1876 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Charles Lamb

Robert Carruthers, in Chambers's Cyclopaedia of English Literature, 3rd ed. (1876; 1879) 5:189-93.



CHARLES LAMB, a poet and a delightful essayist, of quaint peculiar humour and fancy, was born in London on the 10th February 1775. His father was in humble circumstances, servant and friend to one of the benchers of the Inner Temple; but Charles was presented to the school of Christ's Hospital, and from his seventh to his fifteenth year lie was an inmate of that ancient and munificent asylum. Lamb was a nervous, timid, and thoughtful boy: "while others were all fire and play, he stole along with all the self-concentration of a monk." He would have obtained an exhibition at school. admitting him to college, but those exhibitions were given under the implied if not expressed condition of entering into holy orders, and Lamb had an impediment in his speech, which proved an insuperable obstacle. In 1792 he obtained an appointment in the accountant's office of the East India Company, residing with his parents; and "on their death," says Serjeant Talfourd, "he felt himself called upon by duty to repay to his sister the solicitude with which she had watched over his infancy, and well, indeed, he performed it. To her, from the age of twenty-one, he devoted his existence, seeking thenceforth no connection which could interfere with her supremacy in his affection, or impair his ability to sustain and to comfort her." A sad tragedy was connected with the early history of this devoted pair. There was a taint of hereditary madness in the family; Charles had himself, at the close of the year 1795, been six weeks confined in an asylum at Hoxton, and in September of the following year, Mary Lamb, in a paroxysm of insanity, stabbed her mother to death with a knife snatched from the dinner-table. A verdict of lunacy was returned by the jury who sat on the coroner's inquest, and the unhappy young lady was placed in a private asylum at Islington. Reason was speedily restored. "My poor dear, dearest sister," writes Charles Lamb to his bosom-friend Coleridge, "the unhappy and unconscious instrument of the Almighty's judgments on our house, is restored to her senses; to a dreadful sense and recollection of what has passed, awful to her mind and impressive, as it must be, to the end of life, but tempered with religious resignation and the reasonings of a sound judgment, which, in this early stage, knows how to distinguish between a deed committed in a transient fit of frenzy, and the terrible guilt of a mother's murder." In confinement, however, Mary Lamb continued until the death of her father, an imbecile old man; and then Charles came to her deliverance. He satisfied all parties who had power to oppose her release, by his solemn engagement that he would take her under his care for life, and he kept his word. "For her sake he abandoned all thoughts of love and marriage; and with an income of scarcely more than £100 a year, derived from his clerkship, aided for a little while by the old aunt's small annuity, set out on the journey of life at twenty-two years of age, cheerfully, with his beloved companion, endeared to him the more by her strange calamity, and the constant apprehension of the recurrence of the malady which caused it" [author's note: Final Memorials of Charles Lamb, by T. N. Talfourd]. The malady did again recur at intervals, rendering restraint necessary, but Charles, though at times wayward and prone to habits of excess — or rather to over-sociality with a few tried friends — seems never again to have relapsed into aberration of mind. He bore his trials meekly, manfully, and with prudence as well as fortitude. The first compositions of Lamb were in verse, prompted, probably, by the poetry of his friend Coleridge. A warm admiration of the Elizabethan dramatists led him to imitate their style and manner in a tragedy named "John Woodvil," which was published in 1801, and mercilessly ridiculed in the Edinburgh Review as a specimen of the rudest state of the drama. There is much that is exquisite both in sentiment and expression in Lamb's play, but the plot is certainly meagre, and the style had then an appearance of affectation. The following description of the sports in the forest has a truly antique air, like a passage in Heywood or Shirley:

FOREST SCENES.
To see the sun to bed, and to arise,
Like some hot amourist with glowing eyes,
Bursting the lazy bonds of sleep that bound him,
With all his fires and travelling glories round him.
Sometimes the moon on soft night-clouds to rest,
Like beauty nestling in a young man's breast,
And all the winking stars, her handmaids, keep
Admiring silence while these lovers sleep.
Sometimes outstretched, in very idleness.
Nought doing, saying little, thinking less,
To view the leaves, thin dancers upon air,
Go eddying round; and small birds how they fare.
When mother Autumn fills their beaks with corn,
Filched from the careless Amalthea's horn;
And how the woods berries and worms provide,
Without their pains, when earth has nought beside
To answer their small wants.
To view the graceful deer coins tripping by,
Then stop and gaze, then torn, they know not why,
Like bashful younkers in society.
To mark the structure of a plant or tree,
And all fair things of earth, how fair they be.

In 1802 Lamb paid a visit to Coleridge at Keswick, and clambered up to the top of Skiddaw. Notwithstanding his partiality for a London life, he was deeply struck with the solitary grandeur and beauty of the lakes. "Fleet Street and the Strand," he says, "are better places to live in for good and all than amidst Skiddaw. Still, I turn back to those great places where I wandered about participating in their greatness. I could spend a year, two, three years among them, but I must have a prospect of seeing Fleet Street at the end of that time, or I should mope and pine away." A second dramatic attempt was made by Lamb in 1804. This was a farce entitled "Mr. H.," which was accepted by the proprietors of Drury Lane Theatre, and acted for one night; but so indifferently received, that it was never brought forward afterwards. "Lamb saw that the case was hopeless, and consoled his friends with a century of puns for the wreck of his dramatic hopes." In 1807 he published a series of tales founded on the plays of Shakespeare, which he had written in conjunction with his sister, and in the following year appeared his Specimens of English Dramatic Poets who lived about the time of Shakespeare, a work evincing a thorough appreciation of the spirit of the old dramatists, and a fine critical taste in analysing their genius. Some of his poetical pieces were also composed about this time; but in these efforts Lamb barely indicated his powers, which were not fully displayed till the publication of his essays signed "Elia," originally printed in the London Magazine. In these his curious reading, nice observation, and poetical conceptions found a genial and befitting field.

"They are all," says his biographer, Serjeant Talfourd, "carefully elaborated; yet never were books written in a higher defiance to the conventional pomp of style. A sly hit, a happy pain, a humorous combination, lets the light into the intricacies of the subject, and supplies the place of ponderous sentences. Seeking his materials for the most part in the common paths of life — often in the humblest — he gives an importance to everything, and sheds a grace over all." In 1825 Lamb was emancipated from the drudgery of his situation, as clerk in the India House, retiring with a handsome pension, which enabled him to enjoy the comforts, and many of the luxuries of life. In a letter to Wordsworth, he thus describes his sensations after his release: "I come home for EVER on Tuesday week. The incomprehensibleness of my condition overwhelmed me. It was like passing from life into eternity. Every year to be as long as three; that is, to have three times as much real time — time that is my own — in it! I wandered about thinking I was happy, but feeling I was not. But that tumultuousness is passing off, and I begin to understand the nature of the gift. Holidays, even the annual month, were always uneasy joys, with their conscious fugitiveness, the craving after making the most of them. Now, when all is holiday, there are no holidays. I can sit at home, in rain or shine, without a restless impulse for walking. I am daily steadying, and shall soon find it as natural to me to be my own master, as it has been irksome to have had a master." He removed to a cottage near Islington, and in the following summer, went with his faithful sister and companion on a long visit to Enfield, which ultimately led to his giving up his cottage, and becoming a constant resident at that place. There he lived for about five years, delighting his friends with his correspondence and occasional visits to London, displaying his social racy humour and active benevolence.

In 1830 he committed to the press a small volume of poems, entitled Album Verses, the gleanings of several years, and he occasionally sent a contribution to some literary periodical. In December 1834, whilst taking his daily walk on the London Road, he stumbled against a stone, fell, and slightly injured his face. The accident appeared trifling, but erysipelas in the face came on, and proved fatal on the 27th December 1834. He was buried in the churchyard at Edmonton, amidst the tears and regrets of a circle of warmly attached friends, and his memory was consecrated by a tribute from the muse of Wordsworth. His sister survived till May 20, 1847. A complete edition of Lamb's works was published by his friend Mr. Moxon, and his reputation is still on the increase. For this he is mainly indebted to his essays. We cannot class him among the favoured sons of Apollo, though in heart and feeling he might sit with the proudest. The peculiarities of his style were doubtless grafted upon him by his constant study and lifelong admiration of the old English writers. Beaumont and Fletcher, Massinger, Jeremy Taylor, Browne, Fuller, and others of the alder worthies (down to Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle), were his chosen companions. He knew all their fine sayings and noble thoughts; and, consulting his own heart after his hard day's plodding at the India House, at his quiet fireside (ere his reputation was established, and he came to be "over-companied" by social visitors), he invested his original thoughts and fancies, and drew up his curious analogies and speculations in a garb similar to that which his favourites wore. Then Lamb was essentially a town-man — a true Londoner — fond as Johnson of Fleet Street and the Strand — a frequenter of the theatre, and attached to social habits, courtesies, and observances. His acute powers of observation were constantly called into play, and his warm sympathies excited by the shifting scenes around him. His kindliness of nature, his whims, puns, and prejudices, give a strong individuality to his writings; while in playful humour, critical taste and choice expression, Charles Lamb may be considered among English essayists a genuine and original master. Mr. Proctor (Barry Cornwall), who wrote a slight Memoir of his friend in 1866, said he saw the essence of Lamb's genius in the facts that he wrote from his feelings, and that he loved old books and old times.