be forgiven; and may he be wafted to bliss by little cherub boys, all head and wings, with no nether parts to reproach his sublunary infirmities.” The same paper sings thus of school friendships: “Oh, it is pleasant, as it is rare, to find the same arm linked in yours at forty, which at thirteen helped it to turn over the Cicero De Amicitia (On Friendship).” Finally comes a picture of Lamb's school and life-long friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge-even then logician, metaphysician, bardl—the inspired charity boy!
Of all these essays perhaps none makes one chuckle more than The Two Races of Men.” They are the great race and the little race—those who borrow and those who lend. The theme is the infinite superiority of the former. Where can you match Alcibiades, Falstaff, Sir Richard Steele, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan? What a contempt for money (yours and mine) and for the pedantic distinctions of meum and tuum (mine and thine)! Then there are reflections on borrowers of books, with especial reference to Comberbatch, matchless in his depredations! The paper ends with advice to lend books, if lend you must, to such an one as S. T. C., who will return them ahead of time enriched with notes that triple their value. The humor of this consists in the fact that the predatory Comberbatch and the admirable S. T. C. are one and the same, i.e., the author of The Ancient Mariner.”
In the essay on Ears," handsome volutes to the human capital, Lamb calls them, we find the author frankly confessing himself insensible to pretentious music. “Sentimentally I am inclined to harmony, but organically I am incapable of a tune," he says. Elsewhere in verse he writes:
Of Doctor Pepusch old Queen Dido
Sebastian Bach (or Batch, which is it?)” We are led naturally from this to the essay on “ Imperfect Sympathies.” “I have been trying all my life to like Scotchmen," says Elia, “and am obliged to desist from the experiment in despair. They cannot like me and in truth I never knew one of that nation who attempted to do it. The twilight of dubiety never falls upon them. I was present not long since at a party of North Britons, where a son of Burns was expected; and happened to drop a silly expression (in my South British way), that I wished it was the father instead of the son—when four of them started up at once to inform me that that was impossible, because he was dead. In my early life I had a passionate fondness for the poetry of Burns. I have sometimes foolishly hoped to ingratiate myself with his countrymen by expressing it. But I have always found that your true Scot resents your admiration of his countryman even more than he would your contempt.”
There is good matter in all of these compositions, but perhaps extra good in “Dream Children," “ The Praise of Chimney Sweeps," “ The Dissertation on Roast Pig,” “ Detached Thoughts on Books,” “Old China ,” “The Melancholy of Tailors," “ Table Talk,” and “The Gentle Giantess." For instance:
“Those tender novices, blooming in their first nigritude. Innocent blacknesses. Palates, otherwise not uninstructed in dietetical elegancies. Those white and shiny ossifications (sweeps' teeth). All is not soot which looks so.”—Chimney Sweeps.
“I speak not of your grown porkers—things between pig and pork -but a young and tender suckling—under a moon old-guiltless as yet of the sty, with no original speck of the amor immunditia (love of filth), the hereditary failing of the first parent, yet manifest—his voice as yet not broken, but something between a childish treble and a grumble—the mild forerunner or præludium of a grunt. The adhesive oleaginous—oh call it not fat! but an indefinable sweetness growing up to it—the tender blossoming of fat-fat cropped in the bud. See him in the dish, his second cradle, how meek he lieth! Wouldst thou