Charles Lamb.

The essays of Elia online

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Chcxrles LsLmb

W/t/} dn Introduction by

Augustine Birrell

and lllustrcitionj by

Chairles E Brock

1900 _

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List of Illustrations
Introduction .




The South-Sea House

Oxford in the Vacation

Christ's Hospital Five and Thirty Years Ago

The Two Races of Men

New Year's Eve

Mrs Battle's Opinions on Whist

A Chapter on Ears .

All Fools' Day

A Quaker's Meeting

The Old and the New Schoolmaster

Valentine's Day









1 10



Imperfect Sympathies

Witches and other Night Fears

My Relations

Mackery End, in Hertfordshire

Modern Gallantry

The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple

Grace Before Meat .

My First Play

Dream-Children ; a Reverie .

Distant Correspondents

The Praise of Chimney-Sweepers

A Complaint of the Decay of Beggars in

the Metropolis .
A Dissertation upon Roast Pig
A Bachelor's Complaint of the Behaviour

OF Married People
On some of the Old Actors
On the Artificial Comedy of the Last

Century ....
On the Acting of Munden .














' The rigour of the game '

Headpiece — Contents

Tailpiece — do.

Headpiece — List of lUustrations

Tailpiece — do.

Headpiece — Introduction .

Tailpiece — do.

Headpiece — The South-Sea House

' How would he chirp and expand over a muffin '

' John was not without his hobby '

Tailpiece — The South-Sea House .

Headpiece — Oxford in the Vacation

' What a place to be in is an old library ' .

Tailpiece — Oxford in the Vacation

Headpiece— Q\ix'\%th Hospital five and thirty years

' In a by-nook of the cloisters '

' Wanton like young dace in the stream ' .













' Used to carry away openly ' .

' How neat and fresh the twigs looked ' .

Tailpiece — Christ's Hospital five and thirty years ago

Headpiece — The two races of men .

' He will make one hearty meal ' .

Tailpiece — The two races of men .

Headpiece — New year's eve

' Impertinent and misbecoming familiarities inscribed upon

your ordinary tombstones '
Tailpiece — New year's eve ....
Headpiece — Mrs Battle's opinions on whist
' Those hard head-contests ' . . .

Tailpiece — Mrs Battle's opinions on whist
Headpiece — A chapter on ears

< What a contrast to Hogarth's laughing audience '
Tailpiece — A chapter on ears

Headpiece — All fools' day ....
Tailpiece — do.

Headpiece — A Quaker's meeting .
' The strong man bowed down ' .

Tailpiece — A Quaker's meeting

Headpiece — Tile old and the new schoolmaster

' He must seize every occasion to inculcate sometiiin
useful ' .

Tailpiece — The old and the new schoolmaster

Headpiece — Valentine's day

Tailpiece — do. ...

Headpiece — Imperfect sympathies .

' Faces . . . that have looked kindly on one '

'Discovered she had charged for both meals'

Tailpiece — Imperfect sympathies .

Headpiece — Witches and other night-fears .

' Serving a warrant ' . . . .

' Methought I was upon the ocean billows '

Tailpiece — Witches and other night-fears .


Headpiece — My relations .

* You must spy at it through your finger'
Tuilf'iece — My relations
Headpiece — Mackery End, in Hertfordshire
' The image of welcome ' .
Tailpiece — Mackery End, in Hertfordshire
Headpiece — Modern gallantry
' Drenched in the rain ' .
'Tenderly escorting a market-woman '
Tailpiece — Modern gallantry
Headpiece — The old Benchers of the Inner Tempi

* A pretty device of the gardener '
'Clouds of snuff' ....

* Their walks upon the terrace '
Tailpiece — The old Benchers of the Inner Temple
Headpiece — Grace before meat
'These exercises . . . have little in them of

gracefulness '
Tailpiece — Grace before meat
Headpiece — My first play .
Headpiece — Dream-children : a Reverie
' My little ones crept about me' .
Tailpiece — Dream-children : a Reverie
Headpiece — Distant correspondents
Tailpiece — do.

Headpiece — The praise of chimney-sweepers
' It is good to give him a penny ' .
Headpiece — A complaint of the decay of beggars in the

' Jostle with him for the wall '
'The infant would stare at the mighty man brought down

to his own level
Tailpiece — A complaint of the decay of beggars in the

Headpiece — A dissertation upon roast pig .














' You graceless whelp, what have you got there

devouring ? '
' A sage arose . . . who made a discovery '
Headpiece — A bachelor's complaint of the behaviour of

married people ....
' Expected to bring our tribute and homage '
Tailpiece — A baclielor's complaint of the behaviour of

married people ....
Headpiece — On some of the old actors
'Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Sir Toby Belch '
' Ben — the pleasant sailor which Bannister gives us '
Tailpiece — On some of the old actors
Headpiece — On the artificial comedy of the last century
Tailpiece — do. do.

Headpiece — On the acting of Munden
Tailpiece — do.










NO apology is needed, and certainly no preface is
required, for or to another edition of " The
Essays of Elia." They have, to use their
author's own words, joined the class of "perpetually
self-reproductive volumes. Great Nature's Stereotypes."
All that an editor of them has to do is to see that work
so delicate, so conscientious, so elaborate, is neither
insulted with bad type or ill-tempered paper, nor injured
by careless printing. Having done this, he has done
his duty. There is no need to praise what all the world
praises. Sometimes (it is just possible) an author may
slip his hold on men's fancies and fall into a state of
neglect, and, so far as human memories are concerned,
of ruinous decay, which yet may be removed, and the
author's fame judiciously restored by the kindly enthusiasm
of some critic, at whose bidding we turn to the forgotten
volumes, and try to make up for past neglect by present


rapture. But this (it must be owned) is rare. There
are, indeed, more discoverers than discoveries; more
bold travellers than new continents ; more critics dinning
the air with their joyful shouts over forgotten poets and
disused dramatists than there prove to be poets and
dramatists whom it is good to remember, or possible to
use. These recovered creatures lead but a blinking kind
of existence for a very short time, and then, even though
their works may have been reprinted on Whatman paper,
sink back into oblivion, and rest for ever on the shelves
of that great library, the pride of Limbo, which is made
up of the books that no man can read, even though he
were to be paid for doing so. This repose is not un-
kindly. An author who is entirely forgotten is, at all
events, never mispraised. Nothing, we may feel well
assured, could cause the Author of the " Essays of Elia "
more genuine annoyance than to be clumsily praised, or
raised with shouting to a higher pedestal than the one in
the possession of which his own ripe judgment could
confirm him. And yet, if we are not to praise " The
Essays of Elia," what is there for us to do? And who
can insure us against doing so clumsily ? Happily it is
not necessary to praise them at all.

The lives of authors, if only written with a decent
Pleasure of truthfulness and insight, are, generally speak-
ing, better reading than their works. It would be hard
to explain why the lives of men so querulous, so affected,
so centred in self, so averse to the probing of criticism,
so blind to the smallness of their fame as most authors
stand revealed in their biographies and letters to have
been, should yet be so incessantly interesting. They
succeed one another quickly enough — these biographies ;
doing each one of them its bit of iconoclastic work :
yet the reader never tires of them, nor, unless he is very


young, does he wreak an empty wrath upon the fragments
of another broken idol. Far otherwise : he picks up the
pieces reverently, and remembering how hard and self-
engrossing is the labour of carrying out any high plan of
literary excellence, how furious the fever occasioned by
the thought of perfection, how hot the hell of failure,—
puts them carefully away, and thanks God his mother
bore him as destitute of genius as of clothing.

But none the less we pine after the ideal. We want
our favourite authors to be our best-loved men. Smashing
idols is an irreverent occupation endurable only in our
wilder hours. A time comes in most men's lives when
the bell rings for prayer, and unhappy are they who, when
it does, have nowhere to carry their heart's supplications.

It is, therefore, a pleasant thing when we find ourselves
saying of Charles Lamb, that it is impossible to know
whether we most admire the author, or love the man.
The imaginary Elia, sitting by the side of his Cousin
Bridget, playing sick whist, whilst the pipkin which was
to prepare a gentle lenitive for his foot is bubbling in the
fire, " and as I do not much relish appliances, there it
should ever bubble — Bridget and I should be for ever
playing," makes a picture which will never need retouch-
ing ; but when we read in the " Life and Letters" how
reality outdoes imagination, and learn that the pen of Elia,
so wisely human, so sweetly melancholy, told only but a
few of the secrets of a brave heart and an unselfish life,
we feel we have saved something out of the wreck.

Lamb, like his own child-angel, was "to know weak-
ness, and reliance, and the shadow of human imbecility."
He went with a lame gait. He used to get drunk some-
what too frequently. Let the fact be stated in all its
deformity — he was too fond of gin-and-water. He once
gave a lady the welcome assurance that he never got


drunk twice in the same house. FaiHng all evidence to
the contrary, we are bound to believe this to be true. It
is a mitigating circumstance. Wordsworth's boundless
self-conceit, Coleridge's maddening infirmity of purpose,
Hazlitt's petulance, De Quincey's spitcfulness, knew no
such self-denying ordinance. Lamb was also a too in-
veterate punster, and sometimes, it may be, pushed a jest,
or baited a bore, beyond the limits of becoming mirth.
When we have said these things against Lamb we have
said all. Pale Malice, speckled Jealousy, may now be
invited to search the records of his life, to probe his
motives, to read his private letters, to pry into his desk,
to dissect his character. Baffled, beaten, and disappointed,
they fall back. An occasional intoxication which hurt
no one but himself, which blinded him to no duty, which
led him into no extravagance, which in no way interfered
with the soundness of his judgment, the charity of his
heart, or the independence of his life, and a shower
of bad puns — behold the faults of Elia ! His virtues
— noble, manly, gentle — are strewn over every page
of his life, and may be read in every letter he ever

Charles Lamb was born in Crown Office Row, in the
Temple, on the i8th of February, 1775. His father,
John Lamb, was a barrister's clerk. The lots of
i' barristers' clerks vary as widely as the habits of their
employers. Some make fortunes for themselves ; others
only tea for their masters. Their success in life is not
wholly dependent upon their own exertions. Rewarded
as they are by a kind of parasitical fee growing out of
those paid to the barrister they serve, they wax or wane
— grow fat or lean along with their chief. Theirs is
thus a double dependence. From a herd of the newly-
called, how is the fledgling clerk to single out a Scott, a


Palmer, or a Cairns? John Lainb was clerk to Mr
Samuel Salt, who, albeit a Bencher of his Inn, docs not
seem ever to have enjoyed, if that be the right word, a
practice in the Courts. You may search the Law Re-
ports of his period in vain for his name. The duties of
John Lamb were rather those of a private secretary, or
confidential upper servant, than of a barrister's clerk,
properly so called. He collected his master's dividends
— a more gentlemanlike occupation than dunning attornies
for fees, marked but not paid. Salt was a man of ample
fortune and of kind heart. He is immortalised in the
Essay on " Some of the Old Benchers of the Inner
Temple." It was he who procured for Charles a
nomination to Christ's Hospital, whither the boy pro-
ceeded on the 9th of October, 1782, and where he
remained until November, 1789, when he left school for
good, being then only in his fifteenth year. At Christ's
Lamb received a purely classical education of the old-
fashioned type. " In everything that relates to science^^
so he writes with obvious truthfulness, " I am a whole
encyclopaedia behind the rest of the world. I should
scarcely have cut a figure amongst the franklins or
country gentlemen in King John's days. I know less
geography than a schoolboy of six weeks' standing. To
me a map of old Ortelius is as authentic as Arrowsmith.
I do not know whereabout Africa merges into Asia;
whether Ethiopia lies in one or other of those great
divisions ; nor can form the remotest conjecture of the
position of New South Wales or Van Diemen's Land."
A civil servant of to-day could hardly afford to make
such pleasant confessions. No boy ever profited more,
or lost less, by an old-fashioned education than Lamb.
His head, so he tells us, had not many mansions, nor
spacious, but he had imagination, taste, and spirit, and he


imbibed the old humanities at every pore. He never
could have written "The Essays of Elia," or anything
like them, had he been robbed of the birthright of every
man of letters. He is not a cheap and easy author.
Leaving school as he did before he was fifteen, he never
proceeded beyond the vestibules of the ancient learning ;
and this, perhaps, was also well. His stutter saved him
from the Universities, and he was thus enabled through
life to preserve a romantic attachment for these seminaries
of sound learning and true religion. Literature has no
reason to deplore that Lamb never, save in his imagina-
tion, proceeded a Master of Arts. Some portion — it
would be impossible to say what — of his charm proceeds
from the fact of his having been a lettered clerk in the
mercantile rather than the ecclesiastical sense of the
term. He has thus become the patron saint, the inspir-
ing example, of those whom fate, perhaps not so unkind
as she seems, has condemned to know " the irksome
confinement of an office," and who have left to them but
the shreds and patches of the day for the pursuits in
which their souls rejoice.

After leaving Christ's Lamb spent a little more than
two years in the South Sea House, where his elder and
only brother John had a clerkship; but in April, 1792,
through the influence probably of Mr Salt, he obtained
a place in the Accountant's Office of the East India
Company, at whose desks he sat until 1825, when, to use
his own celebrated phrase, he went home — for ever. His
salary went on slowly increasing from something under
;;£"iOO to p^6oo a year. Apart from the old and
probably fictitious story about his coming late and going
home proportionately early, there is no reason to suppose
that Lamb was otherwise than an efficient public servant,
as that class of person goes. He did no more than was


expected of him, and had no scruples about conducting
his private correspondence on office paper. He wrote a
very clear hand, and was in all business matters a precise
and punctual person. His code of honour was the highest,
and through life he maintained a curious and passionate
hatred of bankrupts.

He had been three years in the service of the Company
when the great tragedy — Elizabethan in its horror — of
his life befell him. Old John Lamb and his wife, their
daughter Mary, an aunt, and Charles, were living huddled
together in an obscure lodging in Little Queen Street,
Holborn. An exceedingly ugly church now stands upon
the site of the houses. Mary Lamb, who was ten years
her younger brother's senior, was a dressmaker on a small
scale. She always had what her mother, who does not
seem greatly to have cared for her, called " moithered "
brains, and on this fateful day, the 23 rd of September,
1796, just before dinner, she seized a case-knife which
was lying on the table, and pursued a little girl, her
apprentice, round the room, hurled about the dinner-forks
and finally stabbed her mother to the heart. When
Charles came into the room, and snatched the knife out
of her hand, it was to find his aunt lying apparently dying,
his father with a wound on his forehead, and his mother
a murdered corpse. He was then twenty-one years of
age, and had spent some weeks of this very year in the
Hoxton Lunatic Asylum. His elder brother John, who
had a comfortable place in the South Sea House, did
nothing but look after his own leg, which one is thankful
to believe gave him a good deal of pain. The whole
weight of the family fell upon Charles. His love for his
sister manifested itself in his determination that as soon as
possible she should be released from confinement and live
at home, he undertaking ever to be on the watch for the


fits of frenzy he was assured only too truthfully would
necessarily be recurrent. For his father and his aunt, so
long as they lived, he maintained a home. Poor Mary
in her asylum was often heard to say that she had one
brother who wished her to remain all her days in a
madhouse, but another who would not have it so.
Charles succeeded in obtaining her discharge upon enter-
ing into a solemn undertaking to take care of her for ever
thereafter. At first he provided lodgings for her at
Hackney, and spent all his Sundays and holidays with
her, but soon after he took her to live with him altogether.
Mr Procter (Barry Cornwall), from whose account the
above facts are taken in their entirety, says : " Whenever
the approach of one of her fits of insanity was announced
by some irritability or change of manner, he would take
her under his arm to Hoxton Asylum. It was very
affecting to encounter the young brother and sister
walking together (weeping) on this painful errand, Mary
herself, although sad, very conscious of the necessity of a
temporary separation from her only friend. They used
to carry a strait waistcoat with them."

These terrible events for a time greatly quickened
the religious side of Lamb's character. His letters to
Coleridge are severe, ascetical. He forswore poetry and
amusements, even such as were in the reach of a poor boy
of twenty-one maintaining a household on an income of
;^i8o. This wore off, and Lamb became in men's hasty
judgments one of the profane — a trifler, a jester. Carlyle,
we know only too well, met him once, and dismissed him
with a sulphureous snort. My belief is that Lamb,
feeling his own mental infirmity, and aware of the fearful
life-long strain to which he was to be subjected, took
refuge in trifles seriously, and played the fool in order to
remain sane.


For many long years Charles and Mary Lamb lived
together on narrow means and humble surroundings.
Friends indeed they had — Wordsworth, Coleridge,
Hazlitt, Manning, Rickman, Barton, Burney, Carey —
of whom anyone might be proud. Their poverty was
of the noble order. In manly independence he towers
above his contemporaries. He hated a close bargain
almost as much as he did a bankrupt. Prudent and
saving, he could be generous and (as it is called) princely
when occasion arose. He was ever a helper, seldom one
of the helped. Both he and his sister eked out their
slender means by literary work, humble in design, but
honest in accomplishment. Save for the newspapers, to
which Charles contributed doleful jests, they wrote
nothing save their best.

In 1818, when Lamb's poetry and prose was collected
and dignified, much to his amusement, with the title
" Works," he became more widely known, and was
recognized, by at all events a few, as a man with a
gift. In 1820 "The London Magazine" was established,
and in its columns first appeared "The Essays of Elia."
In 1823 the first series appeared in a separate volume, and
ten years later the last Essays.

The joint lives of Charles and Mary Lamb are best
read in the former's letters, though Canon Ainger's
"Life" should be kept by their side.

It was the wish of both that Charles should be the
survivor ; he would thus have seen his task complete.
But it was not to be. He died at Edmonton on the 27th
of December, 1834; Mary lived on till the 20th of
May, 1847, — weary years, spent for the most part under
the care of a nurse, and with but a "twilight of conscious-
ness." Lamb had saved jQzooo, which, after his sister's
life-interest ceased, was vested in trustees for the benefit


of Mrs Moxon, whom Mary and he had in a kind of way

In this edition I have followed the text of the two
original editions of the Essays. The spelling is often
quaint, sometimes wrong, but always Lamb's, and there-
fore better than anybody else's.

iMlflifS M^

.^^ r


READER, in thy passage from the Bank — where
thou hast been receiving thy half-yearly dividends
(supposing thou art a lean annuitant like myself)
— to the Flower Pot, to secure a place for Dalston, or
Shacklewell, or some other thy suburban retreat northerly,
— didst thou never observe a melancholy looking, hand-
some, brick and stone edifice, to the left — where Thread-
needle-street abuts upon Bishopsgate ? I dare say thou
hast often admired its magnificent portals ever gaping wide,
and disclosing to view a grave court, with cloisters, and
pillars, with few or no traces of goers-in or comers-out
— a desolation something like Balclutha's.^

1 I passed by the walls of Balclutha, and they were desolate.



This was once a house of trade, — a centre of busy
interests. The throng of merchants was here — the quick
pulse of gain — and here some forms of business are still
kept up, though the soul be long since fled. Here are
still to be seen stately porticos ; imposing staircases ;
oflices roomy as the state apartments in palaces — deserted,
or thinly peopled with a few straggling clerks ; the still
more sacred interiors of court and committee rooms, with
venerable faces of beadles, door-keepers — directors seated
in form on solemn days (to proclaim a dead dividend,)
at long worm-eaten tables, that have been mahogany, with
tarnished gilt-leather coverings, supporting massy silver
inkstands long since dry ; — the oaken wainscots hung
with pictures of deceased governors and sub-governors,
of Queen Anne, and the two first monarchs of the
Brunswick dynasty ; — huge charts, which subsequent
discoveries have antiquated ; — dusty maps of Mexico,
dim as dreams, — and soundings of the Bay of Panama !
— The long passages hung with buckets, appended, in
idle row, to walls, whose substance might defy any,
short of the last, conflagration : — with vast ranges of
cellarage under all, where dollars and pieces of eight
once lay, an " unsunned heap," for Mammon to have
solaced his solitary heart withal, — long since dissipated, or
scattered into air at the blast of the breaking of that

famous Bubble.

Such is the South-Sea House. At least, such it was
forty years ago, when I knew it, — a magnificent relic !
What alterations may have been made in it since, I have
had no opportunities of verifying. Time, I take for
granted, has not freshened it. No wind has resuscitated
the face of the sleeping waters. A thicker crust by this
time stagnates upon it. The moths, that were then
battening upon its obsolete ledgers and day-books, have


rested from their depredations, but other Hght genera-

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Online LibraryCharles LambThe essays of Elia → online text (page 1 of 18)