The essays of Elia are the foundation of Lamb's literary fame, for they speak of Lamb's own thought and life. He has given us some moderate poetry, two or three verses that have real merit. He has written some fine criticisms, especially of Shakespeare, but these are little known now. Such poetry dies soon. Criticism is a plant of short life, but essays, that portray so truly the life of a man of Lamb's talent, will live with the English language.
We have said that Lamb was a man of talent, that is all. None can claim genius for him. To compare him in literary merit with DeQuincey or even Macaulay is impossible. He lived in an entirely different world of thought, if indeed it can be called though. He never did or could formulate a philosophy. He was a man of sentiments and impulses, so that his essay is diametrically opposed to what we generally term such. They are most of them scenes of common, generally London life as seen through Lamb's eyes. His subject matter is always intimately related to himself. He is intensely individual. He was a man clearly defined boundaries, but within these boundaries he was a prince indeed. He had not the power, of looking at subjects or scenes, as an impartial or indifferent witness, but there is nothing that can make an old mansion, a dilapidated South Sea house look more interesting, no way of calling up the delicate associations, all the half humorous, half pathetic sentiments that belong to houses and men that have had their day, and are slowly dropping into insignificance among a new generation, than to see them through Lamb's eyes.
Lamb had a most intimate sympathy with the past. The quaintness of former poets meant more to him than the beauties of modern. He appreciated the somewhat doggerel rhymes of Quarles and Bunyan more than the verses of Shelley and Byron. He indeed saw some of the beauties of the poetry of Coleridge and Wordsworth, but he did not appreciate their best works. He preferred the "Religious Musings" to the "Mont Blanc." He acknowledged the genius of Coleridge, and was always inspired by his influence, but he also acknowledged the wholly different and higher order of Coleridge's mind.
Yet it would be unjust to make this side of his nature the sole one. He had deep religious sentiments and a wonderful appreciation of Shakespeare. Some imagination we find in his description of forest life in the drama of John Woodvil. His criticisms of the painter, Hogarth, the old actors and dramatists show some true breadth of appreciation. But it is no injustice to say that this latter is the least prominent side of his nature. The greater part of his thought was spent on trifles. He almost never rose to the highest realms of truth and poetry. He saw the pretty, the humorous, the pathetic in the life and incidents around him. He could not even take connected views. He gained no pleasure from the plot of a novel. Individual beauties were the only beauties for him. So in his appreciation of scenery the grand effects had no attraction for him. He cared more for a pretty grassy London lane than for all the mountains and lakes of Scotland. Especially did he enjoy the broken, ever changing scenery of the London crowd. Sauntering along the Strand he would spend hours in enjoying the scenes. So also in his friendships, while he had strong attachments, he never wanted to be long with any one. He had friends for every mood. One to whom such and such a story must be told, another upon whom this or that pun must be perpetrated, and another to whom such a verse must be quoted, and so on through all the de-
(16) partments of his life the same changing humors followed him. Understanding this character we can understand his writings. His essays are no the offspring of the lighter moments of a busy, practical life,, they are the photographs of the man himself. They are not eddies of the deep and resistless river, they are the twistings and turning of the brook. These were the sentiments and enjoyments that made up life to him. If we study him with the expectation of finding a many of deep purpose and high thought we shall be sadly disappointed, but if we care to be charmed with pleasant, humorous and pathetic subjects, treated in a rambling parenthetical style, we cannot be disappointed.
We must not stop without saying something of Lamb's virtues and vices.
He has often been looked upon from two entirely different standpoints, some have seen him only the tipay, stuttering with, with a common quart pot in his right hand and a pipe in his left; and others have seen in him the sweetest character England ever produced.
There is at least one irreproachable side of his nature -- his steadfast, self-denying love for his sister. She had thrown a gloom over both their lives. She was subject to fits of insanity, and during one of these she had killed their mother, but Lamb never slackened his love. Allowing her to remain in the Hospital only as long as this fits might last, he made her his almost constant companion. For her support he worked. For her he denied himself his dreams of married life.
But the charge of drunkenness is the greatest sin laid at his door, and temperance lecturers convict him out of his own mouth. He never did a more foolish thing than when, at the request of a temperance friend, he wrote the "Confessions of a Drunkard." No doubt it had some foundation in fact. Few gentlemen of that period, especially those that loved good company as well as he did, could not have furnished as much or even more. But to draw from this that he was a drunkard is perfectly unwarrantable. A man who always over-estimates his faults should not at least be condemned to the gutter without careful investigation. And so allowing all that is reasonable, we can yet regard Lamb's character as one of the sweetest.