Read CHARLES LAMB. of Obiter Dicta Second Series , free online book, by Augustine Birrell, on

Mr. Walter Bagehot preferred Hazlitt to Lamb, reckoning the former much the greater writer. The preferences of such a man as Bagehot are not to be lightly disregarded, least of all when their sincerity is vouched for, as in the present case, by half a hundred quotations from the favoured author. Certainly no writer repays a literary man’s devotion better than Hazlitt, of whose twenty seldom read volumes hardly a page but glitters with quotable matter; the true ore, to be had for the cost of cartage. You may live like a gentleman for a twelvemonth on Hazlitt’s ideas. Opinions, no doubt, differ as to how many quotations a writer is entitled to; but, for my part, I like to see an author leap-frog into his subject over the back of a brother.

I do not remember whether Bagehot has anywhere given his reasons for his preference-the open avowal whereof drove Crabb Robinson well-nigh distracted; and it is always rash to find reasons for a faith you do not share; but probably they partook of the nature of a complaint that Elia’s treatment of men and things (meaning by things, books) is often fantastical, unreal, even a shade insincere; whilst Hazlitt always at least aims at the centre, whether he hits it or not. Lamb dances round a subject; Hazlitt grapples with it. So far as Hazlitt is concerned, doubtless this is so; his literary method seems to realize the agreeable aspiration of Mr. Browning’s Italian in England:-

’I would grasp Metternich until
I felt his wet red throat distil
In blood thro’ these two hands.’

Hazlitt is always grasping some Metternich. He said himself that Lamb’s talk was like snap-dragon, and his own not very much ’unlike a game of nine-pins.’ Lamb, writing to him on one occasion about his son, wishes the little fellow a ’smoother head of hair and somewhat of a better temper than his father;’ and the pleasant words seem to call back from the past the stormy figure of the man who loved art, literature, and the drama with a consuming passion, who has described books and plays, authors and actors, with a fiery enthusiasm and reality quite unsurpassable, and who yet, neither living nor dead, has received his due meed of praise. Men still continue to hold aloof from Hazlitt; his shaggy head and fierce scowling temper still seem to terrorize; and his very books, telling us though they do about all things most delightful-poems, pictures, and the cheerful playhouse-frown upon us from their upper shelf. From this it appears that would a genius ensure for himself immortality, he must brush his hair and keep his temper; but, alas! how seldom can he be persuaded to do either. Charles Lamb did both; and the years as they roll do but swell the rich revenues of his praise. Lamb’s popularity shows no sign of waning. Even that most extraordinary compound, the rising generation of readers, whose taste in literature is as erratic as it is pronounced; who have never heard of James Thomson who sang The Seasons (including the pleasant episode of Musidora bathing), but understand by any reference to that name only the striking author of The City of Dreadful Night; even these wayward folk-the dogs of whose criticism, not yet full grown, will, when let loose, as some day they must be, cry ‘havoc’ amongst established reputations-read their Lamb, letters as well as essays, with laughter and with love.

If it be really seriously urged against Lamb as an author that he is fantastical and artistically artificial, it must be owned he is so. His humour, exquisite as it is, is modish. It may not be for all markets. How it affected the Scottish Thersites we know only too well-that dour spirit required more potent draughts to make him forget his misery and laugh. It took Swift or Smollett to move his mirth, which was always, three parts of it, derision. Lamb’s elaborateness, what he himself calls his affected array of antique modes and phrases, is sometimes overlooked in these strange days, when it is thought better to read about an author than to read him. To read aloud the Praise of Chimney Sweepers without stumbling, or halting, not to say mispronouncing, and to set in motion every one of its carefully-swung sentences, is a very pretty feat in elocution, for there is not what can be called a natural sentence in it from beginning to end. Many people have not patience for this sort of thing; they like to laugh and move on. Other people, again, like an essay to be about something really important, and to conduct them to conclusions they deem worth carrying away. Lamb’s views about indiscriminate almsgiving, so far as these can be extracted from his paper On the Decay of Beggars in the Metropolis, are unsound, whilst there are at least three ladies still living (in Brighton) quite respectably on their means, who consider the essay entitled A Bachelor’s Complaint of the Behaviour of Married People improper. But, as a rule, Lamb’s essays are neither unsound nor improper; none the less they are, in the judgment of some, things of naught-not only lacking, as Southey complained they did, ‘sound religious feeling,’ but everything else really worthy of attention.

To discuss such congenital differences of taste is idle; but it is not idle to observe that when Lamb is read, as he surely deserves to be, as a whole-letters and poems no less than essays-these notes of fantasy and artificiality no longer dominate. The man Charles Lamb was far more real, far more serious, despite his jesting, more self-contained and self-restrained, than Hazlitt, who wasted his life in the pursuit of the veriest will-o’-the-wisps that ever danced over the most miasmatic of swamps, who was never his own man, and who died, like Brian de Bois Gilbert, ‘the victim of contending passions.’ It should never be forgotten that Lamb’s vocation was his life. Literature was but his byplay, his avocation in the true sense of that much-abused word. He was not a fisherman, but an angler in the lake of letters; an author by chance and on the sly. He had a right to disport himself on paper, to play the frolic with his own fancies, to give the decalogue the slip, whose life was made up of the sternest stuff, of self-sacrifice, devotion, honesty, and good sense.

Lamb’s letters from first to last are full of the philosophy of life; he was as sensible a man as Dr. Johnson. One grows sick of the expressions, ‘poor Charles Lamb,’ ’gentle Charles ‘Lamb,’ as if he were one of those grown-up children of the Leigh Hunt type, who are perpetually begging and borrowing through the round of every man’s acquaintance. Charles Lamb earned his own living, paid his own way, was the helper, not the helped; a man who was beholden to no one, who always came with gifts in his hand, a shrewd man, capable of advice, strong in council. Poor Lamb, indeed! Poor Coleridge, robbed of his will; poor Wordsworth, devoured by his own ego; poor Southey, writing his tomes and deeming himself a classic; poor Carlyle, with his nine volumes of memoirs, where he

’Lies like a hedgehog rolled up the wrong way,
Tormenting himself with his prickles’-

call these men poor, if you feel it decent to do so, but not Lamb, who was rich in all that makes life valuable or memory sweet. But he used to get drunk. This explains all. Be untruthful, unfaithful, unkind; darken the lives of all who have to live under your shadow, rob youth of joy, take peace from age, live unsought for, die unmourned-and remaining sober you will escape the curse of men’s pity, and be spoken of as a worthy person. But if ever, amidst what Burns called ‘social noise,’ you so far forget yourself as to get drunk, think not to plead a spotless life spent with those for whom you have laboured and saved; talk not of the love of friends or of help given to the needy; least of all make reference to a noble self-sacrifice passing the love of women, for all will avail you nothing. You get drunk-and the heartless and the selfish and the lewd crave the privilege of pitying you, and receiving your name with an odious smile. It is really too bad.

The completion of Mr. Ainger’s edition of Lamb’s works deserves a word of commemoration. In our judgment it is all an edition of Lamb’s works should be. Upon the vexed question, nowadays so much agitated, whether an editor is to be allowed any discretion in the exclusion from his edition of the rinsings of his author’s desk, we side with Mr. Ainger, and think more nobly of the editor than to deny him such a discretion. An editor is not a sweep, and, by the love he bears the author whose fame he seeks to spread abroad, it is his duty to exclude what he believes does not bear the due impress of the author’s mind. No doubt as a rule editors have no discretion to be trusted; but happily Mr. Ainger has plenty, and most sincerely do we thank him for withholding from us A Vision of Horns and The Pawnbroker’s Daughter. Boldly to assert, as some are found to do, that the editor of a master of style has no choice but to reprint the scraps or notelets that a misdirected energy may succeed in disinterring from the grave the writer had dug for them, is to fail to grasp the distinction between a collector of curios and a lover of books. But this policy of exclusion is no doubt a perilous one. Like the Irish members, or Mark Antony’s wife-the ’shrill-toned Fulvia’-the missing essays are ‘good, being gone.’ Surely, so we are inclined to grumble, the taste was severe that led Mr. Ainger to dismiss Juke Judkins. We are not, indeed, prepared to say that Judkins has been wrongfully dismissed, or that he has any right of action against Mr. Ainger, but we could have put up better with his presence than his absence.

Mr. Ainger’s introduction to the Essays of Elia is admirable; here is a bit of it:

’Another feature of Lamb’s style is its allusiveness. He is rich in quotations, and in my notes I have succeeded in tracing most of them to their source, a matter of some difficulty in Lamb’s case, for his inaccuracy is all but perverse. But besides those avowedly introduced as such, his style is full of quotations held, if the expression may be allowed, in solution. One feels, rather than recognises, that a phrase or idiom or turn of expression is an echo of something that one has heard or read before. Yet such is the use made of the material, that a charm is added by the very fact that we are thus continually renewing our experience of an older day. This style becomes aromatic, like the perfume of faded rose-leaves in a china jar. With such allusiveness as this I need not say that I have not meddled in my notes; its whole charm lies in recognising it for ourselves. The “prosperity” of an allusion, as of a jest, “lies in the ear of him that hears it,” and it were doing a poor service to Lamb or his readers to draw out and arrange in order the threads he has wrought into the very fabric of his English.’

Then Mr. Ainger’s notes are not meddlesome notes, but truly explanatory ones, genuine aids to enjoyment. Lamb needs notes, and yet the task of adding them to a structure so fine and of such nicely studied proportions is a difficult one; it is like building a tool-house against La Sainte Chapelle. Deftly has Mr. Ainger inserted his notes, and capital reading do they make; they tell us all we ought to want to know. He is no true lover of Elia who does not care to know who the ‘Distant Correspondent’ was. And Barbara S –. ‘It was not much that Barbara had to claim.’ No, dear child! it was not-’a bare half-guinea’; but you are surely also entitled to be known to us by your real name. When Lamb tells us Barbara’s maiden name was Street, and that she was three times married-first to a Mr. Dancer, then to a Mr. Barry, and finally to a Mr. Crawford, whose widow she was when he first knew her-he is telling us things that were not, for the true Barbara died a spinster, and was born a Kelly.

Mr. Ainger, as was to be expected, has a full, instructive note anent the Old Benchers of the Inner Temple. Some hasty editors, with a sorrowfully large experience of Lamb’s unblushing fictions and Defoe-like falsehoods, and who, perhaps, have wasted good hours trying to find out all about Miss Barbara’s third husband, have sometimes assumed that at all events most of the names mentioned by Lamb in his immortal essay on the Benchers are fictitious. Mr. Ainger, however, assures us that the fact is otherwise. Jekyl, Coventry, Pierson, Parton, Read, Wharry, Jackson, and Mingay, no less than ‘unruffled Samuel Salt,’ were all real persons, and were called to the Bench of the Honourable Society by those very names. One mistake, indeed, Lamb makes-he writes of Mr. Twopenny as if he had been a Bencher. Now, there never yet was a Bencher of the name of Twopenny; though the mistake is easily accounted for. There was a Mr. Twopenny, a very thin man too, just as Lamb described him, who lived in the Temple; but he was not a Bencher, he was not even a barrister; he was a much better thing, namely, stockbroker to the Bank of England. The holding of this office, which Mr. Ainger rightly calls important, doubtless accounts for Twopenny’s constant good-humour and felicitous jesting about his own person. A man who has a snug berth other people want feels free to crack such jokes.

Of the contents of these three volumes we can say deliberately what Dr. Johnson said, surely in his haste, of Baxter’s three hundred works, ’Read them all, they are all good.’ Do not be content with the essays alone. It is shabby treatment of an author who has given you pleasure to leave him half unread; it is nearly as bad as keeping a friend waiting. Anyhow, read Mrs. Leicester’s School; it is nearly all Mary Lamb’s, but the more you like it on that account the better pleased her brother would have been.

We are especially glad to notice that Mr. Ainger holds us out hopes of an edition, uniform with the works, of the letters of Charles Lamb. Until he has given us these, also with notes, his pious labours are incomplete. Lamb’s letters are not only the best text of his life, but the best comment upon it. They reveal all the heroism of the man and all the cunning of the author; they do the reader good by stealth. Let us have them speedily, so that honest men may have in their houses a complete edition of at least one author of whom they can truthfully say, that they never know whether they most admire the writer or love the man.