There is something a little accidental about all Lamb’s finest work. Poetry he seriously tried to write, and plays and stories; but the supreme criticism of the Specimens of English Dramatic Poets arose out of the casual habit of setting down an opinion of an extract just copied into one’s note-book, and the book itself, because, he said, ‘the book is such as I am glad there should be.’ The beginnings of his miscellaneous prose are due to the ‘ferreting’ of Coleridge. ‘He ferrets me day and night,’ Lamb complains to Manning in 1800, ‘to do something. He tends me, amidst all his own worrying and heart-oppressing occupations, as a gardener tends his young tulip…. He has lugged me to the brink of engaging to a newspaper, and has suggested to me for a first plan the forgery of a supposed manuscript of Burton, the anatomist of melancholy’; which was done, in the consummate way we know, and led in its turn to all the rest of the prose. And Barry Cornwall tells us that ‘he was almost teased into writing the Elia essays.’
He had begun, indeed, deliberately, with a story, as personal really as the poems, but, unlike them, set too far from himself in subject and tangled with circumstances outside his knowledge. He wrote Rosamund Gray before he was twenty-three, and in that ‘lovely thing,’ as Shelley called it, we see most of the merits and defects of his early poetry. It is a story which is hardly a story at all, told by comment, evasion, and recurrence, by ‘little images, recollections, and circumstances of past pleasures’ or distresses; with something vague and yet precise, like a dream partially remembered. Here and there is the creation of a mood and moment, almost like Coleridge’s in the Ancient Mariner; but these flicker and go out. The style would be laughable in its simplicity if there were not in it some almost awing touch of innocence; some hint of that divine goodness which, in Lamb, needed the relief and savour of the later freakishness to sharpen it out of insipidity. There is already a sense of what is tragic and endearing in earthly existence, though no skill as yet in presenting it; and the moral of it is surely one of the morals or messages of Elia: ‘God has built a brave world, but methinks he has left his creatures to bustle in it how they may.’
Lamb had no sense of narrative, or, rather, he cared in a story only for the moments when it seemed to double upon itself and turn into irony. All his attempts to write for the stage (where his dialogue might have been so telling) were foiled by his inability to ‘bring three together on the stage at once,’ as he confessed in a letter to Mrs. Shelley; ‘they are so shy with me, that I can get no more than two; and there they stand till it is the time, without being the season, to withdraw them.’ Narrative he could manage only when it was prepared for him by another, as in the Tales from Shakespeare and the Adventures of Ulysses. Even in Mrs. Leicester’s School, where he came nearest to success in a plain narrative, the three stories, as stories, have less than the almost perfect art of the best of Mary Lamb’s: of Father’s Wedding-Day, which Landor, with wholly pardonable exaggeration, called ‘with the sole exception of the Bride of Lammermoor, the most beautiful tale in prose composition in any language, ancient or modern.’ There is something of an incomparable kind of story-telling in most of the best essays of Elia, but it is a kind which he had to find out, by accident and experiment, for himself; and chiefly through letter-writing. ‘Us dramatic geniuses,’ he speaks of, in a letter to Manning against the taking of all words in a literal sense; and it was this wry dramatic genius in him that was, after all, the quintessential part of himself. ‘Truth,’ he says in this letter, ‘is one and poor, like the cruse of Elijah’s widow. Imagination is the bold face that multiplies its oil: and thou, the old cracked pipkin, that could not believe it could be put to such purposes.’ It was to his correspondents, indeed to the incitement of their wakeful friendship, that he owes more perhaps than the mere materials of his miracles.
To be wholly himself, Lamb had to hide himself under some disguise, a name, ‘Elia,’ taken literally as a pen name, or some more roundabout borrowing, as of an old fierce critic’s, Joseph Ritson’s, to heighten and soften the energy of marginal annotations on a pedant scholar. In the letter in which he announces the first essays of Elia, he writes to Barron Field: ‘You shall soon have a tissue of truth and fiction, impossible to be extricated, the interleavings shall be so delicate, the partitions perfectly invisible.’ The correspondents were already accustomed to this ‘heavenly mingle.’ Few of the letters, those works of nature, and almost more wonderful than works of art, are to be taken on oath. Those elaborate lies, which ramify through them into patterns of sober-seeming truth, are in anticipation, and were of the nature of a preliminary practice for the innocent and avowed fiction of the essays. What began in mischief ends in art.
‘I am out of the world of readers,’ Lamb wrote to Coleridge, ‘I hate all that do read, for they read nothing but reviews and new books. I gather myself up into the old things.’ ‘I am jealous for the actors who pleased my youth,’ he says elsewhere. And again: ‘For me, I do not know whether a constitutional imbecility does not incline me too obstinately to cling to the remembrances of childhood; in an inverted ratio to the usual sentiment of mankind, nothing that I have been engaged in since seems of any value or importance compared to the colours which imagination gave to everything then.’ In Lamb this love of old things, this willing recurrence to childhood, was the form in which imagination came to him. He is the grown-up child of letters, and he preserves all through his life that child’s attitude of wonder, before ‘this good world, which he knows—which was created so lovely, beyond his deservings.’ He loves the old, the accustomed, the things that people have had about them since they could remember. ‘I am in love,’ he says in the most profoundly serious of his essays, ‘with this green earth; the face of town and country; and the sweet security of streets.’ He was a man to whom mere living had zest enough to make up for everything that was contrary in the world. His life was tragic, but not unhappy. Happiness came to him out of the little things that meant nothing to others, or were not so much as seen by them. He had a genius for living, and his genius for writing was only a part of it, the part which he left to others to remember him by.
Lamb’s religion, says Pater, was ‘the religion of men of letters, religion as understood by the soberer men of letters in the last century’; and Hood says of him: ‘As he was in spirit an Old Author, so was he in faith an Ancient Christian.’ He himself tells Coleridge that he has ‘a taste for religion rather than a strong religious habit,’ and, later in life, writes to a friend: ‘Much of my seriousness has gone off.’ On this, as on other subjects, he grew shyer, withdrew more into himself; but to me it seems that a mood of religion was permanent with him. ‘Such religion as I have,’ he said, ‘has always acted on me more by way of sentiment than argumentative process’; and we find him preferring churches when they are empty, as many really religious people have done. To Lamb religion was a part of human feeling, or a kindly shadow over it. He would have thrust his way into no mysteries. And it was not lightly, or with anything but a strange-complexioned kind of gratitude, that he asked: ‘Sun, and sky, and breeze, and solitary walks, and summer holidays, and the greenness of fields, and the delicious juices of meats and fishes, and society, and the cheerful glass, and candle-light, and fire-side conversations, and innocent vanities, and jests, and irony itself—do these things go out with life?’
It was what I call Lamb’s religion that helped him to enjoy life so humbly, heartily, and delicately, and to give to others the sensation of all that is most enjoyable in the things about us. It may be said of him, as he says of the fox in the fable: ‘He was an adept in that species of moral alchemy, which turns everything into gold.’ And this moral alchemy of his was no reasoned and arguable optimism, but a ‘spirit of youth in everything,’ an irrational, casuistical, ‘matter-of-lie’ persistence in the face of all logic, experience, and sober judgment; an upsetting of truth grown tedious and custom gone stale. And for a truth of the letter it substituted a new, valiant truth of the spirit; for dead things, living ideas; and gave birth to the most religious sentiment of which man is capable: grateful joy.
Among the innumerable objects and occasions of joy which Lamb found laid out before him, at the world’s feast, books were certainly one of the most precious, and after books came pictures. ‘What any man can write, surely I may read!’ he says to Wordsworth, of Caryl on Job, six folios. ‘I like books about books,’ he confesses, the test of the book-lover. ‘I love,’ he says, ‘to lose myself in other men’s minds. When I am not walking, I am reading; I cannot sit and think. Books think for me.’ He was the finest of all readers, far more instant than Coleridge; not to be taken unawares by a Blake (‘I must look on him as one of the most extraordinary persons of the age,’ he says of him, on but a slight and partial acquaintance), or by Wordsworth when the Lyrical Ballads are confusing all judgments, and he can pick out at sight ‘She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways’ as ‘the best piece in it,’ and can define precisely the defect of much of the book, in one of those incomparable letters of escape, to Manning: ‘It is full of original thought, but it does not often make you laugh or cry. It too artfully aims at simplicity of expression.’ I choose these instances because the final test of a critic is in his reception of contemporary work; and Lamb must have found it much easier to be right, before every one else, about Webster, and Ford, and Cyril Tourneur, than to be the accurate critic that he was of Coleridge, at the very time when he was under the ‘whiff and wind’ of Coleridge’s influence. And in writing of pictures, though his knowledge is not so great nor his instinct so wholly ‘according to knowledge,’ he can write as no one has ever written in praise of Titian (so that his very finest sentence describes a picture of Titian) and can instantly detect and minutely expose the swollen contemporary delusion of a would-be Michael Angelo, the portentous Martin.
Then there were the theatres, which Lamb loved next to books. There has been no criticism of acting in English like Lamb’s, so fundamental, so intimate and elucidating. His style becomes quintessential when he speaks of the stage, as in that tiny masterpiece, On the Acting of Munden, which ends the book of Elia, with its great close, the Beethoven soft wondering close, after all the surges: ‘He understands a leg of mutton in its quiddity. He stands wondering, amid the commonplace materials of life, like primeval man with the sun and stars about him.’ He is equally certain of Shakespeare, of Congreve, and of Miss Kelly. When he defines the actors, his pen seems to be plucked by the very wires that work the puppets. And it is not merely because he was in love with Miss Kelly that he can write of her acting like this, in words that might apply with something of truth to himself. He has been saying of Mrs. Jordan, that ‘she seemed one whom care could not come near; a privileged being, sent to teach mankind what it most wants, joyousness.’ Then he goes on: ‘This latter lady’s is the joy of a freed spirit, escaping from care, as a bird that had been limed; her smiles, if I may use the expression, seemed saved out of the fire, relics which a good and innocent heart had snatched up as most portable; her contents are visitors, not inmates: she can lay them by altogether; and when she does so, I am not sure that she is not greatest.’ Is not this, with all its precise good sense, the rarest poetry of prose, a poetry made up of no poetical epithets, no fanciful similes, but ‘of imagination all compact,’ poetry in substance?
Then there was London. In Lamb London found its one poet. ‘The earth, and sea, and sky (when all is said),’ he admitted, ‘is but as a house to live in’; and, ‘separate from the pleasure of your company,’ he assured Wordsworth, ‘I don’t much care if I never see a mountain in my life. I have passed all my days in London, until I have formed as many and intense local attachments as any of your mountaineers can have done with dead nature. The lighted shops of the Strand and Fleet Street, the innumerable trades, tradesmen, and customers, coaches, waggons, play-houses, all the bustle and wickedness round about Covent Garden, the very women of the town, the watchmen, drunken scenes, rattles—life awake, if you awake, at all hours of the night, the impossibility of being dull in Fleet Street, the crowds, the very dirt and mud, the sun shining upon houses and pavements, the print shops, the old bookstalls, parsons cheapening books, coffee-houses, steams of soups from kitchens, the pantomime, London itself a pantomime and a masquerade—all these things work themselves into my mind and feed me, without a power of satiating me. The wonder of these sights impels me into night-walks about her crowded streets, and I often shed tears in the motley Strand from fulness of joy at so much life.’ There, surely, is the poem of London, and it has almost more than the rapture, in its lover’s catalogue, of Walt Whitman’s poems of America. Almost to the end, he could say (as he does again to Wordsworth, not long before his death), ‘London streets and faces cheer me inexpressibly, though of the latter not one known one were remaining.’ He traces the changes in streets, their distress or disappearance, as he traces the dwindling of his friends, ‘the very streets, he says,’ writes Mary, ‘altering every day.’ London was to him the new, better Eden. ‘A garden was the primitive prison till man with Promethean felicity and boldness sinned himself out of it. Thence followed Babylon, Nineveh, Venice, London, haberdashers, goldsmiths, taverns, play-houses, satires, epigrams, puns—these all came in on the town part, and thither side of innocence.’ To love London so was part of his human love, and in his praise of streets he has done as much for the creation and perpetuating of joy as Wordsworth (‘by whose system,’ Mary Lamb conjectured, ‘it was doubtful whether a liver in towns had a soul to be saved’) has done by his praise of flowers and hills.
And yet, for all his ‘disparagement of heath and highlands,’ as he confessed to Scott, Lamb was as instant and unerring in his appreciation of natural things, once brought before them, as he was in his appreciation of the things of art and the mind and man’s making. He was a great walker, and sighs once, before his release from the desk: ‘I wish I were a caravan driver or a penny post man, to earn my bread in air and sunshine.’ We have seen what he wrote to Wordsworth about his mountains, before he had seen them. This is what he writes of them to Manning, after he has seen them: ‘Such an impression I never received from objects of sight before, nor do I suppose I can ever again…. In fine, I have satisfied myself that there is such a thing as that which tourists call romantic, which I very much suspected before.’ And to Coleridge he writes: ‘I feel that I shall remember your mountains to the last day I live. They haunt me perpetually.’ All this Lamb saw and felt, because no beautiful thing could ever appeal to him in vain. But he wrote of it only in his letters, which were all of himself; because he put into his published writings only the best or the rarest or the accustomed and familiar part of himself, the part which he knew by heart.
Beyond any writer pre-eminent for charm, Lamb had salt and sting. There is hardly a known grace or energy of prose which he has not somewhere exemplified; as often in his letters as in his essays; and always with something final about it. He is never more himself than when he says, briefly: ‘Sentiment came in with Sterne, and was a child he had by Affectation’; but then he is also never more himself than when he expands and develops, as in this rendering of the hisses which damned his play in Drury Lane:
It was not a hiss neither, but a sort of a frantic yell, like a congregation of mad geese, with roaring something like bears, mows and mops like apes, sometimes snakes, that hissed me into madness. ‘Twas like St. Anthony’s temptations. Mercy on us, that God should give His favourite children, men, mouths to speak with, to discourse rationally, to promise smoothly, to flatter agreeably, to encourage warmly, to counsel wisely: to sing with, to drink with, and to kiss with: and that they should turn them into the mouths of adders, bears, wolves, hyenas, and whistle like tempests, and emit breath through them like distillations of aspic poison, to asperse and vilify the innocent labours of their fellow creatures who are desirous to please them!
Or it may be a cold in the head which starts the heroic agility of his tongue, and he writes a long letter without a full stop, which is as full of substance as one of his essays. His technique is so incredibly fine, he is such a Paganini of prose, that he can invent and reverse an idea of pyramidal wit, as in this burlesque of a singer: ‘The shake, which most fine singers reserve for the close or cadence, by some unaccountable flexibility, or tremulousness of pipe, she carrieth quite through the composition; so that the time, to a common air or ballad, keeps double motion, like the earth—running the primary circuit of the tune, and still revolving upon its own axis’; and he can condense into six words the whole life-history and the soul’s essential secret of Coleridge, when he says of him, in almost the last fragment of prose that he wrote, ‘he had a hunger for eternity.’
To read Lamb makes a man more humane, more tolerant, more dainty; incites to every natural piety, strengthens reverence; while it clears his brain of whatever dull fumes may have lodged there, stirs up all his senses to wary alertness, and actually quickens his vitality, like high pure air. It is, in the familiar phrase, ‘a liberal education’; but it is that finer education which sets free the spirit. His natural piety, in the full sense of the word, seems to me deeper and more sensitive than that of any other English writer. Kindness, in him, embraces mankind, not with the wide engulfing arms of philanthropy, but with an individual caress. He is almost the sufficient type of virtue, so far as virtue can ever be loved; for there is not a weakness in him which is not the bastard of some good quality, and not an error which had an unsocial origin. His jests add a new reverence to lovely and noble things, or light up an unsuspected ‘soul of goodness in things evil.’
No man ever so loved his friends, or was so honest with them, or made such a religion of friendship. His character of Hazlitt in the ‘Letter to Southey’ is the finest piece of emotional prose which he ever wrote, and his pen is inspired whenever he speaks of Coleridge. ‘Good people, as they are called,’ he writes to Wordsworth, ‘won’t serve. I want individuals. I am made up of queer points and want so many answering needles.’ He counts over his friends in public, like a child counting over his toys, when some one has offered an insult to one of them. He has delicacies and devotions towards his friends, so subtle and so noble that they make every man his friend. And, that love may deepen into awe, there is the tragic bond, that protecting love for his sister which was made up of so many strange components: pity for madness, sympathy with what came so close to him in it, as well as mental comradeship, and that paradox of his position, by which he supports that by which he is supported.
It is, then, this ‘human, too human’ creature, who comes so close to our hearts, whom we love and reverence, who is also, and above all, or at least in the last result, that great artist in prose, faultless in tact, flawless in technique, that great man of letters, to whom every lover of ‘prose as a fine art’ looks up with an admiration which may well become despair. What is it in this style, this way of putting things, so occasional, so variegated, so like his own harlequin in his ‘ghastly vest of white patchwork,’ ‘the apparition of a dead rainbow’; what is it that gives to a style, which no man can analyse, its ‘terseness, its jocular pathos, which makes one feel in laughter?’ Those are his own words, not used of himself; but do they not do something to define what can, after all, never be explained?
Lamb’s defects were his qualities, and nature drove them inward, concentrating, fortifying, intensifying them; to a not wholly normal or healthy brain, freakish and without consecution, adding a stammering tongue which could not speak evenly, and had to do its share, as the brain did, ‘by fits.’ ‘You,’ we find Lamb writing to Godwin,
‘cannot conceive of the desultory and uncertain way in which I (an author by fits) sometimes cannot put the thoughts of a common letter into sane prose…. Ten thousand times I have confessed to you, talking of my talents, my utter inability to remember in any comprehensive way what I have read. I can vehemently applaud, or perversely stickle, at parts; but I cannot grasp at a whole. This infirmity (which is nothing to brag of) may be seen in my two little compositions, the tale and my play, in both which no reader, however partial, can find any story.’
‘My brain,’ he says, in a letter to Wordsworth, ‘is desultory, and snatches off hints from things.’ And, in a wise critical letter to Southey, he says, summing up himself in a single phrase: ‘I never judge system-wise of things, but fasten upon particulars.’
Is he, in these phrases that are meant to seem so humble, really apologising for what was the essential quality of his genius? Montaigne, who (it is Lamb that says it) ‘anticipated all the discoveries of succeeding essayists,’ affected no humility in the statement of almost exactly the same mental complexion. ‘I take the first argument that fortune offers me,’ he tells us; ‘they are all equally good for me; I never design to treat them in their totality, for I never see the whole of anything, nor do those see it who promise to show it to me…. In general I love to seize things by some unwonted lustre.’ There, in the two greatest of the essayists, one sees precisely what goes to the making of the essayist. First, a beautiful disorder: the simultaneous attack and appeal of contraries, a converging multitude of dreams, memories, thoughts, sensations, without mental preference, or conscious guiding of the judgment; and then, order in disorder, a harmony more properly musical than logical, a separating and return of many elements, which end by making a pattern. Take that essay of Elia called Old China, and, when you have recovered from its charm, analyse it. You will see that, in its apparent lawlessness and wandering like idle memories, it is constructed with the minute care, and almost with the actual harmony, of poetry; and that vague, interrupting, irrelevant, lovely last sentence is like the refrain which returns at the end of a poem.
Lamb was a mental gipsy, to whom books were roads open to adventures; he saw skies in books, and books in skies, and in every orderly section of social life magic possibilities of vagrancy. But he was also a Cockney, a lover of limit, civic tradition, the uniform of all ritual. He liked exceptions, because, in every other instance, he would approve of the rule. He broke bounds with exquisite decorum. There was in all his excesses something of ‘the good clerk.’
Lamb seemed to his contemporaries notably eccentric, but he was nearer than them all to the centre. His illuminating rays shot out from the very heart of light, and returned thither after the circuit. Where Coleridge lost himself in clouds or in quicksands, Lamb took the nearest short-cut, and, having reached the goal, went no step beyond it.
And he was a bee for honey, not, like Coleridge, a browsing ox. To him the essence of delight was choice; and choice, with him, was readier when the prize was far-fetched and dear bought: a rarity of manners, books, pictures, or whatever was human or touched humanity. ‘Opinion,’ he said, ‘is a species of property; and though I am always desirous to share with my friends to a certain extent, I shall ever like to keep some tenets and some property properly my own.’ And then he found, in rarity, one of the qualities of the best; and was never, like most others, content with the good, or in any danger of confusing it with the best. He was the only man of that great age, which had Coleridge, and Wordsworth, and Shelley, and the rest, whose taste was flawless. All the others, who seemed to be marching so straight to so determined a goal, went astray at one time or other; only Lamb, who was always wandering, never lost sense of direction, or failed to know how far he had strayed from the road.
The quality which came to him from that germ of madness which lay hidden in his nature had no influence upon his central sanity. It gave him the tragic pathos and mortal beauty of his wit, its dangerous nearness to the heart, its quick sense of tears, its at times desperate gaiety; and, also, a hard, indifferent levity, which, to brother and sister alike, was a rampart against obsession, or a stealthy way of temporising with the enemy. That tinge is what gives its strange glitter to his fooling; madness playing safely and lambently around the stoutest common sense. In him reason always justifies itself by unreason, and if you consider well his quips and cranks you will find them always the play of the intellect. I know one who read the essays of Elia with intense delight, and was astonished when I asked her if she had been amused. She had seen so well through the fun to its deep inner meaning that the fun had not detained her. She had found in all of it nothing but a pure intellectual reason, beyond logic, where reason is one with intuition.