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  Mary Lamb Tales from Shakespear  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

VIII. Lamb.

§ 3. Charles Lloyd.


In 1796 began the association between Coleridge and Charles Lloyd, a sensitive young Birmingham quaker; and, in January, 1797, Lloyd unexpectedly sought Lamb out in London. Lamb, still suffering from a sense of loneliness and neglect, conceived a strong attachment for his friend’s disciple. To the second edition of Coleridge’s Poems (October, 1797) were added poems by Lamb and Lloyd; and in 1798 appeared a small volume of Blank Verse, by Charles Lloyd and Charles Lamb, to which Lamb contributed seven poems, including The Old Familiar Faces, one of the most perfect expressions in English of infinite regret tempered by resignation. Friendship with Lloyd meant much pleasant literary intercourse, and from one particular branch of literature to which Lloyd introduced him Lamb learned a sympathy with quakerism and its staid reliance upon “the inward light” as the source of intellectual peace, a sympathy which never left him. Lloyd, however, was not the best companion for a man in need of bracing society. Lamb early discovered in him “an exquisiteness of feeling” which “must border on derangement,” and, a year after his first visit, found himself on the brink of a quarrel, for which, however, he blamed his own impatience at Lloyd’s well-meant devotion. Coleridge, meanwhile, had somewhat tired of Lloyd, and a growing coolness developed into open rupture. In Edmund Oliver, a novel published in 1798, Lloyd vented some of his feeling against Coleridge, and by this time his wounded vanity had effected a breach between Coleridge and Lamb. He told Lamb—inexcusably, even if it were true—that Coleridge had said, “Poor Lamb! if he wants any knowledge, he may apply to me.” Lamb’s retort to this was Theses quaedam theologicae, enclosed in a letter written in June, 1798. For once in their friendship, Lamb showed himself the weaker man of the two. His Theses, clever as they are, might have led to the permanent sundering of a friendship as salutary to Coleridge as it was inspiring to Lamb, had not Coleridge magnanimously overlooked the affront. Within little more than a year, they were again friends. In the interval, Lamb had probably seen more than enough of Charles Lloyd. In January, 1799, a younger brother, Robert, who had rebelled against the quaker traditions of his family, sought refuge with Lamb from his father’s supposed persecution. To this amiable youth, whose chief fault was a readiness to manufacture his own troubles, Lamb addressed a number of letters, one or two of them among the best that he wrote. Lamb recognised him as “the flower of his family,” and his early death was a source of deep grief to a household which, in spite of disagreements, was united by close bonds of affection. In later years, Lamb sent criticisms to the father of the Lloyds upon his verse translations of classical authors; but the friendship with Charles Lloyd gradually ceased. Lloyd’s sensitiveness grew upon him with years: he became a prey to nervous melancholy and died near Versailles in 1839, with his reason hopelessly overclouded.   8
  Lamb’s first independent work in prose, A Tale of Rosamund Gray and Old Blind Margaret, was published in the summer of 1798. Already, as we have seen, he had had some share in White’s Original Letters, etc., of Sir John Falstaff in July, 1796. Rosamund Gray, told in simple prose interwoven with literary phrase, remembered and appropriated from his reading, is a sombre and tragic narrative. In its theme of undeserved misfortune overtaking the young and innocent, Lamb had his own experiences in mind. The resignation of Allan Clare, the survivor of his elder sister and his dead love, is uttered by Lamb himself.
I gave my heart to the Purifier, and my will to the Sovereign Will of the Universe. The irresistible wheels of destiny passed on in their everlasting rotation,—and I suffered myself to be carried along with them without complaining.
The scene of the story is Widford; Blakesware, the home of Allan and Elinor Clare, is visited in memory by the narrator; and in the ill-fated Rosamund is bodied forth the Alice of Elia. In Elinor, whose relation to Allan resembles that of Mary Lamb to Charles, there is a reminiscence of “high-born Helen”; and it is at her grave, not at that of Rosamund, that Allan and his friend meet again. Thus, Lamb showed his capacity of transmuting his pleasures and sorrows into forms of imagination and of treading the border-line between truth and fiction with an unmatched delicacy. Even in his melancholy, he could not fail to reproduce something of the double aspect of life; and occasional gentle touches of amused observation prove his power of balancing and reconciling the comic and tragic elements in human nature.
  9
  To Southey, Lamb’s principal correspondent at this period, he wrote, on 29 October, 1798, in a letter which throws some light upon the composition of Rosamund Gray, that he was at work “upon something, which, if I were to cut away and garble, perhaps I might send you an extract or two that might not displease you.” This was the tragedy first called Pride’s Cure, but, in its revised form, John Woodvil. Although without great original merit or dramatic interest, it bears witness to Lamb’s faithful study of the early Elizabethan drama, in its phraseology, in the varying length and broken rhythm of its lines and in the alternation of verse with prose. Lamb showed two fragments, one of which was afterwards published separately, to George Dyer, whose classical taste “could not comprehend how that could be poetry which did not go upon ten feet.” “I go,” he wrote again to Southey (20 May, 1799), “upon the model of Shakespeare in my Play, and endeavour after a colloquial ease and spirit, something like him.” The style, while frequently recalling that of Shakespeare’s historical plays, is closely akin to that of such dramas as Arden of Feversham, founded on English subjects and preserving, with occasional exaltation of phrase, a general homeliness of diction.   10
  In these pursuits, Lamb gradually shook off his melancholy. To his life with Mary in Pentonville belong those reminiscences afterwards recorded in Old China—the little luxuries permitted by a scanty income, the holiday walks to Potter’s bar, Waltham and Enfield, the folio Beaumont and Fletcher carried home one Saturday night from Covent garden, the purchase of the print from Leonardo which Lamb called “Lady Blanch,” the visits to the shilling gallery of the theatre. The play, pictures and old English literature above all, became the three objects of Lamb’s enthusiasm, relieving his mind after his daily routine and alleviating the anxiety inseparable from his affection for Mary. In December, 1799, he made a new and valuable friend. On a visit to Charles Lloyd at Cambridge, he met Thomas Manning, a mathematician of Caius, versatile and laughter-loving. Their correspondence produced a series of letters full of Lamb’s peculiar humour. Cambridge also held George Dyer of Emmanuel, whose oddity and touching simplicity were a microcosm of the eternal contradictions of life in which Lamb delighted. Into Oxford in the Vacation, with its disclosure of his attraction towards the universities whose privileges he had been unable to share, Lamb interwove memories of Cambridge and introduced the portrait of Dyer in the library of his college. His first visit to Oxford took place in the summer of 1800, when he passed two days with the family of Matthew Gutch, a law-stationer in London. Gutch had offered him a lodging at 34 Southampton buildings, Chancery lane, and here he settled with Mary in the late summer of 1800.   11
  His literary work during the next few years was desultory. In March, 1800, Coleridge had spent some weeks with him in Pentonville and suggested to him to contribute to a newspaper an imitation of Burton’s Anatomy, which bore fruit in the three Curious Fragments printed with John Woodvil in 1802. In the same volume were also printed the lines called Hypochondriacus, composed about this time, which show an appreciation of Burton’s melancholy not less remarkable than the prose fragments in reproduction of his style. These first attempts at writing for newspapers were not accepted, which is hardly surprising. Lamb, meanwhile, was increasing his acquaintance. His lodgings in Southampton buildings were so crowded by visitors that they resembled a “minister’s levee,” and, at Lady day 1801, he found it convenient to seek new quarters in the attic story of 16 Mitre court buildings, in the Temple. He obtained a footing on The Albion, which ended in August, 1801, and then, after a short connection with The Morning Chronicle, worked for The Morning Post from 1802 to 1804. His contributions to these journals were, for the most part, ephemeral; his most remarkable feat was an epigram upon the apostasy of Sir James Mackintosh from radicalism, which proved the deathblow of The Albion. Newspapers Thirty-five years ago contains a record, with some confusion of facts and dates, of this period, and an amusing specimen of the consciously laboured humour with which Lamb sought to enliven The Morning Post. His journalistic life brought him into contact with a somewhat different order of friends, “men of boisterous spirits, sitters up a-nights, disputants, drunken,” who “yet seemed to have something noble about them.” One of them, John Fenwick, the editor of The Albion, lives in Elia as Ralph Bigod, the representative of “the great race” of men who borrow. In their society, figuring as “a profest joker,” Lamb certainly confirmed a taste for “tipple and tobacco,” and a habit of sitting up into the small hours, which were a disadvantage to his nervous temperament; but he also widened his views of human nature and learned to forget his troubles, or, at any rate, to see them in their true proportions.   12
  John Woodvil was published early in 1802 with the complement of Curious Fragments from Burton, Mary Lamb’s “High-born Helen” and a few other pieces. In the summer of the same year, the Lambs visited Coleridge at Greta hall. The sunset as they drove from Penrith and the view from Skiddaw, with other pleasant experiences, satisfied Lamb “that there is such a thing as that which tourists call romantic, which I very much suspected before”; but he came to the sensible conclusion that “Fleet Street and the Strand are better places to live in for good and all than amidst Skiddaw.” The landmarks of the next few years are scanty—a visit to the isle of Wight in 1803, an attack of depression early in 1805 and a return of Mary’s illness in the following summer. With her recovery, Lamb’s spirits rose, and, early in 1806, he submitted his farce Mr. H—— for production on the stage. In May, 1806, he suffered a serious loss in the departure of Manning for China. But, new work and interests helped to atone for the withdrawal of Manning’s “steadiness and quiet, which used to infuse something like itself into our nervous minds.” The friendship of Wordsworth and his sister afforded that calm sympathy of which the Lambs stood much in need; the society of John Rickman, whose accomplishments, as “a pleasant hand,” Lamb had discovered in 1800, of Martin Burney and others, was near at hand; and Hazlitt, the future husband of Mary Lamb’s friend, Sarah Stoddart, quickened his love of art. In a farewell letter to Manning (10 May, 1806), he described the beginning of Tales from Shakespear, undertaken at the recommendation of William Godwin, whom Lamb liked as cordially as he detested Godwin’s second wife. Mary charged herself with the adaptation of twenty plays of Shakespeare “for the Use of Young Persons”: Lamb himself had finished Othello and Macbeth when he wrote to Manning, and contributed four more tales to the ultimate collection, of which the remaining fourteen were by Mary.   13
  Before the appearance of this classic in January, 1807, Lamb’s venture in farce was tried publicly and failed. It was accepted in June, 1806, at Drury lane, and was produced on 10 December, with Elliston in the title rôle. Its point is the preservation by Mr. H—— of his anonymity, in order to secure a bride whom his real name Hogsflesh will disgust. By a slip of the tongue, he discloses his name prematurely; but, the danger to his happiness is removed by the timely arrival of a licence empowering him to change his name to Bacon. The thinness of the subject is ill disguised by Lamb’s gift of punning, to which it gave some opportunity. The author, a just critic of his own work, joined in hissing it and bore his mortification stoically. Although he now and then returned to dramatic writing, he never produced another play on the boards.   14

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  Mary Lamb Tales from Shakespear  
 
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