CHARLES LAMB *
MR. PROCTER has not added much to the world's previous know- ledge of Charles Lamb, but he has given us a most excellent and withal very short biography, very full, very clear, and very free from all the defects of ordinary biographies. He does not exalt his friend into a demigod, and does not spill with suave un- consciousness little drops of vitriol upon his fame, does not forget him in long descriptions of those by whom he was surrounded, and is never egotistical. He tells the story of his hero's life as a friend ought to tell it, concealing nothing, adding nothing, treat- ing him simply as a man whose true history has an interest for mankind, but believing always that truth is not less true because related in a good-natured way. He does not attempt to prove any " point " or to deduce any moral, but simply relates the facts, once or twice with a keen sympathy which leads to an apparent inflation of language, but usually in the simplest and therefore the most impressive style. Indeed, if there is a defect in the book, it is that the man Charles Lamb so absorbs his friend's attention that the, humourist is a little obscured, or rather suppressed, till we half forget that it is as a humorist only Charles Lamb is entitled to a biography. His life was singularly uneventful, his writings were independent of his life, and the main interest of his career seems to us to be this : it shows us that humour is, like genius, or longsightedness, or perceptiveness, an inborn quality, indepen- dent of external circumstances. No man perhaps ever led a sad- der life than Lamb, so sad that he has often been quoted in evidence that the root of true humour is suffering, that it is evolved by the dislocation between the soul and the surrounding circumstances. But then Sydney Smith's humour was as perfect as that of Lamb, and no man ever lived a happier life, or was less • Charin hamb. A Memo% Sy Bain Comma London t E1 Meson mud got
the victim of emotional sadness. There was no doubt a great difference in the humour of the two men, or rather in the expres- sion of that humour, just as there is a difference between the flavour of wine and the flavour of gin, though alcohol is the strength of both. If we may be allowed such a description, Sydney Smith's liquor was humour mixed with sense, and Charles Lamb's humour mixed with nonsense, but the spirit in both was the same. The mixture depended no doubt in part upon external con- ditions, Lamb's mind, saddened by external events, finding relief in a kind of mental play, in allowing sudden thoughts their full swing, in sharp perception of incongruities, or of those dislocations between the apparent and the real sense of things which constitute fun, and even in mere exaggerations Sydney Smith, happy within, applied his rare faculty not so much to his own thoughts as to things outside, those thoughts, and made outside abuses and absurdities the subject of humour rather than his own fancies. Exquisite as his drollery was when he let himself loose, its expression was modified by his keen insight into facts, just as Charles Lamb's was by his secret inner contempt for them. Sydney Smith could not have written the " Essay on Roast Pig," any more than Charles Lamb could have written the " Essay on Bishop Marsh " and his eighty pro- positions in divinity, but the inability in both cases would have arisen not from the absence of the power, but from the habitual bent it had acquired. We are apt to confuse colour a little with light. There have been humourists whose faculty was, so to speak, col- oured by scepticism—Hume, Montaigne, and Oliver Holmes are in different ways examples—and humourists in whom it was not so much coloured as discoloured by a revolt against external repres- sion, which we take to be the true explanation of Rabelais. The true colour of Charles Dickens' power is modified by microscopic minuteness of observation, till his imitators have fancied that in reproducing that they reproduced him, while Thackeray's was steeped in realism till critics were half inclined to pronounce him merely an able analyst. In Dr. John Brown, a living humourist of the highest class, only half recognized as yet, the colouring matter is, we suspect, sympathy, a sympathy so deep and catholic that his humour is often confounded with pathos, and in another writer, not yet recognized in that sense at all, it is moral feeling, so deep and strong that the world does not yet see, possibly never will see, that earnestness is not his power, but only a medium through which his power passes, the muscle—to change the figure—not the life of his mental body. In Charles Lamb the faculty co-existed, as poetry has often co-existed, as longsightedness might co-exist, with latent insanity, and with what is far rarer—we know but one other instance—a capacity for monotonous toil. His " sense " gleams through all his writings, yet he was never perhaps perfectly sane, and the man whose " jokes " delighted the world passed his life not in making them, but in making entries.
Born in 1775, the son of a barrister's clerk and grandson of a housekeeper, Charles Lamb was educated at Christ's Hospital, and before he was seventeen was placed by the interest of his father's employer in the India House as an accountant. There he remained all his life, rising very slowly by seniority, till after he had served forty years he was released by the Directors with a pension, which, as he says, "dazzled" him, of 4001. a year. In all that long time he never succeeded in reconciling himself to his toil, which, however, did him, we suspect, one unspeakable service —it preserved his reason. Monotonous toil, a career with few ex- citements and no fears, were necessities to Charles Lamb, all the more because he had at home to face a permanent and hopeless source of anxiety. When he was just twenty-one the taint in his family blood suddenly manifested itself in a way which, as men esteem careers, destroyed his career. His father sank into a state first of partial, and then of total imbecility, and his sister displayed that rare form of insanity, intermittent homicidal mania. She killed her mother by stabbing her with a table- knife, and it was considered by the rest of the family advisable to place her in an asylum. Her brother Charles, partly from love of his sister, partly, as we imagine, from a secret knowledge that he also was liable to the curse— he once passed six weeks in an asylum—pledged himself to protect her for life, and thenceforward for thirty-eight years this protection became in his mind an absorbing duty. His sister continued all her life " on the brink of madness," so nearly mad that it was often necessary to prevent her from abstracting her- self, lest the stupor should be followed by an outbreak, but his
vigilance never slept, and whenever the fit was inevitable he would walk with her to Hoxton Asylum, both in tears, and he carrying the strait jacket, considered in the careless cruelty of the age'
indispensable in the treatment of lunatics. His love for her never ceased, and he never repined at a guardianship which made marriage impossible and a secluded life almost a necessity. He gave up or stifled down an early passion, husbanded his scanty salary with a. thrift which developed into a fixed habit of parsimony, and day after day, year after year, betook himself to the desk he so utterly detested. The work was essential to his sister's protection, and he never swerved from it, though at one time his dislike to it must have been aggravated to loathing by a peculiarity in his father's mental condition, which deprived his evenings of their necessary rest. " I go home at night overwearied, quite faint, and then to cards with my father, who will not let me enjoy a meal in peace. After repeated games at cribbage ' (he is writing to Coleridge), I have got my father's leave to write— with difficulty got it ; for when I expostulated about playing any more, he replied, If you won't play with me, you might as well not come home at all.' The argument was unanswerable, and I set to afresh." His life was never varied except by the excitements consequent on his sister's changes of mental health, and he de- veloped, as was to be expected, into a somewhat peculiar man.
"Persons who had been in the habit of traversing Covent Garden at that time (seven-and-forty years ago), might by extending their walk a few yards into Russell Street have noted a small, spare man, clothed in black, who went out every morning and returned every afternoon, as regularly as the hands of the clock moved towards 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 recol- lecting his countenance ; it was full of sensibility, and it came upon you like a new thought, which you could not help dwelling upon afterwards ; it gave rise to meditation, and did you good " " Small and. spare in person, and with small legs immaterial legs,' Hood called them), he had a dark complexion, dark, curling hair, almost black, and a grave look, lightening up occasionally, and capable of sudden meri- ment. His laugh was seldom excited by jokes merely ludicrous ; it was. never spiteful ; and his quiet smile was sometimes inexpressibly sweet ; perhaps it had a touch of sadness in it. His mouth was well shaped ; his lip tremulous with expression; his brown eyes were quick, restless, and glittering : and he had a grand head full of thought. Leigh Hunt said that he had a head worthy of Aristotle.' Hazlitt calls it a fine Titian head, full of dumb eloquence.'" In creed he was a Unitarian of a kind which is passing away, one who held his distinctive tenets as a faith, and not as reasons for scepticism, quick-tempered, though absolutely free from malice or vindictiveness, temperate and regular, but fond of liquor to an ex- tent which made some of his acquaintances fancy he drank hard. Tis, however, was a mistake. He needed wine to rescue him from his habitual sadness, an occasional burst of depression, which fell on him as the spirit of gaiety sometimes falls on other men, and which often took the form of confused thought. " My waking life,' he writes, has much of the confusion, the trouble, and obscure perplexity of an ill dream. In the day time I stumble upon dark mountains." He sometimes therefore exceeded, as epicures sometimes overeat themselves, but he was no drinker, and the mistake arose from a physical peculiarity. A very little wine increased his original stutter till he seemed to lose the control of his lips, and friends who had not observed how little he drank set his thick speech down to wine. He did not care for music, and loved as men who are musical seldom do the roar and the rush of London, which was his home, and in which only he felt at ease. Mountains, he said, are good to look at, but streets to live in. He had, too, as sad natures have, a rare fidelity to his work, refusing to "squander his strength in careless essays," even when tempted by offers which his poverty and his habitual thrift made most acceptable. We do not wish to imply that he was mean. He was only thrifty, giving away with a liberality almost at variance with his character. Mr. Procter tells a fine story of this side of his mind. " He gave away greatly, when the amount of his means is taken into consideration ; he gave away money,—even annuities, I believe, to old impoverished friends, whose wants were known to him. I remember that once, when we were sauntering together on Pentonville Hill, and he noticed great depression in me, which he attributed to want of money, he said, suddenly, in his stammering way, My dear boy, I—I have a quantity of useless things. I have now—in my desk, a—a hundred pounds—that I don't—don't know what to do with... Take it." Fame was very long coming to him. He was forty- eight before the collected Essays of Elia first warned the public: that a humourist of the highest class was living among them, and he found himself famous in the world, though still so little regarded at the India House, that when summoned to receive the news of his pension he feared he was about to be formally rebuked. He had always, however, had a few warm friends, all of them sketched by
Mr. Procter, one of whom exercised a decided and happy influence over his mind. This was Mr. Thomas Manning, a mathematical tutor at Cambridge, whose solid, logical mind seemed to wake up latent power in his friend, changed the tone of his letters, and made his brain, so to speak, more solid. His friends were of course always entertained in the evening, dropping in for a rubber, followed, or rather accompanied, by an unpretentious supper and glasses round. Lamb was a devotee of the pipe, though he often tried to abandon it, and as often resumed its use, saying in reply to a complaint of Coleridge abOut a chimney, " It's hard to cure anything of smoking." It was on these evenings that his nature came out, or flowered, that his sayings were best, his humour finest, his natural geniality least obscured :—
" It was curious to observe the gradations in Lamb's manner to his various guests ; although it was courteous to all. With Hazlitt he talked as though they met the subject in discussion on equal terms ; with Leigh Hunt he exchanged repartees ; to Wordsworth he was almost respectful; with Coleridge he was sometimes jocose, sometimes defer- ring; with Martin Burney fraternally familiar; with Manning affec- tionate ; with Godwin merely courteous, or if friendly, then in a minor degree. The man whom I found at Lamb's house more frequently than any other person was Martin Burney. He is now scarcely known ; yet Lamb dedicated his prose works to him in 1818, and there des- cribed him as no common judge of books and men ;' and Southey, corresponding with Rickman, when his Joan of Arc was being reprinted, says, The best omen I have heard of its well-doing is that Martin Burney likes it.' Lamb was very much attached to Martin, who was a sincere and able man, although with a very unprepossessing physiog- nomy. His face was warped by paralysis, which affected one eye and one side of his mouth. He was plain and unaffected in manner, very diffident and retiring ; yet pronouncing his opinions, when asked to do so, without apology or hesitation. He was a barrister, and travelled the Western Circuit at the same.time as Sir Thomas Wilde (afterwards Lord Truro), whose briefs he used to read before the other considered them; marking out the principal facts and points for attention. MartinBarney had excellent taste in books ; eschewed the showy and artificial, and looked into the sterling qualities of writing. He frequently accompanied Lamb in his visits to friends, and although very familiar with. Charles, he always spoke of him, with respect, as Mr. Lamb. He is•on the top scale of my friendship ladder,' Lamb says, on which an angel or two is still climbing, and some, alas! descending.' The last time I saw Burney was at the corner of a street in London, when he was overflowing on the subject of Raffaelle and Hogarth. After a great and prolonged struggle, he said; he had arrived at the conclusion that Raffaelle was the greater man of the two."
The only events in this life were the catastrophe already mentioned, the release from work which occurred in 1825, and death. The release in which he exulted at first brought him no perma- nent pleasure, he • advised a friend to stick to the desk, and observed, " I find genius declines with me, but I get clever ;" and he writes to Bernard Burton, " Deadly long are the days, with but half an hour's candle-light and no fire-light. The streets, the shops remain, but old friends are gone.' I assure you' (he goes on) no work is worse than overwork. The mind preys on itself, the most unwholesome- food. I have ceased to care -almost for anybody.' To remedy this tedium, he tries visiting ; for the houses of his old friends were always open to him, and he had a welcome everywhere. But this visiting will not revive him. His spirits descended to zero : below it. He is convinced that happi- ness is not to be found. abroad. It is better to go .my hole at Enfield, and hide like a sick cat in my corner.' Again, he says, 4 Home, I have none. Never did the waters of heaven pour down on a Iorlorner head. What I can do, and over do, is to walk. I am a sanguinary murderer of time. But the snake is vital. Your forlorn—C. L.' These are his meditations in 1829, four years only after he had rushed abroad, full of exultation and delight, from the prison of a ' work-a-day ' life, into the happy gardens of boundless leisure. Time, which was once his friend, had become his enemy. His letters, which were always full of . goodness, generally full of cheerful humour, sink into discontent. I have killed an hour or two with this poor scrawl,' he writes." He gave up housekeeping, finding that it oppressed him, and in December, 1834, a fall over, a stone produced erysipelas, of which he died, leaving his small property to his sister, whose reason was thence- forward never-quite cleari but who survived him thirteen• years.
We have not endeavoured to give any specimens of Charles Lamb's humour. Most stories of him are well known, and Mr. Procter's book was intended to give some idea rather.of him than of his peculiar genius. One or two of his rare jests are, however, recorded which are either new or which we have forgotten, and which we therefore quote. Mrs. K., after expressing her love for her young children, added, tenderly, ' And how do you like babies, Mr. Lamb ?' His answer, immediate, almost preoipi. tate, was Boi-boieboiled, ma'am."—Mr. H. C. Robinson, just called to the Bar, tells him, exultingly, that he is retained in a eausein the King's Bench. Ah ' (said Lamb), 'the great first
cause, least understood." Of aSeotchman. ' His uuderetandi- ing is always at its meridian. Between the affirmative and the negative there is no border land with him. You cannot hover with him on the confines of truth." The last one.of the wisest witti- cisms ever recorded, even of Charles Lamb.