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THE LITERARY HISTORY OF ENGLAND.
CHARLES LAMB— THOMAS DE QUINCEY.
AMID the greater forms that rose in the new flood of genius and life, in the end of the old century, to give the world-assurance of a new epoch coming in, there is no attendant figure more attractive, more delightful, than that of Charles Lamb. No face can frown, no brow be overcast, when Elia—the gentle, the tender, the humorous, and ever-smiling, notwithstanding the deep dew of anguish which was never quite dried in his eyes — makes his appearance upon the scene. No man ever had a sweeter or more lightsome nature, and few men, even in this world of trouble, have been so heavily weighted. He was the schoolfellow of Coleridge at Christ's Hospital, and it is enough to warm the heart of all beholders to every wearer of the blue gown and yellow stockings to remember the two lads, who once strayed about the narrow streets in these habiliments, and ate the poor
fare and bore the hardships which, in these days, were inseparable from the lot of a Blue-coat boy. Coleridge was a Grecian, a scholar, and credit to the school, although he prized the position so little that he desired (as is recorded) to be bound apprentice to a kind cobbler, who had been
good to him, instead of going to college ; but Lamb had no such distinctions, and instead of accompanying his schoolfellow to Cambridge, entered the South Sea office at fifteen, the little salary he received there being of importance to his family. When he was eighteen, he was received into the India Office, and there spent his life. His father was no more than the servant of Mr. Salt, a bencher in the Inner Temple, and the little household was in the humblest circumstances, though of that class so common in books, so little common in realitynature's gentlefolks. “It is hard,” says De Quincey, with a grace of natural perception which makes his gossip and his tone of involuntary depreciation supportable, “it is hard, even for the practical philosopher, to distinguish aristocratic graces of manner and capacities of natural feeling in people whose very hearth and dress bear witness to the servile humility of their station. Yet such distinctions, as wild gifts of nature, timidly and half consciously asserted themselves in the unpretending Lambs. Already, in their favour there existed a silent privilege, analogous to the famous one of Lord Kinsale. He, by special grant from the Crown, is allowed, when standing before the king, to forget that he is not himself a king: the bearer of that peerage, through all generations, has the privilege of wearing his hat in the royal presence. By a general, though tacit, concession of the same nature, the rising generation of the Lambs, John and Charles, the sons, and Mary Lamb, the only daughter, were permitted to forget that their grandmother had been a housekeeper for sixty years, and that their father had worn a livery."
Lamb was so completely above all petty pride, that he himself refers to this housekeeper-relation in one of the most delightful of his essays. He had nothing to conceal from the world. His humble position, his family, his domestic concerns, leaped into the sight of all men in one
brief and terrible moment, when the light-hearted youth was but twenty, a fanciful boy like others, writing sonnets to his mistress's eyebrow, and rhyming about a fairhaired maid. His father was old and feeble, his mother an invalid in her chair, and she who kept the little, dreary, sick household going, and cared for every one-Mary, ten
years older than her brother-had always been the most tender of sisters and daughters. But there was insanity in their blood. Charles himself had spent“ the six weeks that finished last year and began this” (1796) “ very agreeably in a madhouse at Hoxton;" and Mary had suffered from more than one attack of the same kind. But nobody, it was evident, dreamt of any danger in connection with the gentle, homely young woman, the provider of her household, when one dreadful September day, when the cloth was laid for the midday dinner, a sudden fury of madness seized her, and with one of the knives from the table she killed the invalid mother whom she had been watching with unremitting tenderness night and day. "My poor, dear, dearest sister," writes Lamb to Coleridge, with an agony of restrained tears in the very sound of the words, “in a fit of insanity has been the death of her own mother. I was at hand only time enough to snatch the knife out of her grasp. She is at present in a madhouse, from whence I hear she must be removed to an hospital. God has preserved to me my senses; I eat and drink, and sleep, and have my judgment, I believe. My poor father was slightly wounded, and I am left to take care of him and my aunt. . . . Write as religious a letter as possible,” the poor young man continues, “but no mention of what is gone and done with. The former things have passed away, and I have something more to do than to feel. God Almighty has us all in his keeping." What a tragedy was this to break into the monotonous routine of the little rooms in
the city, where the old father, almost imbecile, the old aunt in not much better case, the mother helpless, were all dependent upon the care of that serene and loving Mary, who worked at her needlework to add to their comforts, and sacrificed her life and her rest to them, till this final blast of madness came. “My dear, dearest sister!" Lamb repeats again and again, his profound, heartrending pity for her—“the unhappy and unconscious instrument of the Almighty's judgments on our house,”transcending every other feeling. Anxious calculations how to spare enough money to keep her in the asylum, where she had been taken, were the first efforts of his mind after this horrible shock; "If my father, an old servant maid, and I, can't live, and live comfortably, on £130 or £120 a year, we ought to burn by slow fires; and I almost would that Mary might not go into a hospital.” Poor boy! he who made these calculations, and supplied the greater part of the tiny income, was but twenty ; and in the midst of all these terrible troubles could not help a half sob of boyish misery, when he described himself as “starving at the India House since seven o'clock without any dinner," then getting home, “over worn and quite faint,” to play cards with the sick and exacting old man, who was wholly dependent upon him for company and amusement : "I am got home at last,” he writes, “and after repeated games at cribbage, have got my father's leave to write a while; with difficulty got it, for when I expostulated about playing any more, he aptly replied, 'If you won't play with me you might as well not come home at all.' The argument was unanswerable, and I set to afresh.” In this gloomy scene, it was some consolation to him to recollect the nice "smoky little room at the Salutation ” where Coleridge and he had been wont to meet. “I have never met with any one- nor shall meet with any one who could or
can compensate me for the loss of your society," he says; and so said everybody who had ever known Coleridgethat strange sympathetic genius which fathomed, and embraced, and understood, all the moods of men. It is one of the incidental testimonies which touch our hearts most, that in Lamb's terrible trouble he should have been able to pour out his heart, unreservedly, into the bosom of this friend of friends.
Some time after the poor old father died, and Charles was fain to do what he had been longing for—to take his sister back to his home. There were great doubts and difficulties about it. The well-to-do relations, and chiefly the elder brother, thought it better she should remain where she was, getting rid of the sight, at least, of this great and abiding distress by keeping her in seclusion, But young Charles had a heart of a different fibre. There were difficulties, too, with the law, which had a right over her; but he surmounted all objections, and “satisfied all persons who had power to oppose her release, by his solemn engagement that he would take her under his care for life.” He was impatient, even, to take upon him this burden which the other sensible people opposed, although the fear that her malady might break out again, tempered the joy of getting his dear companion back. This fear was but too well grounded. Mary Lamb—“the dear, dearest sister” for whom his heart bled—came back to the tender shelter of her young brother's little rooms and great pitying love; but it was not long before she “ fell ill” again. “I was obliged to remove her yesterday,” he says; “my heart is quite sunk, and I don't know where to look for relief. Mary will get better, but her constantly being liable to such relapses is dreadful. I am completely shipwrecked.” So this dismal-happy life began. For nearly forty years they lived together, with many a subdued and gentle interval of happiness" between the acts,"