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


By Augustine Birrell (1850–1933)

From ‘Obiter Dicta’

IS Truth-hunting one of those active mental habits which, as Bishop Butler tells us, intensify their effects by constant use; and are weak convictions, paralyzed intellects, and laxity of opinions amongst the effects of Truth-hunting on the majority of minds? These are not unimportant questions.

Let us consider briefly the probable effects of speculative habits on conduct.

The discussion of a question of conduct has the great charm of justifying, if indeed not requiring, personal illustration; and this particular question is well illustrated by instituting a comparison between the life and character of Charles Lamb and those of some of his distinguished friends.

Personal illustration, especially when it proceeds by way of comparison, is always dangerous, and the dangers are doubled when the subjects illustrated and compared are favorite authors. It behoves us to proceed warily in this matter. A dispute as to the respective merits of Gray and Collins has been known to result in a visit to an attorney and the revocation of a will. An avowed inability to see anything in Miss Austen’s novels is reported to have proved destructive of an otherwise good chance of an Indian judgeship. I believe, however, I run no great risk in asserting that, of all English authors, Charles Lamb is the one loved most warmly and emotionally by his admirers, amongst whom I reckon only those who are as familiar with the four volumes of his ‘Life and Letters’ as with ‘Elia.’

But how does he illustrate the particular question now engaging our attention?

Speaking of his sister Mary, who, as every one knows, throughout ‘Elia’ is called his cousin Bridget, he says:—

“It has been the lot of my cousin, oftener perhaps than I could have wished, to have had for her associates and mine free-thinkers, leaders and disciples of novel philosophies and systems; but she neither wrangles with nor accepts their opinions.”

Nor did her brother. He lived his life cracking his little jokes and reading his great folios, neither wrangling with nor accepting the opinions of the friends he loved to see around him. To a contemporary stranger it might well have appeared as if his life were a frivolous and useless one as compared with those of these philosophers and thinkers. They discussed their great schemes and affected to prove deep mysteries, and were constantly asking, “What is truth?” He sipped his glass, shuffled his cards, and was content with the humbler inquiry, “What are trumps?” But to us, looking back upon that little group, and knowing what we now do about each member of it, no such mistake is possible. To us it is plain beyond all question that, judged by whatever standard of excellence it is possible for any reasonable human being to take, Lamb stands head and shoulders a better man than any of them. No need to stop to compare him with Godwin, or Hazlitt, or Lloyd; let us boldly put him in the scales with one whose fame is in all the churches—with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “logician, metaphysician, bard.”

There are some men whom to abuse is pleasant. Coleridge is not one of them. How gladly we would love the author of ‘Christabel’ if we could! But the thing is flatly impossible. His was an unlovely character. The sentence passed upon him by Mr. Matthew Arnold (parenthetically, in one of the ‘Essays in Criticism’)—“Coleridge had no morals”—is no less just than pitiless. As we gather information about him from numerous quarters, we find it impossible to resist the conclusion that he was a man neglectful of restraint, irresponsive to the claims of those who had every claim upon him, willing to receive, slow to give.

In early manhood Coleridge planned a Pantisocracy where all the virtues were to thrive. Lamb did something far more difficult: he played cribbage every night with his imbecile father, whose constant stream of querulous talk and fault-finding might well have goaded a far stronger man into practicing and justifying neglect.

That Lamb, with all his admiration for Coleridge, was well aware of dangerous tendencies in his character, is made apparent by many letters, notably by one written in 1796, in which he says:—

“O my friend, cultivate the filial feelings! and let no man think himself released from the kind charities of relationship: these shall give him peace at the last; these are the best foundation for every species of benevolence. I rejoice to hear that you are reconciled with all your relations.”

This surely is as valuable an “aid to reflection” as any supplied by the Highgate seer.

Lamb gave but little thought to the wonderful difference between the “reason” and the “understanding.” He preferred old plays—an odd diet, some may think, on which to feed the virtues; but however that may be, the noble fact remains, that he, poor, frail boy! (for he was no more, when trouble first assailed him) stooped down, and without sigh or sign took upon his own shoulders the whole burden of a lifelong sorrow.

Coleridge married. Lamb, at the bidding of duty, remained single, wedding himself to the sad fortunes of his father and sister. Shall we pity him? No; he had his reward—the surpassing reward that is only within the power of literature to bestow. It was Lamb, and not Coleridge, who wrote ‘Dream-Children: a Reverie’:—

“Then I told how for seven long years, in hope sometimes, sometimes in despair, yet persisting ever, I courted the fair Alice W——n; and as much as children could understand, I explained to them what coyness and difficulty and denial meant in maidens—when, suddenly turning to Alice, the soul of the first Alice looked out at her eyes with such a reality of representment that I became in doubt which of them stood before me, or whose that bright hair was; and while I stood gazing, both the children gradually grew fainter to my view, receding and still receding, till nothing at last but two mournful features were seen in the uttermost distance, which, without speech, strangely impressed upon me the effects of speech. ‘We are not of Alice nor of thee, nor are we children at all. The children of Alice call Bartrum father. We are nothing, less than nothing, and dreams. We are only what might have been.’”

Godwin! Hazlitt! Coleridge! Where now are their “novel philosophies and systems”? Bottled moonshine, which does not improve by keeping.

  • “Only the actions of the just
  • Smell sweet and blossom in the dust.”
  • Were we disposed to admit that Lamb would in all probability have been as good a man as every one agrees he was—as kind to his father, as full of self-sacrifice for the sake of his sister, as loving and ready a friend—even though he had paid more heed to current speculations, it is yet not without use in a time like this, when so much stress is laid upon anxious inquiry into the mysteries of soul and body, to point out how this man attained to a moral excellence denied to his speculative contemporaries; performed duties from which they, good men as they were, would one and all have shrunk: how, in short, he contrived to achieve what no one of his friends, not even the immaculate Wordsworth or the precise Southey, achieved—the living of a life the records of which are inspiriting to read, and are indeed “the presence of a good diffused”; and managed to do it all without either “wrangling with or accepting” the opinions that “hurtled in the air” about him.