Charles Lamb.

The last essays of Elia online

. (page 2 of 15)
Online LibraryCharles LambThe last essays of Elia → online text (page 2 of 15)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

attended with anything painful or very
humiliating in the recalling. At my father's
table (no very splendid one) was to-l)e found,
every Saturday, the mj^sterious figure of an
aged gentleman, clothed in neat black, of a

•22 ^\\t pvst (^^^mp at (BUiu

sad yet comely appearance. His deportment
was of the essence of gravity ; his words
few or none ; and I was not to make a noise
in his presence. I had Uttle inclination to
have done so — for my cue was to admire in
silence. A particular elbow-chair was ap-
l")ropriated to him, which was in no case to
be violated. A peculiar sort of sweet juid-
ding-, which appeared on no otlier occasion^
disting'uislied the days of his coming'. I
used to think him a prodigiously rich man.
All I could make out of him vras, that he
and my father had been school-fellows, a
world ag-o, at Lincoln, and that he came
from the Mint. The Mint I knew to be a
place where all the money was coined — and
I thoug;ht he was the owner of all that
money. Awful ideas of the Tower twined
themselves about his presence. lie seemed
above human infirmities and passions. A
sort of melancholy grandeur invested him.
From some inexplicable doom I fancied him
obliged to go about in an eternal suit of
mourning; a captive — a stately being, let
out of the Tower on Saturdays. Often have
I wondered at the temerity of my father,
who, in spite of an haljitual general respect
which we all in common manifested towards
him, would venture now and then to stand
up against him in some argument, touching
their youthful daj^s. The houses of the
ancient city of Lincoln are divided (as most
of my readers know) between the dwellers

^h( Xn^t (^$^n\\^ 0f mm, 23

on the hill and in the valley. This marked
distinction formed an obvious division be-
tAveen the boys who lived above (ho\vever
brought tog-ether in a common school) and
the boys whose paternal residence Avas on
the plain ; a sufScient cause of hostility in
the code of these young Grotiuses. My
father had been a leading Mountaineer ; and
would still maintain the general superiority,
in skill and hardihood, of the Above Boys
(his own faction) over the Below Boi/s {so
were they called), of which party his con-
temporary had been a chieftain. Many and
hot were the skirmishes on this topi(3 — the
only one upon which the old gentleman was
C:ver brought out — and bad blood bred ; even
sometimes almost to the reconnnencement
(so 1 expected) of actual hostilities. But my
lather, who scorned to insist upon advan-
tages, generally contrived to turn the con-
versation upon some adroit by-conuiiendation
of the old Minster ; in the general prefer-
ence of which, before all other cathedrals in
the island, the dweller on the hill, and the
plain-born, could meet on a conciliating level,
and lay down their less important differ-
ences. Once only I saw the old gentleman
really ruffled, and I remembered with an-
guish the thought that came over me : " Per-
haps he will never come here again." He
had been x)ressed to take another plate of
the viand, which I have already mentioned
as the indispensable concomitant of his

24 ^\it H:a,ot (£^^i\\\^ of ^Ha.

visits. He had refused Tvatli a resistance
amounting' to rigor, \ylien my aunt — an old
Lincolnian, but \Aio had something of this,
in common ^^"ith my cousin Bridget, that
she would sometimes press civility out of
season — uttered the following memorable
apiolication, — "Do take another slice, Mv.
Billet, for you do not get pudding every
day." The old gentleman said nothing at
the time ; but he took occasion in the course
of the evening when some argument had
intervened between them, to litter with an
emphasis which chilled the company, and
which chills me now as 1 wa-ite it — " Woman,
you are superannuated ! " John Billet did
not survive long, after the digesting of this
affront ; but he survived long enough to
assure me that peace was actually restored !
and, if 1 remember aright, another pudding
was discreetly substituted in the i")lace of
that which had occasioned the offense. He
died at the Mint (anno 1781) where he had
long held Avhat he accounted a comfortable
independence ; and with five pounds four-
teen shillings and a penny, which were
found in his escritoire after his decea'se, left
the world, blessing God that he had enough
to bury him, and that he had never been
obliged to any man for a sixpence. This
was — a Poor lielatiou.

mt f a,«t (B^m3^ 0f ($Wa. 25

Detached Thoughts on Books
and Reading.

To mind the inside of a book is to entertain one's
self with the forced product of another man's brain.
Now I think a man of quality and breeding may be
much anuised wiih th ,

in this Avay, by daily fragments, got through

two volumes of Clarissa, when the stall-


keeper damped his laudable ambition, by
asking him (it was in his younger days)
whether he meant to purchase the work.
M. declares, that under no circumstances in
his life did he ever peruse a book with half
the satisfaction which he took in those
uneasy snatches. A quaint poetess of our
day has moralized upon this subject iu two
very touching but homely stanzas.

I saw a boy with eager eye
Open a book upon a stall,
And read, as he'd devour it all;
Wliicli when tlie stall-uiau did espy,
Soon to the boy I heard him call,
" Yon, sir, yon never buy a book.
Therefore in one yon shall not look."
The boy pass'd slowly on, and with a sigh
He wish'd he never had been taught to read,
Then of the old churl's books he should have had
no need.

Of sufferings the poor have many,

Which never can the rich annoy :

I soon perceived another boy.

Who look'd as if he had not any

Food — for that day at least, — enjoy

The sight of cold meat in a tavern larder,

Tliis boy's case, then thought I, is surely harder,

Thus hungry, longing, thus without a penny,

Beholdina; choice of dainty-dressed meat:

No wonder if he wished lie ne'er had learn' d to eat.

mu i:a,^t (^$m^ o^ c^^a. 35

Stage Illusion.

A PLAY is said to be well or ill acted, in
proportion to the scenical illusion produced.
Whether such illusion can in any case be
perfect, is not the question. The nearest
approach to it, we are told, is when the actor
appears wholly unconscious of the presence
of spectators. In tragedy — in all which is
to affect the feelings — this undivided atten-
tion to his stage business seems indispen-
sable. Yet it is, in fact, dispensed with
everyday by our cleverest tragedians; and
while these references to an audience, in the
shape of rant of sentiment, are not too fre-
quent or palpable, a sufficient quantity of
illusion for the purposes of dramatic interest
may be said to be produced in spite of them.
But, tragedy apart, it may be inquired
whether, in certain characters in comedy,
especially those which are a little extrava-
gant, or which involve some notion repugnant
to the moral sense, it is not a proof of the
highest skill in the comedian when, with-
out absolutely appealing to an audience, he
keeps up a tacit understanding with them,
and makes them, unconsciously to them-

36 ©he p!St (£^m^ 0^ ^na.

selves, a part}'- in the scene. The utmost
nicety is required in the mode of doing this ;
but we speak only of the great artists in.
the profession.

The most mortifying infirmitj'- in human
nature, to feel in ourselves, or to contemplate
in another, is perhaj^s, cowardice. To see a
coward done to the life upon a stage would
produce anything hut mirth. Yet w^e most
of us remember Jack Bannister's cowards.
Could anything be more agreeable, more
pleasant ? We loved the rogues. How was
this effected but by the exquisite art of the
actor in a perpetual sub-insinuation to us,
the spectators, even in the extremity of the
shaking lit, that he was not half such a
coward as we took him for ? We saw all
the common symptoms of the malady uj)on
him ; the quivering lip, the cowering knees,
the teeth chattering; and could have sworn
" that man was frightened." But we forgot
all the while — or kept it almost a secret to
ourselves — that he never once lost his self-
jDossession ; that he let out by a thousand
droll looks and gestures — meant at us^ and
not at all supposed to be visible to his fel-
lows in the scene, that his confidence in his
own resources had never once deserted him.
Was this a genuine picture of a coward ? or
not rather a likeness, which the clever artist
contrived to palm upon us instead of an
original ; while we secretly connived at the
delusion for the purpose of greater pleasure^

^lAt fa^t (^n^mp ot mm, 37

than a more genuine counterfeiting of the
imbecility, helplessness, and utter self-deser-
tion, which we know to be concomitants of
cowardice in real life, could have given us ?

Why are misers so hateful in the world,
and so endurable on the stage, but because
the skillful actor, by a sort of sub-reference,
rather than direct appeal to us, disarms the
character of a great deal of its odiousness,
by seeming to engage o?/?* compassion for the
insecure tenure by which he holds his money-
bags and parchments '? By this subtle vent
half of tlie hatef ulness of the character — the
self-closeness with which in real life it coils
itself up from the sympathies of men-
evaporates. The miser becomes sympa-
thetic ; i. e., is no genuine miser. Here again
a diverting likeness is substituted for a very
disagreeable reality.

Spleen, irritability — the pitiable infirmities
of old men, which produce only pain to be-
hold in the realities, counterfeited upon a
stage, divert not altogether for the comic ap-
pendages to them, but in part from an inner
conviction that they are bei/tf/ acted before
us ; that a likeness only is going on, and not
the thing itself. They please by being done
under the life, or beside it; not to tlie life.
When Gattie acts an old man, is he angry
indeed? or only a pleasant counterfeit, jast
enough of a likeness to recognize, without
pressing upon us the uneasy sense of a re-

38 mt ^n^t (t$$^\p of mm.

Comedians, paradoxical as it may seem^
may be too natural. It AA-as the case with a
late actor. Notliing could be more earnest
or true than the manner of Mr. Emery;
this told excellently in his Tyke, and charac-
ters of a tragic cast. But when he carried
the same rigid exclusiveness of attention to
the stage business, and wilful blindness and
oblivion of everything before the curtain in-
to his comed}^, it produced a harsh and dis-
sonant effect. He was out of keeping Avith
the rest of the Persoiue Dnanatis. There
was as little link between him and them, as
betwixt himself and the audience. He was-
a third estate, dry, repulsive, and unsocial
to all. Individually considered, his execu-
tion w"as masterly. But comedy is not this-
unbending thing ; for this reason, that tlie
same degree of credibility is not required of
it as to serious scenes. The degrees of credi-
bility demanded to the Xwo things, may b&
illustrated by the different sort of truth
which we expect wlien a man tells us a
mournful or a merry story. If we suspect
the former of falsehood in any one tittle, we
reject it altogether. Our tears refuse to
flow at a suspected imposition. But the
teller of a mirthful tale has latitude allowed
him. "We are content with less than abso-
lute truth. 'Tis the same with dramatic
illusion. "We confess we love in comedy to
see an audience naturalized behind the
scenes, taken into the interest of the drama,

WU miA$t (^.o'saM,^ 0f (glia. 39

welcomed as by-standers however. There
is something ungracious in a comic actor
holding himself aloof from all participation
or concern with those who are come to be
diverted by him. Macbeth must see the
dagger, and no ear but his own to be told of
it ; but an old fool in farce may think he sees

2 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15

Online LibraryCharles LambThe last essays of Elia → online text (page 2 of 15)