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voice. He had begun as a poet, but he lacked the condensation, the directness and singleness of intellectual aim, the power of control, which are essential to the poet; he was an observer of the world without, a rambler in all things, and tended inevitably to that dissipation of the eye among the multitude of men and things, which ends in prose; even as a humourist he loses himself in his impressions, and becomes reportorial. But he had an eye for oddities, and with it went the saving grace that he loved the absurd in man. The spirit of caricature was not in him. He lived in a nation marked by freedom of caprice, and in its chief city; but it is seldom that he chooses his subject from among those whose eccentricity is self-assertive; the absurdities that amuse him are those of nature's making, -“the fool" whom he loves; and the peculiarities that arrest him are oftenest those which result from the misfortunes, the rubs and dents, all the rude buffeting of life leaving its marks on the form and mind of those who are submitted to its rule. How frequently his characters are the broken “hulks" of the voyage! in what author is old age so dreary, or the boon companion so shabby! for Lamb's
humour seldom ends in the laughable, but is a plea for toleration, sympathy, forgiveness, the old phrase of the prayer-book, miserable sinners are we all, but, principally, small sinners in small things. I cannot free myself from the feeling that, as a humourist, Lamb is the father-confessor of venial offences, tender to waifs and cripples, the refuge of the victims of mean misery. It is as if the Good Samaritan should turn humourist. Yet he leaves an impression that is ill-rendered by such a description, because he blends so many strands of human nature with this main thread.
The charm of these Essays is personal, and it is made a mastering one by the autobiography they contain. Lamb was not less an egotist than a humourist, and in the familiar essay ego
a tism has unimpeded way.
He discloses his tastes and habits, and disguises not those things in which he differs from conventional man; he is proud of them, and goes his own pace. There is infinite amusement in a certain kind of self-gossip, seen to its perfection in Pepys; and though Lamb's likings in meat and drink are not to be confounded with things of the Pepysian order, yet the tone is sometimes not to be discriminated from such "pure idleness.” The sinister reflection of how much social hypocrisy saves from, of what concessions of individual preference or even conviction are made to the company, reacts in us and heightens the enjoyment when an egotist stands to his egotism and is unabashed though pilloried in men's minds. Frankness is always engaging, and Lamb wins us by his confidingness. He gives more than this sense of intimacy; he does really surrender himself, and all his relatives besides, into our hands. At the time he had the grace to conceal, by appearances, the characters he drew; but the veil was thin, and nothing is now left of it. His strong domestic feeling, his love for the things of home, enhance the humanity of the portrayal, and each picture is seen beyond the contrasting foreground of “the lonely hearth” where he sits writing; "the old familiar faces" are illumined there, in the later years, with as tender a melancholy as in the poem of his youth. Scenes from his own life make up no small portion of what is substantial in his book; and the humour is always softened by the att mosphere of mingled affection and sentiment in which it works. His confessions of childhood are especially touching. No one has revealed the poignancy of children's sufferings, their helplessness, their solitariness, their hopelessness, the physical nearness of all grief at that age, with a pen so crying out shame. But, as in his description of middle and elderly life there is a predominant strain of misery and triviality, a never-absent pathos, so in what he draws from childhood, where are the cheerfulness, the innocence, the gayety, the wild and thoughtless happiness? They were not in his life. Even his child-angel is a sorrowful conception. When he was “at Christ's was it such a child's hell? and was that all he knew of childhood? One cannot help such reflections; and they underlie, in truth, the melancholy that attended him and the sentiment that sprang up in him, both of which preserve these Essays equally with their humour.
Sentiment stood for him, perhaps, in the place of love in his life. The romance, which now is the memory of “Alice W-" certainly was cherished, in the sphere of sentiment, by him
life-long; and in his musings in imagination upon what might have been, there is much of that mournful fancy, that affection for things unrealized, which betray heart-hunger; even in his attachment to old places and accustomed ways, and to what he called “antiquity” (of which in his own mind he and his belongings were part and parcel), there is something of the wandering of the else-unsupported vine. His is the sentiment of a melancholy – that is, a suppressed, down-borne, and retarded nature, cabined, cribbed, confined. It was almost his sole good fortune that literature offered him a resource from the deprivations of his life, and gave him freedom of thought and feeling in the ideal world; there he found objects worth his constancy, and being gifted with sensibility and discernment, he became a discoverer in the realms of gold,” an antiquarian whose prizes were lyrics and sonnets and snatches of song,
“ And beauty making beautiful old rhyme;"
and he forsook the modern days to delight himself with the curious felicity of the Arcadia and Sir Thomas Browne, with single great scenes of