Charles Lamb.

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receives his own

While Fancy beholds these celestial appropriations,
Reason, no less pleased, discerns the mighty benefit
which so complete a renovation must produce below.
Let the most determined foe to corruption, the most
thorough-paced redresser of abuses, try to conceive a
more absolute purification of the House than this
was calculated to produce ; — why. Pride's Purge was
nothing to it; — the whole borough-mongering system
would have been got rid of, fairly exploded ; — with it,
the senseless distinctions of party must have disap-
peared ; faction must have vanished ; corruption
have expired in air. P'rom Hundred, Tything, and
Wapentake, some new Alfred would have convened,
in all its purity, the primitive Wittenagemot, — fixed
upon a basis of property or population, permanent as
the poles

From this dream of universal restitution. Reason and
Fancy with difficulty awake to view the real state of
things. But, blessed be Heaven, St. Stephen's walls
are yet standing, all her seats firmly secured ; nay,
some have doubted (since the Septennial Act) whether
gunpowder itself, or any thing short of a Committee
above stairs, would be able to shake any one member
from his seat ; — that great and final improvement to
the Abbey, which is all that seems wanting, — the
removing Westminster Hall and its appendages, and
letting in the view of the Thames, — must not be ex-
pected in our days. Dismissing, therefore, all such
speculations as mere tales of a tub, it is the duty of
every honest Englishman to endeavour, by means


less wholesome than Guide's, to amehorate, without
extinguishing, Parhaments ; to hold the lantern to
the dark places of corruption ; to apply the jnntch to
the rotten parts of the system only ; and to wrap
himself up, not in the muffling mantle of conspiracy,
but in the warm, honest cloak of integrity and
patriotic intention. Elia.


The subject of our memoir is lineally descended from
Johan de L'Estonne, (see " Doomsday Book," where
he is so written,) who came in with the Conqueror,
and had lands awarded him at Lupton Magna, in
Kent. His particular merits or services, Fabian,
whose authority I chiefly follow, has forgotten, or
perhaps thought it immaterial, to specify. Fuller
thinks that he was standard-bearer to Hugo de
Agmondesham, a powerful Norman baron, who was
slain by the hand of Harold himself at the fatal battle
of Hastings. Be this as it may, we find a family of
that name flourishing some centuries later in that
county. John Delliston, knight, was high sheriff for
Kent, according to Fabian, quinto Henrici sexti : and
we trace the lineal branch flourishing downwards, —
the orthography varying, according to the unsettled
usage of the times, from Delleston to Leston or Lis-


ton, between which it seems to have alternated, till,
in the latter end of the reign of James L, it finally
settled into the determinate and pleasing dissyllabic
arrangement which it still retains. Aminadab Liston,
the eldest male representative of the family of that
day, was of the strictest order of Puritans. Mr. Foss,
of Pall Mall, has obligingly communicated to me an
undoubted tract of his, which bears the initials only,
A. L., and is entitled, "The Grinning Glass, or
Actor's Mirrour ; where in the vituperative Visnomy
of Vicious Players for the Scene is as virtuously
reflected back upon their mimetic Monstrosities as it
has viciously (hitherto) vitiated with its vile Vanities
her Votarists." A strange title, but bearing the
impress of those absurdities with which the title-pages
of that pamphlet-spawning age abounded. The work
bears date 1617. It preceded the " Histriomastix "
by fifteen years ; and, as it went before it in time, so
it comes not far short of it in virulence. It is amus-
ing to find an ancestor of Listen's thus bespattering
the players at the commencement of the seventeenth
century : —

"Thinketh He" (the actor), "with his costive
countenances, to wry a sorrowing soul out of her
anguish, or by defacing the divine denotement of
destinate dignity (daignely described in the face
humane and no other) to reinstamp the Paradise-
plotted similitude with a novel and naughty approxi-
mation (not in the first intention) to those abhorred
and ugly God-forbidden correspondences, with flout-
ing Apes' jeering gibberings, and Babion babbling-
like, to hoot out of countenance all modest measure,
as if our sins were not sufficing to stoop our backs


without He wresting and crooking his members to
mistimed mirth (rather malice) in deformed fashion,
leering when he should learn, prating for praying,
goggling his eyes, (better upturned for grace,) whereas
in Paradise (if we can go thus high for His profession)
that devilish Serpent appeareth his undoubted Prede-
cessor, first induing a mask like some roguish
roistering Roscius (I spit at them all) to beguile with
Stage shows the gaping Woman, whose Sex hath
still chiefly upheld these Mysteries, and are voiced to
be the chief Stage-haunters, where, as I am told, the
custom is commonly to mumble (between acts) apples,
not ambiguously derived from that pernicious Pippin
(worse in effect than the Apples of Discord), whereas
sometimes the hissing sounds of displeasure, as I
hear, do lively reintonate that snake taking-leave, and
diabolical goings off, in Paradise."

The Puritanic effervescence of the early Presby-
terians appears to have abated with time, and the
opinions of the more immediate ancestors of our
subject to have subsided at length into a strain of
moderate Calvinism. Still a tincture of the old leaven
was to be expected among the posterity of A. L.

Our hero was an only son of Habakkuk Liston,
settled as an Anabaptist minister upon the patrimonial
soil of his ancestors. A regular certificate appears,
thus entered in the Church book at Lupton Magna :
^- jfohannes, films Habakkuk et Rebeccce Liston, Dis-
sentientium, status quinto Decemhri, 1780, baptizatus
sexto Februarii sequetttis ; Spotisoribus y. et W.
Woollaston, tmd cum Maria Merryweather.'^ The
singularity of an Anabaptist minister conforming to
the child-rites of the Church would have tempted me


to doubt the authenticity of this entry, had I not been
obliged with the actual sight of it by the favour of Mr.
Minns, the intelligent and worthy parish clerk of
Lupton. Possibly some expectation in point of
worldly advantages from some of the sponsors might
have induced this unseemly deviation, as it must have
appeared, from the practice and principles of that
generally rigid sect. The term Dissentientium was
possibly intended by the orthodox clergyman as a slur
upon the supposed inconsistency. What, or of what
nature, the expectations we have hinted at may have
been, we have now no means of ascertaining. Of the
Woollastons no trace is now discoverable in the
village. The name of Merryweather occurs over the
front of a grocer's shop at the western extremity of

Of the infant Liston we find no events recorded
before his fourth year, in which a severe attack of the
measles bid fair to have robbed the rising generation
of a fund of innocent entertainment. He had it of
the confluent kind, as it is called; and the child's
life was for a week or two despaired of. His recovery
he always attributes (under Heaven) to the humane
interference of one Dr. Wilhelm Richter, a German
empiric, who, in this extremity, prescribed a copious
diet of sauer-kraut, which the child was observed to
reach at with avidity, when other food repelled him ;
and from this change of diet his restoration was
rapid and complete. We have often heard him name
the circumstance with gratitude ; and it is not alto-
gether surprising that a relish for this kind of aliment,
so abhorrent and harsh to common English palates,
has accompanied him through life. When any of
Mr. Liston's intimates invite him to supper, he never


fails of finding, nearest to his knife and fork, a dish
oi sauer-kraut.

At the age of nine, we find our subject under the
tuition of the Rev. Mr. Goodenough, (his father's
health not permitting him probably to instruct him
himself,) by whom he was inducted into a competent
portion of Latin and Greek, with some mathematics,
till the death of Mr. Goodenough, in his own seventi-
eth, and Master Liston's eleventh year, put a stop for
the present to his classical progress.

We have heard our hero, with emotions which do
his heart honour, describe the awful circumstances
attending the decease of this worthy old gentleman.
It seems they had been walking out together, master
and pupil, in a fine sunset, to the distance of three-
quarters of a mile west of Lupton, when a sudden
curiosity took Mr. Goodenough, to look down upon a
chasm, where a shaft had been lately sunk in a
mining speculation, (then projecting, but abandoned
soon after, as not answering the promised success,
by Sir Ralph Shepperton, knight, and member for the
county). The old clergyman, leaning over, either
with incaution or sudden giddiness, (probably a mix-
ture of both,) suddenly lost his footing, and, to use
Mr. Liston's phrase, disappeared, and was doubtless
broken into a thousand pieces. The sound of his
head, &c., dashing successively upon the projecting
masses of the chasm, had such an effect upon the
child, that a serious sickness ensued ; and, even for
many years after his recovery, he was not once seen
so much as to smile.

The joint death of both his parents, which happened
not many months after this disastrous accident, and
was probably (one or both of them) accelerated by it.


threw our youth upon the protection of his maternal
great-aunt, Mrs. Sittingbourn. Of this aunt we have
never heard him speak but with expressions amount-
ing almost to reverence. To the influence of her
early counsels and manners, he has always attributed
the firmness with which, in maturer years, thrown
upon a way of life commonly not the best adapted to
gravity and self-retirement, he has been able to main-
tain a serious character, untinctured with the levities
incident to his profession. Ann Sittingbourn (we
have seen her portrait by Hudson) was stately, stiff,
tall, with a cast of features strikingly resembling the
subject of this memoir. Her estate in Kent was
spacious and well wooded ; the house one of those
venerable old mansions which are so impressive in
childhood, and so hardly forgotten in succeeding
years. In the venerable solitudes of Charnwood,
among thick shades of the oak and beech, (this last
his favourite tree,) the young Liston cultivated those
contemplative habits which have never entirely
deserted him in after-years. Here he was commonl;y
in the Summer months to be met with, with a book
in his hand, — not a play-book, — meditating. Boyle's
" Reflections " was at one time the darling volume ;
which, in its turn, was superseded by Young's ''Night
Thoughts," which has continued its hold upon him
through life. He carries it always about with him ;
and it is no uncommon thing for him to be seen, in
the refreshing intervals of his occupation, leaning
against a side-scene, in a sort of Herbert-of-Cherbury
posture, turning over a pocket-edition of his favourite

But the solitudes of Charnwood were not destined
always to obscure the path of our young hero. The

VOL. VI. c


premature death of Mrs. Sittingbourn, at the age of
seventy, occasioned by the incautious burning of a pot
of charcoal in her sleeping chamber, left him in his
nineteenth year nearly without resources. That the
stage at all should have presented itself as an eligible
scope for his talents, and, in particular, that he should
have chosen a line so foreign to w^hat appears to
have been his turn of mind, may require some ex-

At Charnwood, then, we behold him thoughtful,
grave, ascetic. From his cradle averse to flesh-meats
and strong drink; abstemious even beyond the genius
of the place, and almost in spite of the remon-
strances of his great-aunt, who, though strict, was
not rigid, — water was his habitual drink, and his
food little beyond the mast and beech-nuts of his
favourite groves. It is a medical fact, that this kind
of diet, however favourable to the contemplative
powers of the primitive hermits, &c., is but ill
adapted to the less robust minds and bodies of a
later generation. Hypochondria almost constantly
ensues. It was so in the case of the young Liston.
He was subject to sights, and had visions. Those
arid beech-nuts, distilled by a complexion naturally
adust, mounted into an occiput already prepared to
kindle by long seclusion and the fervour of strict
Calvinistic notions. In the glooms of Charnwood
he was assailed by illusions similar in kind to those
which are related of the famous Anthony of Padua.
Wild antic faces would ever and anon protrude
themselves upon his sensorium. Whether he shut
his eyes, or kept them open, the same illusions
operated. The darker and more profound were his
cogitations, the droller and more whimsical became


the apparitions. They buzzed about him thick as
flies, flapping at him, flouting him, hooting in his
ear, yet with such comic appendages, that what at
first was his bane became at length his solace ; and
he desired no better society than that of his merry
phantasmata. We shall presently find in what way
this remarkable phenomenon influenced his future

On the death of Mrs. Sittingbourn we find him
received into the family of Mr. VVilloughby, an
eminent Turkey merchant, resident in Birchin Lane,
London. We lose a little while here the chain of
his history, — by what inducements this gentleman
was determined to make him an inmate of his house.
Probably he had had some personal kindness for
Mrs. Sittingbourn formerly ; but, however it was, the
young man was here treated more like a son than a clerk,
though he was nominally but the latter. Different
avocations, the change of scene, with that alternation
of business and recreation which in its greatest per-
fection is to be had only in London, appear to have
weaned him in a short time from the hypochondriacal
affections which had beset him at Charnwood.

In the three years which followed his removal to
Birchin Lane, we find him making more than one
voyage to the Levant, as chief factor for Mr. Wil-
loughby at the Porte. We could easily fill our
biography with the pleasant passages which we have
heard him relate as having happened to him at Con-
stantinople ; such as his having been taken up on
suspicion of a design of entering the seraglio, &c. :
but, with the deepest convincement of this gentle-
man's own veracity, we think that some of the stories
are of that whimsical, and others of that romantic

c 1


nature, which, however diverting, would be out of
place in a narrative of this kind, which aims not only
at strict truth, but at avoiding the very appearance
of the contrary.

We will now bring him over the seas again, and
suppose him in the counting-house in Birchin Lane,
his protector satisfied with the returns of his facto-
rage, and all going on so smoothly, that we may
expect to find Mr. Liston at last an opulent merchant
upon 'Change, as it is called. But see the turns of
destiny ! Upon a Summer excursion into Norfolk
in the year 1801, the accidental sight of pretty Sally
Parker, as she was called, (then in the Norwich
company,) diverted his inclinations at once from
commerce ; and he became, in the language of
commonplace biography, stage-struck. Happy for
the lovers of mirth was it that our hero took this
turn; he might else have been to this hour that un-
entertaining character, a plodding London merchant.

We accordingly find him shortly after making his
debut, as it is called, upon the Norwich boards, in the
season of that year, being then in the twenty-second
year of his age. Having a natural bent to tragedy,
he chose the part of Pyrrhus, in the " Distressed
Mother," to Sally Parker's Hermione. We find him
afterwards as Barnwell, Altamont, Chamont, &c. ;
but, as if Nature had destined him to the sock, an
unavoidable infirmity absolutely discapacitated him
for tragedy. His person, at this latter period of which
I have been speaking, was graceful, and even com-
manding ; his countenance set to gravity : he had
the power of arresting the attention of an audience
at first sight almost beyond any other tragic actor.
But he could not hold it. To understand this ob-


stacle, we must go back a few years to those appal-
ling reveries at Charnwood. Those illusions, which
had vanished before the dissipation of a less recluse
life and more free society, now in his solitary tragic
studies, and amid the intense calls upon feeling inci-
dent to tragic acting, came back upon him with ten-
fold vividness. In the midst of some most pathetic
passage (the parting of Jaffier with his dying friend,
for instance) he would suddenly be surprised with a
fit of violent horse-laughter. While the spectators
were all sobbing before him with emotion, sud-
denly one of those grotesque faces would peep out
upon him, and he could not resist the impulse. A
timely excuse once or twice served his purpose ; but
no audiences could be expected to bear repeatedly this
violation of the continuity of feeling. He describes
them (the illusions) as so many demons haunting
him, and paralyzing every effort. Even now, I am
told, he cannot recite the famous soliloquy in
" Hamlet," even in private, without immoderate
bursts of laughter. However, what he had not force
of reason sufficient to overcome he had good sense
enough to turn into emolument, and determined to
make a commodity of his distemper. He prudently
exchanged the buskin for the sock, and the illusions
instantly ceased ; or, if they occurred for a short
season, by their very co-operation added a zest to his
comic vein, — some of his most catching faces being
(as he expresses it) little more than transcripts and
copies of those extraordinary phantasmata.

We have now drawn out our hero's existence to the
period v/hen he was about to meet, for the first time,
tlie sympathies of a London audience. The particu-
lars of his success since have been too much before


our eyes to render a circumstantial detail of them
expedient. I shall only mention, that Mr. Wil-
loughby, his resentments having had time to subside,
is at present one of the fastest friends of his old
renegado factor ; and that Mr. Liston's hopes of Miss
Parker vanishing along with his unsuccessful suit to
Melpomene, in the Autumn of 1811 he married his
present lady, by whom he has been blessed with one
son, Philip, and two daughters, Ann and Angustina.



Hark'ee, Mr. Editor! A word in your ear. They
tell me you are going to put me in print — in print,
Sir, — to publish my life. What is my life to you,
Sir ? What is it to you whether I ever lived at all ?
Tvly life is a very good life, Sir ? I am insured at the
Pelican, Sir? I am threescore years and six — six;
mark me. Sir : but I can play Polonius, which, I
believe, few of your corre — correspondents can do.
Sir. I suspect tricks. Sir : I smell a rat ; I do, I do.
You would cog the die upon us ; you would, you
would. Sir. But I will forestall you, Sir. You would
be deriving me from William the Conqueror, with a
murrain to you. It is no such thing, Sir. The town


shall know better, Sir. They begin to smoke your
flams, Sir. Mr. Listen maybe born where he pleases,
Sir : but I will not be born at Lup — Lupton Magna,
for any body's pleasure, Sir. My son and I have
looked over the great map of Kent together, and we
can find no such place as you would palm upon us,
Sir; palm upon us, I say. Neither Magna norParva,
as my son says, and he knows Latin, Sir; Latin. If
you write my life true, Sir, you must set down, that
I, Joseph Munden, comedian, came into the world
upon AUhallows' Day, Anno Domini 1759 — 1759 ; no
sooner nor later. Sir ; and I saw the first light — the
first light, remember. Sir, at Stoke Pogis — Stoke
Pogis, comitatu Bucks, and not at Lup — Lup
Magna, which I believe to be no better than moon-
shine — moonshine; do you mark me. Sir? I wonder
you can put such Aim flams upon us, Sir; I do, I do.
It does not become you. Sir; I say it — I say it. And
my father was an honest tradesman. Sir: he dealt in
malt and hops. Sir, and was a Corporation man. Sir,
and of the Church of England, Sir, and no Presby-
terian ; nor Ana — Anabaptist, Sir, however you may
be disposed to make honest people believe to the
contrary, Sir. Your bams are found out. Sir. The
town will be your stale puts no longer, Sir ; and you
must not send us jolly fellows, Sir — we that are
comedians. Sir, — you must not send us into groves
and Charn — Charnwoods, a moping. Sir. Neither
Charns, nor charnel houses, Sir. It is not our con-
stitutions. Sir. I tell it you — I tell it you. I was a
droll dog from my cradle. I came into the world
tittering, and the midwife tittered, and the gossips
spilt their caudle with tittering. And when I was
brought to the font, the parson could not christen me


for tittering. So I was never more than half baptized.
And when I was Httle Joey I made 'em all titter; —
there was not a melancholy face to be seen in Pogis.
Pure nature, Sir. I was born a comedian. Old
Screwup, the undertaker, could tell you, Sir, if he
were living. Why, I was obliged to be locked up
every time there was to be a funeral at Pogis. I was
— I was, Sir. I used to grimace at the mutes, as he
called it, and put 'em out with my mops and mows,
till they couldn't stand at a door for me. And when
I was locked up, with nothing but a cat in my com-
pany, I followed my bent with trying to make her
laugh, and sometimes she would, and sometimes she
would not. And my schoolmaster could make
nothing of me : I had only to thrust my tongue in
my cheek — in my cheek. Sir, and the rod dropped
from his fingers : and so my education was limited,
Sir. And I grew up a young fellow, and it was
thought convenient to enter me upon some course of
life that should make me serious ; but it wouldn't do.
Sir. And I was articled to a drysalter. My father
gave forty pounds premium with me. Sir. I can
show the indent — dent — dentures. Sir. But I was
born to be a comedian, Sir; so I ran away, and listed
with the players, Sir ; and I topt my parts at
Amersham and Gerrard's Cross, and played my own
father to his face, in his own town of Pogis, in the
part of Gripe, when I was not full seventeen years of
age, and he did not know me again, but he knew me
afterwards ; and then he laughed, and I laughed,
and, what is better, the drysalter laughed, and gave
me up my articles for the joke's sake : so that I came
into court afterwards with clean hands — with clean
hands— do you see, Sir?


[Here the manuscript becomes illegible for two or
three sheets onwards, which we presume to be occa-
sioned by the absence of Mr. Munden, jun., who
clearly transcribed it for the press thus far. The
rest (with the exception of the concluding paragraph,
which seemingly is resumed in the first handwriting)
appears to contain a confused account of some law-
suit, in which the elder Munden was engaged ; with
a circumstantial history of the proceedings on a case
of Breach of Promise of Marriage, made to or by (we
cannot pick out which) Jemima Munden, spinster,
probably the comedian's cousin, for it does not
appear he had any sister ; with a few dates, rather
better preserved, of this great actor's engagements —
as "Cheltenham (spelt Cheltnam) 1776;" "Bath,
1779;" "London, 1789;" together with stage anec-
dotes of Messrs. Edwin, Wilson, Lee Lewis, &c.,
over which we have strained our eyes to no purpose,
in the hope of presenting something amusing to the
public. Towards the end the manuscript brightens
up a little, as we have said, and concludes in the fol-
lowing manner.]

stood before them for six-and-thirty years,

[we suspect that Mr. Munden is here speaking of

Online LibraryCharles LambThe life, letters, and writings of Charles Lamb (Volume 6) → online text (page 2 of 29)