Edith Helen Sichel.

The life and letters of Alfred Ainger online

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Humour is in the region of our intellectual nature, what charity is
in our moral. The function of humour is the exact opposite of
that of wit. Humour is ever akin to sympathy. It is the power
of understanding and appreciating the tastes, the prejudices, the
likes and dislikes, the humours of others, and throwing over them
that atmosphere of charity which makes men feel for one another,
make allowances for their weaknesses, and understand how sacred
and solemn a thing it is to share the common nature.'

It is fitting that a chapter on Alfred Ainger's humour
should end upon the same note as that with which it began.



Alfred Ainger's friendships in literature were much like his
friendships with persons. With him, friendship in both
respects remained what it always is in youth, an excitement,
an ever fresh emotion. And literature provided him with
one dominant sentiment — his love for Charles Lamb. He
had other personal affinities — with Thomas Hood, with
Edward FitzGerald ; but in none were intimacy and admira-
tion combined in the same way as in his feeling for Elia.
' Those who love him,' he once said, ' do not love him ... by
halves, but are content to be fanatical in their attachment.'

It was an attachment, as we know, which dated 'almost
from his childhood.' Early in life he made himself familiar
with Lamb's circumstances, his writings, his haunts, the
books he loved. Ainger belonged by birthright to Lamb's
Wednesday evenings. His was a kindred spirit, and the
connection between them was no mere matter of imitation.

'He chose his companions from some individuality of
character which they manifested. Hence not many men of
science, and few professed literati, were of his councils.' So
wrote Lamb of Elia; and Alfred Ainger's kind of wit, his
tastes, his perversities, his amenities, all alike fitted him to be
one of that circle. There were also certain outward resem-
blances to link them. The lives of both were early over-
shadowed by deep sorrow and heavy responsibilities. Both
belonged to the Temple ; both were of no time, and of no
place except London ; and both adored London as a mother
whose side they were loth to leave. They enjoyed ' the
impossibility of being dull in Fleet Street; the crowds, the
very dirt and mud, the sun shining upon houses and pave-
ments, the print-shops, the old book-stalls . . . steams of



soup from kitchens, the pantomimes, London itself a panto-
mime and a masquerade.' These words from Elia's pen^
serve as a formula for both. And their very birthdays showed
a nearness which Ainger was fond of dwelling on, for he was
born on February 9th and Lamb on the day following.
Analogies such as these wove a bond between them long
before the lesser man became the greater one's biographer.

It was in 1881 that the 'Life of Charles Lamb' was
published in Macmillan's English Men of Letters Series; in
1883, the same firm brought out Ainger's edition of Lamb's
Essays^ to which the plays and poems, the stories and mis-
cellaneous pieces, were added later ; and in 1888, his studies
of Elia were completed by the two volumes of letters which
appeared under his editorship.

In judging and enjoying all this work of Ainger's, one thing
must never be forgotten — its entirely personal nature. He
wrote as a lover and a friend, not as a scholar or a student.
His notes are literary, not learned ; and whether as chronicler
or editor, he seeks to stir imagination rather than to feed the
wish for knowledge. So personal was he, indeed, that lie
sometimes dealt with his subject rather like an actor with his
part — interpreting his theme according to a foregone con-
ception. This is, on the face of it, not the best qualification
for an editor, and, as we shall see later, it weakened his work
in that capacity. But it is a qualification for portrait paint-
ing, a certain amount of elimination being needful to give
life to the picture; and hence Ainger's biography of Lamb
will remain as a masterly study of Elia — delicate, harmonious,
sincere. So will his criticism of Lamb's writing, which for
depth and truth of judgment, has hitherto passed unrivalled.

No atmosphere could have better suited Alfred Ainger than
that of Lamb's circle ; of the poets of the Lake School who
were his comrades. The omnipresence of their ethical instinct,
even when they sowed their wild oats in the days of the Pan-
tisocracy — the absence of personal passion in their natures —
their domesticity — their spiritual beliefs — all these were traits
that made him feel intimate with them. And this sense of
1 Letter to Wordsworth, l8oi.


familiarity with the friends of his friend gave fresh warmth to
his rendering of the central figure.

His Lhfe has now been some twenty-five years before the
public. It stands almost as a classic, and, at this date, to
dwell upon its merits seems needless. The limitations of
space imposed by writing for a series necessarily kept Ainger
from inserting a good many details, which afterwards found
a place in his notes to Lamb's writings. But had he been
able to add them to his portrait it would have gained nothing
essential either in colour or in drawing. It is an achievement
in the art of presentment that his portrait is complete in
itself; that restrictions only served to concentrate, not to
attenuate, his work ; and that, from first to last, he had such
confidence in Lamb tliat he could afford to see him as a
whole. For if his power of symmetry is noteworthy, so is his
power of fairness. It was this which lent depth to his love,
while his love lent warmth to his justice. There is no part of
his book so affecting as that in wliich he touches on LamVs
infirmities. He is neither the scientific surgeon, nor the
patronising psychologist; he is ever the loyal follower who
allows none to dare pity Elia unless he reverence him first.
And this is effected by no pathetic strokes, but by a sober
simplicity which Lamb would have been the first to approve.
His judgment of Elia, the writer, is redolent of the same
quality :

' That Lamb,' he says, ' was a poet was at the root of his
greatness as a critic; and his own judgments of poetry show the
same sanity to which he points in his poetical brethren. He is
never so impulsive or discursive that he fails to show how un-
erring is his judgment on all points connected with the poet's ai't.
There had been those before Lamb, for example, who had quoted
and called attention to the poetry of George Wither; but no one
had thought of noticing that his metre was also that of Ambrose
Phillips, and that Pope and his friends had only proved their own
defective ear by seeking to make it ridiculous. " To the measure
in which these lines are written, the wits of Queen Anne's days
contemptuously gave the name of Namby-Pamby, in ridicule of
Ambrose Phillips, who has used it in some instances, as in the
lines o\\ Cuzzoni, to my feeling at least, very deliciously ; but


Wither, whose darling measure it seems to have been, may show
that in skilful hands it is capable of expressing the subtlest move-
ment of passion. So true it is, w^hat Drayton seems to have felt,
that it is the poet who modifies the metre, not the metre the
poet." It was in the margin of a copy of Wither's poems that
this exquisite comment was originally made ; and in such a casual
way did much of Lamb's finest criticism come into being. All
through his life, in letter and essay, he was making remarks of
this kind, throwing them out by the way, never thinking that
they would be hereafter treasured up as the most luminous and
penetrative judgments of the century. . . . If the spiritual insight
of Coleridge, and the unwearied industry and sober commonsense
of Southey could be combined with the special genius of Charles
Lamb, something like the ideal commentary on English literature
might be the result.'

Or take this passage :

' It may well be asked why, with such a range of sympathy,
from Marlowe to Ambrose Phillips, from Sir T. Browne to Sir
William Temple, he was so limited, so one-sided, in his estimate
of the literature of his own age ? It is true that he was among
the first in England to appreciate Burns and Wordsworth. But
to Scott, Byron, and Shelley he entertained a feeling almost of
aversion. He was glad (as we gather from the essay on the
Sanitj/ of True Genius) that "a happier genius" had arisen to expel
the " innutritions phantoms " of the Minerva Press ; but the
success of the Waverley Novels seems to have caused him amaze-
ment rather than any other feeling. About Byron he wrote to
Joseph Cottle : " I have a thorough aversion to his character, and
a very moderate admiration of his genius : he is great in so little
a way. To be a poet is to be the man, not a petty portion of
occasional low passion worked up in a pemianent form of
humanity." Shelley's poetry, he told Barton, he did not under-
stand, and that it was " thin sown with profit or delight." When
he read Goethe's Faust (of course in an English version) he at once
pronounced it inferior to Marlowe's in the chief motive of the plot,
and was evidently content to let criticism end there. Something
of this may be ascribed to a jealousy in Lamb — a strange and
needless jealousy for his own loved writers of the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries, and a fear lest the newcomers should
usurp some of the praise and renown that he claimed for them ;
something, also, to a perverseness in him which made him like to


be in opposition to the current opinion, whatever it might be.
He was often unwilling, rather than unable, to discuss the claims
of a new candidate for public favour. He lived mainly in com-
munion with an older literature. It was to him inexhaustible in
amount and in excellence, and he was impatient of what sought
to divert his attention from it. It was literally true of him that
"when a new book came out — he read an old one." '

This might with equal truth have been said of Alfred
Ainger ; and the same resemblance will be recognised in what
follows :

' The truth is, that for Lamb to enjoy a work of humour it must
embody a strong human interest, or at least have a pulse of
humanity throbbing through it. Humour, without pity or tender-
ness, only repelled him. It was another phase of the same quality
in him, that — as we have seen in his estimate of Byron — when he
was not drawn to the mayi, he was almost disabled from admiring,
or even understanding, the man's work. Had he ever come face
to face with the author for a single evening, the result might have
been quite different. There is no difficulty, therefore, in detect-
ing the limitations of Lamb as a critic. In a most remarkable
degree he had the defects of his qualities. Where his heart was,
there his judgment was sound. Where he actively disliked or
was passively indifferent, his critical powers remained dormant.
He was too fond of paradox, too much at the mercy of his
emotions or the mood of the hour, to be a safe guide always.
But where no disturbing forces interfered, he exercised a faculty
almost unique in the history of criticism.'

There is not a word here that Ainger would not have

endorsed about himself. There are other points of analogy

which one feels he recognised — qualities and gifts, his by

nature, which comparison probably accentuated in him. This

is perhaps truest of certain aspects of his wit — his love for

' the senseless pun,"* and

' The Bee-like Epigram
Which a two-fold tribute brings
(Honey gives at once imd stings) ' ; '

or else a turn for the Acrostic — which fascinated Lamb too —
the more so, Ainger tells us, because it was of old ' a favourite

* Album-verses to Mrs. Augustus de Morgan, by Lamb.


amusement of the Elizabethans.'' Nor was the cultivated
allusiveness, so marked in Ainger''s talk and writing, unrelated
to his greater model. He himself applies the word to Lamb.
' Another feature of his style,' he writes, ' is its allusiveness.
He is rich in quotations. . . . And besides those avowedly
introduced as such, his style is full of quotations held — if the
expression may be allowed — in solution.'' Both men, too,
were the creatures of moods. ' Whatever is, is to me a matter
of taste or distaste ; or when once it becomes indifferent, it
begins to be disrelishing. I am, in plainer words, a bundle of
prejudices — made up of likings and dislikings — the veriest
thrall to sympathies, apathies, antipathies.' These words of
LamVs might not inaptly serve as an epitome of Lamb''s

The next piece of work that fell to Ainger's pen was his
edition of Lamb's works : the Essays and the Last Essays of
Elia, which came out in 1883 ; the Poems and Plays and
Miscellaneoiis Essays, the Poems and Plays, and Mrs. Leicestcr''s
School and other Writings, together with the Tales from
Shakspeare, all published in the next three years.

He has himself defined his principle of selection in the
editing of the Essays — a principle, of course, only exercised
upon the smaller pieces collected from various periodicals,^
and now bound up by him with Mrs. Leicester\s School.

' Every writer of mark,'' he says, ' leaves behind him shreds
and remnants of stuff, some of which are characteristic and
worthy of preservation, and some are otherwise; and it is, in
my deliberate opinion, an injustice to any such writer to
dilute his reputation by publishing every scrap of writing he
is known to have produced, merely because the necessity of
making a choice may expose the editor to the risk of censure.' ^
'Some half-dozen prose pieces' are consequently left out —
among them the ' unsavoury ' Vision of Horns, which no true
lover of Elia will regret; though so much can hardly be said
for the omission of that ethereal fragment — that masterpiece

^ Chiefly by Mr. Babson, who began to publish them in the Atlantic Monthly
Magazine, in 1863.

•^ Introduction to Mrs. Leicester's School, and other IVritings in Prose and Verse.


of moonshine — The Defeat of Time, a translation into prose
of Hood's poem, the Plea of the Midsummer Fairies, which is
recreated by Lamb in his own image.

Ainger''s notes to these four volumes of Lamb's works make
in themselves racy reading, much like good conversation, rich
in allusion and story rather than in scientific learning. ' The
impertinence,"' he says, ' of criticism or comment, I hope has
been almost entirely avoided,' and his hope is amply justified.
They are notes to feed enjoyment without choking it — notes
also of elucidation. For as ' some clue to the many disguises
... in which the essays abound,' he has had in his hand a
priceless ' list of initials ' — the real names filled in by Lamb
himself in his unmistakable handwriting. But the most
attractive part of his editor's work is the criticism. He knows
that you must enjoy before you can discern. He does not
explain, he suggests ; and for searching, yet not over-subtle
appreciation of Elia, no better instance could be found than
his Introductions to the Essays and the Poems :

' It is in such passages as these that Lamb shows himself, that
indeed he is the last of the Elizabethans' — so he writes after
quoting an extract from The Old Benchers of the Liner Temple.
' He had learned their great language, and yet he had early
discovered, with the keen eye of a humorist, how effective for his
purpose was the touch of the pedantic and the fantastical from
which the noblest of them were not wholly free. He was thus
able to make even their weaknesses a fresh source of delight, as he
dealt with them from the vantage ground of two centuries.^ He
remains, and seems likely to remain, the last of the moderns whose
affinity with the genius of the Elizabethan age enabled him to
write, at one moment, in the solula oralio — the *' linked sweetness
long drawn out" of Jeremy Taylor; and at another with the
closely blended wit and tenderness of the later Euphuists ; and
in both so to write as one who was *'to the manner born." '

' Hang the Age ! ' exclaimed Lamb one day, when some
editor objected to his style as out of harmony with the taste
of the day ; ' Hang the Age ! I will write for Antiquity ! '
And in a sense this always remained his habit.-

^ Introduction to Essays. ' Introduction to Poems, Plays, eh:


Or again, this, on his humour :

'To many other qualities that go to make up that highly com-
posite thing, Lamb's humour — to that feature of it that consists
in the unabashed display of his own unconventionality — his
difference from other people — and to that " metaphysical" quality
of his wit which belonged to him in a far truer sense than as
applied to Cowley and his school, it is sufficient to make a passing
reference. But the mention of Cowley, by whom, with Fuller,
Donne, and the rest, his imagination was assuredly shaped
reminds us once more of the charm that belongs to the "■ old and
antique" strain heard through all his more earnest utterances.
As we listen to Elia the moralist, now with the terse yet stately
egotism of one old master, now in the long-drawn-out harmonies
of another, we live again with the thinkers and dreamers of two
centuries ago,' ^

And this, finally, about his style :

' One feels, rather than recognises, that a phrase or idiom or
turn of expression is an echo of something that one has heard or
read before. Yet such is the use made of his material that a
charm is added by the very fact that we are thus continually
renewing our experience of an older day. His style becomes
aromatic, like the perfume of rose-leaves in a china jar.' 2

A harder editorial task awaited Ainger when he undertook
to annotate Lamb's Letters. There had been, as is well known,
several incomplete editions before his. First Talfourd's charm-
ing and unprofessional volumes (1837 and 1847) containing
comparatively few letters, mostly undated and unarranged, yet
quickened with yesterday's remembrance, the ink as yet hardly
dry upon them. There was nothing after this till 1868,
when with W. Carew Hazlitt as initiator and Sala as editor, a
collection of letters appeared. But it only got as far as one
volume, and remained unfinished. Two years later, Hazlitt
resumed the task, aided by the Moxons, with Purnell in the
place of Sala ; finally, in 1875, Percy Fitzgerald undertook the
work, and brought out the edition known by his name. It had
one advantage over others — that he had a larger number of
originals to copy from than any of his successors are likely to

^ Introduction to the Essays. "^ Ibid,


have, so many of these manuscripts now being scattered far
afield. In 1886, Hazlitt published yet another edition
including Talfourd's Memorials and Letters^ with large addi-
tions of his own ; and in 1888, there came Canon Ainger's two
volumes, including many fresh letters, and especially those to
John Dibdin. No collection since Talfourd's, till this one,
had borne the impress of a first-hand critic or so strong a mark
of personal friendship. Ainger was in the direct Talfourd line
— of the race that Elia loved — which looked upon portraiture
as an art and not a science ; which set character above all,
and tested a man by what was known of him rather than by
piling up of detail — detail, too, which serves for little else
than to prove the editor's accuracy. Still able to distinguish
between the office of the biographer and that of the excavator,
he did not set a fictitious value upon every broken fragment
that turned up from the soil in which he dug ; every note of
invitation or thanks.

His qualities, however, had their defects, and, as we already
pointed out, he sometimes dealt rather freely with his material.
Yet when he suppressed a phrase or an expletive it was because
he believed, as we do with those we love, that he knew Lamb
better than Lamb knew himself; or, at least, that it seemed
to him disloyal to remember words spoken when his friend was
not at his best. But he did not actually leave out any feature
essential to the whole — he only somewhat slurred over that
side of Elia's wit which pleased him least. Nor would Elia
have reproached him. ' I think I have a wider range of
bufllbonery than you. Too much toleration perhaps' — the
sentence that Lamb wrote to Wordsworth — would surely
have been the only admonition he would have addressed to
Alfred Ainger. He himself, in speaking of the Letters^ has
summed up the matter in his own words :

* What,' he asks, ' constitutes the abiding fascination of Lamb's
personality? Not his funny sayings — let the "funny man" of
every generation lay this well to heart. His humour? Yes — for
his humour was part and parcel of his character. It is character
that makes men loved. It was the rare combination in Lamb of
strength and weakness. He was " a hero, with a failing." His


heroism was greater than many of us could hope to show.
Charity, in him, most assuredly fulfilled the well-known defini-
tion. It suffered long and was kind; it thought no evil; and it
never vaunted itself nor was puffed up. And as we watch its
daily manifestations, never asking for the world's recognition,
never thinking it had done enough, or could do enough, for its
beloved object, we may well reckon it large enough to cover a
greater multitude of frailties than those we are able to detect in
the life of Charles Lamb.' ^

Ainger"'s notes to the Letters are, like those to the Essays^
models from the literary point of view — discursive yet com-
pressed ; little storehouses of biography, not only of Lamb,
but of his circle. Here and there, too, we come upon treasure
trove : a new or little-known story, an unpublished set of
album-verses ; unconsidered trifles, perhaps, but of the true
Elia metal. But Ainger belonged to the school of editor
now obsolete — that of the cultivated gentleman with a pre-
judice in favour of reverence, the school most antipathetic to
some young editors of to-day. Autres temps, autres moeurs
— and moeurs are not the idol that this generation has chosen.
One merit, however, it cannot deny to the elder critic.
Through all his editing Ainger never forgets what a dis-
tinguished lover of Lamb has pointed out : that ' whoever
has on his bookshelves the Essays and Last Essays of Elia,
and the contents, in whatever form, of the two volumes first
published in 1818, and an edition of the Letters, has within
his reach all that is necessary to enable him to do the only
thing that really matters, that is, participate in the joy of
Charles Lamb.'- The 'only thing"* is too often forgotten by
the conscience-ridden expert editor of recent days, who well-
nig-h buries the genius before him beneath the mass of evidence
collected, and refuses to reject any scrap of paper lest thereby
he compromise his own soul — the man whose work seems to
prove that the ancient spirit of hair-splitting, chased from its
natural strongholds, has now taken refuge in the criticism of
art and cannot be at home there.

^ * The Letters of Charles Lamb,' Macmillan's Magazine.
'^ Augustine Birrell, T/ie Speaker, July i8, 1903.


Ainger's seven years' work upon Lamb brought him many
interesting experiences besides those of study. He went upon
voyages of discovery, and had letters from remote correspon-
dents. Among the many that reached him were a few from
persons who had known Charles Lamb. And the first of these
is from the pen of Vice-Chancellor Bacon, written in his
ninety-third year : ^

' . . . My personal acquaintance with Mr. Lamb was by no
means intimate. I knew him first through John Dibdin — one of
my earliest and dearest friends — whose name appears among the
letters you have preserved, and who well deserved the affection-
ate interest in which he was held by C. L. It was shortly after
his, J. D.'s, death (as well as I recollect) that I again met C. L. at
the house of Mr. Godwin. It must have been, I think, in 1 824 or
5 (these dates are somewhat puzzling to us old people) that I,
who was then a Lamb student, living in lofty chambers in Gray's
Inn Square, pi-evailed upon Godwin and his wife, and his daugh-
ter, the widowed Mrs. Shelley, to visit me and to bring with them
C L. and his sister Miss Lamb. It is a long time ago — but I
retain a vivid recollection of several most agreeable evenings in

Online LibraryEdith Helen SichelThe life and letters of Alfred Ainger → online text (page 20 of 32)