The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

VIII. Lamb

§ 10. Summary

To the mind which estimates an author by his capacity for sustained masterpieces, the disconnected character of Lamb’s writings offers some contrast to their reputation. A bundle of essays, a number of casual lyrics, one or two brief plays, a tale of striking pathos, a few narratives and adaptations of old authors for children and some critical notes on his favourite writers—these constitute the sum of his work. It was an age in which the journalist and essayist flourished, and the essays of Hazlitt contain more solid critical work, while those of De Quincey are more remarkable for their scholarship and for a highly-coloured eloquence the splendour of which faults of taste cannot dim. But, in play of fancy, in susceptibility to the varying shades of human emotion, in a humour which reflects clearly the perpetual irony of life, Lamb is without an equal. His essays, he wrote to John Taylor, “want no Preface: they are all Preface. A Preface is nothing but a talk with the reader; and they do nothing else.” Through them shines the spirit of the man, alive to the absurdities of the world, tender to its sorrows, tolerant to its weaknesses. He courts the friendship, not the veneration, of his readers: he looks to them, not as disciples, but as fellow-men. By the candid revelation of himself in his essays and letters, by the light which they throw upon a union of heart and life between brother and sister unexampled in literature, he has won the affection of countless readers, even of those who have little care for the beauties of literary style. To all of these, the love and confidence which the Lambs inspired among their friends is still a living thing, and they can read with a sense of personal possession the touching words which Coleridge, at the end of a friendship of fifty years, inscribed in the margin of the poem written during a visit which they paid to Stowey, “Charles and Mary Lamb, dear to me as my heart, yea as it were my heart.”