Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
A Breakfast with Elia
By Nathaniel Parker Willis (18061867)
[From Pencillings by the Way.Prose Works. 1850.]
INVITED to breakfast with a gentleman in the Temple to meet Charles Lamb and his sisterElia and Bridget Elia. I never in my life had an invitation more to my taste. The essays of Elia are certainly the most charming things in the world, and it has been for the last ten years my highest compliment to the literary taste of a friend to present him with a copy. Who has not smiled over the humorous description of Mrs. Battle? Who that has read Elia would not give more to see him than all the other authors of his time put together?
Our host was rather a character. I had brought a letter of introduction to him from Walter Savage Landor, the author of Imaginary Conversations, living at Florence, with a request that he would put me in a way of seeing one or two men about whom I had a curiosity, Lamb more particularly. I could not have been recommended to a better person. Mr. R. is a gentleman who, everybody says, should have been an author, but who never wrote a book. He is a profound German scholar, has travelled much, is the intimate friend of Southey, Coleridge, and Lamb, has breakfasted with Goethe, travelled with Wordsworth through France and Italy, and spends part of every summer with him, and knows everything and everybody that is distinguishedin short, is, in his bachelors chambers in the Temple, the friendly nucleus of a great part of the talent of England.
I arrived a half hour before Lamb, and had time to learn some of his peculiarities. He lives a little out of London, and is very much of an invalid. Some family circumstances have tended to depress him very much of late years, and unless excited by convivial intercourse, he scarce shows a trace of what he was. He was very much pleased with the American reprint of his Elia, though it contains several things which are not hiswritten so in his style, however, that it is scarce a wonder the editor should mistake them. If I remember right, they were Valentines Day, the Nuns of Caverswell, and Twelfth Night. He is excessively given to mystifying his friends, and is never so delighted as when he has persuaded some one into the belief of one of his grave inventions. His amusing biographical sketch of Liston was in this vein, and there was no doubt in anybodys mind that it was authentic, and written in perfectly good faith. Liston was highly enraged with it, and Lamb was delighted in proportion.
There was a rap at the door at last, and enter a gentleman in black small-clothes and gaiters, short and very slight in his person, his head set on his shoulders with a thoughtful, forward bent, his hair just sprinkled with gray, a beautiful deep-set eye, aquiline nose, and a very indescribable mouth. Whether it expressed most humor or feeling, good nature or a kind of whimsical peevishness, or twenty other things which passed over it by turns, I cannot in the least be certain.
His sister, whose literary reputation is associated very closely with her brothers, and who, as the original of Bridget Elia, is a kind of object for literary affection, came in after him. She is a small, bent figure, evidently a victim to illness, and hears with difficulty. Her face has been, I should think, a fine and handsome one, and her bright gray eye is still full of intelligence and fire. They both seemed quite at home in our friends chambers, and as there was to be no one else, we immediately drew round the breakfast table. I had set a large arm-chair for Miss Lamb. Dont take it, Mary, said Lamb, pulling it away from her very gravely, it appears as if you were going to have a tooth drawn.
The conversation was very local. Our host and his guest had not met for some weeks, and they had a great deal to say of their mutual friends. Perhaps in this way, however, I saw more of the author, for his manner of speaking of them, and the quaint humor with which he complained of one, and spoke well of another, was so in the vein of his inimitable writings, that I could have fancied myself listening to an audible composition of a new Elia. Nothing could be more delightful than the kindness and affection between the brother and the sister, though Lamb was continually taking advantage of her deafness to mystify her with the most singular gravity upon every topic that was started. Poor Mary! said he, she hears all of an epigram but the point. What are you saying of me, Charles? she asked. Mr. Willis, said he, raising his voice, admires your Confessions of a Drunkard very much, and I was saying that it was no merit of yours that you understood the subject. We had been speaking of this admirable essay (which is his own) half an hour before.
The conversation turned upon literature after awhile, and our host, the Templar, could not express himself strongly enough in admiration of Websters speeches, which he said were exciting the greatest attention among the politicians and lawyers of England. Lamb said, I dont know much of American authors. Mary, there, devours Coopers novels with a ravenous appetite, with which I have no sympathy. The only American book I ever read twice was the Journal of John Woolman, a Quaker preacher and tailor, whose character is one of the finest I ever met with. He tells a story or two about negro slaves, that brought the tears into my eyes. I can read no prose now, though Hazlitt sometimes, to be surebut then Hazlitt is worth all modern prose writers put together.
Mr. R. spoke of buying a book of Lambs a few days before, and I mentioned my having bought a copy of Elia the last day I was in America, to send as a parting gift to one of the most lovely and talented women in our country.
Lamb ate nothing, and complained in a querulous tone of the veal pie. There was a kind of potted fish (of which I forget the name at this moment) which he had expected our friend would procure for him. He inquired whether there was not a morsel left perhaps in the bottom of the last pot. Mr. R. was not sure.
The cover was brought, upon which there was a picture of the fish. Lamb kissed it with a reproachful look at his friend, and then left the table and began to wander round the room with a broken, uncertain step, as if he almost forgot to put one leg before the other. His sister rose after awhile, and commenced walking up and down very much in the same manner on the opposite side of the table, and in the course of half an hour they took their leave.
To any one who loves the writings of Charles Lamb with but half my own enthusiasm, even these little particulars of an hour passed in his company will have an interest. To him who does not, they will seem dull and idle. Wreck as he certainly is, and must be, however, of what he was, I would rather have seen him for that single hour than the hundred and one sights of London put together.