Dr. Johnson and Charles Lamb
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
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
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."