THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY.
A MAGAZINE OF LITERATURE, ART, AND POLITICS.
VOL. XI.—MAY, 1863.—NO. LXVII.
CHARLES LAMB'S UNCOLLECTED WRITINGS.
What Southey says of Cottle's shop is true of the little bookstore in a certain old town of New England, which I used to frequent years ago, and where I got my first peep into Chaucer, and Spenser, and Fuller, and Sir Thomas Browne, and other renowned old authors, from whom I now derive so much pleasure and solacement. 'Twas a place where sundry lovers of good books used to meet and descant eloquently and enthusiastically upon the merits and demerits of their favorite authors. I, then a young man, with a most praiseworthy desire of reading "books that are books," but with a most lamentable ignorance of even the names of the principal English authors, was both a pleased and a benefited listener to the conversations of these bookish men. Hawthorne says that to hear the old Inspector (whom he has immortalized in the quaint and genial introduction to the "Scarlet Letter") expatiate on fish, poultry, and butcher's-meat, and the most eligible methods of preparing the same for the table, was as appetizing as a pickle or an oyster; and to hear these literary gourmands talk with such gusto of this writer's delightful style, or of that one's delicious humor, or t' other's brilliant wit and merciless satire, gave one a taste and a relish for the authors so lovingly and heartily commended. Certainly, after hearing the genial, scholarly, gentlemanly lawyer S—— sweetly discourse on the old English divines,—or bluff, burly, good-natured, wit-loving Master R—— declaim, in his loud, bold, enthusiastic manner, on the old English dramatists,—or queer, quaint, golden-hearted Dr. D—— mildly and modestly, yet most pertinently, express himself about Old Burton and Old Fuller,—or wise, thoughtful, ingenious Squire M—— ably, if not very eloquently, hold forth on Shakspeare and Milton, I had (who but a dunce or dunderhead would not have had?) a "greedy great desire" to look into the works of
"Such famous men, such worthies of the earth."
And after listening to the stout, brawny, two-fisted, whole-soled, big-hearted, large-brained Parson A——, as he talked in his wise and winsome manner about Charles Lamed and his writings, I could not refrain from forthwith procuring and reading Elia's famous and immortal essays. Since then I have been a constant reader of Elia, and a most zealous admirer of Charles Lamb the author and Charles Lamb the man. Thackeray, you remember, somewhere mentions a youthful admirer of Dickens, who, when she is happy, reads "Nicholas Nickleby,"—when she is unhappy, reads "Nicholas Nickleby,"—when she is in bed, reads "Nicholas Nickleby,"—when she has nothing to do, reads "Nicholas Nickleby,"—and when she has finished the book, reads "Nicholas Nickleby": and so do I read and re-read the essays and letters of Charles Lamb; and the oftener I read them, the better I like then, the higher I value them. Indeed, I live upon the essays of Elia, as Hazlitt did upon "Tristram Shandy," as a sort of food that simulates with my natural disposition.
And yet, despite all my love and admiration of Charles Lamb,—nay, rather in consequence of it,—I must blame him of what Mr. Barron Field was please to eulogize him for,—writing so little. Undoubtedly in most authors suppression in writing would be a virtue. In Lamb it was a fault. There are a score or two of subjects which he, "no less from temerity than felicity of his pen," should have written upon,—subjects on which he had thought and ruminated for years, and which he, and none but he, could do justice to. He who loved and admired before or since, such sterling old writers as Burton, Browne, Fuller, and Walton, should have given us an article on each of those worthies and their inditing. Chaucer and Spenser, though proud and happy in having had such an appreciating reader of there writings as Elia was, when denizen of this earth, would, methinks, have given him a warmer, heartier, gladder welcome to heaven, if he had done for them what he did for Hogarth and the old dramatists,—pointed out to the would "with a finger of fire" the truth and beauty contained in their works. Instead of writing only two volumes of essays, Elia should have written a dozen. He had read, heard, thought, and seen enough to furnish matter for twice that number. He himself confesseth, in a letter written a year or two before his death, that he felt as if he had a thousand essays swelling within him. Oh that Elia, like Mr. Spectator, had printed himself out before he died!
But notwithstanding Lamb's fame and popularity, notwithstanding all readers of his inimitable essays lament that one who wrote so delightfully as Elia did should have written so little, their has not yet be published a complete collection of his writings. The standard edition of his works, edited by Talfourd, is far from being complete. Surely the author of "Ion" was unwise in not publishing all of Lamb's productions. Carlyle said he wanted to know all about Margaret Fuller, even to the color of her stocking. And the admirers of Elia wanted to possess every scrap and fragment of his inditing. They cannot let oblivion have the lease "notelet" or "essaykin" of his. For, however inferior to his best productions these uncollected articles may be, they must contain more or less of Lamb's humor, sense, and observation. Somewhat of his delightful individuality must be stamped upon them. In brief, they cannot but contain much that would amuse and entertain all admirers of their author. For myself, I would rather read the poorest of these uncollected essays of Elia than the best productions of some of the most popular of modern authors. "The king's chaff is as good as other people's corn," saith the old proverb. "There is a pleasure arising from the very bagatelles of men renowned for their knowledge and genius," says Goldsmith; "and we receive with veneration those pieces, after they are dead, which would lessen them in our estimation while living: sensible that we shall enjoy them no more, we treasure up, as precious relics, every saying and word that has escaped them; but their writings, of every kind, we deem inestimable."
For years I have been hopefully and patiently waiting for somebody to collect and publish these scattered and all but forgotten articles of Lamb's; but at last, seeing no likelihood of its being done at present, if ever in my day, and fearing that I might else never have an opportunity of perusing these strangely neglected writings of my favorite author, I commenced the task of searching out and discovering them myself for mine own delectation. And after a deal of fruitless and aimless labor, (for, unlike Johannes Scotus Erigena, in his quest of a treatise of Aristotle, I had no oracle to consult,) after spending as many days in turning over the leaves of I know not how many volumes of old, dusty, musty, fusty periodicals as Mr. Vernon ran miles after a butterfly, I was amply rewarded for all my pains. For I not only found all of Lamb's uncollected writings that are spoken of in his "Life and Letters," but a goodly number of articles from his pen which neither he nor his biographer has ever alluded to. As I read these (to me) new essays of Elia, I could not but feel somewhat indignant that such excellent productions of such an excellent writer should have been "underkept and down supprest" so long. I was as much ravished with these new-found essays of Lamb's as good old Nicholas Gerbelius (see Burton's "Anatomy of Melancholy," Partition II., Section 2, Member 4) was with a few Greek authors restored to light. If I had had one or two loving, enthusiastic admirers of Charles Lamb to enjoy with me the delight of perusing these uncollected Elias, I should have been "all felicity up to the brim." For with me, as with Michael de Montaigne and Hans Andersen, there is no pleasure without communication.
And therefore, partly to please myself, and partly to please the admirers of Charles Lamb, I herewith publish a part of Elia's uncollected essays and sketches. To ninety-nine hundredths of their author's readers they will be as good as MSS. And not only will they be new to most readers, but they will be found to be not wholly unworthy of him who wrote the immortal dissertation on "Roast Pig." Albeit not to be compared with Elia's best and most finished productions, these articles contain some of the best qualities and peculiarities of his genius. Without doubt, all genuine admirers, all true lovers of the gentle, genial, delightful Elia, will be mightily pleased with these productions of his inimitable pen.
Those who were so fortunate as to be personally acquainted with Charles Lamb are lavish in their praise of his conversational powers. Hazlitt says that no one ever stammered out such fine, piquant, deep, eloquent things in a half-dozen half-sentences as he did. "He always made the best pun and the best remark in the course of the evening." Lamb was undoubtedly "matchless as a fireside companion," inimitable as a table-talker, "great at the midnight hour." The "wit-combats" at his Wednesday-evening parties were waged with scarcely inferior skill and ability to those fought at the old Mermaid tavern between Shakspeare and Ben Jonson. Hazlitt, in his delightful essay intituled "Persons One would Wish to have Seen," gives a masterly report of the sayings and doings at one of these parties. It is to be regretted that he did not report the conversation at all of these weekly assemblages of wits, humorists, and good-fellows. He made a capital book out of the conversation of James Northcote: he could have made a better one out of the conversation of Charles Lamb. Indeed, Elia himself seems to have been conscious that many of his deepest, wisest, best thoughts and ideas, as well as wildest, wittiest, airiest fancies and conceits, were vented in conversation; and a few months before his death he noted down for the entertainment of the readers of the London "Athenaeum," a few specimens of his table-talk. Although these paragraphs of table-talk are not transcripts of their author's actual conversation, they doubtless contain the pith and substance of what he had really said in some of his familiar discourses with friends and acquaintances. They contain none of his "jests that scald like tears," none of his play upon words, none of his flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar, but some of his sweet, serious, beautiful thoughts and fancies.
Strange that Talfourd neglected to print "Table-Talk" in his edition of Lamb! He does not even mention it. It is certainly as good, if not a great deal better than some things of Lamb's which he saw fit to reprint. But the best way to praise Elia's "Table-Talk" is, as the "Tatler" says of South's wise and witty discourse on the "Pleasures of Religious Wisdom," to quote it; and therefore here followeth, without further comment or introduction,—
"TABLE-TALK. BY THE LATE ELIA.
"It is a desideratum in works that treat de re culinaria, that we have no rationale of sauces, or theory of mixed flavors: as to show why cabbage is reprehensible with roast beef, laudable with bacon; why the haunch of mutton seeks the alliance of currant-jelly, the shoulder civilly declineth it; why loin of veal, (a pretty problem,) being itself unctuous, seeketh the adventitious lubricity of melted butter,—and why the same part in pork, not more oleaginous, abhorreth from it; why the French bean sympathizes with the flesh of deer; why salt fish points to parsnip, brawn makes a dead-set at mustard; why cats prefer valerian to heart's-ease, old ladies vice versa,—though this is rather travelling out of the road of the dietetics, and may be thought a question more curious than relevant; why salmon (a strong sapor per se) fortifieth its condition with the mighty lobster-sauce, whose embraces are fatal to the delicater relish of the turbot; why oysters in death rise up against the contamination of brown sugar, while they are posthumously amorous of vinegar; why the sour mango and the sweet jam by turns court and are accepted by the compilable mutton-hash,—she not yet decidedly declaring for either. We are as yet but in the empirical stage of cookery. We feed ignorantly, and want to be able to give a reason of the relish that is in us; so that, if Nature should furnish us with a new meat, or be prodigally pleased to restore the phoenix, upon a given flavor, we might be able to pronounce instantly, on philosophical principles, what the sauce to it should be,—what the curious adjuncts."
* * * * *
"The greatest pleasure I know is to do a good action by stealth and to have it found out by accident."
* * * * *
"'T is unpleasant to meet a beggar. It is painful to deny him; and if you relieve him, it is so much out of your pocket."
* * * * *
"Men marry for fortune, and sometimes to please their fancy; but, much oftener than is suspected, they consider what the world will say of it, how such a woman in their friends' eyes will look at the head of a table. Hence we see so many insipid beauties made wives of, that could not have struck the particular fancy of any man that had any fancy at all. These I call furniture wives; as men buy furniture pictures, because they suit this or that niche in their dining-parlors.
"Your universally cried-up beauties are the very last choice which a man of taste would make. What pleases all cannot have that individual charm which makes this or that countenance engaging to you, and to you only perhaps, you know not why. What gained the fair Gunnings titled husbands, who, after all, turned out very sorry wives? Popular repute."
* * * * *
"It is a sore trial, when a daughter shall marry against her father's approbation. A little hard-heartedness, and aversion to a reconcilement, is almost pardonable. After all, Will Dockwray's way is, perhaps, the wisest. His best-loved daughter made a most imprudent match,—in fact, eloped with the last man in the world that her father would have wished her to marry. All the world said that he would never speak to her again. For months she durst not write to him, much less come near him. But, in a casual rencounter, he met her in the streets of Ware,—Ware, that will long remember the mild virtues of William Dockwray, Esq. What said the parent to his disobedient child, whose knees faltered under her at the sight of him? 'Ha, Sukey, is it you?' with that benevolent aspect with which he paced the streets of Ware, venerated as an angel,—'come and dine with us on Sunday'; then turning away, and again turning back, as if he had forgotten something, he added,—'and, Sukey, do you hear? bring your husband with you.' This was all the reproof she ever heard from him. Need it be added that the match turned out better for Susan than the world expected?"
* * * * *
"'We read the "Paradise Lost" as a task,' says Dr. Johnson. Nay, rather as a celestial recreation, of which the dullard mind is not at all hours alike recipient. 'Nobody ever wished it longer';—nor the moon rounder, he might have added. Why, 'tis the perfectness and completeness of it which makes us imagine that not a line could be added to it, or diminished from it, with advantage. Would we have a cubit added to the stature of the Medicean Venus? Do we wish her taller?"
* * * * *
"Amidst the complaints of the wide spread of infidelity among us, it is consolatory that a sect is sprung up in the heart of the metropolis, and is daily on the increase, of teachers of that healing doctrine which Pope upheld, and against which Voltaire directed his envenomed wit. We mean those practical preachers of Optimism, or the belief that Whatever is best, the cads of omnibuses, who, from their little back pulpits, not once in three or four hours, as those proclaimers of 'God and His prophet' in Mussulman countries, but every minute, at the entry or exit of a brief passenger, are heard, in an almost prophetic tone, to exclaim, (Wisdom crying out, as it were, in the streets,) 'ALL'S RIGHT!'"
* * * * *
"Advice is not so commonly thrown away as is imagined. We seek it in difficulties. But, in common speech, we are apt to confound with it admonition: as when a friend reminds one that drink is prejudicial to the health, etc. We do not care to be told of that which we know better than the good man that admonishes. M—— sent to his friend L——, who is no water-drinker, a two-penny tract 'Against the Use of Fermented Liquors.' L—— acknowledged the obligation, as far as to twopence. Penotier's advice was the safest, after all:—
"'I advised him'—
"But I must tell you. The dear, good-meaning, no-thinking creature had been dumbfounding a company of us with a detail of inextricable difficulties in which the circumstances of an acquaintance of his were involved. No clue of light offered itself. He grew more and more misty as he proceeded. We pitied his friend, and thought,—
"'God help the man so wrapt in error's endless maze!'
"when, suddenly brightening up his placid countenance, like one that had found out a riddle, and looked to have the solution admired,—
"'At last,' said he, 'I advised him'—
"Here he paused, and here we were again interminably thrown back. By no possible guess could any of us aim at the drift of the meaning he was about to be delivered of.
"'I advised him,' he repeated, 'to have some advice upon the subject.'
"A general approbation followed; and it was unanimously agreed, that, under all the circumstances of the case, no sounder or more judicious counsel could have been given."
* * * * *
"A laxity pervades the popular use of words.
"Parson W—— is not quite so continent as Diana, yet prettily dissembleth his frailty. Is Parson W—— therefore a hypocrite? I think not. Where the concealment of a vice is less pernicious than the barefaced publication of it would be, no additional delinquency is incurred in the secrecy.
"Parson W—— is simply an immoral clergyman. But if Parson W—— were to be forever haranguing on the opposite virtue,—choosing for his perpetual text, in preference to all other pulpit-topics, the remarkable resistance recorded in the 89th of Exodus [Genesis?],—dwelling, moreover, and dilating upon it,—then Parson W—— might be reasonably suspected of hypocrisy. But Parson W—— rarely diverteth into such line of argument, or toucheth it briefly. His ordinary topics are fetched from 'obedience to the powers that are,'—'submission to the civil magistrate in all commands that are not absolutely unlawful'; on which he can delight to expatiate with equal fervor and sincerity.
"Again. To despise a person is properly to look down upon him with none or the least possible emotion. But when Clementina, who has lately lost her lover, with bosom heaving, eyes flashing, and her whole frame in agitation, pronounces with a peculiar emphasis that she 'despises the fellow,' depend upon it that he is not quite so despicable in her eyes as she would have us imagine.
"One more instance. If we must naturalize that portentous phrase, a truism, it were well that we limited the use of it. Every commonplace or trite observation is not a truism. For example: A good name helps a man on in the world. This is nothing but a simple truth, however hackneyed. It has a distinct subject and predicate. But when the thing predicated is involved in the term of the subject, and so necessarily involved that by no possible conception they can be separated, then it becomes a truism; as to say, A good name is a proof of a man's estimation in the world. We seem to be saying something, when we say nothing. I was describing to F—— some knavish tricks of a mutual friend of ours. 'If he did so and so,' was the reply, 'he cannot be an honest man.' Here was a genuine truism, truth upon truth, inference and proposition identical,—or rather, a dictionary definition usurping the place of an inference."
* * * * *
"We are ashamed at sight of a monkey,—somehow as we are shy of poor relations."
* * * * *
"C—— imagined a Caledonian compartment in Hades, where there should be fire without sulphur."
* * * * *
"Absurd images are sometimes irresistible. I will mention two. An elephant in a coach-office gravely coming to have his trunk booked;—a mermaid over a fish-kettle cooking her own tail."
* * * * *
"It is the praise of Shakspeare, with reference to the playwriters, his contemporaries, that he has so few revolting characters. Yet be has one that is singularly mean and disagreeable,—the King in 'Hamlet.' Neither has he characters of insignificance, unless the phantom that stalks over the stage as Julius Caesar, in the play of that name, may be accounted one. Neither has he envious characters, excepting the short part of Don John, in 'Much Ado about Nothing.' Neither has he unentertaining characters, if we except Parolles, and the little that there is of the Clown, in 'All's Well that Ends Well.'"
* * * * *
"It would settle the dispute as to whether Shakspeare intended Othello for a jealous character, to consider how differently we are affected towards him, and for Leontes in the 'Winter's Tale.' Leontes is that character. Othello's fault was simply credulity."
* * * * *
"Is it possible that Shakspeare should never have read Homer, in Chapman's version at least? If he had read it, could he mean to travesty it in the parts of those big boobies, Ajax and Achilles? Ulysses, Nestor, and Agamemnon are true to their parts in the 'Iliad '; they are gentlemen at least. Thersites, though unamusing, is fairly deducible from it. Troilus and Cressida are a fine graft upon it. But those two big bulks"—
* * * * *
Disraeli wrote a book on the Quarrels of Authors. Somebody should write one on the Friendships of Literary Men. If such a work is ever written, Charles Lamb and Samuel Taylor Coleridge will be honorably mentioned therein. For among all the friendships celebrated in tale or history there is none more admirable than that which existed between these two eminent men. The "golden thread that tied their hearts together" was never broken. Their friendship was never "chipt or diminished"; but the longer they lived, the stronger it grew. Death could not destroy it.
Lamb, after Coleridge's death, as if weary of "this green earth," as if not caring if "sun, and sky, and breeze, and solitary walks, and summer holidays, and the greenness of fields, and the delicious juices of meats and fishes, and society, and the cheerful glass, and candle-light, and fireside conversations, and innocent vanities, and jests, and irony itself," went out with life, willingly sought "Lavinian shores."
"Lamb," as Mr. John Foster says, in his beautiful tribute to his memory, "never fairly recovered the death of Coleridge. He thought of little else (his sister was but another portion of himself) until his own great spirit joined his friend. He had a habit of venting his melancholy in a sort of mirth. He would, with nothing graver than a pun, 'cleanse his bosom of the perilous stuff that weighed' upon it. In a jest, or a few light phrases, he would lay open the last recesses of his heart. So in respect of the death of Coleridge. Some old friends of his saw him two or three weeks ago and remarked the constant turning and reference of his mind. He interrupted-himself and them almost every instant with some play of affected wonder, or astonishment, or humorous melancholy, on the words, 'Coleridge is dead.' Nothing could divert him from that, for the thought of it never left him. About the same time, we had written to him to request a few lines for the literary album of a gentleman who entertained a fitting admiration of his genius. It was the last request we were destined to make, the last kindness we were allowed to receive. He wrote in Mr. Keymer's volume,—and wrote of Coleridge."
And this is what he said of his friend: it would be, as Mr. Foster says, impertinence to offer one remark on it:—
"When I heard of the death of Coleridge, it was without grief. It seemed to me that he long had been on the confines of the next world,—that he had a hunger for eternity. I grieved then that I could not grieve. But since, I feel how great a part he was of me. His great and dear spirit haunts me. I cannot think a thought, I cannot make a criticism on men or books, without an ineffectual turning and reference to him. He was the proof and touchstone of all my cogitations. He was a Grecian (or in the first form) at Christ's Hospital, where I was Deputy-Grecian; and the same subordination and deference to him I have preserved through a life-long acquaintance. Great in his writings, he was greatest in his conversation. In him was disproved that old maxim, that we should allow every one his share of talk. He would talk from morn to dewy eve, nor cease till far midnight; yet who ever would interrupt him? who would obstruct that continuous flow of converse, fetched from Helicon or Zion? He had the tact of making the unintelligible seem plain. Many who read the abstruser parts of his 'Friend' would complain that his works did not answer to his spoken wisdom. They were identical. But he had a tone in oral delivery which seemed to convey sense to those who were otherwise imperfect recipients. He was my fifty-years-old friend without a dissension. Never saw I his likeness, nor probably the world can see again. I seem to love the house he died at more passionately than when he lived. I love the faithful Gilmans more than while they exercised their virtues towards him living. What was his mansion is consecrated to me a chapel.
"EDMONTON, November 21, 1834."
* * * * *
Having seen what Charles Lamb says of Coleridge, perhaps the reader would like to see what Charles Lamb says of himself. For he, (though but few of his readers are aware of the fact,) like Lord Herbert of Cherbury, Gibbon, Franklin, and other eminent men, wrote an autobiography. It is certainly the briefest, and perhaps the wittiest and most truthful autobiographical sketch in the language. It was published in the "New Monthly Magazine" a few months after its author's death, with the following preface or introduction from the pen of some unknown admirer of Elia:—
"We have been favored, by the kindness of Mr. Upcott, with the following sketch, written in one of his manuscript collections, by Charles Lamb. It will be read with deep interest by all, but with the deepest interest by those who had the honor and the happiness of knowing the writer. It is so singularly characteristic, that we can scarcely persuade ourselves we do not hear it, as we read, spoken from his living lips. Slight as it is, it conveys the most exquisite and perfect notion of the personal manner and habits of our friend. For the intellectual rest, we lift the veil of its noble modesty, and can even here discern them. Mark its humor, crammed into a few thinking words,—its pathetic sensibility in the midst of contrast,—its wit, truth, and feeling,—and, above all, its fanciful retreat at the close under a phantom cloud of death."
CHARLES LAMB'S AUTOBIOGRAPHY.
"Charles Lamb, born in the Inner Temple, 10th February, 1775; educated in Christ's Hospital; afterwards a clerk in the Accountants' Office, East-India House; pensioned off from that service, 1825, after thirty-three years' service; is now a gentleman at large;—can remember few specialties in his life worth noting, except that he once caught a swallow flying (teste sua manu). Below the middle stature; cast of face slightly Jewish, with no Judaic tinge in his complexional religion; stammers abominably, and is therefore more apt to discharge his occasional conversation in a quaint aphorism or a poor quibble than in set and edifying speeches; has consequently been libelled as a person always aiming at wit, which, as he told a dull fellow that charged him with it, is at least as good as aiming at dulness. A small eater, but not drinker; confesses a partiality for the production of the juniper-berry; was a fierce smoker of tobacco, but may be resembled to a volcano burnt out, emitting only now and then a casual puff. Has been guilty of obtruding upon the public a tale in prose, called 'Rosamund Gray,'—a dramatic sketch, named 'John Woodvil,'—a 'Farewell Ode to Tobacco,'—with sundry other poems, and light prose matter, collected in two slight crown octavos, and pompously christened his works, though in fact they were his recreations, and his true works may be found on the shelves of Leadenhall Street, filling some hundred folios. He is also the true Elia, whose essays are extant in a little volume, published a year or two since, and rather better known from that name without a meaning than from anything he has done, or can hope to do, in his own. He also was the first to draw the public attention to the old English dramatists, in a work called 'Specimens of English Dramatic Writers who lived about the Time of Shakspeare,' published about fifteen years since. In short, all his merits and demerits to set forth would take to the end of Mr. Upcott's book, and then not be told truly.
"He died __ 18_, much lamented.[A] Witness his hand, CHARLES LAMB.
"18th April, 1827."
[Footnote A: "To Anybody—Please to fill up these blanks."]
Lamb, if he did not find tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, and sermons in stones, found good in everything. The soul of goodness in things evil was visible to him. He had thought, felt, and suffered so much, that, as Leigh Hunt says, he literally had intolerance for nothing. Though he could see but little religion in many professing Christians, he nevertheless saw that the motley players, "made up of mimic laughter and tears, passing from the extremes of joy or woe at the prompter's call," were not so godless and impious as the world believed them to be.
Writing to Bernard Barton in the spring of 1826, Lamb says, speaking of his literary projects,—"A little thing without name will also be printed on the Religion of the Actors, but it is out of your way; so I recommend you, with true author's hypocrisy, to skip it." I wonder if "good B.B." read the article, and, if he did, how he liked it. Quaker though he was, he could not but have been pleased with it. Should you like to read the "Religion of the Actors," reader? You will not find it in any edition of Charles Lamb's writings. Here it is.
THE RELIGION OF ACTORS.
"The world has hitherto so little troubled its head with the points of doctrine held by a community which contributes in other ways so largely to its amusement, that, before the late mischance of a celebrated tragic actor, it scarce condescended to look into the practice of any individual player, much less to inquire into the hidden and abscondite springs of his actions. Indeed, it is with some violence to the imagination that we conceive of an actor as belonging to the relations of private life, so closely do we identify these persons in our mind with the characters which they assume upon the stage. How oddly does it sound, when we are told that the late Miss Pope, for instance,—that is to say, in our notion of her, Mrs. Candor,—was a good daughter, an affectionate sister, and exemplary in all the parts of domestic life! With still greater difficulty can we carry our notions to church, and conceive of Liston kneeling upon a hassock, or Munden uttering a pious ejaculation, 'making mouths at the invisible event.' But the times are fast improving; and if the process of sanctity begun under the happy auspices of the present licenser go on to its completion, it will be as necessary for a comedian to give an account of his faith as of his conduct. Fawcett must study the five points; and Dicky Suett, if he were alive, would have had to rub up his catechism. Already the effects of it begin to appear. A celebrated performer has thought fit to oblige the world with a confession of his faith,—or, Br——'s 'Religio Dramatici.' This gentleman, in his laudable attempt to shift from his person the obloquy of Judaism, with the forwardness of a new convert, in trying to prove too much, has, in the opinion of many, proved too little. A simple declaration of his Christianity was sufficient; but, strange to say, his apology has not a word about it. We are left to gather it from some expressions which imply that he is a Protestant; but we did not wish to inquire into the niceties of his orthodoxy. To his friends of the old persuasion the distinction was impertinent; for what cares Rabbi Ben Kimchi for the differences which have split our novelty? To the great body of Christians that hold the Pope's supremacy—that is to say, to the major part of the Christian world—his religion will appear as much to seek as ever. But perhaps he conceived that all Christians are Protestants, as children, and the common people call all that are not animals Christians. The mistake was not very considerable in so young a proselyte. Or he might think the general (as logicians speak) involved in the particular. All Protestants are Christians; but I am a Protestant; ergo, etc.: as if a marmoset, contending to be a man, overleaping that term as too generic and vulgar, should at once roundly proclaim himself to be a gentleman. The argument would be, as we say, ex abundanti. From whichever cause this excessus in terminis proceeded, we can do no less than congratulate the general state of Christendom upon the accession of so extraordinary a convert. Who was the happy instrument of the conversion we are yet to learn: it comes nearest to the attempt of the late pious Doctor Watts to Christianize the Psalms of the Old Testament. Something of the old Hebrew raciness is lost in the transfusion; but much of its asperity is softened and pared down in the adaptation.
"The appearance of so singular a treatise at this conjuncture has set us upon an inquiry into the present state of religion upon the stage generally. By the favor of the church-wardens of Saint Martin's in the Fields, and Saint Paul's, Covent Garden, who have very readily, and with great kindness, assisted our pursuit, we are enabled to lay before the public the following particulars. Strictly speaking, neither of the two great bodies is collectively a religious institution. We had expected to have found a chaplain among them, as at Saint Stephen's, and other Court establishments; and were the more surprised at the omission, as the last Mr. Bengough, at the one house, and Mr. Powell at the other, from a gravity of speech and demeanor, and the habit of wearing black at their first appearances in the beginning of fifth or the conclusion of fourth acts, so eminently pointed out their qualifications for such office. These corporations, then, being not properly congregational, we must seek the solution of our question in the tastes, attainments, accidental breeding, and education of the individual members of them. As we were prepared to expect, a majority at both houses adhere to the religion of the Church Established, only that at one of them a pretty strong leaven of Catholicism is suspected,—which, considering the notorious education of the manager at a foreign seminary, is not so much to be wondered at. Some have gone so far as to report that Mr. T——y, in particular, belongs to an order lately restored on the Continent. We can contradict this: that gentleman is a member of the Kirk of Scotland; and his name is to be found, much to his honor, in the list of seceders from the congregation of Mr. Fletcher. While the generality, as we have said, are content to jog on in the safe trammels of national orthodoxy, symptoms of a sectarian spirit have broken out in quarters where we should least have looked for it. Some of the ladies at both houses are deep in controverted points. Miss F——e, we are credibly informed, is Sub-, and Madame V——a Supra-Lapsarian. Mr. Pope is the last of the exploded sect of the Ranters. Mr. Sinclair has joined the Shakers. Mr. Grimaldi, Senior, after being long a Jumper, has lately fallen into some whimsical theories respecting the Fall of Man; which he understands, not of an allegorical, but a real tumble, by which the whole body of humanity became, as it were, lame to the performance of good works. Pride he will have to be nothing but a stiff neck; irresolution, the nerves shaken; an inclination to sinister paths, crookedness of the joints; spiritual deadness, a paralysis; want of charity, a contraction in the fingers; despising of government, a broken head; the plaster, a sermon; the lint to bind it up, the text; the probers, the preachers; a pair of crutches, the old and new law; a bandage, religious obligation: a fanciful mode of illustration, derived from the accidents and habits of his past calling spiritualized, rather than from any accurate acquaintance with the Hebrew text, in which report speaks him but a raw scholar. Mr. Elliston, from all that we can learn, has his religion yet to choose; though some think him a Muggletonian."
* * * * *
Willis, in his "Pencillings by the Way," describing his interview with Charles and Mary Lamb, says,—"Nothing could be more delightful than the kindness and affection between the brother and the sister, though Lamb was continually taking advantage of her deafness to mystify her with the most singular gravity upon every topic that was started. 'Poor Mary!' said he, 'she hears all of an epigram but the point.' 'What are you saying of me, Charles?' she asked. 'Mr. Willis,' said he, raising his voice, 'admires your "Confessions of a Drunkard" very much, and I was saying it was no merit of yours that you understood the subject.' We had been speaking of this admirable essay (which is his own) half an hour before."
That essay has been strangely and purposely misunderstood. Elia, albeit he loved the cheerful glass, was not a drunkard. The "poor nameless egotist" of the Confessions is not Charles Lamb. In printing the article in the "London Magazine," (it was originally contributed to a collection of tracts published by Basil Montagu,) Elia introduced it to the readers of that periodical in the following explanatory paragraphs. They should be printed in all editions of Elia as a note to the article they explain and comment on. For many persons, like a writer in the London "Quarterly Review" for July, 1822, believe, or profess to believe, that this "fearful picture of the consequences of intemperance" is a true tale. "How far it was from actual truth," says Talfourd, "the essays of Elia, the production of a later day, in which the maturity of his feeling, humor, and reason is exhibited, may sufficiently show."
ELIA ON HIS "CONFESSIONS OF A DRUNKARD."
"Many are the sayings of Elia, painful and frequent his lucubrations, set forth for the most part (such his modesty!) without a name, scattered about in obscure periodicals and forgotten miscellanies. From the dust of some of these it is our intention occasionally to revive a tract or two that shall seem worthy of a better fate, especially at a time like the present, when the pen of our industrious contributor, engaged in a laborious digest of his recent Continental tour, may haply want the leisure to expatiate in more miscellaneous speculations. We have been induced, in the first instance, to reprint a thing which he put forth in a friend's volume some years since, entitled 'The Confessions of a Drunkard,' seeing that Messieurs the Quarterly Reviewers have chosen to embellish their last dry pages with fruitful quotations therefrom; adding, from their peculiar brains, the gratuitous affirmation, that they have reason to believe that the describer (in his delineations of a drunkard, forsooth!) partly sat for his own picture. The truth is, that our friend had been reading among the essays of a contemporary, who has perversely been confounded with him, a paper in which Edax (or the Great Eater) humorously complaineth of an inordinate appetite; and it struck him that a better paper—of deeper interest, and wider usefulness—might be made out of the imagined experiences of a Great Drinker. Accordingly he set to work, and, with that mock fervor and counterfeit earnestness with which he is too apt to over-realize his descriptions, has given us a frightful picture indeed, but no more resembling the man Elia than the fictitious Edax may be supposed to identify itself with Mr. L., its author. It is, indeed, a compound extracted out of his long observations of the effects of drinking upon all the world about him; and this accumulated mass of misery he hath centred (as the custom is with judicious essayists) in a single figure. We deny not that a portion of his own experiences may have passed into the picture, (as who, that is not a washy fellow, but must at some times have felt the after-operation of a too generous cup?)—but then how heightened! how exaggerated! how little within the sense of the Review, where a part, in their slanderous usage, must be understood to stand for the whole! But it is useless to expostulate with this Quarterly slime, brood of Nilus, watery heads with hearts of jelly, spawned under the sign of Aquarius, incapable of Bacchus, and therefore cold, washy, spiteful, bloodless. Elia shall string them up one day, and show their colors,—or rather, how colorless and vapid the whole fry,—when he putteth forth his long-promised, but unaccountably hitherto delayed, 'Confessions of a Water-Drinker.'"
* * * * *
In turning over the leaves of divers old periodicals in search of the "Religion of Actors," I accidentally and unexpectedly found an article by Charles Lamb entitled, "On the Custom of Hissing at the Theatres, with some Account of a Club of Damned Authors."
Lamb, we know, was a great lover of the drama,—a true patron and admirer of playwrights and play-actors. He was, perhaps, the greatest theatrical critic that ever lived. Many of the happiest hours of his life were passed in reading the works of the old English dramatists, and in witnessing the performances of favorite actors. He once had hopes of being a successful dramatist himself, and to that end devoted many of his spare hours and odd moments to the composition of a tragedy. ("John Woodvil,") which John Kemble, "the stately manager of Drury Lane," refused to bring out. But not wholly discouraged by the ill success of his tragedy, he tried his hand at a farce, and produced "Mr. H.," which, to the author's exceeding great delight, was accepted by the manager of Drury-Lane Theatre.[B]
[Footnote B: Talfourd says that the acceptance of "Mr. H." gave Lamb some of the happiest moments he ever spent.]
To Manning, then sojourning among the Mandarins, he thus writes of "Mr. H.":—
"Now you'd like to know the subject. The title is 'Mr. H.',—no more: how simple! how taking! A great H sprawling over the play-bill, and attracting eyes at every corner. The story is a coxcomb appearing at Bath, vastly rich,—all the ladies dying for him, all bursting to know who he is; but he goes by no other name than Mr. H.: a curiosity like that of the dames of Strasburg about the man with the great nose. But I won't tell you any more about it. Yes, I will; but I can't give you an idea how I have done it. I'll just tell you, that, after much vehement admiration, when his true name comes out, 'Hogsflesh,' all the women shun him, avoid him, and not one can be found to change their name for him: that's the idea: how flat it is here! but how whimsical in the farce! And only think how hard upon me it is, that the ship is despatched to-morrow, and my triumph cannot be ascertained till the Wednesday after;—but all China will ring of it by-and-by."
Would that Lamb's joyous and exultant anticipations of "Mr. H."'s success had proved true! But, instead of being greeted with the applause of pit and gallery, which would have stood Elia instead of "the unheard voice of posterity," the piece was hissed and hooted from the stage.
In a letter to Manning, written early in 1808, he thus, half humorously, half pathetically, describes the reception the town gave "Mr. H.":—
"So I go creeping on since I was lamed with that cursed fall from off the top of Drury-Lane Theatre into the pit, something more than a year ago. However, I have been free of the house ever since, and the house was pretty free with me upon that occasion. Hang 'em, how they hissed! It was not a hiss neither, but a sort of a frantic yell, like a congregation of mad geese, with roaring sometimes like bears, mows and mops like apes, sometimes snakes, that hissed me into madness. 'Twas like Saint Anthony's temptations. Mercy on us, that God should give his favorite children, men, mouths to speak with, to discourse rationally, to promise smoothly, to flatter agreeably, to encourage warmly, to counsel wisely, to sing with, to drink with, and to kiss with, and that they should turn them into mouths of adders, bears, wolves, hyenas, and whistle like tempests, and emit breath through them like distillations of aspic poison, to asperse and vilify the innocent labors of their fellow-creatures who are desirous to please them! Heaven be pleased to make the teeth rot out of them all, therefore! Make them a reproach, and all that pass by them to loll out their tongue at them! Blind mouths! as Milton somewhere calls them."
If his farce had been—what "Gentleman Lewis," who was present on the night of its performance, said, if he had had it, he would have made it, by a few judicious curtailments—"the most popular little thing that had been brought out for some time," Lamb would not have written the following article.
"ON THE CUSTOM OF HISSING AT THE THEATRES, WITH SOME ACCOUNT OF A CLUB OF DAMNED AUTHORS.
"Mr. Reflector,—I am one of those persons whom the world has thought proper to designate by the title of Damned Authors. In that memorable season of dramatic failures, 1806-7, in which no fewer, I think, than two tragedies, four comedies, one opera, and three farces suffered at Drury-Lane Theatre, I was found guilty of constructing an afterpiece, and was damned.
"Against the decision of the public in such instances there can be no appeal. The Clerk of Chatham might as well have protested against the decision of Cade and his followers, who were then the public. Like him, I was condemned because I could write.
"Not but it did appear to some of us that the measures of the popular tribunal at that period savored a little of harshness and of the summum jus. The public mouth was early in the season fleshed upon the 'Vindictive Man,' and some pieces of that nature, and it retained through the remainder of it a relish of blood. As Dr. Johnson would have said: Sir, there was a habit of sibilation in the house.
"Still less am I disposed to inquire into the reason of the comparative lenity, on the other hand, with which some pieces were treated, which, to indifferent judges, seemed at least as much deserving of condemnation as some of those which met with it. I am willing to put, a favorable construction upon the votes that were given against us; I believe that there was no bribery or designed partiality in the case;—only 'our nonsense did not happen to suit their nonsense'; that was all.
"But against the manner in which the public on these occasions think fit to deliver their disapprobation I must and ever will protest.
"Sir, imagine—but you have been present at the damning of a piece,—those who never had that felicity, I beg them to imagine—a vast theatre, like that which Drury Lane was, before it was a heap of dust and ashes, (I insult not over its fallen greatness; let it recover itself when it can for me, let it lift up its towering head once more, and take in poor authors to write for it; hic coestus artemque repono,)—a theatre like that, filled with all sorts of disgusting sounds,—shrieks, groans, hisses, but chiefly the last, like the noise of many waters, or that which Don Quixote heard from the fulling-mills, or that wilder combination of devilish sounds which Saint Anthony listened to in the wilderness.
"Oh, Mr. Reflector, is it not a pity, that the sweet human voice, which was given man to speak with, to sing with, to whisper tones of love in, to express compliance, to convey a favor, or to grant a suit,—that voice, which in a Siddons or a Braham rouses us, in a Siren Catalani charms and captivates us,—that the musical, expressive human voice should be converted into a rival of the noises of silly geese, and irrational, venomous snakes?
"I never shall forget the sounds on my night; I never before that time fully felt the reception which the Author of All Ill in the 'Paradise Lost' meets with from the critics in the pit, at the final close of his Tragedy upon the Human Race,—though that, alas! met with too much success:—
"'from innumerable tongues, A dismal universal hiss, the sound Of public scorn. Dreadful was the din Of hissing through the hall, thick swarming now With complicated monsters, head and tail, Scorpion and asp, and Amphisbaena dire, Cerastes horned, Hydrus, and Elops drear, And Dipsas.'
"For hall substitute theatre, and you have the very image of what takes place at what is called the damnation of a piece,—and properly so called; for here you see its origin plainly, whence the custom was derived, and what the first piece was that so suffered. After this none can doubt the propriety of the appellation.
"But, Sir, as to the justice of bestowing such appalling, heart-withering denunciations of the popular obloquy upon the venial mistake of a poor author who thought to please us in the act of filling his pockets,—for the sum of his demerits amounts to no more than that,—it does, I own, seem to me a species of retributive justice far too severe for the offence. A culprit in the pillory (bate the eggs) meets with no severer exprobration.
"Indeed, I have often wondered that some modest critic has not proposed that there should be a wooden machine to that effect erected in some convenient part of the proscenium, which an unsuccessful author should be required to mount, and stand his hour, exposed to the apples and oranges of the pit. This amende honorable would well suit with the meanness of some authors, who in their prologues fairly prostrate their skulls to the audience, and seem to invite a pelting.
"Or why should they not have their pens publicly broke over their heads, as the swords of recreant knights in old times were, and an oath administered to them that they should never write again?
"Seriously, Messieurs the Public, this outrageous way which you have got of expressing your displeasures is too much for the occasion. When I was deafening under the effects of it, I could not help asking what crime of great moral turpitude I had committed: for every man about me seemed to feel the offence as personal to himself, as something which public interest and private feelings alike called upon him in the strongest possible manner to stigmatize with infamy.
"The Romans, it Is well known to you, Mr. Reflector, took a gentler method of marking their disapprobation of an author's work. They were a humane and equitable nation. They left the furca and the patibulum, the axe and the rods, to great offenders: for these minor and (if I may so term them) extra-moral offences the bent thumb was considered as a sufficient sign of disapprobation,—vertere pollicem; as the pressed thumb, premere pollicem, was a mark of approving.
"And really there seems to have been a sort of fitness in this method, a correspondency of sign in the punishment to the offence. For, as the action of writing is performed by bending the thumb forward, the retroversion or bending back of that joint did not unaptly point to the opposite of that action, implying that it was the will of the audience that the author should write no more: a much more significant, as well as more humane, way of expressing-that desire, than our custom of hissing, which is altogether senseless and indefensible. Nor do we find that the Roman audiences deprived themselves, by this lenity, of any tittle of that supremacy which audiences in all ages have thought themselves bound to maintain over such as have been candidates for their applause. On the contrary, by this method they seem to have had the author, as we should express it, completely under finger and thumb.
"The provocations to which a dramatic genius is exposed from the public are so much the more vexatious as they are removed from any possibility of retaliation, the hope of which sweetens most other injuries: for the public never writes itself. Not but something very like it took place at the time of the O.-P. differences. The placards which were nightly exhibited were, properly speaking, the composition of the public. The public wrote them, the public applauded them, and precious morceaux of wit and eloquence they were,—except some few, of a better quality, which it is well known were furnished by professed dramatic writers. After this specimen of what the public can do for itself, it should be a little slow in condemning what others do for it.
"As the degrees of malignancy vary in people according as they have more or less of the Old Serpent (the father of hisses) in their composition, I have sometimes amused myself with analyzing this many-headed hydra, which calls itself the public, into the component parts of which it is 'complicated, head and tail,' and seeing how many varieties of the snake kind it can afford.
"First, there is the Common English Snake.—This is that part of the auditory who are always the majority at damnations, but who, having no critical venom in themselves to sting them on, stay till they hear others hiss, and then join in for company.
"The Blind Worm is a, species very nearly allied to the foregoing. Some naturalists have doubted whether they are not the same.
"The Rattle—Snake.—These are your obstreperous talking critics,—the impertinent guides of the pit,—who will not give a plain man leave to enjoy an evening's entertainment, but, with their frothy jargon and incessant finding of faults, either drown his pleasure quite, or force him in his own defence to join in their clamorous censure. The hiss always originates with these. When this creature springs his rattle, you would think, from the noise it makes, there was something in it; but you have only to examine the instrument from which the noise proceeds, and you will find it typical of a critic's tongue,—a shallow membrane, empty, voluble, and seated in the most contemptible part of the creature's body.
"The Whip-Snake.—This is he that lashes the poor author the next day in the newspapers.
"The Deaf Adder, or Surda Echidna of Linnaeus.—Under this head may be classed all that portion of the spectators (for audience they properly are not) who, not finding the first act of a piece answer to their preconceived notions of what a first act should be, like Obstinate in John Bunyan, positively thrust their fingers in their ears, that they may not hear a word of what is coming, though perhaps the very next act may be composed in a style as different as possible, and be written quite to their own tastes. These Adders refuse to hear the voice of the charmer, because the tuning of his instrument gave them offence.
"I should weary you, and myself too, if I were to go through all the classes of the serpent kind. Two qualities are common to them all. They are creatures of remarkably cold digestions, and chiefly haunt pits and low grounds.
"I proceed with more pleasure to give you an account of a club to which I have the honor to belong. There are fourteen of us, who are all authors that have been once in our lives what is called damned. We meet on the anniversaries of our respective nights, and make ourselves merry at the expense of the public. The chief tenets which distinguish our society, and which every man among us is bound to hold for gospel, are,—
"That the public, or mob, in all ages, have been a set of blind, deaf, obstinate, senseless, illiterate savages. That no man of genius, in his senses, would be ambitious of pleasing such a capricious, ungrateful rabble. That the only legitimate end of writing for them is to pick their pockets, and, that failing, we are at full liberty to vilify and abuse them as much as ever we think fit.
"That authors, by their affected pretences to humility, which they made use of as a cloak to insinuate their writings into the callous senses of the multitude, obtuse to everything but the grossest flattery, have by degrees made that great beast their master; as we may act submission to children till we are obliged to practise it in earnest. That authors are and ought to be considered the masters and preceptors of the public, and not vice versa. That it was so in the days of Orpheus, Linus, and Musaeus, and would be so again, if it were not that writers prove traitors to themselves. That, in particular, in the days of the first of those three great authors just mentioned, audiences appear to have been perfect models of what audiences should be; for, though along with the trees and the rocks and the wild creatures, which he drew after him to listen to his strains, some serpents doubtless came to hear his music, it does not appear that any one among them ever lifted up a dissentient voice. They knew what was due to authors in those days. Now every stock and stone turns into a serpent, and has a voice.
"That the terms 'Courteous Reader' and 'Candid Auditors,' as having given rise to a false notion in those to whom they were applied, as if they conferred upon them some right, which they cannot have, of exercising their judgments, ought to be utterly banished and exploded.
"These are our distinguishing tenets. To keep up the memory of the cause in which we suffered, as the ancients sacrificed a goat, a supposed unhealthy animal, to Aesculapius, on our feast-nights we cut up a goose, an animal typical of the popular voice, to the deities of Candor and Patient Hearing. A zealous member of the society once proposed that we should revive the obsolete luxury of viper-broth; but the stomachs of some of the company rising at the proposition, we lost the benefit of that highly salutary and antidotal dish.
"The privilege of admission to our club is strictly limited to such as have been fairly damned. A piece that has met with ever so little applause, that has but languished its night or two, and then gone out, will never entitle its author to a seat among us. An exception to our usual readiness in conferring this privilege is in the case of a writer who, having been once condemned, writes again, and becomes candidate for a second martyrdom. Simple damnation we hold to be a merit, but to be twice-damned we adjudge infamous. Such a one we utterly reject, and blackball without a hearing:—
"The common damned shun his society.
"Hoping that your publication of our Regulations may be a means of inviting some more members into our society, I conclude this long letter.
"I am, Sir, yours, SEMEL-DAMNATUS."
* * * * *
"Tortured with winter's storms, and tossed with a tumultuous sea."
When God's curse forsook my country, it fell on me. I had been young and heroic; I had fought well; what portion of the clock-work of Fate had been allotted me I had utterly performed. Twelve years ago I became a man and strove for my country's freedom; now she has attained her heights without me, and I—what am I? A shapeless hulk, that stays in the shadow, and that hates the world and the people of the world, and verily the God above the world!
"Fight!" whispered Father Anselmo, the young priest, to me, at my last shrift; and fight I did. For from Italy's bosom I had drawn the strength of sword-arm, hip, and thigh; and I vowed to lose that arm and life and all that made life dear toward the trampling of oppressors from the sacred place.
My sun rose in storm, it continued in storm,—why not so have set? Why not have died when swords swept their lightnings about me, when the glorious thunders of battle rolled around and sulphurous blasts enveloped, when the air was full of the bray of bugle and beat of drum, of shout and shriek, exultation and agony? Why not have gone with the crowd of souls reeking with daring and desire? Why, oh, why thus left alone to wither? Why still hangs that sun above me, yet wrapt and veiled and utterly obscured in thick, murk mists of sorrow and despair?
Peace!—let me tell you my story.
Since Father Anselmo—like all youth, whether under cowl, cap, or crown—was a Liberal at heart, I had not wanted counsel; but when I had told him all my yearnings and aspirations, had bared to him the throbbings of my very thought, and he had replied in that one blessed word, I hastened away. There were none to whom I should say farewell; I was alone in the world. This wild blood of my veins ran in no other veins; I knew thoroughly the wide freedom of solitude; the sins and the virtues of my race, whatever they were, had culminated in me. As I looked back, that morning, the castle, planted in a dimple of its demesnes, old and gray and watched by purple peaks of Apennine, seemed to hide its command only under the mask of silence. The wood through which I went, with its alluring depths, the moss verdant in everlasting spring beneath my eager feet, each bough I lifted, the blossoms that blew their gales after, the bearded grasses that shook in the wind, all gave me their secret sigh; all the sweet land around, the distant hill, the distant shore, said, "Redeem me from my chains!" I came across a sylvan statue, some faun nestled in the forest: the rains had stained, frosts cracked, suns blistered it; but what of those? A vine covered with thorns and stemmed with cords had wreathed about it and bound it closely in serpent-coils. I stayed and tore apart the fetters till my hands bled, cut away the twisting branches, and set the god free from his bonds. Triumph rose to my lips, for I said, "So will I free my country!" Ah, there was my error,—the shackling vines would grow again, and infold the marble image that had consecrated the forest-glooms; there is the flaw in all my work,—I have shorn, but have never uprooted an evil. Youth is a fool; the young Titans cannot scale heaven,—heaven, that, if what I live through be true, is ramparted round with tyrant lies! But is it true? Am I what I seem to myself? Did I fail in my purpose, in my will? Did Italy herself belie me? Did she, did she I loved, she I worshipped, she the woman to whom I gave all, for whom I sacrificed all, did she, too, forsake me? Ah, no! you will tell me Italy is free. But I did not free her! She waits only to put on in Venice her tiara. And for that other one, that fair Austrian woman, that devil whom I serve and adore, that yellow-haired witch who brewed her incantations in my holiest raptures,—she did not then play me foul, and falsely feign love to win me to disgrace? May all the woes in Heaven's hands fall on her!
God! what have I said? That I should live to ban her with a word! Did I say it? Oh, but it was vain! Woe for her? No, no! all blessings shower upon her, sunshine attend her, peace and gladness dwell about her! Traitress though she were, I must love her yet; I cannot unlove her; I would take her into my heart, and fold my arms about her.—Oh, I pray you do not look upon me with that mocking smile! Pity me, rather! pity this wretched heart that longs to curse God and die!—Nay, I want not your idle words. Can good destroy? Can love persecute? I was a worm that turned. What then? Why not have crushed me to annihilation? Oh, no, not that! He took me up and shook me before the world, clipped me, and let me fall. A derisive Deity,—why, the words give each other the lie!
Stop! Your sad eyes look as if you would go away, but for this infinite pity in you. What makes you pity me? Because I am shorn of my strength? because of all my fair proportions there is nothing left unshrivelled? because my body—such as it is—is racked with hourly and perpetual pain? because I die? For none of these? Truly, your judgments are insenilable. For what then? Because,—yet, no, that cannot be,—because I bear a stubborn heart? because I will not bend my soul as He has bent my body? Partly,—but you are witless! What else? Because I toss off a shield and buckler, you say. Because I will not lean upon a tower of strength. Because I will not throw myself on the tide of divine love, and trust myself to its course. It was that divine love, then, that tower of strength, that shield and buckler, that made me this thing you see. Tarpeia was enough. Away with your generalities! Go, go, you slave of the past!
Yet no,—you have not gone? You believe what you say,—I know with those eyes you cannot deceive. Ah, but I trusted her eyes once! Yet it gives you rest;—your sorrows are not like mine,—there is no rest for me. I cannot go and gather that balm of Gilead,—I have no legs. I have as good as none. This wheel-chair and that dog of a turnkey are not the equipage for such a journey.—Ah, do not turn from me now! My railing is worse than my cursing, you feel indeed. Well, stay with me at least, and if it is twelve years since you shrived me at first, perhaps you shall shrive me at last,—for I doubt if I am ever brought out to this sunshine again, if I do not die in the prison-damps to-night,—and you, with all your change, are Father Anshmo, I think.—Stay, I will confess to you, confess this. Man! man! this infinite pity of your soul for mine throws a light on my dark ways; God's curse has fallen on me through man's curse, why not God's love through man's love? Anselmo, though you became priest, and I went to become hero, we were children together; I was dear to you then; I am so still, it seems. In your love let me find the love of that Heaven I have defied.—Stay, friend, yet another word. If man's love can be so great, what can God's love be? That which I said I said, in desperation; in very truth, that peace hangs like an unattainable city in the clouds before my soul's vision, that love like a broad river flowing through the lands, an atmosphere bathing the worlds, the subtile essence and ether of space in which the farthest star pursues its course,—why, then, should it escape me, the mote? Oh, when the world turned from me, I sought to flee thither! I sighed for the rest there! Wretched, alone, I have wept in the dark and in the light that I might go and fling myself at the heavenly feet. But, do you see? sin has broken down the bridge between God and me. Yet why, then, is sin in the world,—that scum that rises in the creation and fermentation of good,—why, but as a bridge on which to re-seek those shores from which we wander? Man, I do repent me,—in loving you I find God. And you call that blasphemy!—Nay, go, indeed, my friend! So humble, you are not the man for me. I can talk to the winds: they, at least, do not visit me too roughly.
These are thy tears, Anselmo? Thou a priest, yet a man? Still with me? Yet thou wilt have to bear with wayward moods,—scorn now, quiet then. I am a tetchy man; I am an old man, too, though but just past thirty.—So! I thank God for thee, dear friend!
* * * * *
Anselmo, look out on this scene below us here, as we sit on our lofty battlement. Not on the turrets or the loopholes, the grates and spikes, or all the fortified horror,—but on the earth. It is fair earth, though not Italy; this is a mountain-fortress; here are all the lights and shadows that play over grand hill-countries, and yonder are fields of grain, where the winds and sunbeams play at storm, and a little hamlet's sheltered valley. Doubtless there are towers, besides, half hidden in the hills. It is Austria: slaves tread it, and tyrants drain it, it is true,—but the wild, free gypsies troop now and then across it, and though no fiction of law supports a claim they would scorn to make, they use it so that you would swear they own it. Do you see how this iron reticulation of social rule and custom and force makes a scaffolding on which this tameless race build up their lives? I watch them often. Each country has its compensations. Anselmo, this first made me tremble in my petty defiance,—I, an ephemera of May, defying the dominations of eternity!—Not so,—not too lowly; I also am, and each limitation of life is as well, a domination of eternity. But I saw that it was no purpose of God to have destroyed Italy; when men in weakness and wantonness suffered their liberties to be torn from them, suffered themselves to become enslaved, there was compensation in that their sons had chance for heroic growth; they might, in efforts for freedom, create virtues that, born to freedom, they would never have known. I, too, had my field; I lost it; my enemy was myself. But when I think of her—Ay, there it is! Do not let me think of her! I become mad, when I think of her!—At least, allow me this: God's ways are dark. Not that? Not even that? I needed what I have? If my ambitions, my passions, my will, had ruled, my soul would have remained null? Ah, friend, and is that so much the worse? It is the soul that aches!—I am a man of the people, a man who acts,—I was, I mean,—not a man who thinks; and all your subtleties of word perchance entrap me. I am not wary when you come to logic. See! I surrender point after point. I shall be dead soon, you know; when this morning's sun shave have set, when the moon shall hold the night in fee, I shall depart,—wing up and away;—is it, that, my body already dead, my mind sickens and dies with it, bit after bit, and so I yield, and attest, that, without the agony of my life, death had failed to burst my soul's husk? Oh, for I was born of an earthy race, blood ran thick in our veins, we were sensuous and passionate, the breath and steam of pleasure stifled our brains, and our filmy eyes could not see heaven. Yes, yes, I needed it all; but, friend, it is pitiful.
* * * * *
I like to sit here in the sun. It is only a twelvemonth, of all my long years' imprisonment, that this has been allowed me. I like to sleep in it, like any wild creature,—the lizard, a mere reptile,—the bird, a hindered soul. To lie thus, weak as I am, but pillowed and warmed by the searching genial rays, seems such comfort, when I think of the bed I once had on the rack! This little slumber from which I wake revives me. I feared not to find you, and did not unclose my eyes at once. It was good in you to come, Anselmo; it must have been at risk of much.
You ask me to speak of my life since I went away on that morning of your command,—to reconcile the hostile acts, to gather the scattered reports. Hear it all!
You know my wealth was equal to my demand. I used it; before six months were over, I was the life and soul of those who must needs be conspirators. They saw that I was earnest, that my sacrifices were real; they trusted me. Soon the movement had become general; all the smothered elements of national life were convulsed and throbbing under the crust of tyranny.
How proud and glad was I that morning after our victory! I saw great Italy, beautiful Italy, once more put on her diadem; I beheld the future prospect of one broad, free land, barriered by Alps and set impregnably in summer seas, storied seas, keys of the West and East. We embraced each other as brothers of this glorious nation, ancient Rome risen from trance; as we walked the streets, we sang; Milan was turbulent with gladness; no gala-day was ever half so bright; the very spires appeared to spring in the white radiance of their flames up a deeper heaven; the sun stayed at perpetual dawn for us. Walking along, jubilant and daring, at length we paused in a square where a fountain dashed up its column of sunshine, and laved our hands. By Heaven! We forgot independence, Italy, freedom; we were crazed with success and hope; it seemed that the stream was Austrian blood! Then, in the midst of all, I looked up,—and on a balcony she stood. A fair woman, with hair like shredded light, her great blue eyes wide and full and of intense dye, her nostril distended with pride, and fear and hate of us,—but on the full lips, ripe with crimson bloom, juicy and young and fresh, on those Love lay. The others wound forward,—I with them, yet apart; and my eyes became fixed on hers. Then I lifted my cap with its tricolor. She did not return the courtesy, but stood as if spellbound, one hand threading back the straying hair, the lips a little parted; suddenly she turned to fly, that hand upraised to the casement's side, and still, as she looked back, the beautiful eyes on mine. My companions had preceded me; we were alone in the square; she wavered as she stood, then tore a rose from her bosom, kissed it deep into its heart, and tossed it to me.
"Let all its petals be joys!" I said, and she vanished.
Oh, friend, the leaves have fallen, the rose is dead! Look! I have kept it through all,—sear leaf and withered spray!
That night we danced; and the Austrian girl was there. They told me she was exiled, and that she loved liberty; no one told me she was a spy. I saw her swim along the dance, the white satin of her raiment flashing perpetual interchange of lustrous and obscure, the warm air playing in the lace that fell like the spray of the fountain round her golden hair and over her pearly shoulder; grace swept in all her motions, beauty crowned her, she seemed the perfect, pitch of womanhood.
Still she swims along the lazy line with indolent pleasure, still floats in dreamy waltz-circles perchance, still bends to the swaying tune as the hazel-branch bonds to the hidden treasure,—but as for me, my dancing days are over.
By-and-by it was I with whom she danced, whose hand she touched, on whom she leaned. I wondered if there were any man so blest; I listened to her breath, I watched her cheek, our eyes met, and I loved her. The music grew deeper, more impassioned; we stood and listened to it,—for she danced then no more,—our hearts beat time to it, the wind wandering at the casement played in its measure; we said no words, but now and then each sought the other's glance, and, convicted there, turned in sudden shame away. When I bade her good-night, which I might never have done but that the revel broke, a great curl of her hair blew across my lips. I was bold,—I was heated, too, with this half-secret life of my heart, this warm blood that went leaping so riotously through my veins, and yet so silently,—I took my dagger from my belt and severed the curl. See, friend! will you look at it? It is like the little gold snakes of the Campagna, is it not? each thread, so fine and fair, a separate ray of light: once it was part of her! See how it twists round my hand! Haste! haste! let me put it up, lest I go mad!—Where was I?
I busied myself again in the work to be done; because of our victory we must not rest; once more all went forward. I saw the Austrian woman only from a window, or in a church, or as she walked in the gardens, for many days. Then the times grew hotter; I left the place, and lived with stern alarums; and thither she also came. I never sought what sent her. She was with the wounded, with the dying. Then the need of her was past, and she and all the others took their way. At length that also came to an end.
We were in Rome,—and thither, some time previously, she had gone.
One night, our business for the day was over, our plans for the morrow laid, our messages received, our messengers despatched, and those who had been conspirators and now bade fair to be saviours were sleeping. Sleep seemed to fold the world; each bough and twig was silent in repose; the spectral moonlight itself slept as it bathed the air. I alone wandered and waked. With me there were too many cares for rest; work kept me on the alert; to court slumber at once was not easy after the nervous tension of duty. I was torn, too, with conflicting feelings: half my soul went one way in devotion to my country, half my soul swerved to the other as I thought of the Austrian woman. I grew tired of the streets and squares; something that should be fragrant and bowery attracted me. I mounted on the broken water-god of a dry bath and leaped a garden-wall.
No sooner was I there than I knew why I had come. This was her garden.
Heart of Heaven! how all things spoke of her! How the great white roses hung their doubly heavy heads and poured their perfume out to her! how the sprays shivered as T spoke the name she owned! how the nightingales ceased for a breath their warbling as she rustled down a fragrant path and met me! All her hair was swept back in one great mass and held by an ivory comb; a white cloak wrapped her white array; she was jewel-less and stripped of lustre; she was like pearl, milky as a shell, white as the moonlight that followed in her wake.
"You breathed my name,—I came," she said.
"Pardon!" I replied. "I heard the fountains dash and the nightingales sing, and I but came for rest under the spell."
"And have you found it?"
"I have found it."
We remained silent then, while floods of passion gathered and lay darkly still in our hearts. No, no! I know now that it was not so; yet I will tell it, tell it all, as I thought it then.
She did not stir; indeed, she had such capability of rest, that, had I not spoken, she would never have stirred, it may be. She knew that my glance was upon her; for herself, she looked at the broad lilies that grew at her feet, and listened to the melody that seemed to bubble from a thousand throats with interfluent sound upon the night. It was her repose that soothed me: moulded clay is not so calm, the marble rose of silence not half so beautifully folded to dreamful rest, so lovely and so still no garden-statue could have been; the cool, soft night infiltrated its tranquillity through all her being.
As we stood, the nightingales gave us capricious pause; one alone, distant and clear, fluted its faint piping like the phantom of the finished strain. Another sound broke the air and floated along on this too delicious accompaniment: music, fine and far. Some other lover sang to her his serenade. The voice in its golden sonority rose and crept toward her with persuading sweetness, winding through all the alleys and hovering over the plots of greenery with a tranquil strength, as if such song were but the natural spirit of the night, or as if the soul of the broad calm and silence itself had taken voice.
"Thy beauty, like a star Whose life is light, Shines on me from afar. And on the night.
"Each midnight blossom bends With sweetest weight, And to thy casement sends Its fragrant freight.
"Each, air that faintly curls About thy nest Its daring pinion furls Within thy breast.
"The night is spread for thee, The heavens are wide, And the dark earth's mystery Is magnified.
"For thee the garden waits, The hours delay, The fountains toss their jets Of shimmering spray.
"Then leave thy dim delight In dreams above, Come forth, and crown the night With her I love!"
She listened, but did not lift her head or suffer the change of a fold; then there came the tinkle of the strings that embalmed the tune, and the singer's steps grew soundless as he left the street. A new phantasm crept upon me. What right had any other man to sing to her his love-songs? Did she not live, was not her beauty created, her soul given, for me? Did not the very breath she drew belong to me? My voice, hoarse and husky, disturbed the stillness, my eyes flamed on her.
"Do you love that man who sang?" I murmured.
"Signor, I love you," she said.
Then we were silent as before, but she stood no longer alone and opposite. One passionate step, an outstretched arm, and her head on my bosom, my lips bent to hers.
All the nightingales burst forth in choral redundance of song, all the low winds woke and fainted again through the balmy boughs, all the great stars bent out of heaven to shed their sweet influences upon us.
It seemed to me that in that old palace-garden life began, my memory went out in confused joy. I held her, she was mine! mine, mine, in life and for eternity! Fool! it was I who was hers! Man, you are a priest, and must not love. I, too, was sworn a priest to my country. So we break oaths!
O moments of swift bliss, why are you torture to remember? Let me not think how the night slipped into dawn as we roamed, how pale gold filtered through the darkness and bleached the air, how bird after bird with distant chirrup and breaking time announced the day. She left me, and as well it might be night. I wound a strange way home. I questioned if it were the dream of a fevered brain; I wondered, would she remember when next she saw me? None met with me that day; I forgot all. With the night I again waited in the garden. In vain I waited; she came no more. I waxed full of love's anger, I crushed the tendril and the vine, I wandered up and down the walks and cursed these thorns that tore my heart. As I went, an angle of the shrubbery allured; I turned, and lo! full radiance from open doors, and silvery sounds of sport. I leaned against the ilex, lost in shadow, and watched her as she stirred and floated there before me in the light. She seemed to carry with her an atmosphere of warmth and brilliance; all things were ordered as she moved; one throng melted before her, another followed. By-and-by she stood at the long casement to seek acquaintance with the night. Constantly I thought to meet her eye, and I would not reflect that she saw only dusk and vacancy. Then indignantly I stepped from the ilex and confronted her. A low, glad cry escapes her lips, she holds her arms toward me and would cross the sill, when a voice constrains her from within. It is he, the accursed Neapolitan.