The Letters of Charles and Mary Lamb

[Yale University Press, 8 vols., $18.00]
IT was difficult for Charles Lamb ever to be dull. ‘He was too much of the boyman,’he said once of himself in ‘Character of the Late Elia.’ Mr. E. V. Lucas has recorded that ‘Lamb was the first English master of nonsense, and his best efforts in that rare medium have still to be excelled.’ Under that mastery, of course, lies the secret of Lamb’s difficulty in being dull. He knew better than any of his contemporaries how to mix gravity and wit, nonsense and sense. As he wrote once to William Hone: ‘A sow makes quite a different grunt over chesnuts [sic!] and pignuts.‘
That Lamb was one of the great letter writers in the language needs little argument. It is to Mr. Lucas now that we owe, in this field, the final and definitive Lamb, in three superb volumes. Mr. Lucas’s first collection of the letters appeared in 1912. Since then, as he avers in his casually simple preface, there has been more concentration of ownership. His search and labors brought him to America, for one thing, where we have now several great deposits of Lamb’s correspondence in such places as the Henry E. Huntington Library (Pasadena), the Pierpont Morgan Library (New York), the Folger Shakespeare Library (Washington), the University of Texas, and so forth. Including the letters of Mary Lamb, there are more than a thousand in the three volumes; some of them short, some trivial, some with new readings, some with fuller texts (e.g. to Dorothy Wordsworth, May 25, 1820, on a personal subject of her false teeth and the teeth of the sea horse), many printed for the first time; all having ‘some tinge of that quaint sweetness [save the foregoing!], some hint of that peculiar union of kindness and whim, which distinguishes him from all other poets and humorists.’ Not that Lamb was a poet; but he wore all his life the poet’s disguise, and any reader will be hard pressed to find a page of the complete letters which has not somewhere one rare flash of phrase, ‘goes he muzzled, or aperto ore.‘ It is worth the search — and the search is so easy. I do not know in whose letters it is quite so easy or so delightful save those — how badly neglected! — of Edward Lear.
All students of Lamb are apt to be violent sectarians. It is one of the many assets of this collection that Mr. Lucas is not typically of that company. His head is clear, he appears free of bias, his style of comment is simple, his regard for Lamb affectionate, not idolatrous. We are fortunate too, as laymen, that his catholicity of taste and outlook, and the torrent of books gone over his own dam since 1899, have made him just scholar enough, and a master of the informal footnote. Letters full of marginal or internal reference are not pleasant to read for the reading. Mr. Lucas, aware of that fact, confines his interpretations and corollary to unnumbered paragraphs at the foot of each individual inclusion. One of his happiest acknowledgments as editor is his indebtedness to, and account of, Gertrude Alison Field (b. 1875), whose abilities as a literary detective and devotion (as a good sectarian) to Lamb make a fascinating story in itself.
It is idle from so great a store to quote at random. I should rather repeat ten words of Lamb from his essay ou Three Fallacies: ‘We love to chew the cud of a foregone vision.’ To the bovine among us, the letters open the green field of a lifetime. Even one who, like Somerset Maugham, prefers Hazlitt to Lamb as an essayist will discover here a new strength, an impetuous display of vigor. From Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Thomas Manning to the long and lesser-known correspondence with Bernard Barton the Quaker Poet, it is all recommended adventure. The tragedy behind the two lives is carefully in the background. Mary, writing to Sarah Stoddart, brings it clear to the surface: ‘ And I know my dismal faces have been almost as great a drawback upon Charles’s comfort, as his feverish, teazing ways have been upon mine. Our love for each other has been the torment of our lives hitherto. I am most seriously intending to bend the whole force of my mind to counteract this, and I think I see some prospect of success.’ Then in the next letter the sun is out again, and Lamb himself is urging William Hazlitt ‘to supply poetry and wildness . . . read the American Farmer onee again.’ The American Farmer reminds us that part ownership and American publication have only increased our debt to Mr. Lucas, Lamb said himself, in one of the letters, what we should say to his editor: ‘Success to your Grand Wash, we are in the suds here.’