Read PREFACE of The Works of Charles and Mary Lamb‚ Volume 2, free online book, by Charles Lamb, on ReadCentral.com.

BY A FRIEND OF THE LATE ELIA

This poor gentleman, who for some months past had been in a declining way, hath at length paid his final tribute to nature.

To say truth, it is time he were gone.  The humour of the thing, if there was ever much in it, was pretty well exhausted; and a two years’ and a half existence has been a tolerable duration for a phantom.

I am now at liberty to confess, that much which I have heard objected to my late friend’s writings was well-founded.  Crude they are, I grant you ­a sort of unlicked, incondite things ­villainously pranked in an affected array of antique modes and phrases.  They had not been his, if they had been other than such; and better it is, that a writer should be natural in a self-pleasing quaintness, than to affect a naturalness (so called) that should be strange to him.  Egotistical they have been pronounced by some who did not know, that what he tells us, as of himself, was often true only (historically) of another; as in a former Essay (to save many instances) ­where under the first person (his favourite figure) he shadows forth the forlorn estate of a country-boy placed at a London school, far from his friends and connections ­in direct opposition to his own early history.  If it be egotism to imply and twine with his own identity the griefs and affections of another ­making himself many, or reducing many unto himself ­then is the skilful novelist, who all along brings in his hero, or heroine, speaking of themselves, the greatest egotist of all; who yet has never, therefore, been accused of that narrowness.  And how shall the intenser dramatist escape being faulty, who doubtless, under cover of passion uttered by another, oftentimes gives blameless vent to his most inward feelings, and expresses his own story modestly?

My late friend was in many respects a singular character.  Those who did not like him, hated him; and some, who once liked him, afterwards became his bitterest haters.  The truth is, he gave himself too little concern what he uttered, and in whose presence.  He observed neither time nor place, and would e’en out with what came uppermost.  With the severe religionist he would pass for a free-thinker; while the other faction set him down for a bigot, or persuaded themselves that he belied his sentiments.  Few understood him; and I am not certain that at all times he quite understood himself.  He too much affected that dangerous figure ­irony.  He sowed doubtful speeches, and reaped plain, unequivocal hatred. ­He would interrupt the gravest discussion with some light jest; and yet, perhaps, not quite irrelevant in ears that could understand it.  Your long and much talkers hated him.  The informal habit of his mind, joined to an inveterate impediment of speech, forbade him to be an orator; and he seemed determined that, no one else should play that part when he was present.  He was petit and ordinary in his person and appearance.  I have seen him sometimes in what is called good company, but where he has been a stranger, sit silent, and be suspected for an odd fellow; till some unlucky occasion provoking it, he would stutter out some senseless pun (not altogether senseless perhaps, if rightly taken), which has stamped his character for the evening.  It was hit or miss with him; but nine times out of ten, he contrived by this device to send away a whole company his enemies.  His conceptions rose kindlier than his utterance, and his happiest impromptus had the appearance of effort.  He has been accused of trying to be witty, when in truth he was but struggling to give his poor thoughts articulation.  He chose his companions for some individuality of character which they manifested. ­Hence, not many persons of science, and few professed literati, were of his councils.  They were, for the most part, persons of an uncertain fortune; and, as to such people commonly nothing is more obnoxious than a gentleman of settled (though moderate) income, he passed with most of them for a great miser.  To my knowledge this was a mistake.  His intimados, to confess a truth, were in the world’s eye a ragged regiment.  He found them floating on the surface of society; and the colour, or something else, in the weed pleased him.  The burrs stuck to him ­but they were gbod and loving burrs for all that.  He never greatly cared for the society of what are called good people.  If any of these were scandalised (and offences were sure to arise), he could not help it.  When he has been remonstrated with for not making more concessions to the feelings of good people, he would retort by asking, what one point did these good people ever concede to him?  He was temperate in his meals and diversions, but always kept a little on this side of abstemiousness.  Only in the use of the Indian weed he might be thought a little excessive.  He took it, he would say, as a solvent of speech.  Marry ­as the friendly vapour ascended, how his prattle would curl up sometimes with it! the ligaments, which tongue-tied him, were loosened, and the stammerer proceeded a statist!

I do not know whether I ought to bemoan or rejoice that my old friend is departed.  His jests were beginning to grow obsolete, and his stories to be found out.  He felt the approaches of age; and while he pretended to cling to life, you saw how slender were the ties left to bind him.  Discoursing with him latterly on this subject, he expressed himself with a pettishness, which I thought unworthy of him.  In our walks about his suburban retreat (as he called it) at Shacklewell, some children belonging to a school of industry had met us, and bowed and curtseyed, as he thought, in an especial manner to him.  “They take me for a visiting governor,” he muttered earnestly.  He had a horror, which he carried to a foible, of looking like anything important and parochial.  He thought that he approached nearer to that stamp daily..  He had a general aversion from being treated like a grave or respectable character, and kept a wary eye upon the advances of age that should so entitle him.  He herded always, while it was possible, with people younger than himself.  He did not conform to the march of time, but was dragged along in the procession.  His manners lagged behind his years.  He was too much of the boy-man.  The toga virilis never sate gracefully on his shoulders.  The impressions of infancy had burnt into him, and he resented the impertinence of manhood.  These were weaknesses; but such as they were, they are a key to explicate some of his writings.

I do not know a pleasure more affecting than to range at will over the deserted apartments of some fine old family mansion.  The traces of extinct grandeur admit of a better passion than envy:  and contemplations on the great and good, whom we fancy in succession to have been its inhabitants, weave for us illusions, incompatible with the bustle of modern occupancy, and vanities of foolish present aristocracy.  The same difference of feeling, I think, attends us between entering an empty and a crowded church.  In the latter it is chance but some present human frailty ­an act of inattention on the part of some of the auditory ­or a trait of affectation, or worse, vain-glory, on that of the preacher ­puts us by our best thoughts, disharmonising the place and the occasion.  But would’st thou know the beauty of holiness? ­go alone on some week-day, borrowing the keys of good Master Sexton, traverse the cool aisles of some country church:  think of the piety that has kneeled there ­the congregations, old and young, that have found consolation there ­the meek pastor ­the docile parishioner.  With no disturbing emotions, no cross conflicting comparisons, drink in the tranquillity of the place, till thou thyself become as fixed and motionless as the marble effigies that kneel and weep around thee.

Journeying northward lately, I could not resist going some few miles out of my road to look upon the remains of an old great house with which I had been impressed in this way in infancy.  I was apprised that the owner of it had lately pulled it down; still I had a vague notion that it could not all have perished, that so much solidity with magnificence could not have been crushed all at once into the mere dust and rubbish which I found it.

The work of ruin had proceeded with a swift hand indeed, and the demolition of a few weeks had reduced it to ­an antiquity.

I was astonished at the indistinction of everything.  Where had stood the great gates?  What bounded the court-yard?  Whereabout did the out-houses commence? a few bricks only lay as representatives of that which was so stately and so spacious.

Death does not shrink up his human victim at this rate.  The burnt ashes of a man weigh more in their proportion.

Had I seen these brick-and-mortar knaves at their process of destruction, at the plucking of every pannel I should have felt the varlets at my heart.  I should have cried out to them to spare a plank at least out of the cheerful store-room, in whose hot window-seat I used to sit and read Cowley, with the grass-plat before, and the hum and flappings of that one solitary wasp that ever haunted it about me ­it is in mine ears now, as oft as summer returns; or a pannel of the yellow room.

Why, every plank and pannel of that house for me had magic in it.  The tapestried bed-rooms ­tapestry so much better than painting ­not adorning merely, but peopling the wainscots ­at which childhood ever and anon would steal a look, shifting its coverlid (replaced as quickly) to exercise its tender courage in a momentary eye-encounter with those stern bright visages, staring reciprocally ­all Ovid on the walls, in colours vivider than his descriptions.  Actaeon in mid sprout, with the unappeasable prudery of Diana; and the still more provoking, and almost culinary coolness of Dan Phoebus, eel-fashion, deliberately divesting of Marsyas.

Then, that haunted room ­in which old Mrs. Battle died ­whereinto I have crept, but always in the day-time, with a passion of fear; and a sneaking curiosity, terror-tainted, to hold communication with the past. ­How shall they build it up again?

It was an old deserted place, yet not so long deserted but that traces of the splendour of past inmates were everywhere apparent.  Its furniture was still standing ­even to the tarnished gilt leather battledores, and crumbling feathers of shuttlecocks in the nursery, which told that children had once played there.  But I was a lonely child, and had the range at will of every apartment, knew every nook and corner, wondered and worshipped everywhere.

The solitude of childhood is not so much the mother of thought, as it is the feeder of love, and silence, and admiration, So strange a passion for the place possessed me in those years, that, though there lay ­I shame to say how few roods distant from the mansion ­half hid by trees, what I judged some romantic lake, such was the spell which bound me to the house, and such my carefulness not to pass its strict and proper precincts, that the idle waters lay unexplored for me; and not till late in life, curiosity prevailing over elder devotion, I found, to my astonishment, a pretty brawling brook had been the Lacus Incognitus of my infancy.  Variegated views, extensive prospects ­and those at no great distance from the house ­I was told of such ­what were they to me, being out of the boundaries of my Eden? ­So far from a wish to roam, I would have drawn, methought, still closer the fences of my chosen prison; and have been hemmed in by a yet securer cincture of those excluding garden walls.  I could have exclaimed with that garden-loving poet ­

  Bind me, ye woodbines, in your ’twines,
  Curl me about, ye gadding vines;
  And oh so close your circles lace,
  That I may never leave this place;
  But, lest your fetters prove too weak,
  Ere I your silken bondage break,
  Do you, O brambles, chain me too,
  And, courteous briars, nail me through!

I was here as in a lonely temple.  Snug firesides ­the low-built roof ­parlours ten feet by ten ­frugal boards, and all the homeliness of home ­these were the condition of my birth ­the wholesome soil which I was planted in.  Yet, without impeachment to their tenderest lessons, I am not sorry to have had glances of something beyond; and to have taken, if but a peep, in childhood, at the contrasting accidents of a great fortune.

To have the feeling of gentility, it is not necessary to have been born gentle.  The pride of ancestry may be had on cheaper terms than to be obliged to an importunate race of ancestors; and the coatless antiquary in his unemblazoned cell, revolving the long line of a Mowbray’s or De Clifford’s pedigree, at those sounding names may warm himself into as gay a vanity as those who do inherit them.  The claims of birth are ideal merely, and what herald shall go about to strip me of an idea?  Is it trenchant to their swords? can it be hacked off as a spur can? or torn away like a tarnished garter?

What, else, were the families of the great to us? what pleasure should we take in their tedious genealogies, or their capitulatory brass monuments?  What to us the uninterrupted current of their bloods, if our own did not answer within us to a cognate and correspondent elevation?

Or wherefore, else, O tattered and diminished ’Scutcheon that hung upon the time-worn walls of thy princely stairs, BLAKESMOOR! have I in childhood so oft stood poring upon thy mystic characters ­thy emblematic supporters, with their prophetic “Resurgam” ­till, every dreg of peasantry purging off, I received into myself Very Gentility?  Thou wert first in my morning eyes; and of nights, hast detained my steps from bedward, till it was but a step from gazing at thee to dreaming on thee.

This is the only true gentry by adoption; the veritable change of blood, and not, as empirics have fabled, by transfusion.

Who it was by dying that had earned the splendid trophy, I know not, I inquired not; but its fading rags, and colours cobweb-stained, told that its subject was of two centuries back.

And what if my ancestor at that date was some Damoetas ­feeding flocks, not his own, upon the hills of Lincoln ­did I in less earnest vindicate to myself the family trappings of this once proud AEgon? ­repaying by a backward triumph the insults he might possibly have heaped in his life-time upon my poor pastoral progenitor.

If it were presumption so to speculate, the present owners of the mansion had least reason to complain.  They had long forsaken the old house of their fathers for a newer trifle; and I was left to appropriate to myself what images I could pick up, to raise my fancy, or to soothe my vanity.

I was the true descendant of those old W ­s; and not the present family of that name, who had fled the old waste places.

Mine was that gallery of good old family portraits, which as I have gone over, giving them in fancy my own family name, one ­and then another ­would seem to smile, reaching forward from the canvas, to recognise the new relationship; while the rest looked grave, as it seemed, at the vacancy in their dwelling, and thoughts of fled posterity.

That Beauty with the cool blue pastoral drapery, and a lamb ­that hung next the great bay window ­with the bright yellow H ­shire hair, and eye of watchet hue ­so like my Alice! ­I am persuaded she was a true Elia ­Mildred Elia, I take it.

Mine too, BLAKESMOOR, was thy noble Marble Hall, with its mosaic pavements, and its Twelve Caesars ­stately busts in marble ­ranged round:  of whose countenances, young reader of faces as I was, the frowning beauty of Nero, I remember, had most of my wonder; but the mild Galba had my love.  There they stood in the coldness of death, yet freshness of immortality.

Mine too, thy lofty Justice Hall, with its one chair of authority, high-backed and wickered, once the terror of luckless poacher, or self-forgetful maiden ­so common since, that bats have roosted in it.

Mine too ­whose else? ­thy costly fruit-garden, with its sun-baked southern wall; the ampler pleasure-garden, rising backwards from the house in triple terraces, with flower-pots now of palest lead, save that a speck here and there, saved from the elements, bespeak their pristine state to have been gilt and glittering; the verdant quarters backwarder still; and, stretching still beyond, in old formality, thy firry wilderness, the haunt of the squirrel, and the day-long murmuring woodpigeon, with that antique image in the centre, God or Goddess I wist not; but child of Athens or old Rome paid never a sincerer worship to Pan or to Sylvanus in their native groves, than I to that fragmental mystery.

Was it for this, that I kissed my childish hands too fervently in your idol worship, walks and windings of BLAKESMOOR! for this, or what sin of mine, has the plough passed over your pleasant places?  I sometimes think that as men, when they die, do not die all, so of their extinguished habitations there may be a hope ­a germ to be revivified.