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The Letters Of Charles Lamb Post by :margitharpe Category :Essays Author :Augustine Birrell Date :November 2011 Read :1917

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The Letters Of Charles Lamb


Letters of Charles Lamb. Newly arranged, with additions; and a New Portrait. Edited, with Introduction and Notes, by the Rev. Alfred Ainger, M.A., Canon of Bristol. 2 vols. London, 1888.

Four hundred and seventeen letters of Charles Lamb's, some of them never before published, in two well-printed but handy volumes, edited, with notes illustrative, explanatory, and biographical, by Canon Ainger, and supplied with an admirable index, are surely things to be thankful for and to be desired. No doubt the price is prohibitory. They will cost you in cash, these two volumes, full as they are from title-page to colophon with the sweetness and nobility, the mirth and the melancholy of their author's life, touched as every page of them is with traces of a hard fate bravely borne, seven shillings and sixpence. None but American millionaires and foolish book-collectors can bear such a strain upon their purses. It is the cab-fare to and from a couple of dull dinner-parties. But Mudie is in our midst, ever ready to supply our very modest intellectual wants at so much a quarter, and ward off the catastrophe so dreaded by all dust-hating housewives, the accumulation of those 'nasty books,' for which indeed but slender accommodation is provided in our upholstered homes. Yet these volumes, however acquired, whether by purchase, and therefore destined to remain by your side ready to be handled whenever the mood seizes you, or borrowed from a library to be returned at the week's end along with the last new novel people are painfully talking about, cannot fail to excite the interest and stir the emotions of all lovers of sound literature and true men.

But first of all, Canon Ainger is to be congratulated on the completion of his task. He told us he was going to edit Lamb's Works and Letters, and naturally one believed him; but in this world there is nothing so satisfactory as performance. To see a good work well planned, well executed, and entirely finished by the same hand that penned, and the same mind that conceived the original scheme, has something about it which is surprisingly gratifying to the soul of man, accustomed as he is to the wreckage of projects and the failure of hopes.

Canon Ainger's edition of Lamb's Works and Letters stands complete in six volumes. Were one in search of sentiment, one might perhaps find it in the intimate association existing between the editor and the old church by the side of which Lamb was born, and which he ever loved and accounted peculiarly his own. Elia was born a Templar.

'I was born and passed the first seven years of my life in the Temple. Its church, its halls, its gardens, its fountain, its river, I had almost said--for in those young years, what was this king of rivers to me but a stream that watered our pleasant places?--these are my oldest recollections.'

Thus begins the celebrated essay on 'The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple.' As a humble member of that honourable Society, I rejoice that its Reader should be the man who has, as a labour of love and by virtue of qualifications which cannot be questioned, placed upon the library shelf so complete and choice an edition of the works of one whose memory is perhaps the pleasantest thing about the whole place.

So far as these two volumes of letters are concerned the course adopted by the editor has been, if I may make bold to say so, the right one. He has simply edited them carefully and added notes and an index. He has not attempted to tell Lamb's life between times. He has already told the story of that life in a separate volume. I wish the practice could be revived of giving us a man's correspondence all by itself in consecutive volumes, as we have the letters of Horace Walpole, of Burke, of Richardson, of Cowper, and many others. It is astonishing what interesting and varied reading such volumes make. They never tire you. You do not stop to be tired. Something of interest is always occurring. Some reference to a place you have visited; to a house you have stayed at; to a book you have read; to a man or woman you wish to hear about. As compared with the measured malice of a set biography, where you feel yourself in the iron grasp, not of the man whose life is being professedly written, but of the man (whom naturally you dislike) who has taken upon himself to write the life, these volumes of correspondence have all the ease and grace and truthfulness of nature. There is about as much resemblance between reading them and your ordinary biography, as between a turn on the treadmill and a saunter into Hertfordshire in search of Mackery End. I hope when we get hold of the biographies of Lord Beaconsfield, and Dean Stanley, we shall not find ourselves defrauded of our dues. But it is of the essence of letters that we should have the whole of each. I think it wrong to omit even the merely formal parts. They all hang together. The method employed in the biography of George Eliot was, in my opinion--I can but state it--a vicious method. To serve up letters in solid slabs cut out of longer letters is distressing. Every letter a man writes is an incriminating document. It tells a tale about him. Let the whole be read or none.

Canon Ainger has adopted the right course. He has indeed omitted a few oaths--on the principle that 'damns have had their day.' For my part, I think I should have been disposed to leave them alone.

'The rough bur-thistle spreading wide
Amang the bearded bear,
I turn'd my weeding-clips aside
And spared the symbol dear.'

But this is not a question to discuss with a dignitary of the Church. Leaving out the oaths and, it may perhaps be, here and there a passage where the reckless humour of the writer led him to transcend the limits of becoming mirth, and mere notelets, we have in these two volumes Lamb's letters just as they were written, save in an instance or two where the originals have been partially destroyed. The first is to Coleridge, and is dated May 27, 1796; the last is to Mrs. Dyer, and was written on December 22, 1834. Who, I wonder, ever managed to squeeze into a correspondence of forty years truer humour, madder nonsense, sounder sense, or more tender sympathy! They do not indeed (these letters) prate about first principles, but they contain many things conducive to a good life here below.

The earlier letters strike the more solemn notes. As a young man Lamb was deeply religious, and for a time the appalling tragedy of his life, the death of his mother by his sister's hand, deepened these feelings. His letters to Coleridge in September and October, 1769, might very well appear in the early chapters of a saint's life. They exhibit the rare union of a colossal strength, entire truthfulness, (no single emotion being ever exaggerated,) with the tenderest and most refined feelings. Some of his sentences remind one of Johnson, others of Rousseau. How people reading these letters can ever have the impudence to introduce into the tones of their voices when they are referring to Lamb the faintest suspicion of condescension, as if they were speaking of one weaker than themselves, must always remain an unsolved problem of human conceit.

These elevated feelings passed away. He refers to this in a letter written in 1801 to Walter Wilson.

'I have had a time of seriousness, and I have known the importance and reality of a religious belief. Latterly, I acknowledge, much of my seriousness has gone off, whether from new company or some other new associations, but I still retain at bottom a conviction of the truth and a certainty of the usefulness of religion.'

The fact, I suspect, was that the strain of religious thoughts was proving too great for a brain which had once succumbed to madness. Religion sits very lightly on some minds. She could not have done so on Lamb's. He took refuge in trivialities seriously, and played the fool in order to remain sane.

These letters are of the same material as the Essays of Elia. The germs, nay, the very phrases, of the latter are frequently to be found in the former. This does not offend in Lamb's case, though as a rule a good letter ought not forcibly to remind us of a good essay by the same hand. Admirable as are Thackeray's lately published letters, the parts I like best are those which remind me least of a Roundabout Paper. The author is always apt to steal in, and the author is the very last person you wish to see in a letter. But as you read Lamb's letters you never think of the author: his personality carries you over everything. He manages--I will not say skilfully, for it was the natural result of his delightful character, always to address his letter to his correspondent--to make it a thing which, apart from the correspondent, his habits and idiosyncrasies, could not possibly have existed in the shape it does. One sometimes comes across things called letters, which might have been addressed to anybody. But these things are not letters: they are extracts from journals or circulars, and are usually either offensive or dull.

Lamb's letters are not indeed model letters like Cowper's. Though natural to Lamb, they cannot be called easy. 'Divine chit-chat' is not the epithet to describe them. His notes are all high. He is sublime, heartrending, excruciatingly funny, outrageously ridiculous, sometimes possibly an inch or two overdrawn. He carries the charm of incongruity and total unexpectedness to the highest pitch imaginable. John Sterling used to chuckle over the sudden way in which you turn up Adam in the following passage from a letter to Bernard Barton:

'DEAR B. B.--You may know my letters by the paper and the folding. For the former I live on scraps obtained in charity from an old friend, whose stationery is a permanent perquisite; for folding I shall do it neatly when I learn to tie my neckcloths. I surprise most of my friends by writing to them on ruled paper, as if I had not got past pot-hooks and hangers. Sealing-wax I have none in my establishment; wafers of the coarsest bran supply its place. When my epistles come to be weighed with Pliny's, however superior to them in Roman delicate irony, judicious reflections, etc., his gilt post will bribe over the judges to him. All the time I was at the E. I. H. I never mended a pen. I now cut 'em to the stumps, marring rather than mending the primitive goose-quill. I cannot bear to pay for articles I used to get for nothing. When Adam laid out his first penny upon nonpareils at some stall in Mesopotamos, I think it went hard with him, reflecting upon his old goodly orchard where he had so many for nothing.'

There are not many better pastimes for a middle-aged man who does not care for first principles or modern novels than to hunt George Dyer up-and-down Charles Lamb. Lamb created Dyer as surely as did Cervantes Don Quixote, Sterne Toby Shandy, or Charles Dickens Sam Weller. Outside Lamb George Dyer is the deadest of dead authors. Inside Lamb he is one of the quaintest, queerest, most humorously felicitous of living characters. Pursue this sport through Canon Ainger's first volume and you will have added to your gallery of whimsicalities the picture of George Dyer by a master-hand.

Lamb's relations towards Coleridge and Wordsworth are exceedingly interesting. He loved them both as only Lamb could love his friends. He admired them both immensely as poets. He recognised what he considered their great intellectual superiority over himself. He considered their friendship the crowning glory of his life. For Coleridge his affection reached devotion. The news of his death was a shock he never got over. He would keep repeating to himself, 'Coleridge is dead!' But with what a noble, independent, manly mind did he love his friends! How deep, how shrewd was his insight into their manifold infirmities! His masculine nature and absolute freedom from that curse of literature, coterieship, stand revealed on every page of the history of Lamb's friendships.

On page 327 of Canon Ainger's first volume there is a letter of Lamb's, never before printed, addressed to his friend Manning, which is delightful reading. The editor did not get it in time to put it in the text, so the careless reader might overlook it, lurking as it does amongst the notes. It is too long for quotation, but a morsel must be allowed me:

'I lately received from Wordsworth a copy of the second volume, accompanied by an acknowledgment of having received from me many months since a copy of a certain tragedy with excuses for not having made any acknowledgment sooner, it being owing to an almost insurmountable aversion from letter-writing. This letter I answered in due form and time, and enumerated several of the passages which had most affected me, adding, unfortunately, that no single piece had moved me so forcibly as the Ancient Mariner, The Mad Mother, or the Lines at Tintern Abbey. The Post did not sleep a moment. I received almost instantaneously a long letter of four sweating pages from my Reluctant Letter-Writer, the purport of which was, he was sorry his second volume had not given me more pleasure (Devil a hint did I give that it had not pleased me), and was compelled to wish that my range of sensibility was more extended, being obliged to believe that I should receive large influxes of happiness and happy thoughts (I suppose from the Lyrical Ballads). With a deal of stuff about a certain union of Tenderness and Imagination, which in the sense he used Imagination was not the characteristic of Shakespeare, but which Milton possessed in a degree far exceeding other Poets, which union, as the highest species of Poetry and chiefly deserving that name "he was most proud to aspire to"; then illustrating the said union by two quotations from his own second volume which I had been so unfortunate as to miss.'

But my quotation must stop. It has been long enough to prove what I was saying about the independence of Lamb's judgment even of his best friends. No wonder such a man did not like being called 'gentle-hearted' even by S. T. C, to whom he writes:

'In the next edition of the Anthology (which Phœbus avert, those nine other wandering maids also!) please to blot out "gentle-hearted," and substitute drunken dog, ragged head, seld-shaven, odd-eyed, stuttering, or any other epithet which truly and properly belongs to the gentleman in question.'

Of downright fun and fooling of the highest intellectual calibre fine examples abound on all sides. The 'Dick Hopkins' letter ranks very high. Manning had sent Lamb from Cambridge a piece of brawn, and Lamb takes into his head, so teeming with whimsical fancies, to pretend that it had been sent him by an imaginary Dick Hopkins, 'the swearing scullion of Caius,' who 'by industry and agility has thrust himself into the important situation (no sinecure, believe me) of cook to Trinity Hall'; and accordingly he writes the real donor a long letter, singing the praises of this figment of his fancy, and concludes:

'Do me the favour to leave off the business which you may be at present upon, and go immediately to the kitchens of Trinity and Caius and make my most respectful compliments to Mr. Richard Hopkins and assure him that his brawn is most excellent: and that I am moreover obliged to him for his innuendo about salt water and bran, which I shall not fail to improve. I leave it to you whether you shall choose to pay him the civility of asking him to dinner while you stay in Cambridge, or in whatever other way you may best like to show your gratitude to my friend. Richard Hopkins considered in many points of view is a very extraordinary character. Adieu. I hope to see you to supper in London soon, where we will taste Richard's brawn, and drink his health in a cheerful but moderate cup. We have not many such men in any rank of life as Mr. R. Hopkins. Crisp, the barber of St. Mary's, was just such another. I wonder he never sent me any little token, some chestnuts or a puff, or two pound of hair; just to remember him by.'

We have little such elaborate jesting nowadays. I suppose we think it is not worth the trouble. The Tartary letter to Manning and the rheumatism letters to Crabb Robinson are almost distractingly provocative of deep internal laughter. The letter to Cary apologising for the writer's getting drunk in the British Museum has its sad side; but if one may parody the remark, made by 'the young lady of quality,' to Dr. Johnson, which he was so fond of getting Boswell to repeat, though it was to the effect that had he (our great moralist) been born out of wedlock his genius would have been his mother's excuse, it may be said that such a letter as Lamb's was ample atonement for his single frailty.

Lamb does not greatly indulge in sarcasm, though nobody could say more thoroughly ill-natured things than he if he chose to do so. George Dawe, the Royal Academician, is roughly used by him. The account he gives of Miss Berger--Benjay he calls her--is not lacking in spleen. But as a rule if Lamb disliked a person he damned him and passed on. He did not stop to elaborate his dislikes, or to toss his hatreds up and down, as he does his loves and humorous fancies. He hated the second Mrs. Godwin with an entire hatred. In a letter written to Manning when in China he says:

'Mrs. Godwin grows every day in disfavour with me. I will be buried with this inscription over me: "Here lies C. L., the woman hater": I mean that hated one woman; for the rest God bless them! How do you like the Mandarinesses? Are you on some little footing with any of them?'

Scattered up and down these letters are to be found golden sentences, criticisms both of life and of books, to rival which one would have far to go. He has not the glitter of Hazlitt--a writer whom it is a shame to depreciate; nor does he ever make the least pretence of aspiring to the chair of Coleridge. He lived all his life through conscious of a great weakness, and therein indeed lay the foundation of the tower of his strength. 'You do not know,' he writes to Godwin, 'how sore and weak a brain I have, or you would allow for many things in me which you set down for whims.' Lamb apologising for himself to Godwin is indeed a thing at which the imagination boggles. But his humility must not blind us to the fact that there are few men from whom we can learn more.

The most striking note of Lamb's literary criticism is its veracity. He is perhaps never mistaken. His judgments are apt to be somewhat too much coloured with his own idiosyncrasy to be what the judicious persons of the period call final and classical, but when did he ever go utterly wrong either in praise or in dispraise? When did he like a book which was not a good book? When did either the glamour of antiquity or the glare of novelty lead him astray? How free he was from that silly chatter about books now so abundant! When did he ever pronounce wire-drawn twaddle or sickly fancies, simply reeking of their impending dissolution, to be enduring and noble workmanship?

But it must be owned Lamb was not a great reader of new books. That task devolved upon his sister. He preferred Burnet's History of his Own Times, to any novel, even to a 'Waverley.'

'Did you ever read,' he wrote to Manning, 'that garrulous, pleasant history? He tells his story like an old man past political service, bragging to his sons on winter evenings of the part he took in public transactions, when his "old cap was new." Full of scandal, which all true history is. No palliatives; but all the stark wickedness, that actually gives the momentum to national actors. Quite the prattle of age and outlived importance. Truth and sincerity staring out upon you in alto relievo. Himself a party man, he makes you a party man. None of the cursed, philosophical, Humeian indifference, so cold and unnatural and inhuman. None of the cursed Gibbonian fine writing so fine, and composite! None of Dr. Robertson's periods with three members. None of Mr. Roscoe's sage remarks, all so apposite and coming in so clever, lest the reader should have had the trouble of drawing an inference.'

On the subject of children's books Lamb held strong opinions, as indeed he was entitled to do. What married pair with their quiver full ever wrote such tales for children as did this old bachelor and his maiden sister?

'I am glad the snuff and Pipos books please. Goody Two Shoes is almost out of print. Mrs. Barbauld's stuff has banished all the old classics of the nursery, and the shop-man at Newberry's hardly deigned to reach them off an old exploded corner of a shelf when Mary asked for them. Mrs. Barbauld's and Mrs. Trimmer's nonsense lay in piles about. Knowledge insignificant and vapid as Mrs. Barbauld's books convey, it seems must come to a child in the shape of knowledge, and his empty noddle must be turned with conceit of his own powers when he has learnt that a horse is an animal, and Billy is better than a horse, and such like--instead of that beautiful interest in wild tales which made the child a man, while all the time he suspected himself to be no bigger than a child.'

Canon Ainger's six volumes are not very big. They take up but little room. They demand no great leisure. But they cannot fail to give immense pleasure to generations to come, to purify tastes, to soften hearts, to sweeten discourse.

(The end)
Augustine Birrell's essay: Letters Of Charles Lamb

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