« AnteriorContinuar »
peculiarities of other minds. It is not so with Charles Lamb's writings. His style is rigid, and cannot be copied or adapted. It is Elia's English. To imitate it would be mere mimicry. Sometimes it almost seems as if the impediment in Lamb's speech had influenced his style. His sentences are often very short, with frequent and long pauses; but brilliant, suggestive. His ideas succeed each other with wonderful richness and profusion: they seem to spring perfect from the brain. But these curt and broken sentences are merely used by Elia as means to produce a desired effect. The pauses were the “halting-stones and restingplaces” of his wit. There were no “ligaments” That bound him when the pen was in his hand. No one could write more sweet or flowing English than he.
It would be useless to cite instances of Elia's wonderful refinement of thought and mastery of expression. The essay on the popular mistake, " that we should rise with the lark,” is perhaps his masterpiece in this respect. What an array of fast-flocking, delightful images, too delicate almost for laughter, does this inimitably witty little piece conjure up before the mind! The pathos and the humour of Elia are alike admirable, It cannot be said that he excelled more in the one than in the other; for it is impossible to compare styles so dissimilar as, for instance, the “Dissertation upon Roast Pig,” and the thoughts upon the homes of the poor, “ that are no homes,” and the children of the poor, that are never young. Both are perfect in their way. In the richness of his humour and the depth of his pathos Elia stands, amongst essayists, unrivalled
With tears and laughters for all time.
It would be tedious to enlarge further on the various characteristics of this delightful author. It should never be forgotten that the “Essays of Elia” require to be studied in order to be thoroughly understood and enjoyed. It is a great mistake to suppose that they are a light and flimsy sort of reading, that is to be carelessly glanced through and then laid aside: this is to miss their greatest beauties and their highest use.
Even a short sketch of Lamb's life, such as this, would be culpably imperfect did we omit all mention of those companions whose affection cheered and brightened his existence, and made it, on the whole, a happy one. It seems, in reading his life, as if no one else can ever have had such love and honour paid him,--such troops of almost idolizing friends. No mere eccentricity of character or position debarred any one from Lamb's intimacy. The list of his friends includes Coleridge, Wordsworth, Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt, Godwin, Bernard Barton, Talfourd, Southey, Thelwall, Manning, Charles Lloyd, H. C. Robinson, Dyer, Barry Cornwall, and a host of others. All these men, celebrated or unknown, with their conflicting opinions, various oddities, and repelling differences, seem to have gathered round Charles Lamb as a common centre where the discordant elements could meet in harmony. It was this made Lamb's Wednesday evenings so delightful.
There is a weakness of Charles Lamb's, closely connected with his social habits, which ought not to be unnoticed-his fondness for spirituous liquors. This failing of his has often been greatly exaggerated, but there is no doubt it existed. The fact seems to be that Lamb had a constitutional craving for exhilarating drinks; and the relief they gave him from the dreadful anxiety and depression caused by his sister's precarious health and oftenrecurring illness, tempted him to indulge in them to an extent which,---while it would have been moderation to a stronger man,-to his delicate and sensitive organization was excess. It was not the mere excitement of drinking that fascinated him: it was the relaxation, the forgetfulness of care, the confidence, the ready flow of words to embody the conceptions of his ever-fruitful fancy, that gave an almost irresistible charm to brandyand-water. At one time, he and his sister resolved to give up alcoholic drinks altogether. As for Mary, he informed Miss Wordsworth, “she has taken to water like a hungry otter. I, too, limp after her in lame imitation, but it goes against me a little at first. I have been acquaintance with it now for full four days, and it seems a moon. I am full of cramps and rheumatisms, and cold internally, so that fire won't warm me; yet I bear all for virtue's sake.” Total abstinence plainly did not agree with him, and was soon given up. Another of Lamb's weaknesses was smoking. Of this habit, after several fruitless attempts, he really succeeded in breaking himself. His “Farewell to Tobacco," written during one of these ineffectual struggles, shows with what feeling Lamb regarded the “GREAT PLANT.”
Some fragments of Lamb's stammering talk, in which thought and feeling and quaint humour so strangely mingled, have been preserved. They are, naturally, almost all pieces of broad sun, and can give no idea of the ordinary style of his conversation. The maddest quibble even he ever uttered was surely the answer he gave to a lady who had been boring him with a rather fatiguing
dissertation upon her love for her children: “And pray, Mr. Lamb,” said she at last, “how do you like children?” “B-b-boiled, ma'am!”
In 1825, Lamb was released from his drudgery at the India House, and retired upon a pension amounting to two-thirds of his salary. He survived nine years. The illness that ultimately proved fatal was caused by a fall, which induced erysipelas in the head. He sank rapidly, and died on the 27th of December, 1834, only five days after the accident occurred. His sister Mary survived him several years.
I think Charles Lamb's right place in literature is with Goldsmith, and a few others, among writers that we love. There may be loftier niches in the Temple of Fame, but none, we may be sure, in which Elia would rather have chosen to stand. We read Shakespeare, and the deepest impression left on our mind is a feeling of wonder that one human mind could ever have conceived and written his plays and poems. Do we love Shakespeare? Does any one ever feel intimate with him ? Do we attempt to shape him in the mind's eye at all? Is he not rather an abstraction-the dramatist-the vague outlines of whose form we never try to resolve into something clear and definite? Of course we have all seen pictures of Shakespeare: massive features, surmounted by a lofty forehead ; a pointed beard. We recognize him at a glance. But does the familiar face ever rise up before us in reading his plays? Do we ever think of Shakespeare then ? And do we feel anything like the pleasure in a portrait of Shakespeare that we do in looking at Goldsmith's ugly face, redeemed by its touching expression of impending pain ?
Do we love Milton? I think not. We reve
rence him. When we read his sonnet on his blindness, or on his deceased wife, is not the natural emotion of pity for the man altogether overwhelmed by our admiration of the power of the poet? It would not be so if we really loved him. Do we feel anything like the interest in Shakespeare's or in Milton's life that we do in Goldsmith's? And does not the interest we do feel arise from curiosity rather than affection ? We may know too much of them. They do not appeal to us as men, but as writers. We can derive no additional pleasure from their works by knowing their history; but it might be a severe shock to discover that they were subject to the common weaknesses and failings of mankind. It is better our thoughts of them should be vague.
But with Goldsmith and Charles Lamb it is not so. We cannot know too much of them. We cannot spare one touch from the picture ; not even a defect. They appeal to us not only as writers, but as men. We do not feel it a shock to discover their weaknesses. They live in their writings; they become our friends; they possess our hearts by virtue of their complete humanity; they reconcile us with the imperfections of our common nature; their very failings endear them to us the more.
There may be a literary immortality superior to this, but there can hardly be one more attractive. The heights on which Shakespeare and Milton stand are lofty, unattainable, dazzling--but cold; they are too high for sympathy to reach. For Charles Lamb we love to anticipate a warmer place--a home in the popular heart. The Essays will be like the books of which Elia speaks so delightfully :-“ How beautiful to a genuine lover of