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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Charles Lamb
By Thomas De Quincey (1785–1859)
 
From ‘Biographical Essays’

IT sounds paradoxical, but is not so in a bad sense, to say that in every literature of large compass some authors will be found to rest much of the interest which surrounds them on their essential non-popularity. They are good for the very reason that they are not in conformity to the current taste. They interest because to the world they are not interesting. They attract by means of their repulsion. Not as though it could separately furnish a reason for loving a book, that the majority of men had found it repulsive. Prima facie, it must suggest some presumption against a book that it has failed to gain public attention. To have roused hostility indeed, to have kindled a feud against its own principles or its temper, may happen to be a good sign. That argues power. Hatred may be promising. The deepest revolutions of mind sometimes begin in hatred. But simply to have left a reader unimpressed is in itself a neutral result, from which the inference is doubtful. Yet even that, even simple failure to impress, may happen at times to be a result from positive powers in a writer, from special originalities such as rarely reflect themselves in the mirror of the ordinary understanding. It seems little to be perceived, how much the great Scriptural idea of the worldly and the unworldly is found to emerge in literature as well as in life. In reality, the very same combinations of moral qualities, infinitely varied, which compose the harsh physiognomy of what we call worldliness in the living groups of life, must unavoidably present themselves in books. A library divides into sections of worldly and unworldly, even as a crowd of men divides into that same majority and minority. The world has an instinct for recognizing its own, and recoils from certain qualities when exemplified in books, with the same disgust or defective sympathy as would have governed it in real life. From qualities for instance of childlike simplicity, of shy profundity, or of inspired self-communion, the world does and must turn away its face towards grosser, bolder, more determined, or more intelligible expressions of character and intellect; and not otherwise in literature, nor at all less in literature, than it does, in the realities of life.  1
  Charles Lamb, if any ever was, is amongst the class here contemplated; he, if any ever has, ranks amongst writers whose works are destined to be forever unpopular, and yet forever interesting; interesting moreover by means of those very qualities which guarantee their non-popularity. The same qualities which will be found forbidding to the worldly and the thoughtless, which will be found insipid to many even amongst robust and powerful minds, are exactly those which will continue to command a select audience in every generation. The prose essays, under the signature of “Elia,” form the most delightful section amongst Lamb’s works. They traverse a peculiar field of observation, sequestered from general interest; and they are composed in a spirit too delicate and unobtrusive to catch the ear of the noisy crowd, clamoring for strong sensations. But this retiring delicacy itself, the pensiveness checkered by gleams of the fanciful, and the humor that is touched with cross-lights of pathos, together with the picturesque quaintness of the objects casually described, whether men, or things, or usages; and in the rear of all this, the constant recurrence to ancient recollections and to decaying forms of household life, as things retiring before the tumult of new and revolutionary generations;—these traits in combination communicate to the papers a grace and strength of originality which nothing in any literature approaches, whether for degree or kind of excellence, except the most felicitous papers of Addison, such as those on Sir Roger de Coverley, and some others in the same vein of composition. They resemble Addison’s papers also in the diction, which is natural and idiomatic even to carelessness. They are equally faithful to the truth of nature; and in this only they differ remarkably—that the sketches of Elia reflect the stamp and impress of the writer’s own character, whereas in all those of Addison the personal peculiarities of the delineator (though known to the reader from the beginning through the account of the club) are nearly quiescent. Now and then they are recalled into a momentary notice, but they do not act, or at all modify his pictures of Sir Roger or Will Wimble. They are slightly and amiably eccentric; but the Spectator himself, in describing them, takes the station of an ordinary observer.  2
  Everywhere, indeed, in the writings of Lamb, and not merely in his ‘Elia,’ the character of the writer co-operates in an undercurrent to make the effect of the thing written. To understand in the fullest sense either the gayety or the tenderness of a particular passage, you must have some insight into the peculiar bias of the writer’s mind, whether native and original, or impressed gradually by the accidents of situation; whether simply developed out of predispositions by the action of life, or violently scorched into the constitution by some fierce fever of calamity. There is in modern literature a whole class of writers, though not a large one, standing within the same category; some marked originality of character in the writer becomes a coefficient with what he says to a common result; you must sympathize with this personality in the author before you can appreciate the most significant parts of his views. In most books the writer figures as a mere abstraction, without sex or age or local station, whom the reader banishes from his thoughts. What is written seems to proceed from a blank intellect, not from a man clothed with fleshly peculiarities and differences. These peculiarities and differences neither do, nor (generally speaking) could intermingle with the texture of the thoughts so as to modify their force or their direction. In such books—and they form the vast majority—there is nothing to be found or to be looked for beyond the direct objective. (Sit venia verbo!) But in a small section of books, the objective in the thought becomes confluent with the subjective in the thinker—the two forces unite for a joint product; and fully to enjoy the product, or fully to apprehend either element, both must be known. It is singular and worth inquiring into, for the reason that the Greek and Roman literature had no such books. Timon of Athens, or Diogenes, one may conceive qualified for this mode of authorship, had journalism existed to rouse them in those days; their “articles” would no doubt have been fearfully caustic. But as they failed to produce anything, and Lucian in an after age is scarcely characteristic enough for the purpose, perhaps we may pronounce Rabelais and Montaigne the earliest of writers in the class described. In the century following theirs came Sir Thomas Browne, and immediately after him La Fontaine. Then came Swift, Sterne, with others less distinguished; in Germany, Hippel the friend of Kant, Harmann the obscure, and the greatest of the whole body—John Paul Friedrich Richter. In him, from the strength and determinateness of his nature as well as from the great extent of his writing, the philosophy of this interaction between the author as a human agency and his theme as an intellectual reagency might best be studied. From him might be derived the largest number of cases, illustrating boldly this absorption of the universal into the concrete—of the pure intellect into the human nature of the author. But nowhere could illustrations be found more interesting—shy, delicate, evanescent—shy as lightning, delicate and evanescent as the colored pencilings on a frosty night from the Northern Lights, than in the better parts of Lamb.  3
  To appreciate Lamb, therefore, it is requisite that his character and temperament should be understood in their coyest and most wayward features. A capital defect it would be if these could not be gathered silently from Lamb’s works themselves. It would be a fatal mode of dependency upon an alien and separable accident if they needed an external commentary. But they do not. The syllables lurk up and down the writings of Lamb, which decipher his eccentric nature. His character lies there dispersed in anagram; and to any attentive reader the re-gathering and restoration of the total word from its scattered parts is inevitable without an effort. Still it is always a satisfaction in knowing a result, to know also its why and how; and in so far as every character is likely to be modified by the particular experience, sad or joyous, through which the life has traveled, it is a good contribution towards the knowledge of that resulting character as a whole to have a sketch of that particular experience. What trials did it impose? What energies did it task? What temptations did it unfold? These calls upon the moral powers, which in music so stormy many a life is doomed to hear,—how were they faced? The character in a capital degree molds oftentimes the life, but the life always in a subordinate degree molds the character. And the character being in this case of Lamb so much of a key to the writings, it becomes important that the life should be traced, however briefly, as a key to the character.  4
 
 
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