Charles Lamb

S. C. Hall, "Charles Lamb" in A Book of Memories: Great Men and Women of the Age, from personal Acquaintance (1871) 51-61.

CHARLES LAMB was born on the 18th February, 1775, in Crown Office Row, Inner Temple, his father being in the employ of one of the Benchers as his "clerk, servant, friend, flapper, guide, stopwatch, auditor, and treasurer." On the 9th of October, 1782, the boy was placed in the school of Christ's Hospital, as the "son of John Lamb, scrivener, and Elizabeth, his wife." He is described as then of small stature, delicate frame, and constitutionally nervous and timid; of mild countenance, complexion clear brown, eyes of different colours, with "a walk slow and peculiar," and a "difficulty of utterance" that was something more than an impediment in his speech. At Christ's Hospital was formed his friendship with his schoolfellow, Coleridge — a friendship that continued without interruption until the poet-philosopher was laid in his grave at Highgate. They were, as Lamb writes, "fifty-year friends without interruption." A memory of this estimable man may, therefore, fitly follow that of Coleridge, although I knew less of him than I did of many others who have left their impress on the age.

In 1789 he quitted Christ's Hospital, and obtained a situation at the India House, where he remained during thirty-six years, rarely taking a holiday. In 1825 he "retired from the drudgery of the desk," with a pension sufficient for all the moderate needs and luxuries of life.

No doubt such drudgery may have been, to some extent, irksome to a man of letters, who loved to use the pen for a higher purpose than that of dull entries in heavy ledgers; but it had a "set off" in the safeguard from pecuniary perils that too frequently cage the spirit and cramp the energies of men of lofty intellect and aspiring souls. On many occasions Lamb expressed his thankfulness that he was not, as so many are — as so many of his friends were — compelled to learn, from terrible experience, — "How salt the savour is of others' bread."

In 1822 he wrote to Bernard Barton, a banker's clerk, — "I am, like you, a prisoner to the desk; I have been chained to that galley thirty years I have almost grown to the wood." And again, — "What a weight of wearisome prison hours have I to look back and forward to, as quite cut out of life!" Yet he tenders this counsel to the Quaker poet, who had contemplated resigning his post, "trusting to the booksellers" for bread: — "Throw yourself from the steep Tarpeian rock, slap-dash, headlong upon iron spikes, rather than become the slave of the booksellers;" and he blesses his star "that Providence, not seeing good to make him independent, had seen it next good to settle him down upon the stable foundation of Leadenhall Street;" while he sympathised with, and mourned over, the "corroding, torturing, tormenting thoughts that disturb the brain of the unlucky wight who must draw upon it for daily sustenance." "There is corn in Egypt," he wrote, "while there is cash in Leadenhall." He was therefore content with his lot, although "every half-hour's absence from office duties was set down in a book;" yet when ultimately released from the oar, he "could scarcely comprehend the magnitude of his deliverance;" and was grateful for it.

But, in truth, it was no punishment to Charles Lamb to be "in populous city pent." In the streets and alleys of the metropolis he found themes as fertile as his contemporaries had sought and obtained among the hills and valleys of Westmoreland; where great men had trodden was to him "hallowed ground;" and many a dingy building of unseemly brick was to him holy, as the birthplace, the death-place, or the intellectual laboratory of some mighty luminary of the past. He once paid a visit to Coleridge at Keswick, and though he conceded the grandeur and the glory of old Skiddaw, and admitted that he might live a year or so among such scenes, he should "mope and pine away if he had no prospect of again seeing Fleet Street." Writing to the high-priest of Nature, Wordsworth, he says, "I do not now care if I never see a mountain in my life; I have passed all my days in London, until I have formed as many and intense local attachments as any of you mountaineers can have done with dead nature." And Talfourd had heard him declare that his "love for natural scenery would be abundantly satisfied by the patches of long waving grass and the stunted trees that blacken in dig old churchyard nooks which you may yet find bordering on Thames Street." The Strand and Fleet Street were to him "better places to live in, for good and all, than underneath old Skiddaw;" and Covent Garden was "dearer to him than any garden of Alcinous." So late as 1829, when he had been some years free to wander at his own sweet will, he writes to Wordsworth, — "O let no Londoner imagine that health, and rest, and innocent occupation, interchange of converse sweet, and recreative study, can make the country anything better than altogether odious and detestable." But thus on the same subject wrote Robert Sonthey — "To dwell in that foul city — to endure the common, hollow, cold, lip-intercourse of life — to walk abroad and never see green field, or running brook, or setting sun — will it not wither up my faculties like some poor myrtle that in the

Town air
Pines in the parlour window?"

Lamb is not the only Londoner to whom the huge city has been, or is, a refreshing luxury. James Smith used to say that "London was the best place in summer, and the only place in winter." It was Jekyll who proposed to make country lanes tolerable by having them paved. Dr. Johnson grew angry when people abused London, saying, "Sir, the man who is tired of London is tired of existence." While I had a residence among the healthful commons and thick woods of West Surrey, a distinguished author of this class was my guest, and was located in a pretty little lodge sheltered among tall trees, where nightingales were singing. In the morning he complained they had kept him awake all night. "Well," I said, "surely it is not much of a misery to be kept awake by 'the bird most musical.'" "Nay," he replied, "if I am kept from sleep, I do not see much difference between nightingales and cats!" The love of Lamb for London was, in fact, an absolute passion. Hazlitt says of him, "The streets of London are his faery land, teeming with wonder, with life and interest, to his retrospective glance, as it did to the eager eye of childhood. He has contrived to weave its tritest traditions into a bright and endless romance."

Although Lamb had thus ample scope for continual enjoyment, and was saved from the necessities that so often beset the paths of men of genius, there was a skeleton in his house, and pleasure was ever associated with a terror more appalling than Death. His beloved sister — his dear companion and cherished friend — was subject to periodical fits of insanity, during one of which, with her own hand, she killed her beloved mother. There is nothing in human history more entirely sad than the records of the walks these two made together, when, thereafter, as the cloud came over her mind, and she saw the evil hour approaching, they paced along the road and across fields, weeping bitterly both — she to be left at the lunatic asylum until time and regimen restored reason, and he to return to his mournful and lonely home.

What a sad picture it is — harrowing, appalling! Lamb carried with him on such journeys the "strait waistcoat" that was ever near at hand, and brought it back with him when, sufficiently recovered, she returned with him to gladden his roof tree; for she brought with her the sunshine as well as the shadow.

The fatal death of the mother took place on the 22nd September, 1796. There was, of course, a coroner's inquest, and a verdict — "Lunacy." The daughter was confined in Bedlam. After a time she was given up to "her friends," and her brother thenceforward became her "guardian." The word is far too weak to convey an idea of the never-ceasing, never-ending care and thought for her consolation and comparative comfort. It is indeed a sad task to picture him, with a perpetual dread of insanity haunting him; loving one, whom he addresses as "the fair-haired maid" (of whom nothing further is known), but sacrificing that, and all else, to solemn and mournful Duty. It was, however, duty lightened by love; for intense affection linked these two together from the earliest to the latest hours of their lives." The two lived as one in double singleness together on her side affectionate and earnest watching; on his a charming deference, "pleasant evasions," little touches of gratitude, perpetual care — anxious and troubled care.

In one of her letters to her brother during her temporary confinement she writes: — "The spirit of my mother seems to descend and smile upon me, and bid me live to enjoy the life and reason the Almighty has given me." And she did live to enjoy both, in calm and sorrowful content, to a very old age, surviving her brother many years — dying on the 20th of May, 1847. She was placed in the grave by his side: — "In death they were not divided."

His life is truly described as a "life of uncongenial toil, diversified with frequent sorrow." Talfourd gently refers to his only blot — his "one single frailty" — "the eagerness with which he would quaff exciting liquors;" that he attributes to "a physical peculiarity of constitution." It was "a kind of corporeal need," augmented, if not induced, by the heavy, irksome labours of his dull office, and still more by "the sorrows that environed him, and which tempted him to snatch a fearful joy." Lamb himself refers to his excessive love of tobacco, and his vain attempts to subdue or to control it, and describes "how from illuminating it came to darken, from a quick solace it turned to a negative relief, thence to a restlessness and dissatisfaction, thence to a positive misery."

Yet, although with many drawbacks, the life of Charles Lamb was by no means without enjoyment. He had many attached friends, the earliest and the latest being his school-mate Coleridge. This tribute is from his pen:—

My gentle-hearted Charles! for thou hast pined
And hungered after nature many a year,
In the great city pent; winning thy way
With sad yet patient soul, through evil and pain
And strange calamity!

And this is the tribute of Robert Southey:—

Charles Lamb, to those who know thee justly dear
For rarest gems and for sterling worth,
Unchanging friendship, warmth of heart sincere,
And wit that never gave an ill thought birth,
Nor even in its sport infixed a sting."

It was said of him that "he had the faculty of turning even casual acquaintances into friends," and he thus touchingly records their departure:—

All, all are gone, the old familiar faces;
Some they have died, and some they have left me,
And some are taken from me, all are departed,
All, all are gone, the old familiar faces.

He was a most delightful companion, and a firm and true and never-changing friend. Of the latter there is evidence in his memorable letter to Southey, whom he considered to have wrongfully assailed Leigh Hunt; of the former we have the testimony of so many that it is needless to quote them. Among his more frequent companions and intimate friends were Hazlitt, Godwin, Thelwall, Basil Montagu and his estimable lady, Procter, Barnes, Haydon, Carey, Knowles, Moxon, Hood, and Hone; while, later in life, he was often cheered by the light that emanated from good and tender Talfourd. His loving and eloquent biographer describes, with singular felicity, Lamb's "suppers" in the Middle Temple. In 1800 he was living at No. 16, Mitre Court Buildings; in 1817 he had removed to lodgings in Russell Street, Covent Garden, the corner house, "delightfully situated between the two great theatres." Afterwards he was again a resident in the Temple. Later in life, his residence was at Enfield, in an "odd-looking, gambogish-coloured house," from which, in 1833, he removed to Church Street, Edmonton. In 1834, in the sixtieth year of his age, he died.

"Bay Cottage," as it is now called — and I believe was called when Lamb inhabited it — is a poor dwelling mournful-looking enough; it could never have been calculated to dissipate the gloom that must have perpetually saddened the heart and mind of the poet.

Lamb and his sister were but lodgers: the house was kept by a woman named Redford, who — I learned from a person still residing there, and who well remembers both the afflicted inmates — lived by taking charge of insane patients, and was by no means worthy of such a trust, for she had habits that probably did not receive any check from the interesting patients of whom she had the care. The person I refer to recollects Miss Lamb cutting up her feather-bed, and scattering the feathers to the winds out of her window; and told me, what I am loath to believe, that whenever Lamb or his sister "misbehaved" themselves Redford was in the habit of thrusting them into a miserable closet of the room, where they were confined sometimes for hours together until it pleased the harpy to give them freedom.

Lamb did not die in that humiliating house: his friends — according to the authority I have quoted — having discovered the manner in which he was treated, removed him from the woman's custody, a few weeks before his death, to Edmonton, and it was at Edmonton he died.

Lamb has recently received ample justice at the hands of an estimable gentleman and delightful author — a kindred spirit, who was the friend of nearly all the great men and women of his, age, and who could in no way better have closed a long career of honourable intellectual labour than by a biography of one he knew so well and loved so much [Bryan Waller Procter]. He is the last of that glorious galaxy of genius that early in the present century glorified the intellectual world: — "All, all are gone, the old familiar faces!"

Lamb had many peculiarities; all of them were, to say the least, harmless. He. playfully alludes to some of them: "I never could seal a letter without dropping the wax on one side, besides scalding my fingers." "My letters are generally charged double at the post-office, from their clumsiness of foldure."

The first time I saw and spoke with Charles Lamb was where he was most at home — in Fleet Street. He was of diminutive and even ungraceful appearance, thin and wiry, clumsily clad, and with a shuffling gait, more than awkward; though covered, it was easy to perceive that the head was of no common order, for the hat fell back as if it fitted better there than over a large intellectual forehead, which overhung a countenance somewhat expressive of anxiety and even pain; yet, as it was afterwards described to me by one of his nearest friends — Leigh Hunt — "deeply marked, and full of noble lines, with traces of sensibility, imagination, and much thought." His wit was in his eye — luminous, quick, and restless; and the smile that played about his mouth was cordial and good-humoured. His person and his mind were happily characterised by his contemporary: "As his frame, so his genius; as fit for thought as can be, and equally as unfit for action." In one of his playful moods he thus described himself: "Below the middle stature, cast of face slightly Jewish, stammers abominably." Leigh Hunt recollected him, when young, coming to see the boys at Christ's Hospital, "with a pensive, brown, handsome, and kindly face, and a gait advancing with a motion from side to side, between involuntary consciousness and attempted ease;" and he says of him in after life, "He had a head worthy of Aristotle, with as pure a heart as ever beat in human bosom, and limbs very fragile to sustain it. His features are strongly yet delicately cut; he has a fine eye as well as forehead, and no face carries in it greater marks of thought and feeling." But the most finished picture of the man is that which his friend Talfourd draws: "A light frame, so fragile that it seemed as if a breath would overthrow it, clad in clerk-like black, was surmounted by a head of form and expression the most noble and sweet. His black hair curled crisply about an expanded forehead; his eyes, softly brown, twinkled with varying expression, though the prevalent feeling was sad; and the nose slightly curved, and delicately carved at the nostril, with the lower outline of the face regularly oval, completed a head which was finely placed on the shoulders, and gave importance and even dignity to a diminutive and shadowy stem." Thus writes Hazlitt of Lamb: "There is a primitive simplicity and self-denial about his manners, and a Quakerism in his personal appearance, which is, however, relieved by a fine Titian head, full of dumb eloquence." And this is the picture drawn of him by the American, N. P. Willis: — "Enter, a gentleman in black small-clothes and gaiters, short and very slight in his person, his head set on his shoulders with a thoughtful forward bend, his hair just sprinkled with grey, a beautiful deep-set eye, aquiline nose, and a very indescribable mouth." John Forster, writing of him in the New Monthly Magazine (1835), says: — "His face was deeply marked, and full of noble lines — traces of sensibility, imagination, suffering, and much thought." Recently, Procter has thus described Lamb: — "A, small spare man — somewhat stiff in his manner, and almost clerical in his dress, which indicated much wear; he had a long, melancholy face, with keen, penetrating eyes; he had a dark complexion, dark curling hair, almost black; and a grave look, lighting up occasionally, and capable of sudden merriment; his lip tremulous with expression; his brown eyes were quick, restless, and glittering."

Some time in 1827 or 1828 I met Lamb twice or thrice at the house of Coleridge, and one evening in particular I recall with peculiar pleasure. There were not many present, none I can remember, except Mr. and Mrs. Gillman. The poet-philosopher engaged in a contest of words with his friend upon that topic concerning which Coleridge was ever eloquent — the power to reconcile Fate with Free-will. Alas! I am unable to recall to memory a single sentence that was said. I only know the impression left upon me was that of envy of the one and pity for the other; envy of the philosopher who reasoned so cheerfully and hopefully, and pity for the essayist whose despondency seemed rather of the heart than of the mind. Unhappily I did not turn to account the opportunities I had of seeing and knowing more of Lamb. I might surely have done so; but little thought had I then, or for a long time afterwards, that it would ever be my task to write a memory of the man.

"His poems were admirable, and often contained as deep things as the wisdom of some who have greater names:" that is the statement of one who knew him intimately. "No one," writes Hazlitt, "ever stammered out such fine, piquant, deep, eloquent things in half-a-dozen half-sentences."

His more enthusiastic admirers give him high rank as a poet: I confess I cannot see much in his poetry that justifies the world in so placing him, although there are two or three of his poems that justify the high praise he received. As a gentle and genial critic he claims a foremost station. But it is as an essayist that he has been, and ever will be, most valued. The "Essays of Elia" have a prominent position among the "classics" of England. They are full of wisdom, pregnant of genuine wit, abound in true pathos, and have a rich vein of humour running through them all. The kindliness of his heart and the playfulness of his fancy are spread over every page. If his maturer taste and extensive reading compelled him to try all modern writers by a severe standard, he reproved with the mildly persuasive bearing of a sympathising judge:—

Of right and wrong he taught
Truths as refined as ever Athens heard.

No writer more fully entered into the spirit of the older dramatists; and few have so largely aided to render them popular in our age. If his style reminds us forcibly of the "old inventive poets," he never appears an imitator of them. His mind was akin to theirs he lived his days and nights in their company.

I copy these lines from Mrs. Hall's Album; I believe they have not been heretofore in print:—

I had sense in dreams of a Beauty rare,
Whom fate had spell-bound and rooted there,
Stooping, like some enchanted theme,
Over the marge of that crystal stream
Where the blooming Greek, to echo blind,
With self-love fond, had to waters pined.
Ages had waked, and ages slept,
And that bending postures till she kept;
For her yes she may not turn away
Till a fairer object shall pass that way;
Till an image more beauteous this world can show
Than her own which she sees in the mirror below.
Pore on, fair creature, for ever pore,
Nor dream to be disenchanted more;
For vain is expectance, and wish is vain,
Till a new Narcissus can come again. — C. LAMB

It is said of Lamb that, being applied to for a memoir of himself, he made answer that "it would go into an epigram." His life was indeed of "mingled yarn," good and ill together, but the latter was in the larger proportion. "He had strange phases of calamity," living in continual terror. He described himself as once "writing a playful essay with tears trickling down his cheeks." Yet in none of his writings is there any taint of the gloom that brings discontent; if he had unhappily too little trust in Providence, he did not murmur at a dispensation terribly calamitous. If seldom cheerful, he was often merry; and in none of his writings is there evidence of ill-nature, jealousy, or envy. He wrote for periodicals of opposite opinions; he was the friend of Southey, and he was the friend of Hazlitt; he aroused no animosities, and enemies he had none.

There must have been much in the genial and lovable nature of the man to attract to him — in a comparatively humble position, and with restricted, rather than liberal, means — so many attached friends who are renowned in the literary history of the epoch.

He was not young, but not old, when called from earth. "He sank into death as placidly as into sleep," writes his loved and loving friend Talfourd; he was laid in Edmonton Churchyard, "in a spot which, a short time before, he had pointed out to the sexton as the place of his choice for a final home." A venerable yew-tree still lives beside a tomb of remote date; and several almshouses for aged men and women skirt one of the sides of the cemetery — pleasant objects for the poet to have thought over when selecting his last resting-place. A line from Wordsworth's Monody to his memory will fitly close a brief record of his life: — "Oh, he was good, if ever good man lived."

On the tombstone is the following inscription


Farewell, dear friend; that smile, that harmless mirth,
No more shall gladden en our domestic hearth;
That rising tear, with pain forbid to flow,
Better than words no more assuage our woe;
That hued outstretched from small but well-earned store,
Yields succour to the destitute no more.
Yet art thou not all lost; through many an age,
With sterling sense and humour, shall thy page
Win many an English bosom, pleased to see
That old and happier vein revived in thee.
This for our earth; and if with friends we share
Our joys in heaven, we hope to meet thee there.


The lines were written at the suggestion of the publisher, Moxon, by the Rev. F. H. Cary, the translator of Dante. He was one of the essayist's dearest friends.