Home  »  Volume XII: English THE ROMANTIC REVIVAL The Nineteenth Century, I  »  § 6. Contributions to periodicals

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

VIII. Lamb

§ 6. Contributions to periodicals

Distinct from his critical essays at this time are the humorous letters, modelled upon the pattern of The Tatler and The Spectator, which Lamb wrote for The Reflector in 1810 and 1811. Such essays as that On the Inconveniences Resulting from being Hanged are specimens of a humour which, amusing enough in the warmth of conversation, sparkles less brightly in print. His humour needed the touch of personal reminiscence, the softening of laughter by the wistful memory of the past. This vein is hardly touched in Recollections of Christ’s Hospital, printed in The Gentleman’s Magazine for June, 1813, which, with a foretaste of that gift of portraiture which enlivens many pages of Elia, is serious and matter-of-fact. For the present, his written humour took a serio-comic direction, playing with grim subjects and identifying itself with imaginary topics. There is, however, one notorious exception which, founded, to some extent, upon his own experience, has had a baneful effect upon estimates of his character. Confessions of a Drunkard, printed in The Philanthropist for June, 1813, pictures, in moving terms, the misery of a slave to drink and tobacco. Its object was, undoubtedly, serious, and it is equally certain that Lamb traced in it the progress of his own undeniable affection for these accompaniments of his evenings, with some genuine regret, corroborated by his letters, that he was not superior to their seductions. But he was capable, even for a serious purpose, of using his imagination to describe sensations and sentiments which, as a matter of fact, were an exaggeration of his own. At all times, the incidents of his life became stories in which he played at will with his own personality. Confessions of a Drunkard was reprinted in The London Magazine for August, 1822, when Elia was at the height of his magic powers, and was able to jest ruefully to Dorothy Wordsworth upon the warnings of rheumatism against his favourite beverages. In 1821, De Quincey had published Confessions of an Opium Eater in the same magazine, embroidering fancy upon fact with portentous seriousness; and it is in keeping with Lamb’s spirit of mischief that he should have furbished up his old essay in the following year to mystify his readers with an avowal in marked contrast to the tone of those impenitent disclosures. His annoyance at the gratuitous assumption of The Quarterly that the essay was “a genuine description of the state of the writer” amounts to a denial.

At the end of 1817, the Lambs, as Mary wrote to Dorothy Wordsworth, “mustered up resolution enough” to leave their chambers in the Temple for lodgings over a brazier’s shop at 20 Russell street, Covent garden, “a place all alive with noise and bustle; Drury Lane Theatre in sight from our front, and Covent Garden from our back windows.” This congenial position atoned for the final severance of their connection with their earliest home. The “divine plain face” of the actress Fanny Kelly began to fill Lamb’s thoughts. Apart from the romance of his boyhood, and an attraction, commemorated in the touching lyric Hester, to the unknown quakeress Hester Savory, during his life at Pentonville, his mind had been singularly free from thoughts of love. In July, 1819, he proposed marriage to Miss Kelly in a letter of great beauty and dignity of feeling; she refused him with equal candour and respect, and he bore his disappointment with exemplary fortitude.

The collected Works of Charles Lamb, dedicated to Coleridge and containing John Woodvil, Mr. H——, Rosamund Gray, a collection of poems and sonnets and such essays as he thought worthy of republication, was published in two volumes by the brothers Ollier in 1818. From the date of the publication of these volumes until August, 1820, Lamb wrote with some regularity for The Examiner and, after its decease, for The Indicator, also edited by Leigh Hunt. To this same period belong kindly reviews of two books of verse by friends, the Nugae Canorae of Charles Lloyd and Barron Field’s First Fruits of Australian Poetry, both in The Examiner, and a review of Keats’s Lamia and its companion pieces. Barron Field, the companion of the Lambs in their excursion to Mackery End, had gone to New South Wales as chief judge of the supreme court. Of the two poems which Field printed for private circulation, the first was characterised by Lamb, as containing too much evidence of the unlicensed borrowing which had helped to colonise Botany bay. To the second, The Kangaroo, which he quoted at length, he gave more praise: he was “mistaken, if it does not relish of the graceful hyperboles of the elder writers”—a perhaps excessive compliment, which might be suspected of having a double edge if it had not been repeated less ambiguously at a later date.