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OF PERSONS ONE WOULD WISH TO
" Come like shadows-so depart."
Lamb it was, I think, who suggested this subject, as well as the defence of Guy Faux, which I urged him to execute. As, however, he would undertake neither, I suppose I must do both-a task for which he would have been much fitter, no less from the temerity than the felicity of
“ Never so sure our rapture to create
As when it touched the brink of all we hate.”
Compared with him I shall, I fear, make but a common-place piece of business of it; but I should be loth the idea was entirely lost, and besides I may avail myself of some hints of his in the progress of it. I am sometimes, I
suspect, a better reporter of the ideas of other people than expounder of my own. I pursue the one too far into paradox or mysticism; the others I am not bound to follow farther than I like, or than seems fair and reasonable.
On the question being started, A- said, “I suppose the two first persons you would choose to see would be the two greatest names in English literature, Sir Isaac Newton and Mr Locke?” In this A, as usual, reckoned without his host. Every one burst out a laughing at the expression of Lamb's face, in which impatience was restrained by courtesy.
Yes, the greatest names,” he stammered out hastily, “but they were not persons-not persons. “Not persons ?” said Am, looking wise and foolish at the same time, afraid his triumph might be premature. “That is,” rejoined Lamb, “ not characters, you know. By Mr Locke and Sir Isaac Newton, you mean the “Essay on the Human Understanding,' and the Principia,' which we have to this day. Beyond their contents there is nothing personally interesting in the men.
But what we want to see any one bodily for, is when there is something peculiar, striking in the individuals, more than we can learn from their writings, and yet are curious to know. I dare say Locke and Newton were
very like Kneller's portraits of them. But who could paint Shakspeare?”—“Ay,” retorted A-, “there it is; then I suppose you would prefer seeing him and Milton instead ?”—“ No,' said Lamb, “neither. I have seen so much of Shakspeare on the stage and on book-stalls, in frontispieces and on mantel-pieces, that I am quite tired of the everlasting repetition : and as to Milton's face, the impressions that have come down to us of it I do not like; it is too starched and puritanical; and I should be afraid of losing some of the manna of his poetry in the leaven of his countenance and the precisian's band and gown.”—“I shall guess no more," said A “Who is it, then,
would like to see in his habit as he lived, if
you had your
choice of the whole range of English literature?” Lamb then named Sir Thomas Brown and Fulke Greville, the friend of Sir Philip Sidney, as the two worthies whom he should feel the greatest pleasure to encounter on the floor of his apartment in their nightgown and slippers, and to exchange friendly greeting with them.
At this A— laughed outright, and conceived Lamb was jesting with him ; but as no one followed his example, he thought there might be something in it, and
waited for an explanation in a state of whimsical suspense. Lamb then (as well as I can remember a conversation that passed twenty years ago how time slips !) went on
as follows. reason why I pitch upon these two authors is, that their writings are riddles, and they themselves the most mysterious of personages. They resemble the soothsayers of old, who dealt in dark hints and doubtful oracles ; and I should like to ask them the meaning of what no mortal but themselves, I should suppose, can fathom. There is Dr Johnson, I have no curiosity, no strange uncertainty about him : he and Boswell together have pretty well let me into the secret of what passed through his mind. He and other writers like him are sufficiently explicit : my friends, whose repose
I should be tempted to disturb (were it in my power), are implicit, inextricable, inscrutable.
“When I look at that obscure but gorgeous prose-composition the
Urn-burial,' I seem to myself to look into a deep abyss, at the bottom of which are hid pearls and rich treasure; or it is like a stately labyrinth of doubt and withering speculation, and I would invoke the spirit of the author to lead me through it. Besides, who would not be curious to see the
lineaments of a man who, having himself been twice married, wished that mankind were propagated like trees! As to Fulke Greville, he is like nothing but one of his own Prologues spoken by the ghost of an old king of Ormus,' a truly formidable and inviting personage: his style is apocalyptical, cabalistical, a knot worthy of such an apparition to untie ; and for the unravelling a passage or two, I would stand the brunt of an encounter with so portentous a commentator !”._“I am afraid in that case,” said A-, “ that if the mystery were once cleared up, the merit might be lost;"—and turning to me, whispered a friendly apprehension, that while Lamb continued to admire these old crabbed authors, he would never become a popular writer. Dr Donne was mentioned as a writer of the same period, with a very interesting countenance, whose history was singular, and whose meaning was often quite as uncomeatable, without a personal citation from the dead, as that of any of his contemporaries. The volume was produced; and while some one was expatiating on the exquisite simplicity and beauty of the portrait prefixed to the old edition, A- got hold of the poetry, and exclaiming “ What have we here?” read the following: