Home  »  Volume XII: English THE ROMANTIC REVIVAL The Nineteenth Century, I  »  § 5. Specimens of English Dramatic Poets

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

VIII. Lamb

§ 5. Specimens of English Dramatic Poets

At the close of 1808, Lamb conferred a remarkable boon upon students of our older authors by the publication of Specimens of English Dramatic Poets, who lived About the Time of Shakspeare. The selections, covering the whole field of the English drama from Gorboduc to Shirley, discharge the proper office of selections in that, chosen, as they were, with the fullest discrimination, they whet the appetite for more of the same dish. Lamb’s judiciously brief comments are among the classics of English criticism. He had the enthusiasm of the discoverer and, here and there allowed it to obscure his critical faculty. Admiration of the scene in which Calantha, in Ford’s Broken Heart “with holy violence against her nature,” continues to dance while news of successive tragedies are whispered into her ear, tempted him into a comparison out of all proportion to the actual merits of the episode. Yet, the self-sacrifice of Ordella, in Fletcher’s Thierry and Theodoret, that “piece of sainted nature” whom, next to Calantha, he reckoned “the most perfect notion of the female heroic character,” seemed to him “faint and languid” as compared with Shakespeare at his best, and formed the basis for just remarks upon Fletcher’s fondness for “unnatural and violent situations” and the artificiality of his versification and wit. Equally just are the sparing praise of Middleton’s overlauded drama, The Witch, and the intuitive recognition of the passion which finds an imperfectly articulate outlet in the plays and translations of Chapman. The thought of Shakespeare is always present. Heywood is “a sort of prose Shakspeare,” with his feeling, but without his command of expression; Chapman “perhaps approaches nearest to Shakspeare in the descriptive and didactic, in passages which are less purely dramatic.” The funeral dirge in Webster’s White Devil challenges comparison with “Full fathom five” in The Tempest: “as that is of the water, watery; so this is of the earth, earthy.” Shakespearean reminiscence pervades the style of these notes; Lamb constantly seeks comparisons from the greatest of dramatists and finds in his words a never-failing source of apt expression. At its best, as in the notes on Webster, his prose becomes lyric, with a pregnancy of phrase that leaves a peculiarly vivid impression of the characteristics which it illustrates.

In Mrs. Leicester’s School, which was nearly contemporary with Specimens, Mary Lamb had the principal share. Lamb himself contributed three of the ten stories, anecdotes of childhood supposed to be related by the pupils of a ladies’ school at Amwell in Hertfordshire and reduced to writing by one of their teachers. Autobiography enters largely into these charming stories: in The Young Mahometan, Mary wrote down her memories of Blakesware and recorded her own childish perversion to Mohammedanism, caused by one of Samuel Salt’s miscellaneous collection of books, while, in the Visit to the Cousins, she recalled a child’s first impressions of the play and its interest in the figures which struck the quarters upon the clock of St. Dunstan’s, and introduced her young heroine to the Juvenile library in Skinner street, paying, with sly humour, an incidental tribute to the persuasive powers of Mrs. Godwin. The Witch Aunt was founded by Lamb upon a reminiscence to which he referred later in Witches and other Night Fears, and First Going to Church blends memories of the Temple church with Coleridge’s youth at Ottery St. Mary. The bells of Ottery, whose identity Lamb veiled later under the disguise of “sweet Calne in Wiltshire,” had already made their music heard in John Woodvil. With Mrs. Leicester’s School and the artless rimes of Poetry for Children, tales and apologues in which the moral element, sugared with humour and softened by pathos, plays a large part, the joint work of the brother and sister came to an end. Prince Dorus, a fairy-tale in decasyllabic couplets, published by Mrs. Godwin in 1811, was Lamb’s last work for children.

On 27 May, 1809, the Lambs moved into new quarters at 4 Inner Temple lane, after a short return to Southampton buildings. The anxiety of the move brought on one of Mary’s attacks, and, in the autumn, he took her to visit the Hazlitts at Winterslow, where she recovered health, and they had long walks to Wilton, Salisbury and Stonehenge—Wilton, with its treasures of painting and sculpture, characteristically taking the first place in Lamb’s enumeration of these excursions. The visit was renewed in the following summer, but with less satisfaction; the return journey was made by way of Oxford and Blenheim, and thence to Bury St. Edmunds, and ended in Mary’s serious relapse, which clouded the early autumn of 1810. Meanwhile, Lamb found pleasure in his two sitting-rooms on the third floor of the house in Inner Temple lane, the print-room hung with the works of Hogarth and the book-room with its “small but well-chosen library.” In these rooms, the resort of Martin Burney and the “card-boys” and of other friends who gathered round him in the evenings when his work at the India house was over, he spent some eight years. His letters during this period include a number addressed to Wordsworth, crowded with critical and humorous obiter dicta and appreciation of his correspondent’s poems. His life was chequered by moments of sadness, but his earlier depression vanished; he could even speak lightly of the trouble which brooded over his house and say that “the wind is tempered to the shorn Lambs.” Outer events touched him but little: there are allusions in his letters to the Napoleonic catastrophe in 1814 and 1815, but they are those of a mere spectator of the drama. His catholicity of temperament allowed him to preserve his friendship with the poets whose revolutionary sympathies had been transformed into conservatism, while he was able to extend it to Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt at the opposite pole of radicalism. “What any man can write,” he wrote to Wordsworth in 1815, “surely I may read.” This principle, mutatis mutandis, applies to his choice of friends.

Small in volume as his work was between 1810 and 1820, it is the work of one whose power of conversation and faculty of criticism were felt by all who came into contact with him. His natural shyness and an impediment in his speech prevented him, even if he had wished it, from dominating a literary circle; but, his sound good sense, abundant sympathy and whimsical gaiety of utterance gave him peculiar influence with his friends. His own highest achievements were yet to come. When he began to write for Leigh Hunt in The Reflector in 1810, he had had comparatively little experience in essay-writing. Casual criticism in letter-writing is another thing; and the masterly estimate of Jeremy Taylor, in one of his letters to Robert Lloyd, is marked by considerably more freedom and liveliness than are the valuable, but somewhat laboured, articles in The Reflector upon The Genius and Character of Hogarth and The Tragedies of Shakespeare. His genius, however, for apt illustration of his favourite authors, was again proved in Specimens from the Writings of Fuller printed in the same periodical at the end of 1811; and the passages of Table-Talk contributed to The Examiner in 1813 have the same brief and pregnant character. The review of Wordsworth’s Excursion in The Quarterly for October, 1814, was mangled by Gifford to the injury of what, in Lamb’s own and Mary’s opinions, was “the prettiest piece of prose I ever writ.”