1862 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Charles Lamb

Thomas Arnold, in A Manual of English Literature (1862; 1885) 445-46.



Charles Lamb, a Londoner of Londoners, born in the Temple, the son of a lawyer's confidential servant, entered Christ's Hospital in 1782, and stayed there for seven years. One of his school-fellows was Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and thus began a close friendship which lasted for life. His boyish years were thus spent between the Temple and Christ's Hospital, with occasional excursions to the old country-house of Blakesware, in Hertfordshire, where his grandmother held the post of housekeeper for over half a century. He has immortalised "the old deserted place" in the essay entitled "Blakesmoor, in H— shire." Within two years after leaving school Lamb obtained a post of some kind in the South Sea House, and shortly afterwards a clerkship in the accountant's office of the East India Company. Here Lamb stayed till he was pensioned off. Till 1795 he lived with his father and mother in the Temple. In that year the family moved to humble lodgings in Holborn, and there, in the following year, the event took place which had so profound an influence on all Lamb's after-life. His sister, Mary Lamb, in a paroxysm of mania, killed her own mother and wounded her father. He was able to arrange for her release from confinement — her case being clearly one of intermittent mania — and devoted his life to taking care of her. He never married. While the two were living together in small London lodgings lie made his first important literary venture with A tale of Rosamund Gray and old blind Margaret. This was in 1798; in the previous year he had published a volume of poems in conjunction with S. T. Coleridge and Charles Lloyd. The little story "is redolent" says Mr. Ainger, "of Lamb's native sweetness of heart, delicacy of feeling, and undefinable charm of style."

In 1802 he published the drama of John Woodvil, an ambitious effort chiefly remarkable for the closeness with which it reproduces the style and versification of Beaumont and Fletcher. Already, and indeed years before this period, Lamb's mind was steeped in the Elizabethan drama. In 1803 he wrote the lovely lines on "Hester," which, together with the mournful stanzas beginning, "Where are they gone, the old familiar faces?" and perhaps the sonnet on the name of "Edith," constitute the only verses of Lamb that have become really popular. In 1806 Lamb's "Mr. H—," curious trivial farce, was produced at Drury Lane, and damned unmercifully. Luckily he got on to much safer ground later in the same year with the Tales from Shakespeare, at which brother and sister worked together. These were published in 1807. Next year followed the Specimens of English Dramatic Poets, on which Lamb's fame as a critic chiefly rests. The new criticism, which, divesting itself of all theories about what a work of art should be in the abstract, seeks mainly to penetrate, interpret, and suggest, — to quicken the reader's sense of beauty and clear his spiritual vision, — was here inaugurated. A modern poet, addressing one of the Elizabethans, says:—

Thy honey
Takes subtler sweetness from the lips of Lamb.

Even those who know the Elizabethans well will learn to know them better under this modest, yet consummate guidance. But the full importance of Lamb's works can only be gauged by those who realise the general indifference to his subject eighty years ago, and the impulse it communicated to the nascent reaction against the classical literature of the eighteenth century. The next important work of Lamb was that by which he will be longest remembered. The Essays of Elia were originally contributed to the London Magazine, where the first of them appeared in 1820, and were collected and published in 1823. The volume contained the famous Dissertation on Roast Pig, the paper on Imperfect Sympathies, and the account of Mrs. Battle's opinions on whist; all occur in this first volume of essays. They would not probably be quite what they are if there had been no Spectator, but it is hardly possible to overrate their kindly humour, the keenness, of observation they display, and the elaborate, yet easy perfection of the style, when at its best. The second series of Essays of Elia, published ten years later, in 1833, shows no sign of falling off. In 1825 he retired from the India House on a pension amounting to two-thirds of his salary, and lived the rest of his life at Enfield and at Edmonton, without producing any more literary work of mark.