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

VIII. Lamb

§ 8. Letters

The most important of his letters during this period were addressed to Bernard Barton, his correspondence with whom began in September, 1822. Barton, a prolific writer of verse which displays sincere emotion and susceptibility to the charm of places, but seldom rises above respectable mediocrity, was clerk in a bank at Woodbridge in Suffolk. He was a quaker, and it might seem that his steady, serious mind had little in common with Lamb’s moods of extravagant gaiety. Lamb, however, had a strong admiration for the type of character fostered by quakerism, which, combined with amusement at the rigid business qualities of the sect, is declared in A Quaker’s Meeting, and was expressed in the sombre neatness of the dress which he affected in his mature years. The friendship of “B. B.” proved a consoling and steadying influence during the trying years when declining health began to tell upon him and the periods of Mary’s insanity became longer. Barton, on his side, owed Lamb a debt of gratitude for the advice to keep to his profession instead of devoting himself to literature. Of the two men, Barton was thirteen years the younger; occasionally shocked at his mercurial correspondent’s wit, he was evidently receptive—a fact we should hardly infer from his poetry—to Lamb’s jests and puns; and Lamb wrote to him with a gusto which would have been impossible had he been scattering his treasures fruitlessly. The short memoir of Barton by his neighbour and son-in-law, Edward FitzGerald, does full justice to his quiet, unostentatious character, his sound judgment and the sincerity of his verse.

Another correspondent of this period was Thomas Allsop, whose long life was spent in the service of an extreme type of radicalism. In the society of men like Allsop, Hazlitt and Hunt, Lamb’s wide tolerance led him to condone what his strong practical sense may have condemned. For the radical poets, he had little liking. He met Shelley once and found his voice “the most obnoxious squeak I ever was tormented with,” and his reflections on Shelley’s death, in a hastily written letter to Barron Field, might have been those of one whom the poet’s atheism had blinded to his genius. While he enjoyed The Vision of Judgment and was angry at the trouble into which Hunt was brought by its publication, he confessed that Byron

  • was to me offensive, and I never can make out his great power, which his admirers talk of.… He was at best a Satyrist—in any other way he was mean enough. I daresay I do him injustice; but I cannot love him, nor squeeze a tear to his memory.
  • His association, however, with radicals and free-thinkers was one cause of an expostulation by Southey, who, in 1823, remonstrated in The Quarterly with Elia upon the irreligious tone of certain passages in his work and referred incidentally to Hazlitt and Hunt, the bugbears of the conservative review. In The London Magazine for October, Elia responded with a long letter to his critic, in which he exposed his wounded feelings and defended the character of his friends. This letter is a vigorous piece of sustained prose; but the dignity of its tone is injured by its personal references to Southey. The laureate, however, was slow to take offence, and his answer to Lamb in a forbearing letter cleared up the misunderstanding. When The Last Essays of Elia was published, only the concluding portion of the letter was printed.