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A History of Nineteenth Century Literature (1780-1

Or at least critics of the so called Cockney school

justify;">It is in these two collections that Lamb presents himself in the character which alone can confer on any man the first rank in literature, the character of unicity--of being some one and giving something which no one before him has given or has been. The _Essays of Elia_ (a _nom de guerre_ said to have been taken from an Italian comrade of the writer's elder brother John in the South Sea House, and directed by Lamb himself to be pronounced "Ell-ia") elude definition not merely as almost all works of genius do, but by virtue of something essentially elvish and tricksy in their own nature. It is easy to detect in them--or rather the things there are so obvious that there is no need of detection--an extraordinary familiarity with the great "quaint" writers of the seventeenth century--Burton, Fuller, Browne--which has supplied a diction of unsurpassed brilliancy and charm; a familiarity with the eighteenth century essayists which has enabled the writer to construct a form very different from theirs in appearance but closely connected with it in reality; an unequalled command over that kind of humour which unites the most fantastic merriment to the most exquisite pathos; a perfect humanity; a cast of thought which, though completely conscious of itself, and not in any grovelling sense humble (Lamb, forgiving and gentle as he was, could turn sharply even upon Coleridge, even upon Southey, when he thought liberties had been taken with him), was a thousand miles removed from arrogance or bumptiousness; an endlessly various and attractive set of crotchets and whimsies, never divorced from the power of seeing the ludicrous side of themselves; a fervent love for literature and a wonderful gift of expounding it; imagination in a high, and fancy almost in the highest degree. But when all this has been duly set down, how much remains both in the essays and in the letters, which in fact are chiefly distinguished from one another by the fact that the essays are letters somewhat less discursive and somewhat in fuller dress, the letters essays in the rough. For the style of Lamb is as indefinable as it is inimitable, and his matter and method defy selection and specification as much as the flutterings of a butterfly. One thing he has always, and that is charm; as for the rest he is an epitome of the lighter side of _belles lettres_, and not always of the lighter side only.

No one who studies Lamb can fail to see the enormous advantage which was given him by his possession of an official employment which brought him a small but sufficient income without very hard labour. Such literary work as his could never be done (at any rate for a length of time) as "collar-work," and even if the best of it had by chance been so performed, it must necessarily have been mixed, as that of Leigh Hunt is, with a far larger quantity of mere work to order. No such advantage was possessed by the third of the great trio of Cockney critics, or at least critics of the so-called Cockney school; for

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