• Home   /  
  • Archive by category "1"

The Praise Of Chimney-Sweepers Essayist

Tim Treubig, right, of Hofstra avoids Matt Cohen of Villanova in a 2006 game. (John Dunn for The New York Times)

“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”

FRIDAY’S PUZZLE This is a fine Friday puzzle by Trip Payne; it’s clever, it’s funny, and there are no iffy areas anywhere.

I had to get the “The Praise of Chimney-Sweepers” writer from crosses. That’s a tough clue because if you happen to know the answer is Charles Lamb, you’ll be misled. LAMB is four letters, but the wrong four. The essayist called himself ELIA.

ACORN gets a political clue but one that sticks to fact. “Plata’s partner” is a gimme for anyone who did last Saturday’s puzzle. “Schaefer alternative” is STROH’S. Those are both brands of beer. The clue “Dosage units” doesn’t describe how many micrograms of Vitamin B12 you need. These ones measure radiation. LACROSSE (not hockey!) is the national sport of Canada. The traditional lacrosse powerhouses are Canada, Iroquois Nationals and the United States.

There are some nice colloquialisms today, including the answers to “Skeptical response” and “Complain loudly.” “Fancy follower” wants to be FREE, but it turns out to be a much more common word.

“Land grant, of a sort” is a brilliant clue. It took me a few moments to parse the PINY potpourri, but I still like it.


Crosswords are constructed by humans. No, it’s true! I’ve been collecting constructor photos for XWord Info. You can see Trip Payne here. Going back over the past few days, I have shots of Daniel A. Finan, Patrick Merrell, Paula Gamache, Fred Piscop, Caleb Madison, and the Saturday duo Tyler Hinman and Byron Walden. If you’re a constructor and you haven’t yet sent me your photo, please do so. Thanks.

Skip to main content

Full text of "Charles Lamb, the Greatest of the Essayists"

See other formats


STOP Early Journal Content on JSTOR, Free to Anyone in the World This article is one of nearly 500,000 scholarly works digitized and made freely available to everyone in the world byJSTOR. Known as the Early Journal Content, this set of works include research articles, news, letters, and other writings published in more than 200 of the oldest leading academic journals. The works date from the mid-seventeenth to the early twentieth centuries. We encourage people to read and share the Early Journal Content openly and to tell others that this resource exists. People may post this content online or redistribute in any way for non-commercial purposes. Read more about Early Journal Content at http://about.istor.org/participate-istor/individuals/early- journal-content . JSTOR is a digital library of academic journals, books, and primary source objects. JSTOR helps people discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content through a powerful research and teaching platform, and preserves this content for future generations. JSTOR is part of ITHAKA, a not-for-profit organization that also includes Ithaka S+R and Portico. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org. XXI.— CHAELBS LAMB, THE GEEATEST OF THE ESSAYISTS ^ It has been the custom of historians of literature to dis- cuss essays as if there were no essential difference between, say the Essays of Bacon and those of Macanlay, or be- tween the Spectator and the Essays in Criticism. In his recent book, The English Essay and Essayists^ a work which, however comprehensive, leaves much to be desired on the score of adequacy of treatment. Professor Walker makes a distinction between " essays par excellence " and compositions on scientific, philosophical, historical, or criti- cal subjects, which agree with the former, " only in being comparatively short and in being more or less incomplete." Lamb's essays he considers the best example of the " lit- erary form ; " yet when he comes to discuss the Essays of Elia he does not attempt to show wherein these pieces dif- fer from the compositions of Elia's contemporaries or suc- cessors. Every reader is vaguely conscious of a difference of Tcind between the essays of various writers ; for example, between those of Macaulay, Stevenson, Carlyle, etc., and the pieces by Hazlitt or Charles Lamb; and it is part of the intention of the following paper to indicate the nature of this difference. Generally speaking, the secret lies in the fact that Lamb carried on the traditions of the Eng- lish essay, the tradition that found its first conscious spokesman in Bacon, was afterwards perpetuated in the periodical essays of the eighteenth century, and found its fullest, if not its latest, expressions in the Essays of Elia. ' The remarks on the early history of the essay are a condensa- tion of Chapter I, of The Beginnings of the English Essay (Univer- sity of Toronto Studies) by the present writer. 547 548 W. X. MAC DONALD A brief history of the essay from its begiiming will help to show Lamb's position amongst the essayists. In the first place, it must be noticed that the essay began, and for a quarter of a century flourished, as a pretty dis- tinct form. Bacon introduced it into English under its present name. Cornwallis,^ Robert Johnson,^ Tuval,' and the author of Horae Suhsecivae*' published collections which are now unknown except to the specialist. The numerous writings of more recent date bearing the gen- eral title have made the essay extremely hard to define, but such was not the case in the first half of the sixteenth century. The custom of essayists, their statements about their own writings, and the definition given by at least one schoolmaster for the guidance of pupils in essay-writ- ing, enable us to distinguish the essay from the mass of pamphlet literature of that time. It is a " short dis- course " in prose written in a leisurely manner and in an urbane, non-controversial spirit, in which are developed, according to a plan more or less vague, " undigested " thoughts on such commonplace subjects as ignorance, jus- tice, hate, love, pride, humility, etc. The style, usually aphoristic and epigrammatic, is enlivened by illustration and anecdote generally drawn from classical literature. While the purpose is usually diversion, there is frequently present a more or less didactic tone. Sometimes the com- monplaces are the personal experience or feelings of the writer, a feature which is specially noticeable in Mon- taigne's Essais and the compositions of Oornwallis and ^ Essay es, in two parts, 1631. ' Essaies, or Bather Imperfect Offers, 1607. ' Vade Meoum, 1629. * Published in 1620. GREATEST OF THE ESSAYISTS 549 Cowley. In Bacon's Essays even, there is a great deal of this autobiographical element, — ^much more than appears on the surface. Many difficulties are met in applying this description to the actual compositions of acknowledged essay-writers, and the most obvious difficulty lies in the fact that it takes no account of the " critical " essay. Custom seems to have decided that literature is the theme par excellence for the essay. Moreover, when literature is the subject, the ortho- dox, dispassionate essay " mood " is frequently displaced by a pardonable enthusiasm. Several of the early essay- ists shook tentatively the boughs of the tree of criticism. Bacon's Of Discourse treats of the arts of conversation, and Of Masques and Triumphs deals with the rules for the proper presentation of two forms of entertainment more or Iras connected with literature. John Stephen's essay Of Poetry (1615) suggests Sidney's Defence in many places. Cornwallis's Of Essayes and Boohes touches upon almost every kind of literature in the author's usual des- ultory manner, and Felltham ° rambles over the same ground, pausing here and there to examine hastily the questions of literary criticism made current by Sidney's Defence. To these children of the Renaissance, such sub- jects were the commonplaces of conversation. Nothing lay nearer the hearts of these fireside philosophers than the " Bookes " which they loved, and which frequently furnished the occasion of their essays, as they generally supplied them with illustrative anecdote. The pieces just mentioned are all contained in books of essays. There is here no question of Dryden's Essay of Dramatic Poesy or of Sidney's Apologie, all such perform- ances lying quite beyond the scope of the present discus- ^ Resolves, 1623. 550 W. L. MAODOKALD sion. Professor Walker has gone astray in seeking for " Anticipations of the Essay " in the pamphlet literature of the Elizabethan period. Professor Gr^ory Smith's Elizabethan Critical Ussays, from which he seems to have drawn most of his material for the chapter, are in no sense essays, except in the loosest of modem applications of the term. There is as much similarity between the urbanity of the essayists and the spirit of Gosson's School of Abvse as there is between the sweet reasonableness of Newman's Apologia and the venom of Milton's pamphlet on Divorce. Anticipations there were, of course, but they are to be sought in the place to which Bacon pointed, the Morals of Plutarch and the Epistolae of Seneca ; in the classical dis- courses of John of Salisbury and the half-paganized moral sermons of the mediaeval theologians. The conditions which produced the eighteenth-century periodicals led to a change of tone in the essay, but the instrument remained essentially the same. What we know as the English Renaissance, had run its course in England in matters of literature as well as in religion and politics. Men of letters no longer wrote for the delectation of some few who, like themselves, were steeped in classical lore. The readers for whom they wrote were no longer men of the stay-at-home kind who took a quiet delight in the pagan speculations of a belated stoic philosopher. Their home was the club, the dining-hall, the coffee-house ; their subjects of conversation, the last new play, the last book of poetry, the latest fashion, and the latest scandal. Fur- thermore, the appeal of writers was no longer to men alone. Women had taken their place not only on the stage but amongst the playwrights themselves. In putting for- ward his project of an academy for women, Defoe express- ed his contempt for the barbarism of his so-called civilized country in denying the advantage of education to the 551 female sex. The number of pamphlets, letters, and books dealing with the deportment and the conversation proper to young ladies, testifies to the growing importance attach- ed by men of letters to women readers. Steele and Addison provided the vehicle to supply the demand created by this new reading public. As Greene says, " Literature suddenly doffed its stately garb of folio or octavo and stepped abroad in the light and easy dress of pamphlet and essay." The garb had changed, but the essay thus brought into being is not essentially different from the older essay of Bacon and Cowley. The subjects are still the commonplaces of life; but instead of being treated in the abstract, as was generally the custom with the older essayists who wrote for men of learning like themselves, they are presented in the concrete. Instead of a philosophical discourse " Of Petticoats," we see the offending garment brought into the Tatler's Court and gravely banished from the world of fashion. " Of Pre- cedence," " Of Country Manners," " Of False Delicacy," etc., are no longer shown " with their several parts or kindes, with their distinctions, the several causes, ad- juncts, and effects of each sort and kinde." We see, in- stead, a group of country gentlemen acting in a way sug- gestive of the noli episcapari of ecclesiastical procedure; a typical fox-hunting squire, representative of an ignorant gentry who are the greatest enemies of the King and Gov- ernment ; and a linen draper condemned to the loss of his tongue because he talks of such suggestive things as " linen " and " smocks " in the presence of a lady of quality. The purpose of Steele and Addison is frankly different from that of the earlier essayists. Not for di- version simply do they write, but " to banish vice and ig- norance out of the territories of Great Britain." The tone of the periodical essays is therefore generally satirical 3 552 W. L. MACDOWALD in contrast with that of the normal essay of the earlier period; but there is noticeable the same classical reserve and detachment as is present in the compositions of Cow- ley, Comwallis, and E^obert Johnson. Bickerstaff and the Spectator always preserve the bearing of a dispassionate observer, of one who is more grieved than angered by the petty foibles of his fellow countrymen. It is to be further noted that controversial subjects as such have no more place in the Tatter and Spectator than they have in the early essay. Strong adherent as Addison was of the party of the Revolution, he never allowed his political prejudices to lead him into the errors of violen<3e and temper that so often disgrace the pamphlets of his time. The fate of the Guardian, if not of the Tatler, is a warning to the writer who forsakes the quiet walks of the literary essay for the rocky path of the political pamphlet. Throughout the history of the essay contemporary events and controversial questions have been excluded. The Tatler and Spectator were the product of the time of Marlborough wars, but how often do the victories of the British arms form topics for discussion in the daily essay? Lamb was an accom- plished essayist when England was at death grips with Napoleon, but I recall only a single mention of Bona- parte's name in any of his writings. So it is with re- ligious controversy. Bacon writes dispassionately " Of Religion " at a time when people were thinking much more of differences that separated the sects than of the common bond of fellowship between them. But again an exception must be made where it is a matter of literary criticism. Writing about a book he loves or dislikes, as the case may be, the essayist is bound to throw aside his characteristic reserve and appear as an ardent advocate or prosecutor. It was so with the Renais- CHAELES LAMB, GEEATEST OF THE ESSAYISTS 553 sance scholars who cultivated the poise and reserve of their classical masters. Even Sir Philip Sidney, a typical product of the Renaissance, wrote with enthusiasm of Ohevy Chase and with scorn of Oorboduc. In the garh of essayists, though not of the kind which affects this dis- cussion closely, Dryden and Temple actually took part in the literary controversy which received its quietus in Swift's Battle of the Books. Addison has given up for the time being the role of a detached critical observer, to assume that of an advocate. It does not concern us here to discuss Addison's critical essays any further than to note that they glance backward to classical models and classi- cal canons of poetry, that their appeal is to the learned reading public, and that incidentally the writer enforces, even in the Milton papers, his strictures on extravagance in language and conduct. Steele and Addison have generally been accepted as typical " Augustan " essayists. In taking leave of the century it is only necessary to mention Groldsmith and Johnson as later representatives. The Citizen of the World is in no way inferior to the more famous Spectator, but why are the Bamhler and Idler now read only from a sense of duty? Is the explanation not found in the fact that Johnson's essays are, generally speaking, a reversion to type ? Here we have the old subjects treated abstract- ly in the manner of Bacon and ComwaJlis. It is not enough to say that the style is ponderous. So too is the style of Gibbon and Burke, in a sense, but their subjects are never commonplace. Through Addison, Steele, and Goldsmith we have become accustomed to seeing the foibles and weaknesses of mankind treated in a light, playful fashion; Johnson's attempts to be free and airy usually suggest the effect of a rigadoon played on a trombone. The 654 W. L. MAC DONALD ponderous style lends itself more fitly to the serious and abstract, but the day for that kind of essay passed when the curtain was rung down upon " Aphoristic " essayists. II Nature and destiny combined to make an essayist of Charles Lamb, as they had combined to make an historian of Gibbon. He says himself that had it not been for an impediment in his speech he should have entered the pul- pit ; the same defect, " even more than certain personal disqualifications," may have prevented him from going on the stage ; his duties as clerk until the age of fifty, and his noble solicitude for his afflicted sister, left him little leisure for prolonged literary effort. On the other hand, these very circumstances forced him to seek expression in the shorter compositions that have made his name famous. But apart altogether from the conditions in which his life was passed. Lamb's genius was suited for the essay. What- ever virtues Rosamond Gray and John Woodvil possess, they unquestionably show that the author was deficient in constructive powers as well as in capacity for character drawing in story and drama. For one kind of character sketching he had, as will be shown later, a peculiar felicity, but this aptitude merely points with other finger-posts along the highway of the essay. To get a complete idea of Lamb the essayist, attention must not be centered entirely upon the Elia collections. No doubt these contain what Lamb considered the best of his contributions to the London Magazines, but it is difficult to understand some of the omissions. When, for instance, he saw fit to include On the Artificial Comedy of the Last Century and Barrenness of the Imaginative Faculty, why did he not reprint On the Tragedies of CHAELES LAMB, GREATEST OF THE ESSAYISTS 555 Shakespeare, written in 1811, as he did the Bachelor's Complaint, written in the same year ? Edax on Appetite, Ilospita on Immoderate Indulgence, and On the Custom of Hissing at the Theatres, not to mention a dozen other pieces which are now included in the Miscellaneous Prose, are all worthy of a place in, the collection which will be Lamb's passport on the day of Judgment. " My Essays," wrote Lamb to his publishers, " want no preface; they are all preface. A preface is nothing but a talk with the reader; and they do nothing else." This is exactly the attitude of all the earlier essayists. E'othing in Lamb — not even the autobiographical element — is so suggestive of Montaigne as the jovial contempt he fre- quently shows for any sort of unity iii his essays. They are, as all the older essays professed to be, only " imperfect offers, loose sallies of the mind, irregular or undigested pieces," " that " rather glaunce at all things with a run- ning conceit, than insist on any with a slowe discourse." '' In Praise of Chimney Sweepers, is a good example of what an essay subject may become, — a mere starting point from which various related or unrelated ideas may be de- veloped. With the exception of the last two pages, the Praise is so attenuated as to be as near nil as can be. The text, Old China, is again a mere starting point, the real subject of the piece being the joys of easy poverty as against the cares of affluence. Like Montaigne and Corn- wallis. Lamb refuses to " chain himself to the head of his chapter." In the very last lines the original situation, the imaginary theme, is recalled as a joke by the essayist. Of course, an author who indulges in such vagaries may write at any length according to his mood, the allotted space, or the fecundity of his mind. Montaigne writes a ' Johnson's Dictionary. ' Tuval, Vade Meoum. 556 W. L. MACDONALD couple of pages on the subject That the House of Parley is Dangerous, a page on Idleness, sixty on Vanity, and seven- ty Vfon Some Verses of Virgil. But Montaigne was not writing for a magazine, and Lamb was; consequently tbe latter had to set some limit to bis digressions other than that fixed by the fertility of his brain. But there is ample evidence that he approached his subject in just the same way as Montaigne. Professor Walker's statement that the essays of Lamb and Montaigne " could under no cir- cumstances expand into treatises; they are complete in themselves," is meaningless or wrong, or else the critic is insisting upon the formality of the treatise. Take for example one of the essays just mentioned. In Praise of Chimney Sweeper^ is evidently an expansion of a short paper entitled A Sylvan Surprise published as Table Talk in the Examiner ten years earlier. Rejoicings Upon the New Year's Coming of Age, one of the sprightliest of all the Elia essays, is an expanded form of the Fable for Twelfth Day printed in 1802. Furthermore, two para- graphs in the Bejoicings were expanded into separate pa- pers which appeared a couple of years later. One of these delightful passages in the longer piece must be quoted: " Order being restored — ^the young lord (who, to say truth, had been a little ruffled, and put beside his oratory) in as few, and yet obliging words as possible, assured them of entire welcome ; and, with a graceful turn, singling out poor Twenty-ninth of February, that had sate all this while mumchance at the sideboard, begged to couple his health with that of the good company before him — which he drank accordingly; observing, that he had not seen his honest face any time these four years, with a number of endearing expressions besides. At the same time, remov- ing the solitary Day from the forlorn seat which had been assigned him, he stationed him at his own board, some- CHAELES LAMB, GREATEST OF THE ESSAYISTS 55Y where between the Greek Calends and Latter Lammas." This is the kernel of the Bemarkai>le Correspondent (1825) which complains of the neglect that Hone's Every- day Book has shown toward Leap-year's day; it begins " Sir, — I am the youngest of Three hundred and sixty- six brethren — there are no fewer of us — ^who have the honour, in the words of the good old Song, to call the Sun our Dad." The other instance is the dispute between the Twelfth of August and the Twenty-Third of April which forms the basis for The Hvmble Petition of an Unfortu- nate Day in Hone's Everyday Book two years later. It is readily seen that most of the pieces which appear in Elia as Popular Fallacies are just the kind of fancies that Lamb might have expanded into essays. As a matter of fact two or three of these compositions are in Lamb's happiest style and are in no way different from the Essays. Numbers XII to XVI contain some of the best work of Elia. The last, " The Pleasures of Sulkiness " is much in the style of Montaigne, only here Lamb is poking fun at himself, laying bare, in the manner of Mr. Arnold Ben- nett, the little, mean, kinks that sometimes tend to warp the most generous soul. One of the Fallacies (that a de- formed person is a Lord) was published as a separate piece under the title A Popular Fallacy. Characters of Dramatic writers, contemporary with Shakespeare, which are not essays in themselves, are best considered as the kernels of essays, rough and ready thoughts occasioned by Lamb's reading, which might have been expanded into real " critical essays." That Lamb, both consciously and unconsciously, mod- elled his writings on those of the old masters of English prose there is ample evidence. He has the characteristic attitude of the essayists toward what is old. His prede- cessors of the seventeenth century were never tired of 558 W. L. MACDONALD quoting the classics; Lamb is constantly quoting the old English classics. The names of Sir Thomas Browne, Fuller, Butler, Marvel, Shakespeare, and the old dramat- ists are those which most often appear in the essays, and quotations from their writings are to be found in abund- ance. Classical references of course are numerous, but as has been pointed out, the general reading public of Lamb's day was no longer the kind to respond to such an appeal; moreover, Lamb was thoroughly convinced that his own native English contained stores as rich as any to be found in the literature of Greece and Rome. l^J^ot only in the matter of literature does this respect for antiquity, or the antiquated, and neglect of the contemporary appear. The passing of the sun-dial, the change in readers, who no longer read for pleasure as they did thirty years ago, the deterioration in acting, the decay of beggars and schoolmasters, are all subjects of complaint, though of course the complaint must be taken only half seriously. Attention has already been called to the fact that there is but one distinct reference to the Napoleonic wars in all the essays — a fact that is more easily understood in 1917 than it would have been three years ago. References to contemporaries like Hunt, Hazlitt, and Coleridge fall in a different category, being inevitable in autobiographical essays. Lamb carries on the tradition of Bacon and Addison, yet in a sense he is greater than either. Elia's aphorisms are frequently as wise as Bacon's, but they are not so close- ly packed together as to form the tissue of the essay. One always feels that Bacon has something very wise to say, that the proper thing to do is to listen attentively. Lamb, on the other hand, frequently startles his readers by some profound observation in the midst of seemingly trivial talk. Frequently it is apparent that Lamb has little or CHAELES LAMB, GEEATEST OF THE ESSAYISTS 559 nothing to say, and then lie performs the tour de force of holding his reader by saying nothing in a clever, interest- ing way. The Convalescent is an instance. Contrast with this the very next piece On The Sanity of True Genius. The former is spun out of mere nothing ; in the latter the essayist grapples with a real text. Did Bacon ever sound more profound depths of wisdom than Lamb on the sub- ject of oaths {Imperfect Sympathies) or ceremony {Bache- lor's Complaint) ? Whether the answer is " Yes " or " No," there are few readers that will not find Lamb's of- fering more acceptable than Bacon's. The latter teaches ex cathedra, the former inveigles us into the ways of wisdom. Like Bacon, Lamb occasionally talks in abstract terms, as for example in Stage Illusion; more frequently, however, the subject is opened in a general way and illustrated by an interesting anecdote, much in the manner of Fuller's Holy and Profane State. Examples of this kind of essay are Witches and Other Night Fears, The Old and New Schoolmaster and The Two Races of Men. But one can- not say that Lamb has any particular method of treatment. He uses every method. In fact, it is Lamb's versatility, his, protean temper, his facility of surprise both in indi- vidual pieces and in successive essays, that make the Es- says of Elia supreme amongst their kind. One critic has described the literary essay as being " moulded by some central mood — whimsical, serious or satirical." The ad- jective " serious " of this description applies suitably to Bacon's essays, individually and in mass ; " satirical " to the Tatler and Spectator; " whimsical " applies with spe- cial force to the essays of Lamb. Its application, however, should be in a sense somewhat different from that in which the critic seems to use it. Instead of meaning " odd," let it mean " according to the whim of the moment," and the 560 W. L. MAC DONALD term becomes more significant than either serious or satiri- cal, because more inclusive. Lamb is a " whimsical " es- sayist in both senses of the word. What could be more fantastical than the Autohiography of Mr. Munden, Be- joicing upon the New Year's Coming of Age, Boast Pig, and the BemarTcable Correspondent? Tombs of the Abbey is in a serious vein throughout. None of the other essayists, excepting Steele occasionally, vrrites vrith such pathos as permeates Dream Children and underlies The Wedding. The nice balance preserved between the light and the pa- thetic in the last named essay is an instance of the danger in declaring that one special mood gives the key to any individual composition of Lamb's. When we speak of satire we think of Lamb in relation to the eighteenth-cen- tury periodical essayists. Like Addison's, the satire of Lamb is always light, never vindictive or canine, as is usually the case in Hazlitt's essays. In the Imperfect Sym- pathies the writer suggests that perhaps the imperfection is in himself. On the Custom of Hissing at the Theatres, Hospita on the Immoderate Indulgence of the Pleasures of the Palate, Edax on Appetite, A Vision of Horns, and others, are very much in the style of the Tatler and Spec- tator. The essay last named immediately suggests Addi- son's Vision of Justice in form and substance, but as com- pared with the latter is crude and ineffective. Addison's infallible decorum allows him to handle a delicate subject in such a way that only the humor of the satire is impress- ed upon the reader. Lamb is not always decorous, and in this instance there is something repulsive, a lack of nice taste, which probably persuaded him to omit the piece from the Elia collection. Epigram and aphorism, the stock in trade of the older essayists, are abundantly present everywhere in Lamb, but in using them the nineteenth-century writer has improved GEEATEST OF THE ESSAYISTS 561 upon his masters. Lamb's purpose is to entertain his readers, not to provide an exercise in mental gymnastics. Bacon parades his witticisms and profound general truths in massed battalions. Lamb's method is to lead them out in extended order — a more effective if less imposing ar- rangement. The occasional epigram gives a fillip to the intellect and raises the commonplace to a higher plane without forcing the mind to be constantly on the alert. The usual way with Lamb, as with all essayists, is to open up the subject with a striking statement that immediately arrests attention. " The human species," thus he begins The Two Races of Men, " according to the best theory I can form of it, is composed of two distinct races, the men who borrow and the men who lend." " I have no ear — " are the opening words of A Chapter on Ears. Wealth of allusion, apt metaphor and simile are qualities of style that every prose writer requires who wishes to be inter- esting. Lamb's felicity in this respect is too obvious to be insisted upon here ; every critic of the essayist has dis- cussed these elements of his style. The peculiar effect of Lamb's style is best expressed in the word " unexpected- ness." He can be grave and gay, dignified and playful, grandiose and simple, rhetorical and pathetic in successive compositions and sometimes in the same essay. The style is as whimsical as the mood which produces it, and the exact correspondence of the two constitutes the special charm of Lamb's essays. In this respect he is far superior to all his predecessors. Bacon seldom if ever unbends. The eighteenth-century periodical writers, to whom Lamb is much more nearly allied, are always dignified. To ap- ply a phrase of Mr. Chesterton's, their style never plays the fool, though it sometimes takes a holiday. One never finds in the Spectator, the Tatler, or the Citizen of the World the delightful abandonment, the breathless hilarity 562 W. L. MAC DONALD of Poor Belations, The Praise of Chimney Sweepers, A Chapter on Ears, and the Autobiography of Mr. Munden. To appreciate the full range of Lamb's power one should read in succession a series like the following; any one of the list given, Old China, Rejoicings upon the New Year's Coming of Age, The Tragedies of Shakespeare, Sanity of True Genius, and Dream Children. The seventeenth-century " character " is a form nearly related to the essay. The decade which saw the first edi- tion of Bacon's Essays witnessed the appearance of Casau- bon's Latin translation of Theophrastus's Characters. The normal character is a brief composition consisting of sen- tentious, epigrammatic^ often paradoxical statements, de- fining and describing a person or thing not as an individual but as representative of a class. The essential difference from the essay lies in the concrete treatment of the char- acter and the satirical mood of the writer. But this has reference to the normal type of both character and essay. Frequently the two forms exchange garb to such an ex- tent that the reader, if not the writer, is at a loss to dis- tinguish between them. This tendency towards fusion is well illustrated by the titles of many of the earlier char- acter-books : Characters upon Essays,^ Essays and Charac- ters of a Prison,^ Characters or Essays of Persons, Trades and Places,^" etc. As a writer of characters in the seventeenth-century meaning of the word, Lamb is an adept. But just as he was too versatile an essayist to conform to any particular mould, so in character writing he is too great an adept to confine himself to any form or any particular mood. Sym- pathy with his fellow-men and his kindly nature would "Nicholas Breton, 1615 " Gefray Mynshul, 1618. ""E. M." Mierologia, Characters, etc., 1629. CHAELES LAMB, GEEATEST OF THE ESSAYISTS 563 not allow him to indulge in the mordant, satirical humor that ordinarily gives pungency to the seventeenth-century character. Moreover, interest in the life around him for- bade his dwelling on the abstract qualities of a class when he saw only the concrete eccentricities of an individual. At the same time Lamb does write characters of the older kind. His versatility is amazing. Nothing makes greater demand upon the " sheer wit " of an author than a char- acter sketch that consists only of happy epigrams; and nothing of the same length in- all Elizabethan and Jacobean literature is more clever than the first three paragraphs of Poor Relations. At the end of the first he seems to gasp for breath to utter an adequate " apology to your friends." And so for two more pages he seems to chal- lenge the whole field of character writers — ^Earle, Over- bury, Butler, and the rest, to do their worst — or best — and he will meet them on any field with their own weapons. And to round off the piece he gives the pathetic " in- stance " of " Poor W — " of Christ's college, and " the mysterious figure of an aged gentleman clothed in neat black " whom the author remembered to have seen at his father's table every Saturday. Such a closing recalls the manner of Thomas Fuller's Holy and Profane State, but again with a difference. Lamb using instances from his own experience, Fuller drawing them from history. In only one character does Lamb show the bared teeth of the satirist, — in The Oood Clerh, which is otherwise very reminiscent of his beloved Fuller. The Character of an Undertaker, appended to the essay On Burial Societies, is entirely in the style of Earle; Tom Pry and Tom Pry's Wife in the " Lepus " papers recall similar pieces in the Spectator and Tatler. In My Relations Lamb draws the portrait of his " aunt " and his " cousin," James Elia, in the humorous manner and loving spirit of the Sir Roger 564 W. L. MAC DONALD de Coverley papers. The Oentle Oiantess and A Charac- ter (of Egomet) are more in the modem style of character sketches. The delightful Convalescent is a character in Lamb's style only. As has been remarked above, Rosamond Gray and John Woodvil prove pretty conclusively that Lamb lacked the capacity for showing the gradual development of character through action and conflict. His genius was not suited to such a task. No character excepting that of Bridget Elia recurs in the essays, and it seems entirely improbable that Lamb had the intention of giving any sort of unity to the Elw, pieces by this device. Yet the Bridget essays inevit- ably suggest the Jenny Bickerstaff numbers of the Tatler and the Sir Eoger papers of the Spectator. Whether there was intention or not on the part of Lamb in following the lead of the eighteenth-century masters, it is obvious that Bridget Elia is much more shadowy as a character than either Jenny Bickerstaff or Sir Eoger de Coverley. The autobiographical element in the Essays of Elia has often been discussed. For the purpose of this article it is necessary to allude to it only in a general way. The per- sonal element in Lamb's essays shows similarity to, and difference from, the same feature in Montaigne's. Given the key, one can re-construct a great part of Lamb's life from Elia. How much could one reconstruct of Mon- taigne's life from his writings ? The latter writes of what he sees, feels, thinks, and reads; Lamb does all that, but also talks frankly of many incidents of his life. The names that one meets in reading Montaigne are those of celebrities, and Montaigne usually speaks of them as such. Lamb talks of famous men of old and of the present, but he also has a great deal to say of his friends and acquaint- ances. In Lamb's work Coleridge is not so much a great English poet as a close friend of the author ; hence there is CHAELES LAMB, GREATEST OF THE ESSAYISTS 565 a double interest when the names of Coleridge, Hunt, Boyle, and Hazlitt occur. To quote from S. C. Hill's in- troduction to the second series of the Essays of Elia: " In Lamb's writings, as in Montaigne's, the subject is the writer himself — not, however, the mere individual Lamb, but Lamb as he was connected with his numerous friends, as his sympathy identified him with the inhabitants of the great city in which he lived." In other words, Lamb bet- ters the instruction of his masters where the autobiograph- ical as well as where most of the other elements of the essay are concerned. Many of Lamb's essays are not in the dispassionate es- say mood. Frequently the indignatio saeva is merely af- fected, as for instance when he makes his bachelor's com- plaint against the display of married happiness, or when he warms his wrath against the " sea-charmed emigrants " from town who, trained in the pit of the London concert halls, pretend to find a pleasure in the music of the waves — ^because it is the fashion. But in Readers against the Oram his anger, if not white hot, is genuine, because the offence is simulated, half-hearted, empty loyalty to a sov- ereign who, according to Lamb's way of thinking, de- mands whole-souled allegiance or none at all. And this brings us to the subject of Lamb's literary criticism, not the excellence or limitations of it, — ^that has been treated often enough already, — ^but its place in Lamb's essays. When the question is one that concerns literature or any allied subject in which Lamb has a special interest, paint- ing or acting, he never pretends to assume a detached at- titude, — that is one of the reasons why his remarks are so readable. On the Genius and Character of Hogarth was written quite frankly for the purpose of combating the " vulgar notion " respecting the artist. The Tragedies of Shakespeare was inspired by the inscription to Garrick in 566 W. L. MAC DONALD the Abbey wbich practically puts the actor on a par with the dramatist. This aroused Lamb's ire and became the occasion of one of the most famous passages in literary criticism. But Lamb overstated his own case and was led by his passion into uttering a paradox. The same thing happened in the essay On the Artificial Comedy of the Last Century. Lamb loved paradox; he loved to shock conventionality. " I like a smuggler," he says in The Old Margate Hoy, " he is the only honest thief." He does not apprc've of the crusade against Beggars, " the oldest and honourablest form of pauperism." Frequently whole pas- sages give the effect of paradox, although he is not stat- ing paradoxes. Popular Fallacies witness to the same predilection for the unpopular side. So in the two famous critical pieces mentioned above, he has just been led to utter a paradox and afterwards forced to bolster his thesis with special pleadings. For while there is much truth in everj part of these two essays, the total impression that remains after seeing a good performance of one of Shake- speare's tragedies is that they are fitted for presentation on the stage; and after reading many of the comedies of the eighteenth century, one is forced to conclude that the dra- matists of that period did take delight in shocking the ordinary views of morality. Ill The claims of most of the essayists since Lamb to pre- cedence may be disposed of without much discussion. By the accident of 1776, if for no other reason, Washington Irving, Emerson, and Oliver Wendell Holmes are dis- qualified from running. Macaulay, Carlyle, and Matthew Arnold belong to another category of essayists. Their work is nearly all critical or biographical, and the com- CHAELES LAMB, GKEATEST OF THE ESSAYISTS 567 pleteness and finish of the separate pieces belie the real significance of the general title they bear. Moreover, in each case the attitude and the spirit of the writer are fai removed from those of the traditional essayist. Macaulay proves his point by mercilessly beating down his oppo- nents with the sledge-hammer blows of his argument. Carlyle poses as a preacher, and not a very happy one. He is generally in a rage with an unbelieving or, worse stiU, an unthinking generation; and though the passion may be justified and generally does credit to the writer, it militates against his claims as an essayist. In matters of criticism Arnold " settles hoti's business, dead from the waist down." Ipse dixit. " There nis no more to saye." But Arnold really does not call for consideration here at all, as his essays make no claim to be other than critical. Of all the nineteenth-century essayists who challenge Lamb's position, William Hazlitt deserves first considera- tion of his claims. If one wished to avoid the issue, the thesis that Lamb was the " last " of the essayists might be defended on the ground of chronology, the collected edi- tions of Hazlitt being slightly earlier than those of Lamb. But the two writers are really contemporaries and should be judged as such. In one respect, Hazlitt is the greater essayist; page for page his writings contain more of wis- dom than Lamb's. In this sense Bacon is the greatest of all the essayists. But it has been pointed out that aphor- ism and epigrsim may be carried too far, and the combined effect of Hazlitt's rather saturnine genius and epigram- matic style is one of depression, if not fatigue, when sev- eral of his essays are read in succession. On the Knowl- edge of Character contains a significant passage ; " What is it to me that I can write these Table-Talks ? It is true I can, by a reluctant effort, rake up a parcel of half-for- 4 568 W. L. MAC DONALD gotten observations, but they do not float on the surface of my mind, nor stir it with any sense of pleasure, now even of pride. Others have more property in them than I have : ^61/ may reap the benefit, / have only had the pain." This is a far remove from Lamb's " make-shift papers " or " talks " with the reader. Lamb's words, of course, are not to be taken too literally ; but it is hard to conceive any of his essays as being the slow product of " reluctant ef- fort." Hazlitt's remarks on men and things are almost always caustic. The " singularity " of the views advanced in Prometheus Unbound is the object of several pages of bitter sarcasm. The amende honorable which he sees fit to make is an equally bitter arraignment of the " finished common-place " of Mr. Canning's Liverpool speech. Lamb once wrote a sharp letter to Southey, reproaching him for an unjustifiable censure of the irreligion of parts of the Essays. All of this letter that Lamb considered as repre- sentative of Elia was the part which displayed the least personal animus — The Tombs in the Abbey. In the es- say. On Vulgarity and Ajfectation, Hazlitt goes out of his way to " make an example " of one who had seen fit to condemn his dramatic criticisms. Such " gall in the ink," while it lends poignancy to the words, detracts from the pleasure of reading the essays as a whole, and points to a real limitation in Hazlitt as an essayist. With all his wis- dom, epigram, and paradox, he lacks the versatility of his contemporary. He writes de omnibus rebus et quibusdam aliis, he chats in an extremely interesting and informal way, generally instructive and always stimulating, but he cannot write in all moods and all styles. In all but a very few essays like Reading Old Books, one misses the effect of sunshine and blue sky, the effect, say, of such pieces as Lamb's Machery End and Captain Jackson. GREATEST OF THE ESSAYISTS 569 No one would claim for Leigh Hunt a place amongst essay- ists as high as that of his contemporary Lamb. Hunt's repu- tation has inevitably suffered from the effects of his enor- mous journalistic activity. He produced too much to produce much that is good, and when account is taken of the fact that his abilities at best were only mediocre — at least aa compared with those of his brilliant contemporaries — the position he holds amongst essayists is easily explained. Nearly all the critics try to be as charitable with Htmt as they can be with justice, simply because he was, like " The Man in Black " in the Citizen of the World, " tolerably good-natured without the least harm in him." The sub- jects he treats are commonplace, and it must be said his treatment is generally commonplace, sprightly perhaps, but still commonplace. His essays give in the bulk the impression of triviality, dilettantism, diffuseness, even padding. This does not mean that there are not good things to be found, but that much reading is necessary to discover something that is worth while. Hunt should be read in a " pretty " edition. The collection, for example, edited by Arthur Symons and illustrated by H. M.. Brock has this great advantage, that if one tires of the reading one may turn with pleasure to the pictures. Hazlitt's opinion that Leigh Hunt " inherits more of the spirit of Steele than any man since his time," if true, means only that the English Essay had outgrown the garb of the Tatler, or that Isaac Bickerstaff had become a mere shade amongst English essayists. Many are inclined to think that Stevenson's fame will rest upon his essays. Whether this estimate is true or not, he must always be ranked very high amongst English es- sayists; posterity will ultimately have to decide as to the relative excellence of his novels and essays. The question 570 W. L. MAO DONALD to be considered here is whetker as an essayist he ranks as high as Charles Lamb, whether after all he is an essay- ist in the same sense as Lamb. In the first place, Steven- son's essays are usually much longer than Lamb's, and as a rule the compositions of the former have an approxi- mate uniformity in this respect. The contents include a fairly large variety of subject matter, yet the bulk of the literary and biographical pieces is relatively much greater than in the case of Lamb's essays. These are small points, and yet they have a real bearing on the question of the total impression made by the collections of the two essay- ists. A cursory glance at the table of contents indicate a diflference between the two. When the essays themselves are examined simply as " essays," several marked differ- ences appear. As against the " crude, xmlicked, incondite things " of Lamb the essays of Stevenson at once impress the reader as being elaborate, complete, finished pieces. Such a comparison does not necessarily imply disparage- ment of the one, nor tmdue praise of the other. Who shall decide which displays the greater " art " as an essayist ? The artist who vnrote Kidnnpped is utterly incapable of dashing off for the press a few casual remarks, wise though they be, on some casual subject. The " gossip " on Ro- mance and the " gossip " on a novel of Dumas's are in- formal only in name. The impression of impromptu is never gained from reading an essay by Stevenson. He nails himself down to his subject and seldom if ever al- lows himself to digress. He is even chary of illustrative anecdote, and never abandons himself to the mood of the moment When a reader picks up a volume of Steven- son's essays, he knows pretty well that he will be adequate- ly repaid for half an hour's reading, but he knows also that his delight will be the disciplined, chastened pleas- ure derived from reading a lyric or a drama. Contrast GEBATBST OF THE ESSAYISTS 5Y1 with this the pleasure one gets from the iinexpectedness of Lamb's essays, from reading, say A Chapter on Ears and then Dream Children. The individual reader must say, of course, which kind of pleasure he prefers and thus de- cide which is his favorite essayist ; but Stevenson's is not the way of the traditional essay, the essay of Bacon, of Cowley, of Addison, and Lamb. Besides, there is in Stevenson too much of the participant in life's contests and too little of the spectator to admit him to full com- munion with the masters. When mention is made of The Bounddbout Papers, the nineteenth-century collections that seriously challenge com- parison with Elia are about exhausted. " In these essay- kins," says Thackeray, " I have taken leave to egotise. I cry out about the shoes which pinch me, and, as I fancy, more naturally and pathetically than if my neighbour's corns were trodden under foot." And while the Round- abouts treat of almost every conceivable subject in the desultory style of Montaigne, the sentence just quoted gives on the whole the keynote of the collection. The shoes do pinch whoever wears them, and however natural- ly and pathetically the writer may talk of the discomfort, Thackeray the essayist is always the same as Thackeray the novelist. The " essaykins " are for the most part of a piece with the philosophical digressions one meets so frequently in all Thackeray's novels; somewhat more ex- panded, of course, and furnished with an occasion or text to give each a sort of unity. " All claret would be port if it could." ... "In literature, in politics, in the army, the navy, the church, at the bar, in the world, what an immense quantity of cheap liquor is made to do service for better sorts ! " The quotations taken from the two es- says hardly do justice to the collection as a whole, in which there is a great deal in Thackeray's best style, — 5Y2 W. L. MACDOWALD allusion, wit, -wisdom, pathos ; but the total effect of read- ing the Boundabout Papers is the same as that produced by reading the novels, a feeling of depression. In the foregoing discussion an attempt has been made to show in outline that the English essay has had an al- most unbroken career as a literary form from the time of Bacon to the late nineteenth century, and in particular that the Essays of Elia, are lineal descendants of ances- tors that flourished in the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries. And not only are Lamb's essays in the main current of what may be called the " literary essay," but precedence may fairly be claimed for them over any other similar collection in English. Lamb used all styles of essay-writing, and in the words of Johnson's epitaph on Goldsmith, he touched nothing which he did not adorn. In skilful handling of the materials with which essayists have worked, aphorism, epigram, character-writing, liter- ary criticism, etc., he has proved himself second to none, and in versatility, whether of style, mood, or wit, superior to all the rest. W. L. MacDonald.

One thought on “The Praise Of Chimney-Sweepers Essayist

Leave a comment

L'indirizzo email non verrà pubblicato. I campi obbligatori sono contrassegnati *