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Memoir of Charles Lamb.

1

bis powers.

CHARLES LAMB, though less esteemed as a poet/mains on terms of friendship, himself unshaken than as a writer of essays and sketches of human and unseduced by their pernicious example. character, which display extraordinary powers of In 1798, Charles Lamb appeared before the description and observation, is one of the most public, in conjunction with his friend Charles peculiar and original characters of the time. His Lloyd; and the volume which they gave to the poetry is all copied from the Elizabethan era of world was entitled “ Blank Verses.” A “Tale of England, or rather modelled upon the style of Rosamund Grey and Old Blind Margaret" followthe Elizabethan writers, for his matter is exclu-ed, the same year; but a tragedy entitled “ John sively his own; and his way of life, like that of Woodvil,” a work of singular power and beauty, the courtiers and literary men around the Maiden which came out in 1801, may be said to have es. Queen, is to the present public much of a mystery. tablished the writer's fame. This tragedy has all It is known that he was born in London about the faults and beauties of its author's style, but it the year 1775, educated at the Grammar School never has been popular, it being a great misfortune of Christ's Hospital, and that he spent his years, of the writers of more than one of the schools of up to a very recent period, in fulfilling the duties poetry which have been established and declined of a clerk in the Accomptant-General's office in in England during the last thirty years, that their the India House, an impediment in his speech mannerism has prevented their becoming riveted baving incapacitated him for a situation where in the public mind; a sort of stiffness and mys. he could have displayed his powers.

tery too, in addition, has excluded them from beFrom the earliest time of his life Charles Lamb ing classed among those poets whose verses the showed a strong predisposition for literary pur simple and wayfaring, the child and the uninsuits. With his fondness for these the active structed, keep perpetually upon their lips. The duties of his situation were never suffered to thousand songs of our writers in verse of past interfere. His friends were nearly all selected time dwell on all tongues, with the Melodies of from authors, and not from individuals employed Moore; but who learns or repeats the cumbrous in business or commerce. In early life his inti- verses of Wordsworth, which require an initiamacies and friendships were principally among tion from their writer to comprehend ? Lamb has that class of writers designated as the “Lake written some beautiful poetry, as close as posPoets,"'—inen who set out with revolutionary sible to the style in which he thinks Beaumont principles in politics, sonnetized regicides, and and Fletcher would write it, or Sir Philip Sidney planned pantisocratic societies in transatlantic or any of the poets of the era on which he dedeserts; and then in a few years apostatized, and lights to dwell, and with the characters of which became the most servile tools of arbitrary power. he loves to fancy himself communing. Not so Charles Lamb. While it does not appear While he continued his acquaintance with that, even for a moment, he went into their wild many of the members of the Lake School, most extremes, so he never to the present hour desert-probably from early association and that noble ed the principles with which he began life, and principle which he avows of setting his face which, at between fifty and sixty years of age, against the too prevalent sin of estimating a man's he has lived to see obtain ground, and fix them intellect by reference to his political tenets, an. selves immutably in the world. Whatever he other school of poetry arose in opposition to that saw of genius in these writers he still admits; of the Lakers. The latter viewed this new school and it is not a little honorable to his charity, with bitter hatred; but though opposed in moral, that with most of his lake acquaintance he re- religious, and political principles to his early

companions, Lamb became intimate among and 1 The lake poets were so designated because they af- lives on terms of friendship with most of its mem. Freted solitude and a love of nature, and some of them bers, who have the merit, whatever may be the

up their residence on the Lakes of Cumberland. Southey was their leader.

Jopinion of their doctrines, of far greater honesty and consistency of principle than the Lakers.- ing Shakspeare read one of his scenes to him, Their talents are before the world. To this new hot from the brain." school belonged the late poet Shelley, whose The conversation of Charles Lamb is very preg. lofty powers are unquestionable ; Keats, also nant with matter from his extensive reading, per now deceased; and Leigh Hunt. These were ticularly on those subjects which are his hobbies. generally called the “Cockney" school by their It would be no great difficulty, in this book-mak opponents. Their peculiar style of writing is ing age, to compile one out of the conversations getting into desuetude among that portion of the of an evening or two spent in his society. He is community with which it was once popular : a great humorist, even in his most serious opiswild and theoretic, but displaying talent amidst ions, and displays at times a fund of drollery. La all, the fate of these literary schools is what might everything, however, even in his philosophy and be expected, when they carried so far into ex. his jokes, humanity is paramount; and no 221 tremes, opinions and systems that overstepped the exists who believes more devoutly in the aziq modesty of nature. Charles Lamb's intrepid re- of Shakspeare, that “there is a soul of goodsess sistance to despotism in the republic of letters, in things evil.” He is the least obtrusive man in did him infinite honor; and he never would existence, and lives amid the dreams of the past have been forgiven by the "Lakers," had not time. Antiquity is his idol; he cannot fling himhis companionship been too interesting and his self forward into the future, and build his image friendship too honorable, to allow his early as- of poetic glory in an approaching optimism of sociates to forego either in revenge for his liber. things; he is content to think the past good ality. Lamb is independent in property, and enough for his quiet unambitious spirit, and to beyond any interested motives in his conduct; desire to re-embody the dust which he worships political subserviency he would look upon with All he does is in a calm atmosphere, musing on scorn, for he would purchase nothing with the bygone things. Obscure or dim as these may be, sacrifice of one iota of free thought or expression. they lose none of their charms for him. He die It was his lofly abhorrence of calculating a wri. likes novelty of every kind, and has no rulya ter's talents by his political creed, that made artifices or cant about him. To describe an oid Charles Lamb alike a contributor to the “ Lon-building, portrait, or his school-days at Christ's don Magazine," the “New Monthly," and "Black. Hospital, is his greatest enjoyment-In reading, wood's," though each publication supported op- it is the same. Few of the books on which be posite political parties.

delights to dwell have been written since the first Besides the poetical works already enumerat- year of the last century. The English authors, ed, Charles Lamb has published, from time to down to the year 1700, are his revel,-not that time,—" Tales from Shakspeare," "The Adven- he is ignorant of the productions of more recent tures of Ulysses," “Specimens of English Dra- writers, but they have not the same hold on his matic Poetry, with Notes, etc.” “Essays," and an mind, because they do not belong to his peculiar unsuccessful farce called “Mr. H- " brought time, to the day with which his spirit claims kinout at Drury-Lane, in 1806. Having scattered his dred. Over old John Bunyan he will expatiate writings about anonymously in periodical works, by the hour, or on Burton's "Anatomy of Melanit was not until 1818 that the first collection of choly." All around him is tempered with a simthem was made. Lamb is utterly careless of plicity peculiarly his own, and the same thing is fame, and looks upon ambition with the eye of a observable in his manners, for he is remarkably philosopher. His works, though so various, are plain, with somewhat of singularity in his car. original, and his essays and criticisms equal to riage. He is a connoisseur in pictures of a pe. any of modern times; perhaps the first are de- culiar class; but his knowledge of art is concidedly superior to any that have been produced fined, like his favorite study of poetry, to one by contemporaries. His sketches published under particular line. He is in every sense of the word the signature of “ Elia" are charming specimens a “ Londoner," and lives among its old localities, of this kind; and his remarks on the works of connecting them with associations of past things, the contemporaries of Shakspeare gave a new which he would not part with for any earthly tone to the criticism of the day, and even were consideration. An old building, a spot in a corner the means of reviving and bringing into general of a street, consecrated by tale or romance, by estimation that great body of dramatists. They real events, departed genius, or lofty character, is introduced the public, as it were, into the very to him fairy-land. literary atmosphere that Shakspeare inhaled. Such a temperament may well be supposed to Of Charles Lamb's comprehension of the finest shrink from everything meretricious and gaudy, and subtlest things in a great writer, Leigh Hunt and accordingly Charles Lamb is utterly dest. says, that he “would have been worthy of hear-tute of presumption and intrusion, of everything

connected with show or fashion; he is too proud most intellectual cast, of which Titian would have to be indebted to that which he holds in scorn. painted a most Titianic picture, for it seems of His ideas seem to be his realities, and the dusky the order which that great artist preferred to shadow of a bygone form is more agreeable to him represent. Lamb is a great smoker, and not only to contemplate than the greatest and, worldly- inhales the fumes of tonacco that way, but takes esteemed, most glorious thing. In abstruse stu- immoderate quantities of snuff. In reading, it is dies he has never made progress; not because he singular that he hesitates much, though his speech has not the power, but because they do not har- lis fluent, and exhibits no signs of halting; and monize with the pursuits to which his peculiar with a friend of congenial temper, he will sit in mind can alone assimilate. On his favorite topics discourse far into the morning. His residence is he is enthusiastic, and he seems to wish to exact close to the New River at Islington, where, as a like enthusiasm from others. He must be court. Churchill saysed to friendship, rather than expected to make

City swains in lap of dullness dream. the first advances, but his friendship is the sound.

** His only living relative, a maiden sister, lives er for the slowness with which it is founded. His

with him, and she too possesses strong intellect, retiring nature, and little fondness for display

display and a heart the counterpart of his own in hu. before the public, or, in truth, his contempt for

manity. They are devotedly attached to each fame, would, but for the publication of his occa.

other, and the next best thing to reading a book sional pieces in different periodical publications,

nications, from the pen of Charles Lamb, is the listening to have prevented his being known extensively as

a conversation between him and his sister." an essayist. He would hardly ever else have troubled himself to publish a volume of them

1 This lady is the author of several pieces given in the together; for all he has done is by detached

following pages amongst her brother's works, with which efforts.

they have always been published. She has also written

some works for youth, such as, “Mrs. Leicester's School." parently feeble, yet his head is of the finest and 12mo 1808; and “Poetry for Children," 12mo 1809.

385

am

2H

THE

POETICAL WORKS

OF
CHARLES LAMB.

DEDICATION.

TO S. T. COLERIDGE, ESQ.. MY DEAR COLERIDGE, You will smile to see the slender labors of your friend designated by the title of Works ; but such was the wish of the gentlemen who have kindly undertaken the trouble of collecting them, and from their judgment could be no appeal.

It would be a kind of disloyalty to offer to any but yourself a volume containing the early pieces, which were first published among your poems, and were fairly derivatives from you and them. My friend Lloyd and myself came into our first battle (authorship is a sort of warfare) under cover of the greater Ajax. How this association, which shall always be a dear and proud recollection to me, came to be broken, who snapped the three-fold cord,—whether yourself (but I know that was not the case) grew ashamed of your former companions, or whether (which is by much the more probable) some ungracious bookseller was author of the separation,I cannot tell;- but wanting the support of your friendly elm (I speak for myself), my vine has, since that time, put forth few or no fruits; the sap (if ever it had any) has become, in a manner, dried up and extinct.

Am I right in assuming this as the cause ? or is it that, as years come upon us (except with some more healthy happy spirits), life itself loses much of its Poetry for us? we transcribe but what we read in the great volume of nature; and, as the characters grow dim, we turn off, and look another way. You your. self write no Christabels, nor Ancient Mariners, now.

Some of the Sonnets, which shall be carelessly turned over by the general reader, may haply awaken in you remembrances, which I should be sorry should be ever totally extinct--the memory

of summer days and of delightful years, even so far back as to those old suppers at our old ***** Inn,—when life was fresh, and topics exhaustless, -and you first kindled in me, if not the power, yet the love of poetry, and beauty, and kindliness.

What words have I heard

Spoke at the Mermaid ! The world has given you many a shrewd nip and gird since that time; but either my eyes are grown dimmer, or my old friend is the same, who stood before me three-and-twenty years ago—his hair a little confessing the hand of time, but still shrouding the same capacious brain,-his heart not altered, scarcely where it “alteration finds."

One piece, Coleridge, I have ventured to publish in its original form, though I have heard you complain of a certain over-imitation of the antique in the style. If I could see any way of getting rid of the objection, without rewriting it entirely, I would make some sacrifices. But when I wrote John Woodvil, I never proposed to myself any distinct deviation from common English. I had been newly initiated in the writings of our elder dramatists ; Beaumont and Fletcher, and Massinger, were then a first love; and from what I was so freshly conversant in, what wonder if my language imperceptibly took a tinge? The very time, which I had chosen for my story, that which immediately followed the Restoration, seemed to require, in an English play, that the English should be of rather an older cast, than that of the precise year in which it happened to be written. I wish it had not some faults which I can less vindicate than the language. I remain, My dear Coleridge, Your's, with unabated esteem,

C. LAMB.

John Woodvil;

A TRAGEDY.

CHARACTERS.

SiR WALTER WOODVIL.
John,

his sons.
SIMON,
LOVEL

pretended friends of John. GRAY,

| SANDFORD, Sir Walter's old steward.
MARGARET, orphan ward of Sir Walter.
FOUR GENTLEMEN, John's riolous companions.
SERVANTS.
SCENE-for the most part at Sir Walter's mansion in
DEVONSHIRE ; at other times in the forest of
SHERWOOD. TIME-8000 after the
RESTORATION.

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