Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Critical Introduction by A. Ainger
Charles Lamb (1775–1834)
[Charles Lamb (1775–1834), born in the Temple, London, the son of John Lamb, clerk and confidential servant to Samuel Salt, a bencher of the Inner Temple. Educated at Christ’s Hospital, he early obtained a clerkship in the South Sea House, which however was exchanged after a year or two for one in the India House, where he remained until his retirement on a pension, in the year 1824. Lamb never married, but devoted himself to the care of his sister Mary, ten years his senior, who was subject to fits of mental aberration, in one of which she had fatally wounded her mother, in the year 1796. Besides his essays and other writings, mainly critical, in prose, Lamb wrote occasional verse; a short romance modelled upon the sentimental school of Sterne and Mackenzie; a blank verse tragedy, redolent of Massinger and Fletcher; and a farce, the memorable “Mr. H.” produced, for one night only, at Drury Lane, in 1806.]  1
THE LITERARY style of Charles Lamb, and the sources from which it was derived, have been so often described and traced, that there remains little new to be said. But it may be doubted whether that style, characteristic as it is, has had much to do with the writer’s popularity. The style is certainly “quaint” in a true sense of that much abused word—that is to say, it wears the strangeness we associate with something old-fashioned; it contains an element of the fantastic which yet is not affectation. So far as Lamb’s style was deliberately manipulated by himself, it was the result of a humorous intuition that the style of his favourite writers of the 16th and 17th centuries would have a novel and whimsical effect if applied to modern ways, thoughts, and topics. It is quite easy to trace in Lamb’s English, imitations (conscious or unconscious) of the writers he most loved, notably Milton and Sir Thomas Browne; Fuller, and the earlier “Character” writers, Earle and Overbury; besides others, such as Burton and Isaac Walton. He falls naturally into these writers’ rhythms and vocabularies, just as the subject he is treating recalls them to his memory. Thus, although Lamb is undeniably a mannered writer, his manner is seldom in two essays quite the same. And this constitutes one secret of the charm that the cultivated reader seldom fails to find in him; and moreover prevents him from ever becoming monotonous or tiresome. His style is full of surprises because the mood continually varies, creating or suggesting its own style, and calling into play some recollection of this or that writer of the older world.  2
  It is only to a superficial critic that Lamb’s English will appear easy of imitation. On a first glance indeed he appears to have a “trick” or “tricks” which might be copied—the frank egotism, as of Montaigne or the author of the Religio Medici, the picked vocabulary, the allusiveness, the turn of the sentence so often suggesting something old-world. Experiments on the same lines have been made since Lamb, but never with success. The imitation, however skilful, is at once detected and resented, for without the living spirit underneath the trickery is seen to be the mere galvanic mimicry of life. Unless Lamb’s individuality could be reproduced, the reproduction of his style would be simply nauseous,—the “gorge rises at it.” Hence Lamb has no place in the main current of our literature. He was not of those who are developed out of their predecessors and in turn hand on their influence to others; though, as I have said elsewhere, he did much to break the spell of the serious and systematic method of treating social questions which the essay of the Rambler type had done much to foster. Lamb stands apart as a stylist, and it is just for this reason that his place in the reader’s enjoyment and affection is secure of change. He has not had to suffer, like Dickens or Carlyle, for the sins of his copyists. The attempt to conjure with his rod brings a speedy Nemesis. It may safely be said that since the publication of the essays of Elia no writer has won a name for wit or pathos by the simple path of appropriating Lamb’s methods. For if, in one sense, no writer is more easily imitated, in a more important sense no writer is less so. To no one is Buffon’s saying more entirely applicable that le style, c’est de l’homme. For if Lamb’s style be consciously constructed, and in that sense be “affected”; if his love of hoaxing and indifference to accuracy seem to be out of keeping with a character for sincerity, no writer was ever more absolutely sincere than Lamb. Though his temporary disguises are manifold, his real self is never doubtful; its goodness and justness showing through all his antipathies—the piercing insight of his critical faculty, never obscured by his freaks or paradoxes: the genuine humanity and pity, as of one himself haud ignarus mali—to reproduce Lamb, all this must be reproduced,—and this kind of individuality the man of letters may studiously mimic, but cannot assimilate at will.  3

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