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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Alfred Ainger (1837–1904)

By Charles Lamb (1775–1834)

TO find anything new to write about Charles Lamb might tax the ingenuity of the most versatile and resourceful critic in the Old or New World. And yet experience shows that the lovers of Elia are never weary of listening for something more about him, and continue to welcome whatever crumbs of anecdote or fragments of biographical fact may have yet escaped collection. And this very circumstance shows that Lamb stands in a category of English-speaking humorists which is not large. Of whom could be said precisely the same thing, except such few as Shakespeare, Goldsmith, Johnson, Scott,—writers, that is to say, in whom the human personality is as interesting or even more so than anything they have written? We are interested in Shakespeare’s personality, indeed, because of the very little we know about him. We are interested in Goldsmith or Lamb because we know so much, and feel towards them more as personal friends than as authors.

The personality of Lamb, indeed, is so inwrought and intertwined with the very fibre of his essays and letters that it is impossible to separate criticism of the one from that of the other. His life is written in the confidential utterances of his essays; and his occasional verse embodies allusions, even more intimate and touching, to the sadder epochs and incidents of that life. The saddest of all such incidents was in the first instance recorded in the most famous of all his lyrics—the ‘Old Familiar Faces’; though Lamb rightly and wisely withdrew, when the first spasm of bitter emotion was past, the stanza concerning his mother’s death.

Egotism in a writer is either the most unattractive of qualities or the most engaging. We either rejoice in it or resent it. There is hardly a third course possible. We resent it when it is a mere “trap for admiration,” or a palpable desire to establish the writer’s importance. We welcome it when the heart is pure, when there is the requisite genius and individuality to make it precious. But the writer who indulges in perpetual confidences as to self must be like Cæsar’s wife, “beyond suspicion”: the faintest tinge of self-consciousness is fatal to the charm of self-disclosure. Charles Lamb possesses this charm; and hence his extraordinary popularity with thousands even of those whose acquaintance with his favorite authors would not of itself suffice to make them appreciate his multifarious allusiveness. Lamb was a man of widest reading; and in directions in which the ordinary reader even now, after seventy years or so, is little versed. But thus far back, it is not too much to say that the very names of the old English writers on whom Lamb’s love of poetry had been chiefly fed, were unknown to the bulk of the magazine readers whom in his essays he first addressed. It was not therefore to exhibit his reading or his antiquarian research, that he interlarded his discourse with the words of Massinger or Marlowe, Marvell or Sidney, Fuller or Sir Thomas Browne. He did not even, for the most part, introduce his quotations with any names attached. He cited them usually without even inverted commas. He had himself roamed at will in gardens and orchards of exquisite beauty and flavor, and could not help pouring what he had gathered at the feet of his readers. And his instinct did not fail him in taking this course. It was a curiously bold step, that of daring, when invited to contribute essays to the London Magazine, to depart from the familiar didactic or allegorical type which had been set by the Spectator or Rambler, and trust to the perennial attraction of the humblest human experiences. The ‘South Sea House’ was not an alluring title for the first essay he contributed. The ‘South Sea Bubble’ might have been; but all that remained of the once famous speculation was a building and a staff of clerks. But yet every dingiest and most old-fashioned institution in which men go to and fro about their business has its human side; and wherever there were men, or the traditions of men, Lamb could make their companionship full of charm. And how exquisite a thing did he make out of the memories of that old building where only two years of his own boyish life were spent:—

  • “This was once a house of trade, a centre of busy interests. The throng of merchants was here, the quick pulse of gain; and here some forms of business are still kept up, though the soul be long since fled. Here are still to be seen stately porticos; imposing staircases; offices roomy as the state apartments in palaces,—deserted, or thinly peopled with a few straggling clerks; the still more sacred interiors of court and committee rooms, with venerable faces of beadles, doorkeepers—directors seated in form on solemn days (to proclaim a dead dividend), at long worm-eaten tables that have been mahogany, with tarnished gilt leather coverings, supporting many silver inkstands long since dry—”
  • “There are many echoes,” Goethe said, “but few voices.” It is the “voices” in literature that become classics. The echoes have their short life and then die away. Lamb is one of such voices; and thus he has lived, and will live. It was not a voice that protested or proclaimed much,—and certainly never from the housetops,—but it was his own. “Compounded of many simples,” like the melancholy of Jaques in the forest, Lamb’s humor was altogether free from the self-assertion or the discontent of the exiled philosopher of Arden. His sweet acquiescence in the burdens and sorrows of his life was rather that of the laughing philosopher Touchstone, whom Shakespeare has pitted against the more specious moralist. He would have pleaded that if the manner he had adopted was strange or ill-favored, it was at least “his own.”

    It is remarkable that Lamb’s most universally popular essay, that on ‘Roast Pig,’ is by no means one of his most characteristic. It is not too much to say that many inferior humorists could have made a success almost as great out of the same material. For in this case Lamb had a really humorous notion put into his head. Given the accidental discovery of the gastronomic value of cooked meat, the humorous possibilities are at once perceptible. It is where the raw material of the essay is nothing and the treatment everything that the real individuality of Lamb stands forth. It is in such essays as the ‘Praise of Chimney-Sweepers,’ or ‘Mrs. Battle on Whist,’ or the ‘Recollections of an old Manor-House in Hertfordshire,’ that we are to look for what gives Lamb his unique place in literature and in the hearts of those who love him.

    There is food, however, for many tastes in Charles Lamb. There is the infinite pathos of such a revelation as that in ‘Dream Children,’ which for delicate beauty and tenderness has no rival in English literature; there is the consummate observation and criticism of human character in ‘Imperfect Sympathies’; there is the perfection of narrative art in such an anecdote as that told in ‘Barbara S.’; there is the supreme æsthetic quality, as where he descants on the superiority of Shakespeare to any of his contemporaries, or where he compels our admiration for the moral value of such a satirist as Hogarth. We are always discovering some new faculty in Lamb, and passing from one to another with astonishing suddenness,—from the poet to the humorist, from the moral teacher to the æsthetic critic; and all the while the manner is often so like that of the gossip and jester that the reader would undervalue it as very “easy writing,” did we not know by Lamb’s own confessions that his most lucid and apparently facile confidences were often “wrung from him with slow pain.” So certain is it always that “easy writing” makes “hard reading,” and that the most seeming-casual of essays, if it is to live, must have something in it of the life-blood of the writer.

    And beyond all question it is the personal experiences of Lamb that generate the supreme quality of all he wrote. It is the beauty of his character—its charity and tenderness, its capacity for lifelong sacrifice and devotion, fruits of the discipline it had undergone—that constitutes the soil which nourished even the lightest flowers and graces of his style. Lamb had contemporaries and rivals in his own walk, each with rare and attractive gifts of his own,—Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt. We owe much to both of these. Each was endowed with critical faculties of the highest order. Each in his own line has done memorable service in establishing the true canons of literary criticism. Each wrote a style of his own, as perfect for its purpose as can be conceived. Yet neither of these is loved, and lives in men’s hearts, like Charles Lamb. The amiability of Leigh Hunt is too merely amiable: it has not its roots in the deep and strengthening earth of human discipline. Hazlitt was altogether wanting in the quality. He showed “light,” but without “sweetness”: without the latter grace no writer can make himself dear to his readers.

    Moreover, no writer has ever attained this most enviable distinction except when his own life has been told in minutest detail, either by himself or others. In the instance of Lamb, his writings are in the main personal confidences; and in addition we possess his letters,—the most complete as well as the most fascinating disclosure of a personality in our literature,—as well as having the testimony of “troops of friends.” There is something that wins and touches us all in the frank disclosure of a private history. What would Goldsmith have been to us but for Washington Irving and John Forster; or Johnson without Boswell; or Scott without Lockhart, and the frank and deeply pathetic admissions of his own Journal? The sorrows and the struggles of these widely different men draw us to them. Our delight in all that they have written for us is heightened and sanctified by our pity for the individual man. And this is the reward of the true men, who live out their real selves before us, and therefore are a joy forever; while the men who only pose, live their brief hour on the stage and then cease to be!