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Art. IX.—The Essays of Elia. By CHARLES LAMB, Esq.
New York: George Dearborn. 1835.
In adding our tribute to the memory of Lamb, we are conscious of personal associations of peculiar and touching interest. We recall the many listless hours he has beguiled; and the very remembrance of happy moments, induced by his quiet humour, and pleasing reveries, inspired by his quaint descriptions and inimitable pathos, is refreshing to our minds. It is difficult to realise that these feelings have reference to an individual whose countenance we never beheld, and the tones of whose voice never fell upon our ear. Frequent and noted instances there are, in the annals of literature, of attempts, on the part of authors, to introduce themselves to the intimate acquaintance of their readers. In portraying their own characters in those of their heroes, in imparting the history of their lives in the form of an epic poem, a popular novel, or through the more direct medium of a professed autobiography, writers have aimed at a striking presentation of themselves. The success of such attempts is, in general, very limited. Like letters of introduction, they, indeed, prove passports to the acquaintance, but not necessarily to the friendship of those to whom they are addressed. At best, they ordinarily afford us an insight into the mind of the author, but seldom render us familiar and at home with the man. Charles Lamb, on the contrary,-if our own experience does not deceive ushas brought himself singularly near those who have once heartily entered into the spirit of his lucubrations. We seem to know his history, as if it were that of our brother, or earliest friend. The sadness of his “ objectless holidays,"—the beautiful fidelity of his first love, the monotony of his long clerkship, and the strange feeling of leisure succeeding its renunciation, the excitement of his first play,” the zest of his reading, the musings of his daily walk, and the quietude of his fireside, appear like visions of actual memory. His image, now bent over a huge leger, in a dusky counting-house, and now threading the thoroughfares of London, with an air of abstraction, from which nothing recalls him but the outstretched hand of a little sweep, an inviting row of worm-eaten volumes upon an old book stall, or the gaunt figure of a venerable beggar; and the same form sauntering through the groves about Oxford in the vacation solitude, or seated in a little back study, intent upon an antiquated folio, appear like actual reminiscences rather than pictures of the fancy. The face of his old schoolmaster is as some familiar physiognomy; and we seem to have VOL. XIX.
known Bridget Elia from infancy, and to have loved her, too. notwithstanding her one "ugly habit of reading in company, Indeed we can compare our associations of Charles Lamb only to those which would naturally attach to an intimate neighbour with whom we had, for years, cultivated habits of delightful intercourse, --stepping over his threshold, to hold sweet commune, whenever weariness was upon our spirits and we desired cheering and amiable companionship. And when death actually justified the title affixed to our friend's most recent papers—which we had fondly regarded merely as an additional evidence of his unique method of dealing with his fellow beings,—when they really proved the last essays of Elia, we could unaffectedly apply to him the touching language with which an admired poet has hallowed the memory of a brother bard :
And were it only for the peculiar species of fame which Lamb's contributions to the light literature of his country have obtained him,--were it only for the valuable lesson involved in this tributary heritage--in the method by which it was won, — in the example with which it is associated, there would remain ample cause for congratulation among the real friends of human improvement; there would be sufficient reason to remember, gratefully and long, the gifted and amiable essayist. Instead of the feverish passion for reputation, which renders the existence of the majority of professed littérateurs of the present day, a wearing and anxious trial, better becoming the dust and heat of the arena, than the peaceful shades of the academy, a calm and self-reposing spirit pervades and characterises the writings of Lamb. They are obviously the offspring of thoughtful leisure; they are redolent of the otium ; and in this consists their peculiar charm. We are disposed to value this characteristic highly, at a time which abounds, as does our age, with a profusion of forced and elaborate writings. It is truly delightful to encounter a work, however limited in design and unpretending in execution, which revives the legitimate idea of literature,--which makes us feel that it is as essentially spontaneous as the process of vegetation, and is only true to its source and its object, when instinct with freshness and freedom. No mind, restlessly urged by a morbid appetite for literary fame, or disciplined to a mechanical development of thought, could have originated the attractive essays we are
considering. They indicate quite a different parentage. A lovely spirit of contentment, a steadfast determination towards a generous culture of the soul, breathes through these mental emanations. Imaginative enjoyment,—the boon with which the Creator has permitted man to meliorate the trying circumstances of his lot, is evidently the great recreation of the author, and to this he would introduce his readers. It is interesting to feel, that among the many accomplished men, whom neces. sity or ambition incline to the pursuit of literature, there are those who find the time and possess the will to do something like justice to their own minds. Literary biography is little else than a history of martyrdoms. We often rise from the perusal of a great man's life, whose sphere was the field of letters, with diminished faith in the good he successfully pursued. The story of disappointed hopes, ruined health, a life in no small degree isolated from social pleasure and the incitements which nature affords, can scarcely be relieved of its melancholy aspect by the simple record of literary success. Earnestly as we honour the principle of self-devotion, our sympathy with beings of a strong intellectual and imaginative bias is too great not to awaken, above every other consideration, a desire for the self-possession and native exhibition of such a heaven-implanted tendency. We cannot but wish that natures thus endowed should be true to themselves. We feel that, in this way, they will eventually prove most useful to the world. And yet one of the rarest results which such men arrive at, is self-satisfaction in the course they pursue —we do not mean as regards the success, but the direction of their labours. Sir James Mackintosh continually lamented, in his diary, the failure of his splendid intentions,-consoled himself with the idea of additional enterprises, and finally died without completing his history. Coleridge has left only, in a fragmentary and scattered form, the philosophical system he proposed to develope. Both these remarkable men passed intellectual lives, and evolved, in conversation and fugitive productions, fruits which are worthy of a perennial existence ; yet they fell so far short of their aims, they realised so little of what they conceived, that an impression the most painful remains upon the mind that, with due susceptibility, contemplates their career. We find, therefore, an especial gratification in turning from such instances, to a far humbler one indeed, but still to a man of genius, who richly enjoyed his pleasant and sequestered inheritance in the kingdom of letters, and whose comparatively few productions bear indubitable testimony to a mind at ease,--a felicitous expansion of feeling--an imaginative and yet contented life. It is as illustrative of this, that the essays of Elia are mainly valuable.
In our view, the form of these writings is a great recommendation. We confess a partiality for the essay. In the literature of our vernacular tongue, it shines conspicuous, and is environed with the most pleasing associations. To the early English essayists is due the honour of the first and most successful endeavours to refine the language and manners of their country. The essays of Dr. Johnson, Goldsmith, Addison, and Steele, while they answered a most important immediate purpose, still serve as instructive disquisitions and excellent illustrations of style. The essay is to prose literature, what the sonnet is to poetry; and as the narrow limits of the latter have enclosed some of the most beautiful poetic imagery, and finished expressions of sentiment within the compass of versified writing, so many of the most chaste specimens of elegant periods, and of animated and embellished writing, exist in the form of essays. The lively pen of Montaigne, the splendid rhetoric of Burke, and the vigorous argument of John Foster, have found equal scope in essay writing: and among the various species of composition at present in vogue, how few can compare with this in general adaptation. Descriptive sketches and personal traits, speculative suggestions and logical deductions, the force of direct appeal, the various power of illustration, allusion and comment, are equally available to the essayist. His essay may be a lay-sermon or a satire, a criticism or a reverie. “Of the words of men,” says Lord Bacon, “there is nothing more sound and excellent than are letters; for they are more natural than orations and more advised than sudden conferences.” Essays combine the qualities here ascribed to epistolary composition; indeed, they may justly be regarded as letters addressed to the public; embodying—in the delightful style which characterises the private correspondence of cultivated friends—views and details of universal interest.
There is more reason to regret the decline of essay writing, from the fact, that the forms of composition now in vogue, are so inferior to it both in intrinsic excellence and as vehicles of thought. There is, indeed, a class of writers whose object is, professedly and solely, to amuse; or if a higher purpose enter into their design, it does not extend beyond the conveyance of particular historical information. But the majority of pro. minent authors cherish, as their great end, the inculcation of certain principles of action, theories of life, or views of humanity. We may trace, in the works of the most justly admired writers of our own day, a favourite sentiment or 'theory pervading, more or less, the structure of their several volumes, and constantly presenting itself under various aspects, and in points of startling contrast or thrilling impression. We honour the deliberate and faithful presentation of a theory, on the part
of literary men, when they deem it essential to the welfare of their race. Loyalty to such an object bespeaks them worthy of their high vocation; and we doubt if an author can be permanently useful to his fellow beings and true to himself, without such a light to guide, and such an aim to inspire. Dogmatical attachment to mere opinion is doubtless opposed to true progression in thought: but fidelity in the development and vivid portraiture of a sentiment knit into the well-being of man, and coincident with his destiny, is among the most obvious of literary obligations. Something of chivalric interest is attached to "Sidney's Defence of Poesy;" the anxiety for the reform of conventional customs and modes of thinking in society, so constantly evinced in the pages of the Spectator, commands our sympathy and respect; and we think the candid objector to Wordsworth's view of his divine art, cannot but honour the steadiness with which he has adhered to, and unfolded it. Admitting, then, the dignity of such literary. ends,—the manner in which they can be most effectually accomplished, must often be a subject of serious consideration.
It is generally taken for granted, that the public will give ear to no teacher who cannot adroitly practise the expedient so beautifully illustrated by Tasso, in the simile of the chalice of medicine with a honeyed rim. True as it is, that in an age surfeited with books of every description, there exists a kind of necessity for setting decoys afloat upon the stream of, literature-is not the faith in literary lures altogether too perfect? Does the mental offspring we have cherished, obtain the kind of attention we desire, when ushered into the world. arrayed in the garb of fiction? The experiment, we acknowledge, succeeds in one respect. The inviting dress will attract the eyes of the multitude; but how few will penetrate to the theory, appreciate the moral, or enter into the thoughts to which the fanciful costume is only the drapery and frame, work? The truth is, the very object of writers who would present a philosophical problem through the medium of a. novel, is barely recognised. Corinna is still regarded as a. romance sui generis. Several efforts of the kind, on the part of. living British writers of acknowledged power, seem to have utterly failed of their purpose, as far as the mass of readers, whom they were especially intended to affect, are concerned. The plan in such instances, is strictly psychological. Public attention, however, is at once riveted on the plot and details; and some strong delineation of human passion, some trivial error in the external sketching, some over intense or too minute personation of feeling, suffices to condemn the work in the view-we do not say how justly-even of the discriminating. Now we are confident, that should the writers in