Dr. Johnson and Charles Lamb

by Edwin Watts Chubb

Between Johnson and Lamb there would seem to be little in common. The ponderous old philosopher, "tearing his meat like a tiger, and swallowing his tea in oceans," presents a picture very dissimilar to that of the stammering Lamb whom Coleridge has well called the "gentle-hearted Lamb." And yet there are many points of similarity.

Perhaps the most striking resemblance is in respect to their generosity. The unfailing testimony of all their friends is that neither could restrain the impulse to give. The celebrated De Quincey is led to characterize Lamb's munificence as princely, while Procter, one of his younger friends, simply says, "he gave away greatly." On the other hand, the testimony in regard to the generosity of Johnson is equally strong. He was so open-hearted that he could not trust himself to go upon the street with much money in his purse. Neither Lamb nor Johnson believed in the modern methods of attending to charitable giving through the mediation of boards and committees. Each violated the commonest precepts of a coldblooded political economy. If want and suffering were depicted upon the face of the mendicant, that was enough to call for the open purse. What if the beggar did look like a thief or drunkard? He might spend the money for gin or tobacco, but what of that? "Why should they be denied such sweeteners of their existence?" was Johnson's indulgent plea. This stern moralist so much enjoyed giving that he doubtless would have regretted the passing of laws prohibiting the beggar from plying his vocation in public. So too would the genial Elia, who obeyed his own precept of "give and ask no questions."

While returning to his lodgings after midnight Johnson would often drop pennies into the hands of poor children sleeping on the thresholds and stalls, to furnish them with the means for a breakfast. This was done at a time when he was living on pennies himself. "Reader," pleads Elia in his Praise of Chimney Sweepers, "if thou meetest one of these small gentry in thy early rambles, it is good to give him a penny—it is better to give him a twopence." And then Lamb describes the choice and fragrant drink, Saloop, the delight of the sweep, a basin of which together with a slice of delicate bread and butter will cost but a twopence. As we read the description we have no hesitancy in believing that the "unpennied sweep" frequently became a pennied sweep after the gentle Elia had passed by.

Goldsmith once remarked that to be miserable was enough to insure the protection of Johnson. This generous quality of mind filled the house of Johnson with a queer assortment of pensioners. Had Lamb's home life permitted, equally full of the needy and homeless would it have been. In 1796 occurred the terrible tragedy that we may permit Lamb himself to describe in his letter to Coleridge,—"White, or some of my friends, or the public papers by this time may have informed you of the terrible calamities that have fallen on our family. I will only give you the outlines: My poor, dear, dearest sister, in a fit of insanity, has been the death of her own mother. I was at hand only time enough to snatch the knife out of her grasp. She is at present in a madhouse, from which I fear she must be moved to an hospital.... My poor father was slightly wounded, and I am left to take care of him and my aunt.... God Almighty have us well in his keeping!" Lamb assumed the tender care of his sister, and his watchfulness and loving care are more beautiful than the most charming essay he ever wrote. But this condition at home prevented that generous open-hearted hospitality so characteristic of Johnson. As it was he contributed to the support of several. For a long period he gave thirty pounds a year to his old schoolmistress. Telfourd relates that when Lamb saw the nurse who had waited on Coleridge during his last illness, he forced five guineas on her. Equally impulsive was his manner toward Procter, whom he one time noticed to be in low spirits and imagined the cause to be lack of money. "My dear boy," said he suddenly turning toward his friend, "I have a quantity of useless things, I have now in my desk a—a hundred pounds—that I don't know what to do with. Take it."

Some years ago when comparing these two men a Mr. Roose wrote in concluding his paper: "We are all familiar with Johnson's huge, ungainly form, arrayed in brown suit more or less dilapidated, singed, bushy wig, black stockings, and mean old shoes. A quaint little figure, Lamb comes before our vision, in costume uncontemporary and as queer as himself, consisting of a suit of black cloth (they both affected dark colors), rusty silk stockings shown from the knees, thick shoes a mile too large, shirt with a wide, ill-plaited frill, and tiny white neckcloth tied in a minute bow."

It is pleasant to fancy these two originals being brought into personal contact. Nor is it hard, for all the tokens to the contrary, to imagine Elia taking the grand, humane old doctor into his embrace (a huger armful than his beloved folios), sitting up with him o' nights, as he did with them, delighting in the humor of his conversation, which was said by a contemporary to be unequaled except by the old comedians, in whom Lamb's spirit found diversion; piercing to heights and depths in his nature which Boswell never revealed to him; while Johnson, it may safely be inferred, would have loved this "poor Charles," in whom Carlyle could perceive but so slender a strain of worth. But had they met at all, it would have been on equal terms. Goldsmith maintained with difficulty, though he did maintain, his attitude of independence towards the colossus of his age. Charles Lamb, without any difficulty and without the show of assertiveness, would have maintained it better. Lamb, who from earliest manhood refused to knock under to the threatening intellectual arrogance of Coleridge; who shook Wordsworth by the nose instead of by the hand with the greeting, "How d'ye do, old Lake Poet!"—his stammering voice might have broken with impunity on the doctor's weightiest utterances with the absurdest quips and twists of speech of which even he was capable. Yet both were of wayward nature, and had they met might not have coalesced.

Lamb would have understood Johnson better than Johnson would have understood the whimsicalities of the witty clerk. At one time while discussing authors with friends Lamb said,—"There is Dr. Johnson: I have no curiosity; no strange uncertainty about him."

Johnson's restraint in the use of alcoholic drinks is in contrast with Lamb's indulgence. But Johnson's intemperate tea-drinking makes him one with Lamb in his struggle with tobacco. In writing to Coleridge for advice on smoking, Lamb asks: "What do you think of smoking? I want your sober average noon opinion of it.... May be the truth is, that one pipe is wholesome, two pipes toothsome, three pipes noisome, four pipes fulsome, five pipes quarrelsome; and that's the sum on't. But that is deciding rather upon rhyme than reason." And Telfourd tells us that when Parr saw Lamb puffing like some furious enchanter, he asked how he had acquired the power of smoking at such a rate. Lamb replied, "I toiled after it, sir, as some men toil after virtue."