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milative power of genius—that a man, very humbly born, humbly educated, and from boyhood till past middle life nailed, as a clerk, to a desk in the South Sea or India Houses, should so perfectly appropriate to himself, to the expression of his own most intimate emotions and thoughts, the tone and turn of phrase of the writers, pre-eminently the dramatic writers, of the times of James and Charles I. Their style was as natural to him as the air he breathed. It was a part of his intellect; it entered into and modified his views of all things—it was the necessary dialect of his genius.
Crude they are, I grant you,' says he (as the friend of the late Elia) of these Essays, ' a sort of unlicked, incondite things-villainously pranked in an affected array of antique words and phrases. They had not been his if they had been other than such; and better it is that a writer should be natural in a self-pleasing quaintness, than to affect a naturalness (so called) that should be strange to him.'
Very early in life, Lamb had been directed, by his senior schoolfellow, Coleridge, to the perusal of Beaumont and Fletcher, Massinger, and the other great contemporary dramatists of that marvellous age; and he studied them page by page, as we believe they have never been studied from their first publication to the present day. In the essay entitled • Old China,' in the second Elia, there is the following graphic reminiscence put into the mouth of his most excellent and highly-gifted sister*—the Cousin Bridget of the Elias—with whom he lived out his life. The reader must remember that by this time Lamb had retired with honours and a pension from the service • of his kind and munificent masters, Messieurs Boldero, Merryweather, Bosanquet, and Lacy, of Mincing Lane'—that is, the East India Company. (By the bye, the whole conduct of Messieurs Boldero and Co. to Elia, and since his death to Bridget, has been delicate and generous in the highest degree, deserving all praise ; and we give it with good will.)
""Do you remember,” says Bridget, with an air of remonstrance, "do you remember the brown suit which you made to hang upon you till all your friends cried shame upon you—it grew so thread-bareand all because of that folio Beaumont and Fletcher, which you dragged home late at night from Barker's in Covent Garden? Do you remember how we eyed it for weeks before we could make up our minds to the purchase, and had not come to a determination till it was near ten o'clock of the Saturday night, when you set off from Islington, fearing you should be too late ; and when the old bookseller, with some grumbling, opened his shop, and by the twinkling taper (for he was setting bedwards) lighted out the relic from his dusty treasures and when you lugged it home, wishing it were twice as cumbersome --and when you presented it to me—and when we were exploring the perfectness of it (collating you called it)—and while I was repairing some of the loose leaves with paste, which your impatience would not suffer to be left till day-break-was there no pleasure in being a poor man? Or can those neat black clothes which you wear now, and are so careful to keep brushed, since we have become rich and finical, give you half the honest vanity with which you flaunted it about in that over-worn suit-your old corbeau-for four or five weeks longer than you should have done, to pacify your conscience for the mighty sum of fifteen-or sixteen shillings, was it ?-a great affair, we thought it then-which you had lavished on the old folio. Now you can afford to buy any book that pleases you; but I do not see that you ever bring me home any nice old purchases now.'— Last Essays, &c. p. 219.
* We owe to Miss Lamb some of the most exquisite poems included in her brother's 'Works' of 1818-in particular the splendid lines on Salome—those on David in the Cave of Adullam-and the Dialogue between a Mother and a Child.
-and * A very elegant reprint of Lamb's Dramatic Specimens, 2 vols, 12mo., has just been published by Mr. Moxon,
In his dedication of the two volumes of his works published in 1818, Lamb speaks of his having " dwindled' into criticism. It was doing himself very great injustice.
Nor is it enough to say, that the various critical essays contained in his works are beautiful in themselves-they are little text-books of sound principles in the judgment of works of literature and general art; equally profound, discriminating, and original. It is to these essays, and bis judicious selection of Specimens, published in 1808,* that we are pre-eminently indebted for the exhuming of the old dramatic writers of the Shakspearian age, and the restoration of the worthiest of them at least to their most deserved station in our literature. The · Retrospective Review, which did so much good service in its day in this line, took the leading bint from what Lamb and Coleridge had written and spoken concerning the then almost unexplored or forgotten treasures of thought and imagination, produced in England in the first half of the seventeenth century. Sundry lively sketches also, in Mr. Southey's 'Omniana,' concurred in creating the impulse; and by a coincidence, equally singular and fortunate, Mr. Gifford, about the same time, brought out his admirable editions of Ben Jonson, Ford, Massinger, &c. ; works, the merit of which, in the cause of sound English literature, those only can duly appreciate who have perused any of the prior editions of these great authors. What a foul mass of stupid prejudice and half-witted criticism did he for ever discharge from the pages and the name of Jonson, in particular! Nor did an occasional narrowness and ungeniality of spirit in some parts of liis general criticism-as, for example, in the comparison of Shakspeare with his contemporaries, in the Preface to Massinger-materially obstruct the beneficial influence of Gifford's learning, taste, and accomplishments, as a dramatic editor. He has given us a highly corrected text, and annotations, the least merit of which—and that not an inconsiderable one—is, that they rarely or never mislead. Lamb's Essays and Gifford's editions have each most powerfully contributed to strengthen the other's influence in producing a reviviscence of works of genius without parallel in our literary history. Massinger's exquisite dramas, in particular, were scarcely more known to the public, thirty years ago, than a chapter in Thomas Aquinas. These are great benefits, and ought not to be lightly forgotten.
Lamb's criticism partook largely of the spirit of Coleridgenot, indeed, troubling itself with any special psychological definitions, nor caring to reconcile all the varying appearances upon some common ground of moral or intellectual action—the everlasting struggle and devotion of Coleridge's mind—but entering, with a most learned spirit of human dealing, into the dramatic being of the characters of the play, and bringing out, with an incomparable delicacy and accuracy of touch, their places of contact and mutual repulsion. The true point of view Lamb always seized with unerring precision-a high praise for a critic of any sort—and this led him, with equal success, to detect the real centre, whether a character or an event, round which the orb of the drama revolved. Hence he was one of the most original of critics, and threw more and newer light upon the genuine meaning of some of the great masterpieces of the theatre than any other man ; and yet we do not remember a single instance in which any of his positions have been gainsaid. Like all critics who have a real insight into their subject, Lamb helps you, in a few words, to a principle—a master-key--by which you may work out the details of the investigation yourself. You are not merely amused with a brilliant description of a character or passage, but become a discerning judge in the light of your own perceptions and convictions. Take, for example, the beautiful essay. On the Tragedies of Shakspeare, considered with reference to their fitness for stage representation ;' in which he puts the reader in possession of principles, which, if constantly borne in mind and well reasoned out, might be of inestimable service to poets, painters, actors, and managers—every one, in short, concerned in knowing and observing the limits which separate mental and visual sublimity--the conditions under which, and the extent to which, the creations of poetry can be embodied or actualized on the stage or by the pencil; and more especially the applicability of these distinctions to the characters in the Shakspearian drama, and generally to works of the highest range of imagination.
• It is common,' he says, ' for people to talk of Shakspeare's plays being so natural,--that everybody can understand them. They are VOL, LIV. NO. OVU.
natural indeed-they are grounded deep in nature, so deep, that the depth of them lies out of the reach of most of us. You shall hear the same persons say, that George Barnwell is very natural, and Othello is very natural, that they are both very deep; and to them they are the same kind of thing. At the one, they sit and shed tears, because a good sort of young man is tempted by a naughty woman to commit a trifling peccadillo—the murder of an uncle or so—that is all, and so comes to an untimely end—which is so moving ; and at the other, because a blackamoor, in a fit of jealousy, kills his innocent white wife: and the odds are, that ninety-nine out of a hundred would willingly behold the same catastrophe happen to both the heroes, and have thought the rope more due to Othello than to Barnwell. For of the texture of Othello's mind—the inward construction marvellously laid open with all its strengths and weaknesses, its heroic confidences, and its human misgivings, its agonies of hate springing from the depths of love--they see no more than the spectators at a cheaper rate, who pay their pennies apiece to look through the man's telescope in Leicester Fields, see into the inward plot and topography of the moon. Some dim thing or other they see; they see an actor personating a passion-of grief or anger, for instance--and they recognize it as a copy of the usual external effects of such passions; or at least, as being true to that symbol of the emotion which passes current at the theatre for it--for it is often no more than that: but of the grounds of the passion, its correspondence to a great or heroic nature, which is the only worthy object of tragedy—that common auditors know anything of this, or can have any such notions dinned into them by the mere strength of an actor's lungs - that apprehensions foreign to them should be thus infused into them by storm-I can neither believe, nor understand how it can be possible.
• We talk of Shakspeare's admirable observation of life, when we should feel, that not from a petty inquisition into those cheap and every-day characters which surrounded him, as they surround us, but from his own mind—which was, to borrow a phrase of Ben Jonson's, the very sphere of humanity'-he fetched those images of virtue and of knowledge, of which every one of us, recognizing a part, think we comprehend in our natures the whole; and oftentimes mistake the powers which he positively creates in us, for nothing more than indigenous faculties of our own minds, which only waited the application of corresponding virtues in him to return a full and clear echo of the
· I mean no disrespect to any actor ; but the sort of pleasure which Shakspeare's plays give in the acting seems to me not at all to differ from that which the audience receive from those of other writers; and, they being in themselves essentially so different from all others, I must conclude that there is something in the nature of acting which levels all distinctions. And, in fact, who does not speak indifferently of the Gamester and of Macbeth, as fine stage performances; and praise the Mrs. Beverley in the same way as the Lady Macbeth of
Mrs. Siddons ? Belvidera, and Calista, and Isabella, and Euphrasia, are they less liked than Imogen, or than Juliet, or than Desdemona ? Are they not spoken of and remembered in the same way? Is not the female performer as great (as they call it) in one as in the other ? Did riot Garrick shine, and was he not ambitious of shining, in every drawling tragedy that his wretched day produced—the productions of the Hills, the Murphys, and the Browns ?-and shall he have that honour to dwell in our minds for ever as an inseparable concomitant with Shakspeare?-A kindred mind!
* The truth is, the characters of Shakspeare are so much the objects of meditation rather than of interest or curiosity, as to their actions, that while we are reading any of his great criminal characters—Macbeth, Richard, even Iago-we think not so much of the crimes which they commit, as of the ambition, the aspiring spirit, the intellectual activity, which prompts them to overleap those moral fences. Barnwell is a wretched murderer; there is a certain fitness between his neck and the rope-he is the legitimate heir to the gallows; nobody who thinks at all can think of any alleviating circumstances in his case to make him a fit object of mercy. Or, to take an instance from the higher tragedy, what else but a mere assassin is Glenalvon ?Do we think of anything but of the crime which he commits, and the rack which he deserves ? That is all which we really think about him. Whereas, in corresponding characters in Shakspeare, so little do the actions comparatively affect us, that while the impulses, the inner mind, in all its perverted greatness, solely seems real and is exclusively attended to, the crime is comparatively nothing. But when we see these things represented, the acts which they do are comparatively everything, their impulses nothing. The state of sublime emotion into which we are elevated by those images of fright and horror which Macbeth is made to utter-that solemn prelude with which he entertains the time till the bell shall strike which is to call him to murder Duncan ;-when we no longer read it in a book—when we have given up that vantage-ground of abstraction which reading possesses over seeing, and come to see a man, in his bodily shape before our eyes, actually preparing to commit a murder-if the acting be true and impressive, as I have witnessed it in Mr. Kemble's performance of that part—the painful anxiety about the act, the natural longing to prevent it while it yet seems unperpetrated, the too close pressing semblance of reality, gives a pain and an uneasiness which totally destroy all the delight which the words in the book convey, where the deed-doing never presses upon us with the painful sense of presence ; it rather seems to belong to history--to something past and inevitable—if it has anything to do with time at all. The sublime images, the poetry alone, is that which is present to our minds in the reading.
So, to see Lear acted—to see an old man tottering about the stage with a walking-stick, turned out of doors by his daughters, in a rainy night-has nothing in it but what is painful and disgusting. We want to take him into shelter, and relieve him—that is all the feeling