Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

CHARLES LAMB,

MOST GENIAL OF ESSAYISTS.
(1775–1834.)

Sw1NBURNE calls Lamb the “best beloved of English writers,” and he certainly possesses a lovable quality, manifest in everything he has written, that draws his readers into closest sympathy with him. He shares also with Shakespeare the distinction of being called “gentle”; not in the sense of pity or commiseration, but as being kindly and full of sympathy with humanity.

His style is a marvel of ease, fulness, quaintness and beauty. It is formed upon the profoundest study of the Elizabethan dramatists, and yet it is modern and even new. There is the flavor of antiquity about it—a use of words often archaic, but just as often coined in imitation of the obsolete; but there are no conceits or farfetched allusions. He puts us under the spell of a literature which he knows, but which we only

faintly know. Then come the turns of quaint humor which excite our mirth and give him his perennial charms. He has, too, a robust sense, a hatred of shams, and a philosophy of life that remind one of Dr. Johnson. He loves the solid earth whereon he stands, and delights in the “visible, warm motion ” of his being. He enjoys the world and its reasonable pleasures. He discourses on the advantages of being alive; not with levity, but as one who has been tried and ennobled by affliction, and yet sees the happiness that may come to him who does not seek too much. Who is there who has not at least heard of, if he has not read the immortal “Dissertation on Roast Pig’ 2 Lamb likes to write about things good to eat. “I am no Quaker with my food,” he says. “I confess I am not indifferent to the kinds of it. Those unctuous morsels of deer's flesh were not made to be received with dispassionate services. I hate a man who swallows it, affecting not to know what he is eating. I suspect his taste in higher matters. I shrink instinctively from one who professes to like minced veal. There is a physiognomical character in the taste for food. C– holds that a man cannot have a pure mind who refuses apple dumplings. I am not certain but he is right.” And so he

dwells from time to time on the pleasures of life, and of the contentment and happiness which is within the reach of all. Many of the essays are autobiographical, and in several of them he draws the portraits of his grandmother, his father, sister and brother. He describes his sister Mary under the name of “Cousin Bridget.”; and there are many pleasing passages about her. She had her brother's love for books.

She was tumbled early, by accident or design, into a spacious closet of good old English reading; without much selection or prohibition, and browsed at will upon that fair and wholesome pasturage. Had I twenty girls they should be brought up exactly in this fashion. I know not whether their chances of wedlock might not be diminished by it, but I can answer for it, that it makes (if the worst comes to the worst), most incomparable old maids.

Lamb devoted his life to his sister and her safety and happiness. The taint of insanity was in their blood. In a paroxysm of madness Mary had slain their mother, and from that moment Charles made himself, with rare self-sacrifice, her self-appointed guardian. He himself had an attack of mania in his boyhood, but it never returned ; but in the case of Mary it was recurrent. The attack was preceded by symptoms which enabled them to take precautions, and at such times

they would go together to an asylum where she I8O

would remain until she had recovered. This is the tremendous fact in Lamb's history, and with this self-imposed duty, he gave up all thought of marrying. In the essays and letters we obtain occasional glimpses of a “Sweet Alice” upon whom his affections in youth had been placed. This was the one romance of his life, and a tender memory to his dying day. He lived for his sister, and every concurrent testimony shows that their lives were as near to social happiness as human nature can aspire to. In his essay entitled “Old China,” he gives a picture of their domestic life. He begins by declaring his “feminine partiality " for old china, but after a few paragraphs he digresses, as is his habit, into recollections of his past struggles. He had taken tea with his cousin Bridget, using a new set of china, which led him to remark on their better fortunes enabling them to indulge in such luxuries, “when a passing sentiment seemed to overshade the brows of my companion. I am quick at detecting these summer clouds in Bridget. “I wish the good old times would come again, she said, ‘when we were not quite so rich. I do not mean that I want to be poor, but there was a middle state, so she was pleased to ramble on, “in which I am sure we were

a great deal happier. A purchase is but a purchase, now that you have money enough and to spare. Formerly it used to be a triumph. When we coveted a cheap luxury (and O ! how much ado I had to get you to consent in those days ' ) we were used to having a debate two or three days before, and to weigh the for and against, and think what we might spare it out of, and what saving we could hit upon that might be an equivalent. A thing was worth buying then, when we felt the money that we paid for it.” Then she reminds him how he wore an old suit until it grew threadbare, all because of an old folio of Beaumont and Fletcher which he must have. Tender and pathetic are the reminiscences and hoarded memories that run through these essays, never to be forgotten by those who have once fully enjoyed them. Books were Lamb's solace and enjoyment in life, and literature his recreation. He gained his livelihood as a clerk in the employ of the East India Company. When he was fifty years of age they pensioned him, and he lived nine years to enjoy his pension. In his whole life he was beholden to no one, but was himself always the helper of others, with purse ever open to those who needed assistance. Upon the improvident

and helpless Coleridge, who was his friend from

« ZurückWeiter »