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B O NE of the great charms of the “Essays I
of Elia " is the clearness with which W they reveal the author's habits, opinions, Free ag and history. We are told about Elia's school-days, Elia's friends (almost the whole alphabet of capital letters comes in to represent them), and Elia's relations. We are informed what books he liked best, and what dish he considered most delicious, "princeps obsoniorum.” We are let into some of his weaknesses—that he was extremely fond of a pipe ; that he was by no means “incapable of Bacchus;” that he loved lying in bed in the morning; that he liked sweeps. So constantly, indeed, does this personal element enter into Lamb's writings that a very interesting life might be compiled from them alone. The difficulty is to know what to receive as fact. Charles Lamb drew largely on his own history for the material of his Essays, but he did not render it literally as if he were writing an autobiography, and were bound to be strictly truthful and authentic. He modified and transformed his experiences so as . to produce a good artistic effect. And the reader will often be puzzled to determine whether a statement made with every appearance of sincerity is really true, or is wholly or partially fictitious. In the Appendix to this volume an attempt has been made to show what pretensions the “ Essays of Elia” have to biographical accuracy.
It has also been thought that a slight outline of Lamb's history, by revealing some of the many beauties, and some also of the weaknesses of his character, would bring the reader into closer sympathy with Elia, and enhance his pleasure in perusing the Essays. With this object the following brief and imperfect sketch has been written. Those who desire further information about this charming writer, and no less charming man, may turn to the “Recollections” of Lamb's friend, Mr. Procter ; or may spend a pleasant hour in listening to Mr. Percy Fitzgerald's easy familiar chat. The inner life of Lamb, his moral and intellectual history, is best told in his own delightful correspondence.
Charles Lamb was born on February roth, 1775, in Crown Office Row, in the Temple; and there he passed the first seven years of his life. He was the youngest child of Mr. John Lamb,' a clerk in the employ of Mr. Salt, one of the Benchers of the Inner Temple, Through life Lamb retained a strong affection for the place where he was born, and everything connected with it. Its antiquated monastic air had from childhood a deep attraction for him. He loved “its magnificent ample squares, its classic green recesses,” its gardens, its fountain, and its sundial. It was to him “the most elegant spot in the metropolis.” When a child, he was a
Lovel, of the Essay “On some of the old Benchers," &c.
frequent visitor at a fine old mansion in Hertfordshire, called Gilston,' where his grandmother was housekeeper. If we are justified in receiving the touching retrospect in “Blakesmoor” as a substantially true account of his childish feelings (as it is almost impossible to help doing), this old house must have had a powerful influence on his mind. He was “a lonely child,” he tells us, “and had the range at will of every apartment;' he wandered through its lofty tapestried rooms, filled with antique moth-eaten furniture; or lay dreaming in the stately gardens with his favourite Cowley in his hand; he “knew every nook and corner, wondered and worshipped everywhere.”
In 1782, when just seven years old, Charles received a presentation to the foundation of Christ's Hospital, where he remained till he was fourteen. Little is known of his school-days. He was naturally of a shy and retiring disposition, and all the influences to which he had been exposed had tended to confirm his reserved and solitary habits, and to foster his early taste for quiet and studious employments. An incurable impediment in his speech, which any excitement rendered painful, and the delicacy of his frame, tended to separate him still more from the other boys, and may account for the fact that no intimacy sprang up, at that time, between him and any of his schoolfellows. A kindly feeling, however, was felt for him by his companions, and he made some acquaintances at Christ's Hospital, whose friendship in later years strengthened his taste for literature, and whose society afforded some of the keenest delights of his life.
i Blakesmoor in H
In his studies he progressed well, especially in Latin composition; and would most likely have taken an exhibition and entered into holy orders (as he himself tells us), had not the impediment in his speech proved an insuperable obstacle. He was therefore compelled to relinquish all thoughts of the quiet scholastic life which even then must have been intensely attractive to him, and to turn his mind to the uncongenial realities of business. He did this with a quiet fortitude which distinguished him through life, and which we cannot too much admire. It may, perhaps, not seem to many a very extraordinary sacrifice for a lad to give up the hope of a learned education, and settle to the dry labours of the desk; but to Lamb we cannot doubt it was a bitter disappointment, and very hard indeed to bear. He already loved learning and the ancient seats of learning, with a more than boyish affection. And it was not merely that he had to give up his favourite pursuits, to lose his only congenial associates, and to see them entering on a course of life from which he was debarred, but that he had to turn from those tantalizing visions of loved studies and pleasant companionship, to an employment that was utterly distasteful to him; for which he felt, whether rightly or not, that he was unfit; and from which he saw not even a distant prospect of release.
The first three years after he left Christ's Hospital, in 1789, were spent in the employ of the South Sea Company, where his brother John (his senior by twelve years) held a position of trust. And though his life at this time must have been rather dully passed between the routine of a distasteful business, and the somewhat wearisome exactions (however cheerfully submitted to) of a home where his father was sinking into second child. hood, and his mother was a confirmed invalid, yet it was not altogether unenlivened by congenial companionship. Pleasant Jem White, immortal benefactor of chimney-sweepers, was his frequent companion. And there was the constant intercourse with his sister Mary, which now, perhaps, in the dearth of other outlets for the tenderness of which his heart was full, produced that deep-seated affection whose history will live as long as the Essays of Elia. With Coleridge, Lamb had occasionally met, while he was pursuing his studies at Cambridge; but it was not till he came to live in town, when Charles was at the India House, that the intimacy sprang up between them which has since become so celebrated. Lamb always looked back with affectionate regret to the evenings they used to spend together at this time, in a little smoky public-house called the “Salutation and Cat," in Smithfield, “beguiling the cares of life with poesy.” Their friendship from that time was uninterrupted, and they died within a few weeks of each other. Lamb, indeed, never fully recovered from the shock of Coleridge's death. He would continually exclaim to his friends, in a half humourous, more than half melancholy, under-tone of assumed surprise or incredulity, “Coleridge is dead ! Coleridge is dead!” And almost the last words he wrote were a tribute to the memory of his friend, perhaps the most eloquent and touching ever paid by one noble-minded man to another.