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ventionality—his difference from other people, and to that “metaphysical " quality of his wit which belongs to him in a far truer sense than as applied to Cowley and his school, it is sufficient to make a passing reference. But the mention of Cowley, by whom with Fuller, Donne, and the rest, his imagination was assuredly shaped, reminds us once more of the charm that belongs to the “old and antique” strain heard through all his more earnest utterances. As we listen to Elia the moralist, now with the terse yet stately egotism of one old master, now in the long-drawn-out harmonies of another, we live again with the thinkers and dreamers of two centuries ago.
Sometimes he confides to us weaknesses that few men are bold enough to avow, as when he tells how he dreaded death and clung to life. “ I am not content to pass away ‘like a weaver's shuttle. These metaphors solace me not, nor sweeten the unpalatable draught of mortality. I care not to be carried with the tide, and reluct at the inevitable course of destiny. I am in love with this green earth ; the face of town and country; the unspeakable rural solitudes, and the sweet security of
There is an essay by Lamb's friend Hazlitt on the Fear of Death, which it is interesting to compare with this. The one essay may have been possibly suggested by the other. Hazlitt is that one of Lamb's contemporaries with whom it is natural to compare him. There are, indeed, obvious points of resemblance between them. Hazlitt wrote a vigorous and flexible style ; he could quote Shakspeare and Milton as copiously as Lamb; he wrote on Lamb's class of subjects ; he shared his love of paradoxes and his frank egotistical method. But here all likeness ends. Hazlitt's essay is on the text that, since it does not pain us to reflect that there was once a time when we did not exist, so it should be no pain to think that at some future time the same state of things shall be. But this light-hearted attempt at consolation is found to be more depressing than the melancholy of Lamb, for it lacks the two things needful, the accent
of absolute sincerity, and a nature unsoured by the world.
But Lamb had his serener moods, and in one of these let us part from him. The essay on the Old Benchers of the Inner Temple is one of the most varied and beautiful pieces of prose that English literature can boast. Eminently, moreover, does it show us Lamb as the product of two different ages—the child of the Renascence of the sixteenth century and of that of the nineteenth. It is as if both Spenser and Wordsworth had laid hands of blessing upon his head. This is how he writes of his childhood, when the old lawyers paced to and fro before him on the Terrace Walk, making up to his childish eyes “the mythology of the Temple :"
“In those days I saw Gods, as old men covered with a mantle,' walking upon the earth. Let the dreams of classic idolatry perish—extinct be the fairies and fairy trumpery of legendary fabling—in the heart of childhood there will for ever spring up a well of innocent or wholesome superstition—the seeds of exaggeration will be busy there, and vital, from everyday forms educing the unknown and the uncommon. In that little Goshen there will be light when the grown world flounders about in the darkness of sense and materiality. While childhood, and while dreams reducing childhood, shall be left, imagination shall not have spread her holy wings totally to fly the earth.”
It is in such passages as these that Lamb shows himself, what indeed he is, the last of the Elizabethans. He had “learned their great language,” and yet he had early discovered, with the keen eye of a humorist, how effective for his purpose was the touch of the pedantic and the fantastical from which the noblest of them were not wholly free. He was thus able to make even their weaknesses a fresh source of delight, as he dealt with them from the vantage ground of two centuries. It may seem strange, on first thoughts, that the fashion of Lamb's style should not have grown, in its turn, old-fashioned ;
that, on the contrary, no literary reputation of sixty years' standing should seem more certain of its continu
But it is not the antique manner- - the " selfpleasing quaintness”--that has embalmed the substance. Rather is there that in the substance which ensures immortality for the style. It is one of the rewards of purity of heart that, allied with humour, it has the promise of perennial charm. “ Saint Charles !” exclaimed Thackeray one day, as he finished reading once more the original of one of Lamb's letters to Bernard Barton. There was much in Lamb's habits and manners that we do not associate with the saintly ideal ; but patience under suffering and a boundless sympathy hold a large place in that ideal, and in Charles Lamb these were not found wanting
I would add a few words on the kind of information I have sought to furnish in my Notes. The impertinence of criticism or comment, I hope has been almost entirely avoided. But there was a certain waywardness and love of practical joking in Charles Lamb that led him often to treat matters of fact with deliberate falsification. His essays are full of autobiography, but often purposely disguised, whether to amuse those who were in the secret, or to perplex those who were not, it is impossible to say. In his own day, therefore, corrections of fact would have been either superfluous, or would have spoiled the jest ; but now that Lamb's contemporaries are all but passed away, much of the humour of his method is lost without some clue to the many disguises and perversions of fact with which the essays abound. They are full, for instance, of references to actual persons, by means of initials or other devices. To readers fairly conversant with the literary history of Lamb's time, many of these disguises are transparent enough ; but for others, notes here and there are indispensable. We have an authentic clue to most of the initials or asterisks employed in the first series of Elia. There is in existence a list of these initials drawn up by some unknown hand, and filled in with the real names by Lamb himself. Through the kindness of its possessor, Mr. Alexander Ireland of Manchester, the original of this interesting relic has been in my hands, and I can vouch for the handwriting, phraseology, and (it may be added) the spelling, being indubitably Lamb's.
There is much information in these essays, more or less disguised, about Lamb's relatives, and I have tried to illustrate these points by details of his family history for which I had not space in my Memoir of Lamb. In a few instances I have permitted myself to repeat some sentences from that memoir, where the same set of circumstances had to be narrated again. But apart from changes of names and incidents in the essays, there is in Lamb's humour the constant element of a mischievous love of hoaxing. He loves nothing so much as to mingle romance with reality, so that it shall be difficult for the reader to disentangle them. Sometimes he deals with fiction as if it were fact; and sometimes, after supplying literal facts, he ends with the insinuation that they are fictitious. And besides these deliberate mystifications, there is found also in Lamb a certain natural incapacity for being accurate--an inveterate turn for the opposite. “ What does Elia care for dates ?” he asks in one of his letters, and indeed about accuracy in any such trifles he did not greatly care. In the matter of quotation, as already remarked, this is curiously shown. He seldom quotes even a hackneyed passage from Shakspeare or Milton correctly ; and sometimes he half-remembers a passage from some old author, and re-writes it, to suit the particular subject he wishes it to illustrate.
I have succeeded in tracing all but two or three of the many quotations occurring in the essays, and they serve to show the remarkable range and variety of his reading.
It is generally known that when Lamb collected his essays, for publication in book form, from the pages of the London and other magazines, he omitted certain passages. These I have thought it right, as a rule, not to restore. In most cases the reason for their omission is obvious. They were excrescences or digressions, injuring the effect of the essay as a whole. In the few instances in which I have retained a note, or other short passage, from the original versions of the essays, I have shown that this is the case by enclosing it in brackets.
I have to thank many friends, and many known to me only by their high literary reputation, for courteous and ready help in investigating points connected with Lamb's writings. Among these I would mention Mr. Alexander Ireland of Manchester ; Mr. Richard Garnett of the British Museum ; and, as before, my friend Mr. J. E. Davis, counsel to the Commissioners of Police, who has given many valuable suggestions and constant assistance of other kinds. I must also express my acknowledgments to Mr. W. J. Jeaffreson, of Folkestone, and to the family of the late Mr. Arthur Loveday of Wardington, Banbury, for permission to make extracts from unpublished letters of Lamb's in their possession.
NOTE TO NEW EDITION.
SEVERAL corrections and additions have been made in the Notes to the present Edition.