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CHARLES LAMB AGAIN

I HAVE already said something in these essays about Lamb as a writer and man, but the occasion of two excellent biographies,' in French and English, is too tempting to let pass without a word of more particular appreciation.

In the matter of literary criticism the honour must remain, as might be expected, with the Frenchman. M. Derocquigny has indeed treated this aspect of his theme with an amplitude and a precision which no English writer has approached, and he has also shown the trained subtlety of his race in winding into the secrets of Lamb's personality. In these things Mr. Lucas is not strong; more especially his critical pagesthey are few in number-would seem to suffer from a tacit acceptance of Lamb as a great writer. Charming Lamb's work certainly was, fascinating in a way, and above all, like himself, lovable; but I cannot help feeling that the jealous pother of so many editors recently engaged on the same subject has tended to throw dust in our eyes.

'Charles Lamb, sa vie et ses œuvres. Par Jules Derocquigny. Lille: Le Bigot Frères, 1904.

The Life of Charles Lamb. By E. V. Lucas. 2 vols. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1905.

Let us, if possible, hold fast to distinctions. To deal with his work as if it formed a body of literature great in any proper sense of the word is to place him among the small company of masterful spirits where his genius would only appear more tenuous by comparison, and it is to miss, I think, the truer source of enjoyment.

Certainly, if we would extract the sweetness from Lamb's slender book of verse we must come to it with no such expectations as we should bring to the great poets. Lamb, in fact, writes as one who has "been enamour'd of rare poesy" rather than as one impelled himself to sing. Now and then-once' at least in the dialogue between Margaret and Simon Woodvil-he echoes nobly nobly the larger utterance of the Elizabethans:

To see the sun to bed, and to arise,

Like some hot amourist with glowing eyes,
Bursting the lazy bands of sleep that bound him,
With all his fires and travelling glories round him.
Sometimes the moon on soft night clouds to rest,
Like beauty nestling in a young man's breast,
And all the winking stars, her handmaids, keep
Admiring silence, while these lovers sleep.
Sometimes outstretcht, in very idleness,
Nought doing, saying little, thinking less,
To view the leaves, thin dancers upon air,

Go eddying round; and small birds, how they fare,
When mother Autumn fills their beaks with corn,
Filch'd from the careless Amalthea's horn.

No doubt there is occasionally, as in the four

lines here underscored, a tone which may be called the veritable lingua toscana in bocca romana, the speech of Elizabeth with some added sympathetic accent of our own times. We know that Godwin, chancing upon this passage, hunted for it in Ben Jonson, and Beaumont and Fletcher, and then sent to Lamb to help him to the author. But for the most part Lamb's verse reflects only the half-faded light of old-world fancies flickering on the details of a prosaic modern life,-album rhymes with the faint aroma of Quarles upon them, and Cockney sonnets that remind you of Drummond-or Bowles. The mood of the book is like the comfort and dreams of firelight after an irksome day, and as such it has a well-defined charm; but it opens no door into the higher region of the imagination. "A page of his writings," as Hazlitt observes, "recalls to our fancy the stranger on the grate, fluttering in its dusky tenuity, with its idle superstition and hospitable welcome."

Perhaps even the most enthusiastic admirers of Lamb would not claim more than this for his verse; the real confusion begins when we consider him as a critic. One capital service—not without the detriment of false emphasis-he did indeed perform, by reviving an interest in the old English dramatists and in some of the halfforgotten writers of the seventeenth century; and to a certain extent he acted as a friendly censor of the extravagances of Wordsworth and Coleridge.

So, for example, he admired Peter Bell, but his humour could not fail to seize on the more abject lines of that poem. The story goes that once on seeing from the street a solemn evening gathering he shook the railings and shouted at the window : Is it a party in a parlour,

All silent and all damned?

Whether in part from Lamb's criticism or not, these lines were deleted from Peter Bell after the first editions of 1819.' It is one of the irremediable losses of literature that we do not know his thoughts on the gem of that composition :

Only the Ass, with motion dull,

Upon the pivot of his skull

Turns round his long left ear.

The point to observe is that Lamb was not so much a great critic as a reader of fine taste. "His taste," said Coleridge" acts so as to appear like the mechanic simplicity of an instinct—in brief, he is worth an hundred men of mere talents. Conversation with the latter tribe is like the use of leaden bells-one warms by exercise; Lamb 'The full stanza reads:

"Is it a party in a parlour?

Cramm'd just as they on earth were cramm'd-
Some sipping punch, some sipping tea,

But, as you by their faces see,

All silent and all damn'd.”

June 2, 1820, Wordsworth was talking about these poems with Lamb and Crabb Robinson. June 11, Robinson records that he had begged Wordsworth to omit the stanza.

every now and then irradiates, and the beam, though fine and single as a hair, is yet rich with colours." It was this instinct, guided in part by a common tendency of the age, that led him to fasten on the Elizabethans. His remarks on them do often irradiate—the word is aptly chosen -but as a whole his writing is too lacking in systematic reflection to rank him high among critics. There is no sense of tracking the human spirit down all its wandering way of self-revelation, nor is there any effort to measure and balance the full meaning of the individual writer. He "never," as he himself confessed to Southey, "judged system-wise of things, but fastened upon particulars." If this habit saved him from rigidity and from deciduous theories, it also brought about a misleading incompleteness. No one could gather the just proportions of the Elizabethan era from his sporadic remarks, nor, to take a single case, could one gain any notion of Andrew Marvell's works as a whole from Lamb's occasional and irrational eulogies. In his own day his "imperfect sympathies" made him blind to the higher qualities of half the world. He was in close touch with what may be called the bourgeois group about him, but to all the aristocratic school, headed by Byron and Shelley and Scott, he was not merely unsympathetic, but actually hostile. One feels even that he was bound to Coleridge and Wordsworth, the outstanding leaders of his own group, more by per

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