Find this Story

Print, a form you can hold

Wireless download to your Amazon Kindle

Look for a summary or analysis of this Story.

Enjoy this? Share it!


Charles Lamb
by [?]

O fortunati nimium, sua si bona narint,” is applicable to more people than “agricolae.” Clerks of the India House are as blind to their own advantages as the blindest of ploughmen. Lamb was summoned, it is true, through the larger and more genial section of his life, to the drudgery of a copying clerk–making confidential entries into mighty folios, on the subject of calicoes and muslins. By this means, whether he would or not, he became gradually the author of a great “serial” work, in a frightful number of volumes, on as dry a department of literature as the children of the great desert could have suggested. Nobody, he must have felt, was ever likely to study this great work of his, not even Dr. Dryasdust. He had written in vain, which is not pleasant to know. There would be no second edition called for by a discerning public in Leadenhall Street; not a chance of that. And consequently the opera omnia of Lamb, drawn up in a hideous battalion, at the cost of labor so enormous, would be known only to certain families of spiders in one generation, and of rats in the next. Such a labor of Sysyphus,–the rolling up a ponderous stone to the summit of a hill only that it might roll back again by the gravitation of its own dulness,–seems a bad employment for a man of genius in his meridian energies. And yet, perhaps not. Perhaps the collective wisdom of Europe could not have devised for Lamb a more favorable condition of toil than this very India House clerkship. His works (his Leadenhall street works) were certainly not read; popular they could not be, for they were not read by anybody; but then, to balance that, they were not reviewed. His folios were of that order, which (in Cowper’s words) “not even critics criticise.” Is that nothing? Is it no happiness to escape the hands of scoundrel reviewers? Many of us escape being read; the worshipful reviewer does not find time to read a line of us; but we do not for that reason escape being criticised, “shown up,” and martyred. The list of errata again, committed by Lamb, was probably of a magnitude to alarm any possible compositor; and yet these errata will never be known to mankind. They are dead and buried. They have been cut off prematurely; and for any effect upon their generation, might as well never have existed. Then the returns, in a pecuniary sense, from these folios–how important were they! It is not common, certainly, to write folios; but neither is it common to draw a steady income of from 300 l. to 400 l. per annum from volumes of any size. This will be admitted; but would it not have been better to draw the income without the toil? Doubtless it would always be more agreeable to have the rose without the thorn. But in the case before us, taken with all its circumstances, we deny that the toil is truly typified as a thorn; so far from being a thorn in Lamb’s daily life, on the contrary, it was a second rose ingrafted upon the original rose of the income, that he had to earn it by a moderate but continued exertion. Holidays, in a national establishment so great as the India House, and in our too fervid period, naturally could not be frequent; yet all great English corporations are gracious masters, and indulgences of this nature could be obtained on a special application. Not to count upon these accidents of favor, we find that the regular toil of those in Lamb’s situation, began at ten in the morning and ended as the clock struck four in the afternoon. Six hours composed the daily contribution of labor, that is precisely one fourth part of the total day. Only that, as Sunday was exempted, the rigorous expression of the quota was one fourth of six-sevenths, which makes sixty twenty-eighths and not six twenty-fourths of the total time. Less toil than this would hardly have availed to deepen the sense of value in that large part of the time still remaining disposable. Had there been any resumption whatever of labor in the evening, though but for half an hour, that one encroachment upon the broad continuous area of the eighteen free hours would have killed the tranquillity of the whole day, by sowing it (so to speak) with intermitting anxieties–anxieties that, like tides, would still be rising and falling. Whereas now, at the early hour of four, when daylight is yet lingering in the air, even at the dead of winter, in the latitude of London, and when the enjoying section of the day is barely commencing, everything is left which a man would care to retain. A mere dilettante or amateur student, having no mercenary interest concerned, would, upon a refinement of luxury–would, upon choice, give up so much time to study, were it only to sharpen the value of what remained for pleasure. And thus the only difference between the scheme of the India House distributing his time for Lamb, and the scheme of a wise voluptuary distributing his time for himself, lay, not in the amount of time deducted from enjoyment, but in the particular mode of appropriating that deduction. An intellectual appropriation of the time, though casually fatiguing, must have pleasures of its own; pleasures denied to a task so mechanic and so monotonous as that of reiterating endless records of sales or consignments not essentially varying from each other. True; it is pleasanter to pursue an intellectual study than to make entries in a ledger. But even an intellectual toil is toil; few people can support it for more than six hours in a day. And the only question, therefore, after all, is, at what period of the day a man would prefer taking this pleasure of study. Now, upon that point, as regards the case of Lamb, there is no opening for doubt. He, amongst his Popular Fallacies, admirably illustrates the necessity of evening and artificial lights to the prosperity of studies. After exposing, with the perfection of fun, the savage unsociality of those elder ancestors who lived (if life it was) before lamp-light was invented, showing that “jokes came in with candles,” since “what repartees could have passed” when people were “grumbling at one another in the dark,” and “when you must have felt about for a smile, and handled a neighbor’s cheek to be sure that he understood it?”–he goes on to say,” This accounts for the seriousness of the elder poetry, “viz., because they had no candle-light. Even eating he objects to as a very imperfect thing in the dark; you are not convinced that a dish tastes as it should do by the promise of its name, if you dine in the twilight without candles. Seeing is believing.” The senses absolutely give and take reciprocally. “The sight guarantees the taste. For instance,” Can you tell pork from veal in the dark, or distinguish Sherries from pure Malaga? “To all enjoyments whatsoever candles are indispensable as an adjunct; but, as to reading,” there is, “says Lamb,” absolutely no such thing but by a candle. We have tried the affectation of a book at noon-day in gardens, but it was labor thrown away. It is a mockery, all that is reported of the influential Phoebus. No true poem ever owed its birth to the sun’s light. The mild internal light, that reveals the fine shapings of poetry, like fires on the domestic hearth, goes out in the sunshine. Milton’s morning hymn in Paradise, we would hold a good wager, was penned at midnight; and Taylor’s rich description of a sunrise smells decidedly of the taper. “This view of evening and candle-light as involved in literature may seem no more than a pleasant extravaganza; and no doubt it is in the nature of such gayeties to travel a little into exaggeration, but substantially it is certain that Lamb’s feelings pointed habitually in the direction here indicated. His literary studies, whether taking the color of tasks or diversions, courted the aid of evening, which, by means of physical weariness, produces a more luxurious state of repose than belong to the labor hours of day, and courted the aid of lamp-light, which, as Lord Bacon remarked, gives a gorgeousness to human pomps and pleas
ures, such as would be vainly sought from the homeliness of day-light. The hours, therefore, which were withdrawn from his own control by the India House, happened to be exactly that part of the day which Lamb least valued, and could least have turned to account.