Charles Lamb and Sydney Smith
THERE were in Great Britain, soon after the commencement of the present century, three remarkable groups of young men. Distinct schools of thought, like the philosophic schools of Greece, each of the groups was marked by peculiar ideas, tastes, and sympathies. The French Revolution, with its menace of fundamental changes, clashing with sentiments and convictions which ages had rendered habitual and dear, called for an inquiry into great principles and the grounds of things. The Napoleonic age had the terrific formlessness of chaos. Did it premonish the passing away of old things, and herald the birth of a new order and a new social state ? or did the trouble spring from innate madness in the “ younger strengths ” which were
trying to overthrow the world’s kingdoms ? Should venerable Royalty, after howling in the wilderness and storm, be again enthroned? or should men attempt to realize the fair ideals which the word Republic suggested ? Should religion be supplanted ? should Protestantism be confirmed ? or should, perchance, the crosier of the Old Church be again waved over Europe ? These were the questions that were mooted, and they aroused unwonted activity and vigor of thought as well in literature as in polities.
The old century left in England few celebrated names to take part in the literature of the new. The men who made the poems, romances, dramas, reviews, and criticisms for the first quarter of our century had almost all been in youth contemporaries of the Reign of Terror, and had been tried in that unparalleled period as by a fiery furnace, while their opinions were in a formative state. Crabbe and Rogers were traditions of the time of Goldsmith and Johnson; Gifford wrote with a virulence and ability which he might have learned in boyhood from Junius; but with these exceptions, English literature fifty years ago was represented by young men.
We mention, as the first group of young thinkers, the founders of the " Edinburgh Review,”- Sydney Smith, Francis Jeffrey, Francis Horner, and Henry Brougham,-whose united ages, when the first number of that review appeared in 1802, made one hundred and seven years. Members of tbe Whig party, possessing much learning and more vivacity and earnestness, and having among them, if not severally, abundance both of daring and prudence, they startled conservative people, evoked the best efforts of authors by their brilliant castigations, and inaugurated the discussion of measures of reform which it took thirty years to get through Parliament. The critic of the company was Francis Jeffrey, whose happiness it was to live just when he was needed. Without capacity to excel either in the realm of ideas or of facts, he was unrivalled in the power of discovering the relations between the two. He was neither a statesman, philosopher, nor poet; but while the heavens and the earth threatened to rush in confusion together, he was an admirable cicerone to the troubled and wandering wits of men. He had no inherent qualities, and, if other people had not existed, would not have been alive himself; his faculty was simply an eye for relations, and his mental life began when some one threw a series of thoughts across his line of vision. He could tell all about those thoughts,-how large each was, what complexion they had, how they stood in order with each other, and how they compared with other thoughts which he remembered having seen before. Such a mind might have achieved success among the technicali-
ties of the law, but nowhere else, had not the “ Edinburgh Review ” been created. Jeffrey’s critical articles have little value when regarded according to their aim and as integral compositions; the arguments which they contain are often insufficient, and the literary judgments wrong. But they are full of the scattered elements of thought. Many of the best ideas of the books and men of which they treat are stated in them with admirable clearness and piquancy, and they are, therefore, pleasant secondary sources of information.
Francis Horner died of consumption in Italy before he was forty years of age, and there is nothing of surpassing brilliancy or power in any of his writings. Yet he made a most extraordinary impression upon his contemporaries. His name is never mentioned by his associates except with unusual respect. Brougham, when he alludes to him, even in a letter, seems to check his pen into soberness, and to be as cautious as if he were speaking on a religious subject. Search through the published correspondence of Jeffrey, Sydney Smith, and Mackintosh, and Horner is found uniformly mentioned, not with peculiar affection or kindness, not with any intention of doing him honor, but as a man whose qualities were quite superior to those of other men, and whose destiny it was to be the first statesman of his country. Lord Cockburn, who was a schoolmate of Horner, relates that the latter was at one time selected by his class to present a book to the master, and adds: “ As he stepped forward at the close of a recitation, and delivered the short Latin presentation-address, I thought him to be a god.” This fascination is hard to be explained. The great seriousness of Horner's character may in part account for it. He could not bear trifling on important subjects, and could not help frowning on all jests which were not more wise than witty. The calm determination, the unvarying earnestness of his character, may aid in explaining it. From a boy, he never swerved from great purposes, pursued the most useful though difficult knowledge, and cultivated with equal zeal the ornaments of taste and those recondite historical and statistical studies which are the roots of political science. He was as far from being flighty as Immanuel Kant. Everything that he did was marked both by temperance and sagacity. Philosophically speaking, a personality, any personal being, is undoubtedly the most mysterious thing in the universe. How abstract ideas come together to grow and bloom in a young bosom is wholly past the comprehension of philosophy. As personality in the abstract fascinates a philosopher by its mystery, so a personality of uncommon purity, intensity, and completeness fascinates all men, and thus, perhaps, is explained the high estimation in which Horner was held. He was regarded by those who knew him, as Pythagoras was by his disciples, with the deference commanded by a superior person.
The indefatigable character of Lord Brougham, the only survivor of this group, cannot yet be sketched in a paragraph. To Sydney Smith we shall presently return.
The second group of young men was formed fifteen years later. They were the antagonists of the Edinburgh reviewers, the authors of the “ Noctes Ambrosianæ,” the main support of “ Blackwood’s Magazine,” almost from its beginning. Their names were John Wilson, J. G. Lockhart, James Hogg, and, for a time, William Maginn. These were very high, as well as, excepting Hogg, very young Tories. It would be an apotheosis of loyalty to say that they were also eminently religious, though they drank many bumpers to their religion. When they meet in the third of the “ Noctes ” and have taken their places at the table, North proposes : “ A bumper! The King ! God bless him!” and three times three are given. Then Tickler proposes : “ A bumper! The Kirk of Scotland ! ” and the rounds of cheers are repeated. These indispensable ceremonies being over, the Blackwood council proceeds to discuss
men and things over nectar and ambrosia.
Wilson was the centre and best representative of this group. At Oxford, he had been so democratic that he blacked his own boots on principle. On leaving Oxford, he had roamed for a time as a wild man in a band of gypsies, He next took a cottage in the lake district in the North of England, where he associated with Wordsworth, and occupied himself alternately with desperate gymnastic exercises and composing slight descriptive poems. Even after connecting himself with the magazine and becoming the symposiarch of the “ Noctes,” and perhaps the greatest Tory in all broad Scotland, he did not renounce his home among the lakes. He was a lover of scenery, and an enthusiast and master in manly sports. He is said to have fished in every troutbrook north of the Clyde, and he wandered every season over the Highlands. In his sportsman’s accomplishments he took a truly English pride, and made fun of the Edinburgh Whigs by representing a company of them as getting by chance into the same room with himself and his associates, and then, pipes and tobacco being brought, as being fairly smoked out, sickened, and obliged to retreat by the superior smoking capacities of the Tories. He ridiculed Leigh Hunt for fancying in one of his poems that he should like a splendid life on a great estate, when (as Wilson says) he couldn’t even ride without being thrown. Yet, of all the men of this time, there was probably no one who had wider sympathies or more delightful prejudices than Professor Wilson, or who made more sagacious reflections. The centre of a literary clique, he loved to associate with all the other cliques, and was one of the first to recognize and proclaim the great merits of Wordsworth.
The third group was larger than either of the preceding, retained its esprit de corps longer, and may be most conveniently defined as the associates of Charles Lamb. Beside Lamb, there were Coleridge, Southey, Lovel, Dyer, Lloyd, and Wordsworth, among the earlier members of it,-and Hazlitt, Talfoiml, Godwin, De Quincy, Bernard Barton, Procter, Leigh Hunt, Cary, and Hood, among the later. This group, unlike the others, did not make politics, but literature, its leading object. It was composed of literary men, -a title of doubtful import, but which certainly in civilized society will always designate a class. Political life has more of outward importance, religious lite is holier, but literary life is the most humane of all the avocations. It is to the professions what pastoral occupations are to the trades. Polities and religion both have something to do with institutions. A mechanical man can play a part in them not very well, but passably well. But the literary man is sheer humanity, with nothing to help him but his thoughtfulness and sensibility. He is the unfelled tree, not the timber framed into the ship of state or carved into ecclesiastic grace. He lives as Nature lives, putting on the splendor of green when the air is sunny, and of crystal when the blasts sweep by; and while his roots reach down into the earth, there rises nothing above him but the heavens. Past experience shows that he may be harsh, prejudiced, and unhappy ', but it shows also that the richest human juices are within him, and that not only the most peculiar and most sensitive, but also the most highly-endowed characters are named in the list of authors, The central and most admirable figure in this particular group of literary men is Charles Lamb ; and as each of the other groups clustered around an organ, so at a later period Lamb and his associates supported the “ London Magazine,” in which the “Essays of Elia” first appeared.
If it be asked what gave that strong coherence to these associates which constituted them groups, a wise man would answer, - congeniality of character. A wiser man, however, would not overlook the element of suppers. The “ Edinburgh Review ” seems to have been first suggested over a quiet bottle of wine ; and at a later day the Edinburgh reviewers, increased in number by the accession of Mackintosh and one or two others, formed an honored clique by themselves in the splendid society of Holland House. The “ Noctes Ambresianæ ” is the enduring monument of the way in which the Blackwood men passed their nights, and not the less so from the fact that they were for the most part written out by Wilson in sober solitude. Charles Lamb began his career of suppers with Coleridge, as the latter came up to London from the University to visit him, and the famous Wednesday-evening parties given by him and his sister Mary would occupy a large space in the literary history of this epoch. It is a true proverb, that people are but distant acquaintances till they have eaten salt together.
The sketches which we have thus given will indicate the leading tendencies that were operating in English literature, though the groups themselves did not include all the eminent literary men. Campbell, Shelley, and Byron were single lights, and did not form constellations,
-unless, perhaps, Shelley and Byron may be regarded as a wayward and quickly-disappearing Gemini. Sir Walter Scott, and, in their later years, Southey, Wordsworth, and Coleridge, were of a cosmopolitan character, and served as links between different parties. And it may be added, that diplomatic relations and frequent intercommunication existed between all the groups.
Passing from the general schedule to the characters and careers of Charles Lamb and Sydney Smith, it will be our aim to show how these two most witty men were also intensely serious and dutiful,-how they were both disciplined by a great sorrow, and obedient to a noble purpose,-and thus to relieve wit from the charge of having any natural alliance with frivolity.
A thorn, it needs not a sage to say, vexes the side of every human being. Poetry laments the inadequacy of men to their ideals, philosophy declares an error in the figures which sum up life, religion reveals the fall of the race. The thorn is known which pierced the matchless joyousness of Charles Lamb. His family, highly gifted with wit, tenderness of feeling, and mutual love, had a tinge of madness in the blood. At twenty years of age he was himself shut up six weeks in a madhouse, his imagination in a vagary. He was not again affected; but the poison had sunk deeper into the veins of his sister. The shadow of a deed done in the dark ever pursued her. Charles devoted his life to her whose life was an intermittent madness, yet who, in her months of sanity, was a worthy sister of such a brother. His kindness to her knew no bounds. It was strange that she had premonition of the recurring fits of her disorder ; and when the ghost of unreason beckoned, Charles took her by the hand and led her to the appointed home. Charles Lloyd relates, that, at dusk one evening, he met them crossing the field together on their melancholy way toward the asylum, both of them in tears. In the smiles of Charles Lamb, and they were many, his friends always remarked a prevailing expression of sadness. The “ fair-haired maid,” who had been the theme of his first poetizing, appears not again in his verses or in his life. He and Mary lived together, received evening visitors together, went to the theatre and picture-gallery together, visited the lakes and the poets together ; and if he was ever seen in public without her, his friends knew there could be but one reason for it, and did not ask. When he left the India House, he had reserved from his income a Considerable sum for her support; though the liberality of his employers, as it proved, rendered this precaution unnecessary. She was his partner in writing the Shakspearian tales, and he always affirmed that hers were better done than his own. To her he dedicated the first poems that he published; and she, too, was a poetess, excellent in her simple way. Thus was Charles Lamb’s life saddened by a great affliction ever impending over it, and sanctified by a great duty which he never for a moment forgot.
It was his good-fortune, while at school at Christ’s Hospital, to become acquainted with Samuel Taylor Coleridge. A timid boy, creeping around among his boisterous companions like a little monk, it was that soaring spirit which first taught him to look up. Two men whose intellects more strongly contrasted could not be found. Coleridge suffered throughout life from over-much speculation. Could he have had his eye less upon the heavens and more upon the earth, could he have been concentrated upon some human duty, he would have been a much wiser and better man. Even in his youth he was the rhapsodist of old philosophies, had resolved social life into its elements, and dreamed of putting it together again to suit himself on the banks of the Susquohannah. Though Lamb wondered at the speculations of Coleridge, and, loving him, loved the metaphysics which were a part of him, yet it was without changing his own essentially opposite disposition. Lamb clung to the earth. He cultivated the excellency of this life. He was concrete. and hugged the world as he did his sister. He reverently followed the discourses of Coleridge, admiring, perhaps,
“ the beauty of the words, but not the words themselves ”; but when the OpiumEater also began to take speculative flights before Lamb, the latter stopped him at once by jangling his metaphysics into jokes. It was in conversation with Coleridge, begun at school and continued afterward at frequent meetings, that Lamb first ventured to try his own powers and was prompted to literary activity. But for a slight defect in his speech, he would probably have followed Coleridge to the University with the intention of going into the Church. A delightful clergyman he would have been, if he had duly undertaken the office, and one would have walked far to see him in the priestly robe, to hear him chant the service, to receive pastoral advice from him; yet we fear the “Essays of Elia” would have been less admirable than now. He was roused by Coleridge; and though he could not put the aureole of the latter about his own head, he began to do the best he could in his own way.
Life is a play between accident and purpose. Why was it, that, of all the books in the world, Charles Lamb should have fixed his affections chiefly on the old English dramatists? He might have turned to old Greece, admired the fruits of the classic ages, and become one of those sparkling artistic Hellenists that are occasionally seen in modern times. He might have turned to the mediæval period. He had an eye for cloisters and nuns. His fancy would have been struck with the grotesqueness of many of the ideas and institutions of those times. He would have got on finely with Gurth the swineherd and Burgundy the tusk-toothed, and one of his masterly witticisms would have upset Duns Scotus. Perhaps, of all the mediæval characters, he would have been most smitten with the court fool, and, if he could have been seated at a princely table of the twelfth century, the bowl surely would not have been round many times before he and the fool would have had a few passes at each other. There was enough in the Middle Ages to have fascinated him; and could he, like some romantic Novalis, have once penetrated thither, and tasted the fruit, he would have found it a lotus, and would have wished never to depart. His soul would have clung to church architecture,-under which term may be included all the religious, political, poetical, moral, and practical life of the Middle Ages. The accident in the case, however, was, that his uncle’s library did not contain the Greeks, nor the Middle Ages, but did contain the old English authors. These he mastered; and out of these he created his ideals. In the affluent vigor of the Elizabethan age, in the buoyant négligé of the times of merry Charles, he found people that he liked. To every reflective and slightly scholastic mind, there is a charm in looking at things in the distance. The perspective fits the eye. This may have helped the enthusiasm with which he looked upon the writers and heroes of the old English literature; but its principal cause was their open-heartedness, their informality, their stout and free humanity underneath laces and uniform.
Having thus found his place in literature, he began also to be rich in friends, and his life was devoted every moment to thought and affection. The time that he passed at the desk of the India House was time in which he did not live ; or perhaps, while he autographed the mercantile books, there was a higher half-conscious life of the fancy which lightly flitted round and round the steady course of his pen. He thus exults, after his emancipation from his clerkship upon a pension:- “ I came home FOREVER on Tuesday in last week. The incomprehensibleness of my condition overwhelmed me. It was like passing from life into eternity. Every year to be as long as three; that is, to have three times as much time that is real time-time that is my own-in it. I wandered about thinking I was happy, but feeling I was not. But the tumultuousness is passing off, and I begin, to understand the nature of the gift." For this one-third of his waking time, to have and to hold unhampered by any dependence, he had most willingly consigned the rest to drudgery. The value which he set upon it appears from the following answer which he made to Bernard Barton, who thought of abandoning his place in a bank and of relying upon literary labor for support:-“ Throw yourself on the world without any rational plan of support beyond what the chance employ of booksellers would afford you ! 'Throw yourself, rather, my dear Sir, from the steep Tarpeian rock, slap-dash, headlong, upon iron spikes. It you have but five consolatory minutes between the desk and the bed, make much of them, and live a century in them, rather than turn slave to the booksellers. Hitherto you have been at arm’s length from them,- come not within their grasp. I have known many authors want for bread, - some repining, others enjoying the blessed security of a counting-house, all agreeing that they would rather have been tailors, weavers,-what not ?-rather than the things they were. I have known some starved, some go mad, one dear friend literally dying in a madhouse. Oh! you know not - may you never know! - the miseries of subsisting by authorship.” Thus he esteemed of priceless worth honestly-earned independent time for the pursuits that were dearest to him.
His literary and social avocations were so intimately blended that they seem to have been almost the same. He was as thoughtful in his evening parties as he was in the act of composition, and as gentle and kindly in writing as he was to his friends. He gathered about him not many of the most famous, but many of the most original and peculiar men of his time. His Wednesday-evening parties were assemblies of thinkers. They were composed in large part of men who were not balanced by a profession, who were devoted only to wit, fancy, or speculation, who cultivated each a peculiar field and cherished each peculiar tastes and opinions, who were interested in different quarters of the heavens, and yet who came together, prompted by the spirit of sociality and kindliness, to lay perhaps the backs of their heads together, and to talk always sincerely and wisely, but in the form of sense or nonsense, as the ease might be. Lamb and his sister were always ready to appreciate every variety of goodness, and doubtless their guests received an order something like that which was addressed to the dwellers in Thomson’s enchanting castle :—
“ Ye sons of Indolence! do what you will,
And wander where you list, through hall or glade;
Be no man's pleasure for another stayed;
Let each as likes him best his hours employ,
And cursed be he who minds his neighbor's trade! ”
To these parties sometimes came Coleridge, who in conversation seems to have been a happy mixture of a German philosopher and an Italian improvvisatore. Here Hazlitt learned to utter the philosophic criticisms which he most passionately believed in ; and Lloyd, whose in-
tellect was one of peculiar refinement, discoursed modestly of metaphysical problems, analyzing to an extent that Talfourd says was positively painful. Here the social reformer Leigh Hunt came, and for the moment forgot that social reforms were needed. Here the OpiumEater came, and his cloudy abstract loves and hates and visions were exploded by the sparks of Elia’s wit. Here the philosopher Godwin developed philosophy out of whist. Here the pensive face of the Quaker poet, Bernard Barton, shed a mild light upon the scene ; and here the lawyer Thomas Noon Talfourd came to admire the finest characters that he knew of.
Having thus noticed the painful experience and unfaltering devotion to noble aims which marked the career of Charles Lamb, we leave him with his friends, and pass to notice the same elements in the life of his brother wit.
Sydney Smith preferred the legal profession, and esteemed himself a victim in entering the Church. His practical wisdom informed him, that, from the beginning even until then, qualities like his had not found a happy sphere of action in the pulpit, but, on the contrary, had rusted or grown ugly in it. He had as much sentiment as Sterne, and perhaps as much political sagacity as Swift, yet the finest instincts within him recoiled from following in the path of either the one or the other. With a subtile and exuberant wit,-he knew that wit touches not sacred things. With great practical prudence and a brilliant speculative capacity,-in a clergyman, prudence is less than faith, and brilliancy of thought than the glow of the heart. In his rich composite character he had, indeed, the qualities which make the clergyman ; his disposition was religions, his heart was tender and Christian, he could give the best advice to the people ; and though his appearance was not quite saint-like, it was at least suggestive of a good man who was walking in the way which he pointed out to others. But these qualities were not those with which he was most highly endowed. Energy and sterling commonsense, which he had inherited from his father, an elastic, mercurial, and passionate nature, which had come to him from his Huguenot mother,-these were the strong points in his character, and it belongs to neither of them to take the lead in the Church. Sydney had scanned the whole field. Having questioned well his desires, examined well his blood, derived what wisdom he could from history and observation, he deliberately chose the law. Why, then, did he take to theology ? We read that his father had incurred so much expense in educating his eldest son for the legal profession, and in fitting out two others for India, that he could not well furnish the means for Sydney’s education, and strongly recommended him to go into the Church ; and that the son sacrificed his own to his father’s inclination.
We may imagine Sydney Smith’s reflections. With his versatile talent, honorable ambition, and consciousness that he couhl have, made a shining name in political life, his object now was to find a sufficient sphere for the exercise of all his powers in the Church. It was no fault, of his that he was unwilling to settle as curate and have no aim beyond his parish except to go to heaven at last. With his superfluity of human nature, for him to become a saint was out of the question. What then ? Should he enter the realm of dogmatics, and become a learned and redoubted champion of the faith, passing his life amid exegesis ? Should he renounce thorough thinking, and become a polished and popular pastor, an ornament of the pulpit and of society ? Should he signalize himself for gravity, orthodoxy, and ability, seek the earthly prizes of his profession, and perhaps become Archbishop of Canterbury ? Should he become a jolly, vinous, and Friar-Tuck sort of clergyman ? God forbid! he said to each of these queries, and rushed forward into his profession. Regarding himself as a lamb for the slaughter, yet tremendously in earnest not to be sacrificed, he went into the Church groping and fearing, but resolute.
Trembling lest he should not do his duty both to himself and to his sacred office, he yet determined to try. Thus the thorn which troubled Sydney Smith was not an affliction, but was what he regarded as a danger; and, though less patent and pointed than that in the life of Charles Lamb, probably had not less influence in the discipline of character.
Behold, then, the long and venerable line of the clergy opening to receive him, and behold him entering it! The clergy, the priesthood, the holy fathers, the strong bishops, the monks, the ghostly race, the retired enthusiasts, now melancholy, now rapt, now merry-making, the consolers of sorrow, the divine heroes in an earthly life,-even one of this family does Sydney propose to be. At the age of twenty-four he becomes curate in the little hamlet of Salisbury Plain,-the young graduate of Oxford sent into the country to be pastor to the inmates of half-a-dozen hovels! Then he writes his description of a curate :-“ The poor working man of God,-a learned man in a hovel, good and patient,-a comforter and a teacher, -the first and purest pauper of the hamlet; yet showing that in the midst of worldlv misery he has the heart of a gentleman, the spirit of a Christian, and the kindness of a pastor.” He regards himself as almost excluded from his kind, and quotes (or originates) the proverb, that there are three sexes, men, women, and elergymen, He took long solitary walks over the plains of Salisbury, reflecting upon the manifold activities of the world, in which he had no part. The only society that he had was during the occasional visits of the squire to the neighborhood, who, surprised to find the curate so interesting a person, gave him frequent invitations to dinner. Thus passed two years, when the squire consigned his son to the curate to be educated, and Sydney Smith, starting with the young man for the Continent, was driven by stress of war to Edinburgh. There he met Horner, Jeffrey, Brougham, and others, young thinkers and full of matter,-Horner the philosopher, Jetfrey the critic, Brougham the statesman, and Sydney Smith the divine,-and the divine was unsurpassed by any of the others in wit, energy, or decision of character. While the events with which the times were rife were striking fire in all their brains, it was the divine who first turned their thoughts to account by suggesting that they should start a review. The suggestion was acted upon, and under his editorial care the first numbers of the “Edinburgh Review” appeared. His prudence and remonstrances saved it from manifold excesses; for Jeffrey was not a man to he moderate in times like those. The brilliant critic received not a few such lectures as the following :-“ I certainly, my dear Jeffrey, in conjunction with the Knight of the Shaggy Eyebrows [Horner], do protest against your increasing and unprofitable skepticism. I exhort you to restrain the violent tendency of your nature for analysis, and to cultivate synthetical propensities. What is virtue ? What’s the use of truth ? What’s the use of honor? What’s a guinea but a d-d yellow circle ? The whole effort of your mind is to destroy. Because others build slightly and eagerly, you employ yourself in kicking down their houses, and contract a sort of aversion for the more honorable, useful, and difficult task of building well yourself.” It was the boast of Sydney Smith in old age that he had very little to change in the opinions which he had at various times advanced, -that he had seen every important measure which he had advocated passed and become recognized as beneficent. The variety of the review suited the versatility of his talent; the problem, What worthy thing shall I employ myself in doing ? was solved; and an ample public career was opened to him. When, after five years, he passes from Edinburgh to London, he is not only a poor clergyman, but a famous Edinburgh reviewer. He becomes popular in society and as a preacher, and delivers lectures on Moral Philosophy to crowded houses of the élite of the metropolis.
When he is again exiled as a curate,
his solitude is not unbroken, but he receives and returns the visits of the most eminent people. His neighbors ran to him one day, shortly after his arrival, exclaiming,-“ Please your honor, a coach ! a coach! a coach !” Sydney saw in the distance the equipage of Lord Holland, and challenged the admiration of his parishioners by boldly answering,-“Well, my good friends, stand firm : never mind, even if there should be a coach; it will do us no harm ;-let us see.” A simple pastor and an eminent man, with flashing energy he approves himself a good man. Sunday he preached, Monday he doctored the sick, Tuesday Sir James Mackintosh visited him for a week, Wednesday he read Ariosto, Thursday he began an article, Friday ho reviewed his patients, Saturday he repaired his barn. Now he is laying down a rule that no day shall pass in which he will not make somebody happy; now he is fixing a bar whereon it shall be convenient for his cows to scrape their backs ; now he is watching by the side of his sleeping baby, with a rattle in hand to wake the young spirit into joyousness the moment its sleep breaks. He goes through the parish as doctor, wit, and priest, guide, philosopher, and friend, studying the temper and needs of the simple congregation to which he preaches on Sunday, while his brain is racking with great thoughts. With these higher thoughts he has to do as he sits at his desk and writes an article for the larger parish of the United Kingdom. With a wild play of wit and fancy and laughter he graces the sturdy column of his virtue and fidelity. He lived in what was said to be the ugliest and most comfortable house in England, admired by every visitor for his independence, manliness, refinement, and liveliness. When he visited London, as he often did, and when in later years he lived there and was lionné, his simplicity of character remained. To the last he was one of the sincerest and most active of clergymen and of men.
It is probable that there were not living at the time two more serious men than the two wits whose careers we have outlined. Indeed, it is quite a mistake to suppose that wit has anything to do with temper or sentiment at all. A man may be perpetually sulky, and yet habitually witty,-may smile, and smile, and smile, and yet be a most melancholy individual. Wit is simply a form of thought, and is as intellectual as scientific study. It differs from other thought only in being a little outre',-a little in excess; it overdoes the thing only because it has so much energy in it. It is what Charles Lamb said a pun was, - “a sole digest of wisdom.” All great thoughts are at first witty, and afterward come to be common and flat. When Pythagoras discovered the theorem of the squares erected on the sides of a right-angled triangle, it had the effect on him of a most preposterous joke. The apple dropping on the head of Newton struck him like a very far-fetched pun. Show a child the picture of a wild Tartar, and his first motion will be to laugh at it. We have seen a man while reading Kant, the dryest of metaphysicians, slap his knee, leap upon his feet, and swear, in exuberance of mirth, that Kant had said a good thing. If it were discovered to-morrow to be a scientific truth that this world is wrong side out, and if inventive genius should discover a way to put the other side out, we should all of us think it a funny thing, but our transversed descendants would regard the matter as a commonplace. New proposals in the arts, and new discoveries in the sciences are always at first laughed at. Thus wit is only thought that is beyond the present capacity of the listeners, thought of whose meaning they can catch only a glimpse; it is the forerunner of what our very stupid race, which is always a little behind the times, is wont to call wisdom. If the race should ever become completely sage, nothing less than a joke would ever be uttered.
The likenesses of Charles Lamb and Sydney Smith make them both very severe-looking men. Like marble, which in costume takes the appearance of the finest lace, so that it seems as if it would yield to the touch of a finger, their delicate fancies and sentiments were but the surface of a solid and thorough character.
They lived in different spheres, corresponding to the difference in their genius. Sydney Smith had the more versatile and fruitful mind. With restless energy he supported yarious characters, being equally famous as a wit, Whig, Edinburgh reviewer, eloquent preacher, brilliant man of society, and canon of Saint Paul’s. His biographer well describes him as a rough rider of subjects, and with surpassing good sense he overran every problem with which the public mind was occupied. He was a reformer, but it was after the English and not the French fashion. He had unbounded respect for existing human blessings, believed in things substantially as they were, and couldn’t have been persuaded to try an experiment that had much of hazard in it. A Frenehman is always at home amid earthquakes and volcanoes and hurricanes, and the immediate prospect of an end to everything that is and a beginning of something the like of which never has been. The spirit of the great French Revolution was to exterminate all the results of time up to that point, and, having made a clear field, to begin over again. Hence heads went off, religion was proscribed, thrones were burned, the calendar was changed; even the heavenly bodies should no longer bear down their freight of old associations, and Orion received the name of Napoleon. Could the earth have in any way been transformed, could grass possibly have been made blue and the heavens green, or could man have been done over into any other sort of animal, there is not the slightest doubt that those Frenchmen would have undertaken it.. In comparison with such men, Sydney Smith sank into insignificance as a reformer. He lived under a religion, government, and system of manners, all of which he was desirous to retain. He did not wish for his children any institutions very much more comfortable than England offered at the moment. He regarded the advantages of life with great complacency, thinking, doubtless, that men had better opportunities than they availed themselves of; and the chief intensity of his purpose was not to make better opportunities, but to improve them better. He probably did not approve of all the men and customs that he saw, was decidedly opposed both to wickedness and stupidity ; but he did not propose, like a Frenchman, at the first fault, to blot out the heavens and the earth. He demonstrated in his life how genial, under existing institutions, a clergyman could be, how discreet a young enthusiast could be, how widely active a curate could be, how acceptable in society an honest man could be, how brilliant a plain Englishman could be. A great reformer he was, - but the spirit of his reform consisted chiefly, not in changing, but in making better use of the blessings which we already possess. Compared with this prevailing spirit of personal reform, the reformatory public measures which he was prominent in advocating were of slight consequence. Merry on the surface, with an iron core of stubborn resolution within, he equally delighted his most homely and his most elegant friends, and while he sympathized with humble life, he had a profound respect for the technically best society.
Charles Lamb lived within a narrower and peculiar range. With more of concentration, he had a less abounding energy than Sydney Smith. His character was an odd and elegant miniature, while that of Sydney Smith was voluninous. He loved a particular sort of men, and that sort was honest men ; while the merry divine could deal with politicians and even with Talleyrand himself. Sydney was playing a part in the Whig party, among the advocates of reforms; the sympathies of Elia went for the reform of the United Kingdom, and of the universe, too, if possible,-but he was more interested in a profound thought, brought forth from the struggling breast of Hazlitt, than in any bill introduced into Parlia-
ment. He was occupied with his old books, his sincere friends, his beloved sister. He cared little for the beau monde, would rather not look upon a duke or a duchess without a grating between; but, turning from the current into an eddy, content with the many thoughtful and original persons whom he had about him, he delighted to fish for the shyest tenants of the stream and to dive for strange pearls. He loved remote thoughts, quaint expressions, fantastic ideas. He especially attached himself to any violent symptoms of human nature. Being in a picture-gallery, he observed a stout sailor in towering disgust at one of the old masters, spit his tobacco-juice at it, and swear, with an expletive, that he could do better himself. The honest opinion honestly expressed, the truth and vigor of the man, delighted Lamb, and he rushed up to him to shake hands. Whenever the sailor, after that, wrote to his friends in London, he wished to be particularly remembered to Mr. Charles Lamb, who wouldn’t be humbugged about that old painting.
It was this strong sympathy with human character which made Elia rather a contemner of the worship of Nature. He liked things that were as definite as the works of men, and found great difficulty in sympathizing with a landscape. There was nothing on Fleet Street for which he did not feel a personal attachment; all the hurry and majestic order of a great city, all the little by-ways and hedges of city life, the wealth, the poverty, the splendor, the rags, the men and women, all acting under the stern discipline of an immense society, the boys, the beggars, the chimney-sweeps, the hilarious and the sorrowful, the fine ladies and noble lords, were all duly appreciated by him. If he had been taken up to the pinnacle of a mountain, instead of entertaining one of Wordsworth's sublime contemplations, he would have been very likely to flap his arms and crow like chanticleer. Indeed, in middle age he was accustomed to boast that he had never seen a mountain. Born in London, and always residing in London till the last years of his life, esteeming man the crown and purpose of the universe, he was much inclined to regard the love of Nature, which figures so largely in modern literature, as a popular delusion. He would have sympathized with the French philosopher who, after accompanying a young lady to the Highlands of Scotland, surprised her raptures by saying to her,-" Aimezvous les beaute's de la nature ? Pour moi, je les abhorre.”
The diverse religious character of these two men may be illustrated by an allusion to their different habits with respect to Art. Sydney Smith, visiting Paris, satisfied himself by a fifteen-minutes’ observation in the galleries of the Louvre. His mind, almost orbicular in its various capacity, took in the scene at a glance. There were pictures from almost every country, statues from almost every age, representations of the finest imaginations of the mind and of the noblest labors of history. He was not a barbarian with respect to the Louvre, but understood all about it, and knew its excellence and value; yet he mingled his sentiment and common-sense well together, and took a rapid walk from chamber to chamber, He probably entertained large views of Art during his impetuous progress through the ages, from battle-field to battle-field, from saint to saint, from philosopher, poet, and hero, to landscape, shepherdess, and domestic scene. He took in thought with lightning swiftness, and lived for fifteen minutes amid statues and paintings which collected scenes from all the universe. He went forth, satisfied that the Louvre was a fine gallery of Art, that Art was a very fine thing, that painters and sculptors ought to be encouraged, and that he had been looking at many things which were worthy a man’s consideration. If he had been called upon at once to preach a sermon, there is no doubt that he would have made very judicious reflections upon the spectacle which he had beheld.
Charles Lamb, too, visited Paris, and though it is not recorded that he went into the Louvre, yet we can hardly be mistaken in conjecturing that he did, and the thoughts with which he went. He would have entered those galleries with timid ecstasy. He would at first have shrunk away from the full splendor, and made acquaintance with some modest painting in a corner. Happy would some friend near him be to hear the half-tender, half-witty, yet most appreciative conceit which should first come stammering from his lips. He would have advanced slowly, and only after much delay would have ventured to stand before the great masters, and to look up eye to eye at the spirit of the Louvre. After taking his departure, he would never have thought familiarly of the scene, but it would have remained in his mind as terrible and sacred an episode as was the descent into Hades to Virgil's hero.
Not only in the Louvre, but in the world, Charles Lamb was the more timid worshipper. The whole character of his mind, the intensity of his thought within a narrow sphere, made him reverent of the Infinite. The thought of departure from the life which he now lived was to him a very solemn one. Religions ideas were so sacred to him that he never referred to them lightly, and seldom at all. When he did mention them, it was with peculiar impressiveness. No one can read the account of his share in a conversation on “ persons one would like to have seen,” without admiring the energy and pathos with which he alluded to one Person, whose name, however, he did not utter. Discussions on religious subjects he never tolerated in anybody but Coleridge. One evening, after he and Leigh Hunt had returned from a visit to Coleridge, Hunt began to express his surprise that a man of so much genius as the Highgate sage should entertain such religious opinions as he did, and mentioned one of his doctrines for especial reprobation. Lamb, who was preparing the second bowl of punch, answered, hesitatingly, with a gentle smile.- "Never mind what Coleridge believes; he is full of fun.” He was an humble, sinful worshipper, and while he bowed his head tremblingly before Heaven, he poured out the stream of his affections to his sister and his friends.
The religious character of Sydney Smith was less peculiar than that of Elia. An earnest Christian, with a will too resolute to allow the aid of the punchbowl in vanquishing trouble, professionally wielding the religious and moral ideas, and habitually obeying them, he stood erect and looked at the life to come with a firm eye. "The beauty of the Christian religion,” he says, "is that it carries the order and discipline of heaven into our very fancies and conceptions, and, by hallowing the first shadowy notions of our minds, from which actions spring, makes our actions themselves good and holy.” This central and vital beauty he had cultivated in a very diversified life, and he looked with confidence for the prize which is laid up for the welldoer.
Probably, if any successful life were examined, it would be found to consist of a series of hairbreadth escapes. Every movement would be the crossing of the Rubicon. That man is of little account who at every step that he has taken has not been weighing matters as nicely as if he were matching diamonds. How narrowly did Coleridge escape being the greatest preacher, philosopher, poet, or author of his time! Almost every thing was possible to him; and one can but marvel how he went through life avoiding in turn each of his highest possibilities. It is the glory of Charles Lamb and Sydney Smith, that, as far as it can be said of any men, they did the best that was possible with their circumstances and endowments. The old fancy which says of every person, that there is an ideal character which he can attain, in which he shall be peculiar and unsurpassed, was in their cases realized.
Their characters were projected into literature, where they remain as permanent blessings. The style of writing of both of them approaches to the simplest way of saying things. Elia employed the choicest language of the seventeenth century, and the divine used the plainest English of the day. The perpetual danger of literature is of becoming rhetorical ; and hardly fares vigor of thought when long words and periods are preferred to short ones, and when the native shape and properties of ideas are less cared for than the abundant drapery. The style of the “ Essays of Elia” is as admirable as their fancy. The author hated a formal sentence as much as he disliked stately and insipid society. Unlike Thomas Carlyle, in avoiding the faults of rhetorical culture, he did not become a literary barbarian. In refusing to comb his hair like a prig, he did not go to the extreme of making himself horridly uncomely. His sentences are unsurpassed for neatness, are as graceful as they are quaint and clear. The writings of Sydney Smith rarely attain the perfect grace which uniformly distinguishes Elia ; yet he never attempts magnificence, and he so unites brilliancy and plainness as to make his statements seem equally felicitous to the rude and the scholarly ear.
His Peter Plymley letters are remarkable examples of the way in which one yeoman speaks to another. His literaly bequest, however, is neither so valuable nor so charming as that of Charles Lamb. His powers were too various, and he engaged in too many fields of labor, to attain supreme success in any direction. The best result of his life is his own exuberant and unresting character, which harmonized all the diversities in his career; and adequately to behold this there is needed a fuller and more philosophical biography of him than has yet been written.