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O apology is needed, and certainly
no preface is required, for or to
another edition of “ The Essays of Elia.” They have, to use their author's own words, joined the class of "perpetually selfreproductive volumes, Great Nature's Stereotypes." All that an editor of them has to do is to see that work so delicate, so conscientious, so elaborate, is neither insulted with bad type or ill-tempered paper, nor injured by careless printing. Having done this, he has done his duty. There is no need to praise what all the world praises. Sometimes (it is just possible) an author may slip his hold on men's fancies and fall into a state of neglect, and, so far as human memories are concerned, of ruinous decay,
which yet may be removed, and the author's fame judiciously restored by the kindly enthusiasm of some critic, at whose bidding we turn to the forgotten volumes, and try to make up for past neglect by present rapture. But this (it must be owned) is rare. There are, indeed, more discoverers than discoveries ; more bold travellers than new continents; more critics dinning the air with their joyful shouts over forgotten poets and disused dramatists than there prove to be poets and dramatists whom it is good to remember, or possible to use. These recovered creatures lead but a blinking kind of existence for a very short time, and then, even though their works may have been reprinted on Whatman paper, sink back into oblivion, and rest for ever on the shelves of that great library, the pride of Limbo, which is made up of the books that no man can read, even though he were to be paid for doing so. This repose is not unkindly. An author who is entirely forgotten is, at all events, never mispraised. Nothing, we may feel well assured, could cause the Author of the “ Essays of Elia” more genuine annoyance than to be clumsily praised, or raised with shouting to a higher pedestal than the one in the possession of which his own ripe judgment could confirm him. And yet, if we are not to praise “The Essays of Elia,” what is there for us to do? And who can insure us against doing so clumsily ? Happily it is not necessary to praise them at all.
The lives of authors, if only written with a decent measure of truthfulness and insight, are, generally speaking, better reading than their works. It would be hard to explain why the lives of men so querulous, so affected, so centred in self, so averse to the probing of criticism, so blind to the smallness of their fame as most authors stand revealed in their biographies and letters to have been, should yet be so incessantly interesting. They succeed one another quickly enough-these biographies ; doing each one of them its bit of iconoclastic work : yet the reader never tires of them, nor, unless he is very young, does he wreak an empty wrath upon the fragments of another broken idol. Far otherwise : he picks up the pieces reverently, and remembering how hard and self-engrossing is the labour of carrying out any high plan of literary excellence, how furious the fever occasioned by the thought of perfection, how hot the hell of failure,-puts them carefully away, and thanks God his mother bore him as destitute of genius as of clothing.
But none the less we pine after the ideal. We want our favourite authors to be our best-loved men. Smashing idols is an irreverent occupation endurable only in our wilder hours. A time comes in most men's lives when the bell rings for prayer, and unhappy are they who, when it does, have nowhere to carry their heart's supplications.
It is, therefore, a pleasant thing when we find ourselves saying of Charles Lamb, that it is impossible to know whether we most admire the author, or love the man. The imaginary Elia, sitting by the side of his Cousin Bridget, playing sick whist, whilst the pipkin which was to prepare a gentle lenitive for his foot is bubbling in the fire, “and as I do not much relish appliances, there it should ever bubble--Bridget and I should be for ever playing,” makes a picture which will never need retouching ; but when we read in the “ Life and Letters” how reality outdoes imagination, and learn that the pen of Elia, so wisely human, so sweetly melancholy, told only but a few of the secrets of a brave heart and an unselfish life, we feel we have saved something out of the wreck.
Lamb, like his own child-angel, was to know weakness, and reliance, and the shadow of human imbecility." He went with a lame gait. He used to get drunk somewhat too frequently. Let the fact be stated in all its deformity-he was too fond of gin-and-water. He once gave a lady the welcome assurance that he never got drunk twice in the same house. Failing all evidence to the contrary, we are bound to believe this to be true. It is a mitigating circumstance. Wordsworth's boundless self-conceit, Coleridge's maddening infirmity of purpose, Hazlitt's petulance, De Quincey's spitefulness, knew no such selfdenying ordinance. amb was also a too inveterate punster, and sometimes, it may be, pushed a jest, or baited a bore, beyond the limits of becoming mirth. When we have said these things against Lamb we have said all. Pale Malice, speckled Jealousy , may now be invited to search the records of his life, to probe his motives, to read his private letters,
into his desk, to dissect his character.