LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism

My Friends and Acquaintance
Charles Lamb II

Vol I Contents
Charles Lamb I
‣ Charles Lamb II
Charles Lamb III
Charles Lamb IV
Charles Lamb V
Charles Lamb VI
Charles Lamb VII
Charles Lamb VIII
Charles Lamb IX
Charles Lamb X
Thomas Campbell I
Thomas Campbell II
Thomas Campbell III
Thomas Campbell IV
Thomas Campbell V
Thomas Campbell VI
Thomas Campbell VII
Lady Blessington I
Lady Blessington II
Lady Blessington III
Lady Blessington IV
Lady Blessington V
R. Plumer Ward I
R. Plumer Ward II
R. Plumer Ward III
R. Plumer Ward IV
R. Plumer Ward V
R. Plumer Ward VI
Appendix vol I
Vol II Contents
R. Plumer Ward VII
R. Plumer Ward VIII
R. Plumer Ward IX
R. Plumer Ward X
R. Plumer Ward XI
R. Plumer Ward XII
R. Plumer Ward XIII
R. Plumer Ward XIV
R. Plumer Ward XV
R. Plumer Ward XVI
R. Plumer Ward XVII
R. Plumer Ward XVIII
R. Plumer Ward XIX
R. Plumer Ward XX
R. Plumer Ward XXI
R. Plumer Ward XXII
R. Plumer Ward XXIII
Horace & James Smith I
Horace & James Smith II
William Hazlitt I
William Hazlitt II
William Hazlitt III
William Hazlitt IV
William Hazlitt V
William Hazlitt VI
William Hazlitt VII
William Hazlitt VIII
Appendix vol II
Vol III Contents
William Hazlitt IX
William Hazlitt X
William Hazlitt XI
William Hazlitt XII
William Hazlitt XIII
William Hazlitt XIV
William Hazlitt XV
William Hazlitt XVI
William Hazlitt XVII
William Hazlitt XVIII
William Hazlitt XIX
William Hazlitt XX
William Hazlitt XXI
William Hazlitt XXII
William Hazlitt XXIII
William Hazlitt XXIV
William Hazlitt XXV
William Hazlitt XXVI
Laman Blanchard I
Laman Blanchard II
Laman Blanchard III
Laman Blanchard IV
Laman Blanchard V
Laman Blanchard VI
Laman Blanchard VII
Laman Blanchard VIII
R & T Sheridan I
R & T Sheridan II
R & T Sheridan III
R & T Sheridan IV
R & T Sheridan V
R & T Sheridan VI
R & T Sheridan VII
R & T Sheridan VIII
Creative Commons License

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Produced by CATH

I am bound to say that my acquaintance with Charles Lamb, during his residence at Islington, offered little to confirm the associations which Hazlitt has connected with those palmy days when his residence was the resort of all those who “called Admiral Burney friend.” When I knew him, his house had, for various reasons wholly unconnected with any change in the Lambs themselves, degenerated, for the most part, into the trysting place of a little anomalous coterie of strenuous idlers and “Curious Impertinents,” who, without the smallest power of appreciating the qualities of mind and character which nominally brought them together, came there to pass the time under a species of excitement a little different from their ordinary modes of social intercourse—alternating “an evening at the Lambs’” with
a half-price to the play, or a visit to the wild beasts at Exeter ’Change. Certain it is, that not one out of twenty ever came there with the remotest thought of enjoying the society of Lamb and his sister, and quite as little for that of the distinguished men who still occasionally sought the residence of Lamb with that view. Still more certain is it that Lamb himself did not shine in this sort of “mixed company”—this strange olla podrida of intellect, oddity, and commonplace. It might be an “Entertaining Miscellany” to him, but it was one in which he rarely or never published any of those exquisite Eliaisms of which his mind and heart were made up. He was everything that was kind and cordial in his welcome to all comers, and his sister used to bustle and potter about like a gentle housewife, to make everybody comfortable; but you might almost as well have been in the apartments of any other clerk of the India House, for anything you heard that was deserving of note or recollection.

The fact is, that in ordinary society, if Lamb was not an ordinary man, he was only an odd and strange one—displaying no
superior knowledge or wit or wisdom or eloquence, but only that invariable accompaniment of genius, a moral incapacity to subside into the conventional cant or the flat commonplace of everyday life. He would do anything to gratify his guests but that. He would joke, or mystify, or pun, or play the buffoon; but he could not bring himself to prose, or preach, or play the philosopher. He could not be himself (for others, I mean) except when something out of himself made him so; but he could not be anything at variance with himself to please a king.

The consequence was, that to those who did not know him, or, knowing, did not or could not appreciate him, Lamb often passed for something between an imbecile, a brute, and a buffoon; and the first impression he made on ordinary people was always unfavourable—sometimes to a violent and repulsive degree. Hazlitt has somewhere said of him in substance (with about an equal portion of truth and exaggeration, but with an exact feeling of the truth in the very exaggeration) that Lamb was always on a par with his company, however high or however low it
might be. But, somehow or other, silly or ridiculous people have an instinct that makes them feel it as a sort of personal offence if you treat them as if you fancied yourself no better than they. They know it to be a hoax upon them, manage it how you may, and they resent it accordingly.

Now, Lamb was very apt to play fast and loose with his literary reputation in this way, and would certainly rather have passed with nine-tenths of the world for a fool than for a philosopher, a wit, or a man of letters. And I cannot help thinking it was his deep sympathy with mankind, and especially with the poor, whether in spirit or in purse, that was the cause of this. He did not like to be thought different from his fellow-men, and he knew that, in the vocabulary of the ordinary world, “a man of genius” seldom means anything better, and often something worse, than an object of mingled fear, pity, and contempt.

The truth is, that the Elia of private life could be known and appreciated only by his friends and intimates, and even by them only at home. He shone, and was answerable to
his literary and social reputation, only in a tête-à-tête, or in those unpremeditated colloquies over his own table, or by his own fireside, in which his sister and one or two more friends took part, and in which every inanimate object about him was as familiar as the “household words” in which he uttered his deep and subtle thoughts, his quaint and strange fancies, and his sweet and humane philosophy. Under these circumstances, he was perfectly and emphatically a natural person, and there was not a vestige of that startling oddity and extravagance which subjected him to the charge of affecting to be “singular” and “original” in his notions, feelings, and opinions.

In any other species of “company” than that to which I have just referred, however cultivated or intellectual it might be, Lamb was unquestionably liable to the charge of seeming to court attention by the strangeness and novelty of his opinions, rather than by their justness and truth—he was liable and open to this charge, but as certainly he did not deserve it; for affectation supposes a something assumed, put on, pretended—and
of this, Lamb was physically as well as morally incapable. His strangeness and oddity under the one set of circumstances, was as natural to him as his naturalness and simplicity under the other. In the former case, he was not at ease—not a free agent—not his own man; but
Cabin’d, cribbed, confined,
Bound in by saucy doubts and fears
that were cast about him by his “reputation”—which trammelled and hampered him by claims that he had neither the strength cordially to repudiate, nor the weakness cordially to embrace; and in struggling between the two inclinations, he was able to exhibit nothing but the salient and superficial points of his mind and character, as moulded and modified by a state of society so utterly at variance with all his own deliberate views and feelings, as to what it might be, or at least, might have been, that he shrank from the contemplation of it with an almost convulsive movement of pain and disgust, or sought refuge from it in the solitary places of his own thoughts and fancies. When forced into contact with “the world’s true world-
lings,” being anything but one of themselves, he knew that he could not show like them, and yet feared to pain or affront their feelings by seeming too widely different; and between the two it was impossible to guess beforehand what he would do or be under any given circumstances; he himself being the last person capable of predicating on the point. The consequence was, that when the exigency arrived, he was anything or nothing, as the turn of the case or the temper of the moment might impel him; he was equally likely to outrage or to delight the persons in whose company he might fall, or else, to be regarded by them as a mere piece of human still-life, claiming no more notice or remembrance than an old-fashioned portrait, or a piece of odd-looking old china.

What an exquisite contrast to all this did Lamb’s intercourse with his friends present! Then, and then only, was he himself; for assuredly he was not so when in the sole company of his own thoughts, unless when they were communing with those of his dearest friends of all—his old books—his “midnight darlings,” as he endearingly calls
them somewhere, in a tone and spirit which prove that he loved them better than any of his friends of the living world, and cared not if the latter knew it.

Yet I’m afraid it does not follow that Lamb was happier among his books than with his friends; he was only more himself. In fact, there was a constitutional sadness about Lamb’s mind, which nothing could overcome but an actual personal interchange of thought and sentiment with those, whoever they might be, whose tone and cast of intellect were in some sort correspondent with his own. And though in his intercourse with his beloved old books, he found infinitely more of this correspondence than the minds of his most choice living friends could furnish; yet in the former there was wanting that reciprocal action which constitutes the soul of human intercourse. Lamb could listen with delight to the talk of his books, but they could not listen to him in return; and his spirit was so essentially and emphatically a human one, that it was only in the performance and interchange of human offices and instincts it could exist in its happiest
form and aspect. Unlike his friends,
Coleridge and Wordsworth, Lamb was not a man whose mind was sufficient to itself, and could dwell for ever, if need were, in the world of its own thoughts, or that which the thoughts of others had created for it. He delighted to visit those worlds, and found there, it may be, his purest and loftiest pleasures. But the home of his spirit was the face of the common earth, and in the absence of human faces and sympathies, it longed and yearned for them with a hunger that nothing else could satisfy.