Charles Lamb

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Charles Lamb, Essayist & Poet.



Gerald Massey.


    ‘HOW pleasant it is to reflect that all these lovers of books have themselves become books,’ says Leigh Hunt, when thinking over his favourite book-lovers of the past.  And, he continues, ‘I should like to remain visible in this shape.  I should like to survive so, were it only for the sake of those who love me in private, knowing as I do, what a treasure is the possession of a friend’s mind, when he is no more.’ In glancing with Leigh Hunt round our book-shelves we cannot but feel that of all human spirits who remain visible in book shape, to keep immortal company with us, there is not one who comes nearer home to us than Charles Lamb.  His writings are at the head of those which we take closely to heart in a sort of bed and board acquaintanceship, because the authors have given themselves to us so intimately in the shape of their books, that they come near to us in the warmth of real life; the spirit being so much more than the mere letter.  In the visibility of embodied personality, the books of Charles Lamb are of a kind in which the species almost constitutes the genus.  He lives in them as fully, as vividly, as Johnson does in Boswell’s Life and draws us to him by a tie of tenderer love.  He keeps on talking to us, not like a book, but as in life, making the old curious inquisition into the commonplaces of nature, and minor motives of humanity, with the old quaint mental twist in his views; the naiveness that makes confession so charming; passing over his own troubles with that pathetic briskness with which his freakish humour kept the face of things astir, like a phosphorescent sea at night, to hide the darkling depths below; the wit luminous in his eye, the stammer on his tongue, the touch of St.  Vitus in his mental movement; his frank heart and open hand making his frailties more human than some good people’s virtues; — and the acquaintanceship keeps growing until we know him personally, even as Hunt and Hazlitt, Jem White or Wordsworth did, as dear lovable and gentle Charles Lamb. 

    With the work of his friend Mr.  Proctor (or Barry Cornwall) most probably closes the record of Charles Lamb’s life.  We know now all that we are likely to gather from personal observers.  The story is told, or rather we have the complete data for a story that will be told again and again so long as the English language lives in this world.  We are enabled to see him as he lived and moved in the eyes of friends and companions, as well as look at his strange life and delightful character from within, by his own light.  We know with what quiet heroism he bore his load for life; how lightly he jested with his lips when his heart was so heavy at times; how deftly he turned his mortal pain into immortal pleasure for us.  The key to Charles Lamb’s writing may he found in his unique character, and the main clues to his character are visible in his life.  Lamb was born almost in penury, and brought up as a charity boy.  This is the plain truth, although the good Sergeant Talfourd amiably tries to festoon the fact and drape Lamb’s first entrance on the stage of life as elegantly as he can.  He has a knack of cutting the beef with the ham knife to ennoble the flavour: or shall we say, he tells the truth so lovingly? And so blandly does he allude to the poor parents who were ‘endued with sentiments and with manners which might well become the gentlest blood,’ and the ‘daily beauty of a cheerful submission to a state bordering on the servile,’ that on our first introduction we feel a pervading air of gentility.  In spite of which, Charles Lamb was one of those favourite children of nature who get put out to that old nurse — of many heroic spirits the stern mother — Poverty. 

    Charles Lamb was born on the 18th of February 1775, in one of the chambers of the Temple.  His father was clerk to Mr.  Samuel Salt, a barrister, one of the benchers of the Inner Temple, or rather, he was a kind of factotum, doing all the service that his master required, and doing it cleverly too.  The father’s family came from Lincolnshire, the mother’s from Hertfordshire, and Lamb in one of his essays claims the latter county for his ‘native fields.’ Lamb never attempted to trace his ancestry beyond two or three generations.  Perhaps he shared in the feeling illustrated by Sydney Smith, who said his grandfather had disappeared about the time of the assizes, and they made no further inquiries.  He certainly had no false pride on the subject of his birth, and he left it to his brother John to keep up the dignity of their house.  Lamb had only one brother and one sister; John being twelve and Mary ten years older than himself.  He spent the first seven years of his life in the Temple.  There he had early access to Mr.  Salt’s books, and was ‘tumbled into a spacious closet of good old English reading, and browsed at will on that fair and wholesome pasturage.’ It is thus he speaks of his sister’ Mary, but the description doubtless applies to himself.  Here he first began to wander in those twisted walks of literature, which be loved so much in after days, and snuff the odour of old books, as fragrant to him as the ‘blossoms of the tree of knowledge which grew in the happy orchard.’ He seems to have been a born antique in certain tendencies; and these early surroundings, which threw over him a shadow of the past, must have deepened that antique colouring of his mind.

    From the long line of dark chambers, and narrow lane and lowering archway, the boy issued forth to walk the ‘old and awful cloisters of Edward.’ When he was nearly eight years of age he was presented to the school of Christ’s Hospital, where he remained as a scholar for some seven years.  Here he appears to have been a little like Charlotte Brontë when she first went to school and her companions were romping around her: she said she could not play — she had not learned to play.  ‘While others were all fire and play, he stole along with all the self-concentration of a young monk.’ And here he learned, amongst other things, to question the propriety of ‘grace before meat,’ especially such graces as prefaced their ‘cold bread and cheese suppers with a preamble, connecting with that humble blessing a recognition of benefits the most awful and overwhelming to the imagination, which religion has to offer.’ He also learned the value of having a home near at hand, and the preciousness of a sister Mary in it.  To her thoughtful care, he was indebted for many little additions to the school-fare, such as ‘slices of extraordinary bread and butter,’ ’lumps of double refined sugar, a smack of ginger or cinnamon to make his ‘mess of millet’ less repugnant, and, crowning treat of all, a ‘hot plate of roast veal,’ or the ‘more tempting griskin’ that had been cooked at home.  These dainties were brought to him by his good old aunt, who would ‘toddle’ off with any good thing she could get for him; and he used to feel ashamed to see her come and sit down on the ‘old coal-hole steps’ and open her apron and bring out her basin.  ‘I remember,’ says Lamb, ‘the contending passions at the unfolding — there was love for the bringer; shame for the things brought, and the manner of its bringing sympathy for those who were too many to share in it; and at the top of all, hunger predominant.’

    Lamb remained at Christ’s Hospital seven years.  Here he made the acquaintance of Coleridge, who was his elder by two years, and who bad already begun to lift up his visionary brow and talk of coming glories and vast projects as he looked down long shining vistas of the future.  His influence on Lamb was unquestionably great, and the friendship deepened all through life.  Such a radiating mind could not come near others without warming and quickening them into a larger life.  In dedicating his first collected works to Coleridge (1818), Lamb says ‘You first kindled in me, if not the power, yet the love of poetry, and beauty, and kindliness.’ But in matters political and religious, Lamb never became a very enthusiastic disciple.  He listened and wondered at the new heavens that rose, ‘like an exhalation,’ over the old earth at the incantation of Coleridge’s talk; but a bit of pavement that he could feel firm under foot was more to the mind of Lamb than all the cloudlands going.  He had not the large diffusive imagination of his friend, and his whole nature clung to those realities that help to concentrate the mind here and now.  He dwelt in the present, and was no dim explorer of the future; he nestled in the homely valleys, and did not range the mountain tops of thought.  Whatsoever poetic tinge the mind of Lamb may have caught from the glory of Coleridge’s sunrise, it certainly was not dyed for life with any colour not its own.

    On leaving Christ’s Hospital, Lamb had to enter the workday world instead of going to college, as he would have wished.  His brother John had a comfortable clerkship in the ‘South Sea House,’ and from the ‘old and awful cloisters’ to this grave above ground Lamb went to continue his musings and colour his mind, and earn a little money.  The old house stood, says Lamb, amongst so many richer houses, their ‘poor neighbour out of business.’ Some forms of business were still kept up, but the soul had long since fled.  Lamb tells us that the absence of bustle was delightful, the indolence almost cloistral.  With what reverence he would pace the great bare rooms and courts at eventide.  How he would ponder over the ‘dead tomes’ and ancient portraits; the dusty maps of Mexico, ‘dim as dreams,’ and ‘soundings of the bay of Panama.’

    At seventeen years of age, Lamb obtained an appointment as clerk in the accountant’s office of the East India Company, and in the India house he served for the space of thirty-three years.  It has been a matter of regret to many that Charles Lamb should have been doomed for so long to the drudgery of the desk.  And, naturally enough, he did not take to it because he liked it, but because he was in the habit of submitting with a wise cheerfulness to necessity, and of standing upright under his burthen instead of stooping to make it heavier.  Not but what he at times kicked against the clerk’s stool, and almost cursed the desk at which he sat.  He found his duties continually interfering with his tendency to write those delightful epistles to his friends.  He complains to Cottle of those bothering clerks and brokers who ‘always press in proportion as you seem to be doing something that is not business.  I could exclaim a little profanely, but I think you do not like swearing.’ On another occasion he did break out in what he calls a ‘maddish letter’ to Wordsworth, and ‘exclaim a little profanely.’ In despite of which, the clerkship was Lamb’s best and only means of living by his pen.  Hazlitt, who wrote with ten times the facility of Lamb, could hardly earn his bread by it.  It was well for Lamb that he had not to live by literature.  Six or seven hours’ labour a day, with a steady income, always sure, always increasing, was a more sensible, a saner thing for Charles Lamb than if he had sought to work his imagination alone.  The time came when he had enough to brood over, and he did net need more brooding-time.  To find an anchorage six hours a day for his hurt mind and vagrant temperament, to be taken out of his introspective self, was a god-send to Charles Lamb.  It is also better for the world.  The literary result of his life is, that we have his best expressed in the smallest compass and if we can get a man’s best in four volumes, it is a pity that circumstances should compel him to dilute it into twenty.

Charles Lamb
Daniel Maclise, 1835.

    They do say that Lamb was late at office sometimes, and that his superior remonstrated with him.  ‘Mr.  Lamb,’ says he, ‘I am sorry to find that you are the last to arrive of a morning.’ ‘ Oh, yes,’ replied Lamb; ‘but then you know, I make up for it.  I am always the first to leave in the afternoon.’ The official is said to have perceived something logical in the explanation, but to have had only a confused sense of its satisfactoriness.

    I repeat, the time came when the dull drudgery at the India House was a blessing to poor Lamb, and the desk was a tangible something on which to lay hold and steady his confused senses.  There was an hereditary taint of insanity in Lamb’s family.   And when Charles had turned his twentieth year this broke out in himself.  He refers  to the immediate cause of madness in words to be yet quoted.  On this occasion  Lamb spent six weeks in a lunatic asylum at Hoxton.  He writes to Coleridge in 1796, saying ‘The six weeks that finished last year and began this your humble servant spent very agreeably in a madhouse.  I am somewhat rational now, and don’t bite any one; but mad I was.’ And he tells his friend, ‘At some future time I will amuse you with an account as full as memory will permit of the strange turn my fancy took.  I look back upon it at times with a gloomy kind of envy; for, while it lasted, I had many, many hours of pure happiness.  Dream not, Coleridge, of having tasted all the grandeur and wildness of fancy till you have gone mad.  All now seems to me vapid — comparatively so.  Excuse this selfish digression.’ His sister Mary had previously suffered from the same fearful malady.

    In this year (1796) occurred the dreadful deed which beclouded the whole of Lamb’s after life.  The family had removed from the Temple to Little Queen Street, Holborn.  The father had left the service of Mr.  Salt, and the mother was ill and bedridden.  Mary had been nursing her mother day and night with the utmost devotedness: ‘Of all people in the world,’ says Lamb, ‘she was most thoroughly devoid of all selfishness.’ In the September of this year she became moody and queer, and on the 23rd of the month her madness broke loose.  Just before dinner-time she snatched up a case-knife and ran round the room after the little girl who was her apprentice; hurled about the knives and forks, one of which struck her father on the forehead and felled him to the floor; then, as a climax to her frenzied fit, she stabbed her mother to the heart.  Charles was at hand, but could only seize the knife and prevent her doing further mischief.  Mary was placed in an asylum for a time, where her temporary recovery was rapid.  But what a recovery! the cloud of madness only passing away to reveal all the more clearly what the poor thing had done! Now arose the question whether the sister should be confined for life.  The brother John advocated this, and other friends chimed in with his view.  Mary herself expected it would be so.

    Poor thing [writes Charles], they say she was but the other morning saying she knew she must go to Bethlem for life; that one of her brothers would have it so; the other would wish it not, but be obliged to go with the stream; that she had often, as she passed Bethlem, thought it likely: ‘Here it- may be my fate to end my days.’

    Charles, however, pleaded for her release, and promised to take her, and care for her and watch over her.  And well he kept his word.  Only one despairing cry did he utter through long years of painful endurance.  In a letter to Coleridge, written May 12th, 1800, he almost wishes that poor Mary were dead.  He had just seen her off to the asylum the day before.  ‘ She will get better again,’ he says; ‘but this constant liability to relapse is dreadful.’ Nor is it the least of their evils that her case and their story are so well known.  They are in a manner marked, and have to hear the whisperings around them.  On this occasion he writes with nothing in the house but Hetty’s dead body to keep him company.  ‘To-morrow I bury her’ (an old maid-servant of theirs); ‘and then I shall be quite alone.  My heart is quite sunk.  I am completely shipwrecked.  I almost wish that Mary were dead.’ Indeed, this tale of the Lambs, brother and sister, going forth into their wilderness of woe to live their life of ‘ dual loneliness’ is touching as anything that ever took place since the going forth of Ishmael and his mother into the desert.  It is a tale to shake the hearts of grown men, and make them yearn over this forlorn pair feelingly as ever the heart of childhood aches over those ‘pretty babes’ who wandered hand in hand to and fro in the wood, and


When they saw the darksome night,
They sat them down and cried.


closely as Lamb and his sister clung together, and dear as grew their companionship in such desolation, they were compelled to part so often, after  all; to part with the bitterness of that separation when the mind of the one is about to enter its cloud and leave all life dark for both — the one lost in the darkness within, the other left groping unavailingly in the darkness without.  They generally knew when the worst fits of insanity were coming on, and Charles would ask for a day’s absence from office as if for a day’s pleasure.  He would take his sister by the arm, and these two poor anguished souls made the best of their way to the asylum.  They have been met, carrying the strait waistcoat with them, the tears running down their cheeks, hurrying along as fast as they could on purpose to get there before the gathering blackness burst and they were caught in the full fury of the storm.

    In electing to live alone for his sister, Charles Lamb was undoubtedly bidding farewell to his love’s young dream — his one tender passion for some fair ‘Alice W—n.’ He many times mentions this young lady.  In his Dream Children: a Reverie, he has a vision of what might have been had he married her and he  says:


   ’I told how, for seven long years, in hope sometimes, sometimes in despair, yet persisting ever, I courted the fair Alice W——n; and, as much as children could understand, I explained to them what coyness, and difficulty, and denial, meant in maidens.’


He speaks of a picture which he had seen as —

’that beauty with the cool blue pastoral drapery, and a lamb; with the bright yellow Hertfordshire hair, and eye of walchet hue — so like ray Alice.’

    After he had been in the lunatic asylum, he tells Coleridge that his head had run upon him a good deal in his madness, ‘as much almost as on another person, who was the more immediate cause of my frenzy.’ He wrote poetry, too, about his Alice, kept a little journal of his love for her, and tells us that his sister Mary would often lend an ear to his ‘desponding lovesick lay.’ But the poetry is lost for us: the journal was burnt, his passion was put away, as it were a childish thing, when Lamb rose up in his sterner manhood for his terrible conflict with calamity.  Did the lovely Alice quite fade away, one wonders or did she not live on in that image of purity which ever nestled and smiled at the heart of Charles Lamb’s life, clear and tremulous as the dew-drop in a flower, breathing sweetness and shedding grace?

    Mind you, Lamb had no notion of anything heroic in thus giving up all to live for his sister, yet the act, as De Quincy justly says, rises into a grandeur not paralleled once in a generation.  And so we linger over it, and say all honour to him


Whom neither shape of danger could dismay,
Nor thought of tender happiness betray;
Who, doomed to go in company with Pain,
Turned his necessity to glorious gain.


    Lamb was in his twenty-first year when he stood alone in the world, and took upon himself the burthen of his family.  It was a desolate home and a desolate outlook to which Mary returned after the awful deed that deprived them of a mother.  Great was their need of reliance on Him who, as Charles said with his pathetic wit, ‘tempers the wind to the shorn Lambs.’

    ‘My poor, dear, dearest sister [Lamb writes], the unhappy and unconscious instrument of the Almighty’s judgment on our house, is restored to her senses — to a dreadful sense of what has passed; awful to her mind, but tempered with a religions resignation.  She knows how to distinguish between a deed committed in a fit of frenzy and the terrible guilt of a mother’s murder.  She bears her situation as one who has no right to complain.‘

    With what entireness Lamb lived for his sister, and with what affectionate solicitude he sought to solace her we may partly gather from one of his letters; he is speaking of visiting, and says:

‘It was not a family where I could take Mary with me, and I am afraid there is something of dishonesty in any pleasures I take without her.‘

    He was ‘all conscience and tender heart’ to his sister.  ‘God love her!’ he   exclaims; ‘may we two never love each other less.’ And it may be added they never did.  Mary Lamb was altogether worthy of her brother’s love.  In addition to the bond of affection which bound them together through affliction, she was a woman of great mental attractions.  She was a continual reader.  When in the asylum, Charles took care to furnish her with plenty of books, for they were like her daily bread.  She was a delightful writer.  Hazlitt held her to be the only woman he had met who could reason.  ‘Were I to give way to my feelings,’ says Wordsworth, in this note to his poem on Charles Lamb, ‘I should dwell not only on her genius and intellectual powers, but upon the delicacy and refinement of manner which she maintained inviolable under most trying circumstances.  She was loved and honoured by all her brother’s friends.’

    After the death of his father, whose querulous selfishness in his dotage Lamb had borne with much meekness, he and his sister removed to Pentonville, where Lamb ‘fell in love’ with the beautiful Quakeress who used to pass him day after day, serenely unconscious of having a place in his regards.  From Pentonville they removed to Southampton Buildings, on their way back to the Temple.  This was in the year 1800.  In the Temple, first at No.  16, Mitre Court, and next at No.  4, Inner Temple Lane, they dwelt for some sixteen years.  And there it was that Lamb gathered about him such a group of famous men, and held his memorable evenings once a week.  There was Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt, Barnes of the Times, and Haydon the painter, Carey the translator of Dante, Godwin and Thelwall, Jem White and George Dyer; sometimes Coleridge and Wordsworth, Manning and Talfourd, Hood, and the gay and gentlemanly murderer Janus Weathercock.

    Lamb was as catholic in his friendship as in his love of books.  Speaking of Lamb’s library, Leigh Hunt observes:

    ’There Mr.  Southey takes his place again with an old radical friend; there Jeremy Collier is at peace with Dryden; there the lion Martin Luther lies down with the Quaker lamb Sewell.’

    So was it with his personal friends.  His sweetness of nature was the solvent of strongest differences; his attraction was powerful enough to gather and hold together the widest opposites.  Lamb had many illustrious friends, with whose names his own will be handed on in immortal companionship.  But we do not feel that his best known literary friends were those who got the nearest to him.  He himself proclaims that his ‘intimados’ were, to confess the truth, a ‘ragged regiment ‘in the eye of the world — men whom he had found floating on the surface of society, and the colour or something else in the weed pleased him.  The ‘burrs stuck to him; but they were good, loving burrs for all that.’ ‘Some of Lamb’s friends were strange characters, says Wordsworth, ‘whom his philanthropic peculiarities induced him to countenance.  And the stranger the character, that is the more original and unsophisticated, the closer Lamb stuck to them.  There was Jem White; he is nothing to the world now, yet, living, he was one of Lamb’s earliest friends and most beloved of ‘chums;’ whom be could thoroughly ‘cordialise’ with; and when he died, Lamb says, ‘He carried away with him half the fun of the world, — of my world, at least.’ This pleasant fellow endeared himself to Lamb, by giving an annual supper to the poor boy chimney-sweepers of London, upon which occasions Lamb presided at one of the tables.  His description of the feast is as good as Burns’s Jolly Beggars, the humour of the thing being akin in some respects.  Jem White was in his glory doing an act of kindness which yielded so much fun for Lamb, who laughed till his eyes filled with tears to see the sable youngsters ‘lick in the unctuous meat,’ and listen to Jem’s ‘more unctuous sayings,’ followed by a cheer from the whole dark host at which ‘hundreds of grinning teeth startled the sight with their brightness.’

    If Jem White was one half the fun of Lamb’s world, surely George Dyer was the other half.  He was guileless as Nathaniel simple and ‘prodigious’ as Dominie Sampson an unsophisticated native of the golden age; a ‘mild Arcadian, ever blooming with fresh delight for Lamb; a daily beauty in the London streets, his verdant simplicity looking like a bit of evergreen there.  He was as absent-minded as Bowles when he presented a friend with a copy of the Bible, and inscribed it ‘ from the author.’ He had a head uniformly wrong, a heart uniformly right, and he dwelt in Clifford’s Inn, said Lamb, ‘like a dove on the asp’s nest.’ He was a friend indeed to Lamb.  It was not merely what he said or did when present; he was for ever doing something that lasted Lamb for weeks in laughter.  The very thought of him tickled Lamb to the heart-roots.  On one occasion he informed George that Lord Castlereagh was the author of the Waverley novels, and off he trotted to communicate the fact to Leigh Hunt, who, being a public writer, ought to be immediately made acquainted with a secret so important.

    ‘Is it true,’ said Lamb to him, ‘as commonly reported, that you are to be made a lord?’ ‘ Oh dear no, Mr.  Lamb, I could not think of such a thing; it is not true, I assure you.’ ‘I thought not,’ said Lamb, ‘and I contradict it wherever I go: but the Government will not ask your consent they may raise you to the peerage without your ever knowing it.’ ‘I hope not, Mr.  Lamb; indeed, indeed, I hope not; it would not suit me at all!’ And Dyer went his way greatly bewildered, still pondering over the possibility of such a thing.  The dear, good soul! What a god-send to Lamb was his unfathomable simplicity.  How Lamb must have doted on his delightful unworldliness and crooned over him with ‘murmurs made to bless.’

    Other of his friends, such as Manning, Hickman, and Burney, Lamb must have been more fraternally familiar with than he could have been with the more famous men.  ‘I am glad you esteem Manning,’ he writes to Coleridge in 1826, ‘though you see but his husk or shrine.  He discloses not, save to select worshippers; and will leave the world without any one hardly but me knowing how stupendous a creature he is.’ This was the gentleman who went to China, as Lamb suggested, to teach perspective to the Chinese, and to whom he wrote some of his most amazing letters, in which his humour turns everything topsy-turvy.  Of Martin Burney, Lamb said he was on the top round of his ladder of friendship up which angels were yet climbing, and one or two, alas, descending.
    Well known is the great love of Charles Lamb for his favourite London.  He was a true child of its streets by birth; its scenery formed his earliest picture-books; the first awakening images of his young life.  The ‘fresco of the Virtues which Italianised the end of Paper Buildings’ gave him his earliest hint of Allegory.  His nature had struck root among the bricks of the old City, and there it clung lovingly and blossomed like some fragrant trailer breathing sweetness and freshness .as if all Cockneydom was in flower.  London was his home in spite of its homelessness for those who so often migrate as Lamb had done.  He never breathed so freely as in its thronged thoroughfares.  He loved its very smoke because it had been the medium most familiar to his vision.  He liked to feel the pulse of its mighty heart and be in the rush of its great river of life.  Its murmurs made a music that he could appreciate; he had an ‘ear’ for that! ‘I would live in London,’ he cries, ‘shirtless, bookless.  I love the sweet security of streets, and would set up my tabernacle there.  He tells us how he would walk the streets with the tears running down his face for joy and sympathy with the fulness of its life:

    ’Streets, streets, streets; markets, theatres, churches; Covent Gardens; shops sparkling with pretty faces of industrious milliners, neat sempstresses, ladies cheapening, gentlemen behind counters lying; authors in the streets, with spectacles — George Dyers (you know them by their bait); lamps lit at night; pastry-cooks’ and silver smiths’ shops; beautiful Quakers of Pentonville; noise of coaches; drowsy cry of mechanic watchmen at night, with bucks reeling home drunk; if you happen to wake at midnight, cries of’ ‘Fire!’ and ‘Stop thief!’ inns-of-court, with their learned air, and halls and butteries just like Cambridge colleges; old book-stalls, Jeremy Taylors, Burtons on Melancholy, and Reliqio Medicis, on every stall; — these are thy pleasures, O London with-the-many-sins.  O City, abounding in — for these may Keswick and her giant-brood go hang.’

    This must have sounded singular to Wordsworth, who was as great a lover of his mountain solitudes as was Lamb of his London streets.  The poet held that his friend was a ‘scorner of the fields’ more in show than truth.  But it does not seem to have been so.  Lamb declares that his love for natural scenery would be abundantly satisfied by the patches of long waving grass and the stunted trees that blackened in some of the old church yards bordering on the Thames, and that a mob of happy faces crowding up at the pit door of Drury Lane Theatre, just at the hour of six, gave him ten thousand sincerer pleasures than he could have received from all the flocks of silly sheep that ever whitened the plains of Arcadia or Epsom Downs.

    As he told Wordsworth, he certainly was not in the least romance-bit about Nature.  He paid the great poet a visit in 1802.  He entered the Lake country towards the close of a splendid day, and saw the mountains lying grand in a gorgeous sunset:

Such an impression [he says] I never received from objects of sight.  Glorious creatures I shall never forget how ye lay about, in the dusk, like an entrenchment — gone to bed, as it seemed, for the night.

    They haunted him after his return to London.  But the great live city soon regained its old supremacy in his regards.  Mountains he admitted were grand things to look at, but houses in streets were the places to live in! And it was there that he most appreciated the country.  He liked to hear the waters murmur, and leaves rustle, and birds sing, in the pages of some favourite book, he being shut in and safe within the sound of London.  ‘But,’ he remarks by way of warning, ‘let not the lying poets be believed, who entice men from the cheerful streets.’

    He preferred to be shut in-doors with a book on a winter’s evening to the finest summer sunset.  ‘I dread the prospect of summer,’ he exclaimed, when he was in the country,’ with his all-day ‘long days.  No need of his assistance to make the country dull.’ On being asked how he felt when amongst the mountains and lakes of Cumberland, he said, humorously, he was obliged to think of the ham and beef shop at the corner of St.  Martin’s Lane.  As though he felt it necessary to steady himself upon this common-place bit of well known reality amid the dizzying sublimities of nature.

    One of the most provocative and entertaining aspects of Lamb’s character lies in this discovery, that all his manifold simplicities of nature and fragrant blossoming of delicate fancies, his love of the choice things in poetry, his keen zest for unsophisticated human beings, his sensibilities of a tremulous tenderness, had no root in a love of external nature.  He needed no mental nourishment from the country world of grass and leaves, jargoning of birds, lapse of pleasant waters, field scents or freshness of flowers.  He asked not the baptism of the dewy dawn, or benediction of the closing day in any rural solitude.  He could live and grow, and keep his nature leafy in London.  This is a fact in human nature as interesting, in a literary point of view, and as surprising as is the novel fact, so delightful to boyhood when it learns, for the first time, that mustard and cress may be grown with a bit of flannel and a drop of water, and does not need to take root in the earth at all.

    After his thirty-three years’ service at the India House, Lamb was set free with a pension of £400 a year.  He made immense fun of his situation, or rather his out-of-situation.  He was like a man suddenly released from the law of gravitation, who could not touch solid earth, and was blown hither and thither by every gust of his new life.  At first he could but dimly apprehend his felicity, and was too confused to taste its fullness.  He tells us that he wandered about thinking he was happy and knowing he was not.  He could scarcely trust himself with himself.  It was like passing, out of time into eternity — for it is a sort of eternity when a man has all his time to himself.  Unfortunately Lamb found that no work was worse than overwork.  More particularly when he had retired into the country to spend his latter days.  His leaving London we look upon as a huge mistake.  London was his true city of refuge; he who shared so largely in that feeling which made Charles Lloyd take lodgings in his more melancholy fits, at a brazier’s shop in Fetter Lane, close to Fleet Street, to drown his morbid thoughts with the roar of the city.  The pity was that he and Mary could not have found such a home as Coleridge did among wise and generous friends.

    It is curious to note in connection with this life-long feeling of Lamb’s that he died at last and was buried in the country.  He died at Edmonton on December 27th, 1834, his end being somewhat sudden.  His old friends had been failing and fading away one by one; he greatly missed their old familiar faces — especially that of Coleridge, his friend for fifty years.  One day when out for a morning walk he stumbled against a loose stone and fell.  This, as he would have been delighted to point out, would hardly have happened in London.  His face was slightly wounded and erysipelas followed.  He had not the strength left to combat the disease, and he sank gradually, being quite calm and resigned, and gently passed away at the age of fifty-nine years.  Mary Lamb lived on for some thirteen years, and then she was laid near him in the same grave in the churchyard of Edmonton; and united as they were in life by such bonds of affliction and tender ties of holy love, in death they were not divided.

    Lamb was not one who could ‘rest and expatiate in the life to come.’ The thought of it made him shrink all the more snugly into our warm world of human clay, and draw about him more cosily the curtains that shut out the world not realised.

     Of course, we have to allow for the play of his humour here as elsewhere.  They are no true readers of Lamb who do not see that he made the most of his weakness — his delight in small associations, his eager grasp of this life, his shiverings when he stood in thought upon the brink of the next.  But he had more than the common dread of the ‘shadow feared of man.’ He had an open loving heart for his fellow creatures, but kept it closed on the ghostly side of things.  He confessed to an intolerable disinclination to dying: especially in winter time did this feeling beset him.  He could see no satisfaction in the assurance that he should ‘lie down with kings and emperors in death,’ who in his lifetime never greatly coveted the society of such bedfellows.  Why, to comfort him, ‘must Alice  W —n be a goblin?’ Why must knowledge come to him, if at all, by some awkward experiment of intuition instead of our familiar process of reading?  Should he, could he, enjoy friendships there, wanting the old smiling indications, the recognisable face, the sweet assurance of a look? And how did he know that a ghost would or could laugh, even at the very best of his jokes? He was not content to pass away like a weaver’s shuttle.  These metaphors of death made him all the more in love with life: all the more in love with this green earth, and the face of town and country, the pleasant voices and palpable touch of friends, and the ‘sweet security’ of streets.  ‘I do not want to be weaned by age,’ he remarks, ‘or drop like mellow fruit, as they say, into the grave.’ Any alteration in his standing place discomposed and puzzled him.


‘My household gods plant a terrible fixed foot, and are not rooted up without blood.
A new state of being staggers me.
 I am a Christian, Englishman, Templar.  God help me when I come to put off these snug relations, and to get abroad into the world to come.
I shall be like the ‘crow On the sand,’ as Wordsworth has it.‘


    Doubtless that awful shadow which brooded over the house and heart of Charles Lamb — a shadow that chased him in ‘all manner of sunshine ‘— made his nature shrink from the future, and nestle closer and closer to any firm bit of the tangible present.  Such a sudden, appalling glimpse of the Eternal — a lightning flash, that left a lifelong darkness after it — must have vastly increased his natural dread of the unknown.  Then to live for years and years in a state of listening suspense, always apprehensive of something terrible going to happen, haunted by some old echo of the past or foreboding of the future calamity, must have made his whole life perturbed and troubled; and so he clung to the old place and the old friends, old books and old faces, with all the tendrils of his nature growing about them, until they seemed to become a part, and the better part, of his life.  Not that he dwelt on the subject dolefully, or sought to make life lock dismal, or death dreadful for others.  On the contrary, he made merry with his own frailties, and turned the morbidity of his temperament into healthy humour for us; edged that grim cloud of his life with the most exquisite freaks of playful light.  Some queer twist in his head, he explained, prevented his facing the prospective, and looking forward to it as the place of home and friends.

    This feeling of Lamb’s had nothing to do with matters of conscience.  With Wordsworth we can say of him,

Oh, he was good, if ever good man lived.

He was a Christian — a Christian of the simple child-like faith that we may believe our Father so much loves, lie had the charity of a Christian, lived the life of a Christian, and we cannot doubt that he died the death of a Christian.  Dr.  Johnson, as we all know, had a still gloomier feeling about death; a constant dread, of it, with no such relief as Lamb found in the merculiarities of his temperament. 

    Lamb was a small spare man, with a fine Titian head, full of dumb eloquence, as Hazlitt described it, and limbs very fragile to sustain it.  A pair of immaterial legs Hood called them! His hair was almost black, his complexion dark, his look grave, his smile inexpressibly sweet, with a touch of sadness in it; one of the kindliest that ever brightened a manly countenance.  His face was full of lines, in which might be read strange writing; nor was it wanting in those puckers and corners where the quips and cranks and wreathed smiles loved to lurk.  The brow was earnest, and the eyes looked out earnestly, at times with a fiery gleam.  They were restless, and glittered as if sharp enough to pick up pins and needles — so quick in turning.  ‘It was no common face,’ says Hood, ‘none of those willow pattern ones which Nature turns out by thousands at her potteries; but more like a chance specimen of the Chinese ware — one to the set, unique, antique, quaint.  (“ Including the crack,” Lamb would have said.) You might have sworn to it piecemeal, a separate affidavit for each feature.’ Lamb has touched the main features of his own life and character in a brief and humorous sketch:

Charles, horn in the Inner Temple, February 10th, 1775 pensioned off, 1825, after thirty three years service; is now a gentleman at large; can remember few specialities in his life, except that he once caught a swallow flying (teste suâ manu); below the middle stature; .....  stammers abominably, and is therefore more apt to discharge his occasional conversation in a quaint aphorisni or a poor quibble, thou in set or edifying speeches: has, consequently, been libelled with aiming at wit, which is, at least, as good as aiming at dullness.  A small eater, but not drinker; confesses a partiality for the production of the juniper berry; was a great smoker of tobacco, but may be resembled to a volcano burnt out, emitting only now and then a casual puff.
His true works are in Leadenhall Street, filling some hundred folios.

Of his other works he says:

Crude they are, I grant you — a sort of un licked, incondite things; villainously pranked in an affected array of antique modes and phrases.  They had not been his, if they had been other than such; and better it is that a writer should be natural in a self-pleasing quaintness than to affect a naturalness (so-called) that should be strange to him.

Lamb has likewise left us plenty of hints scattered up and down his works, for us to put together, and make him out with tolerable completeness. 

    The truth is, he says, he gave himself too little concern about what he uttered, and in whose presence.  It was hit or miss with him.  He had not the reticence of that wise man who, seeing some one coming in the midst of some refreshing fun, said, ‘Here comes a fool; let us be grace!’ He remarks that he too much affected that dangerous figure — irony.  ‘He sowed doubtful speeches, and reaped plain unequivocal hatred.’ Not that any one ever really hated Lamb, any more than he could hate others. 

    Of course, there were persons who did not understand him; lie nonplussed them so.  He was not like anybody whom they knew; never saw such a man in their lives! For example, there is no doubt that he puzzled that respectable officer of the stamp department, who said to him, ‘Mr.  Lamb, don’t
you think Milton was a very clever man?’ Whereupon Lamb, taking up a candlestick, commenced capering round him with wild delight, singing —


Hey diddle dumpling, my son John
Went to bed with his breeches on,


and requested that he might be allowed to examine the gentleman’s head phrenologically.  A better nature never breathed, and no man was ever more beloved.  Why, he sat for a whole series of the British Admirals to oblige a friend, and save the cost of a model.  On another occasion he took charge of a school to oblige the schoolmaster, and then, carrying his good-nature still farther, gave all the boys a holiday! He once saw a crowd of hungry children with their wistful faces at a pastry-cook’s window, and went in and supplied them with cakes all round.  He wanted to help a friend of his, and hardly knew how to do it delicately enough.  So first it took the shape of a bequest; then he said, ‘You may just as well have it beforehand, you know, and have done with the thing.’

    Barry Cornwall also relates how Lamb saw him looking dull, and fancying he might be in want of money, said to him, ‘My dear boy — I have a quantity of useless things — I have now, in my desk, a — hundred pounds that I — I don’t know what to do with.  Take it.’

    No kindlier human soul ever looked through human eyes; the dewy light of pity all a-twinkle with humour.  Unless we go back to the fountain-head, we shall hardly find elsewhere, save in Shakespeare’s writings, such tenderness of Christian charity as Lamb had.   He does not sit down to plead the cause of the poor.  He never sets up as a preacher of Christianity: never lectures us on our duties.  His Christianity has not encrusted round him in any formal outside way.  He had the spirit of it within him, and it breathes through his work in the most natural manner, and goes forth in loving effluence to melt its way into other hearts.  Nor shall we find out of Shakespeare, I think, such a cordial, exquisite humour mixed and perfected with such a heart touching sense of things human.  His humour is not a thing apart to he held up and admired as a special splendid quality; it did not exist to that end.  It is so blended with his quaint humanity and sweetness of character.  It is just the smile of Christianity.  But that smile was made up of sad experience, and heartache, and gentleness, and great love.  The salt of his sayings had in it a taste of tears.  He often had to ‘coin his heart for jests,’ and, Ophelia-like, turn the terrors and frowns of calamity to ‘favour and to prettiness.’ This makes his humour so full of heart, so sincere.

    There may have been persons, I repeat, that Lamb could not ‘cordialise’ with.  He tells us that he was a bundle of prejudices, made up of likings and   dislikings; the veriest thrall to sympathies, apathies, and antipathies.  He could not like all people alike.  He was trying the greater part of life to like Scotchmen, and had to give up in despair.  On the other hand, Scotchmen did not like him, and not one of them ever tried to.  ‘We know each other,’ says Lamb, ‘at first  sight!’ He belonged to an order of imperfect intellects which is essentially anti-Caledonian.  His mind was rather suggestive than comprehensive; — he could enjoy the profile view of a truth, and did not always seek to get it full face.  He loved out-of-the-way humours, and heads with some diverting twist in them.  He threw out hints, caught passing glimpses of things, and sowed germs of thought, but had not a maturing mind.  The brain of the Scotchman, he says, is constituted on quite a different plan.  ‘You never catch his mind in undress.  You never see his ideas in growth — if, indeed, they ever grow, and are not rather put together upon principles of clockwork.  He never hints or suggests.  You cannot cry “halves” to anything he finds.  He does not find, but bring.  You never witness his first apprehension of a thing.  His understanding is always at meridian; you never see the first of dawn, the early streak.  Between the affirmative and the negative there is no borderland with him.  You cannot hover with him on the confines of truth, or wander in the maze of a probable argument.  He always keeps the path.  You cannot make excursions with him, for he sets you right.  He stops a metaphor like a suspected person in an enemy’s country.’ Minds of this class, and they are not confined to Scotland, were not calculated to do justice to the humours of Lamb.  In presence of this kind of character, he delighted to caper round with the candlestick in his hand, and give full scope to his piquant peculiarities.  He liked to catch up some stolid lump of solemn foolishness or impassible common sense, and whirl it off its feet in the maddest, merriest maze and dance of contradiction.  ‘You are a matter-of-fact man,’ says he.  ‘Now I’m a matter-of-lie man ‘tis odd if we two can’t make some fun;‘ and away he went.  With such his wit became a Will-o’-the-wisp, leading into all sorts of unsafe places.  ‘ Truth,’ he held, ‘was precious not to be wasted on everybody!’ Not that there was any malice in his mirth.  Nor was he a lover of quips and cranks, merely as such.  He did not seek for funny matter on purpose to turn it out in a freakish manner.  He did not affect quaintness; it was natural to him.  He did not hunt after paradoxes; he was a paradox.  He tells ‘us that he could not divest himself of an unseasonable disposition to levity upon the most awful occasions.  Anything awful made him laugh.  He was at Hazlitt’s marriage, and says he had like to have been turned out during the ceremony.  So strangely did some things strike and ricochet on his nonsensorium.  This was the touch of madness in his temperament which I have termed a mental St.  Vitus’s dance.  His sister Mary had it likewise, and in her abnormal moods would at times pour, out puns in the wildest profusion. 

    It gave a ‘sparkle of uneasy light’ to his eye, a spasmodic suddenness to his humour.  Then, humour is often the sad and suffering man’s make-believe.  He seems to say,’ Let us have a good hearty laugh.  I do so want to cry.’ It was so with Hood.  We often feel the heart-ache in his laughter and could say with Lear’s fool, ‘ Cry to it, nuncle!’ So was it with Lamb, although there was not so much hysteria in his feeling as in Hood’s.  But what wisdom there is in his whimsies! his wit is often sense brought to the finest point.  How his most erratic movements and far-fetched expressions strike home! His mind has a lightning-like zig zag which is its straight line of smiting.  It was not that Lamb could not take the common view of things and appraise facts the ordinary way.  His perfect acquaintance with their everyday features is implied in his extraordinary treatment of them.  He can see straight enough for all the apparent obliquity of vision.  We know where the beaten highway runs when he chooses to go across the fields and meet you unexpectedly.  But he had a natural tendency to look at the other side of things, and remember their forgotten aspects and set them forth in a ludicrous or pathetic light, — or rather in the cross lights of both humour and pathos.  It was an illustration of his character, that he should, when a child, have given his sympathy to the man in the parable who built his house on the sand, not to him who built on the rock.  Then, with regard to the parable of the ten virgins, the sympathies of most readers run rejoicingly alongside the five wise ones whose lamps were ready trimmed and who tripped off so happily at the sound of the Bridegroom’s voice.  Lamb’s would have remained with the five foolish ones, trying to rouse them out of their stupor, rubbing the sleep out of their eyes, seeking to get a little oil for them, hurrying them along ‘like good girls,’ and pleading, for them at the gate, stammering out all sorts of excuses for their delay.  This is the source of much of his humour; his way of looking at the other side of things.  When a boy he was walking one day with Mary in a churchyard, and he noticed that all the tombstones were inscribed with words of praise for the departed.  ‘Mary,’ said he, ‘where do all the naughty people lie?’ Even so he has a word of humorous compassion for the man who was taken prisoner for sheep-stealing and his sheep was taken too! Thus, as Lamb said, the poor fellow lost ‘his first, last, and only hope of a mutton pie.’ This characteristic of Lamb’s mind climaxed in a horrible thought when he suggested the possibility that after Clarence had chosen his favourite liquor to be drowned in and he was shut down, past help, and filling fast, it may not have been Malmsey after all!

    What Wordsworth was to the wayside common places, the weeds and wild flowers, rocks, and hedgerows of the external world, that was Lamb in prose to the kindred common things of humanity.  He was the Good Samaritan of all sorts of road-side subjects that had been hitherto passed by in disdain as too mean for literature.  Neglected objects made all the more pathetic appeal to him and he sealed them for his own.  He loved to stop and administer the quaintest comfort to the comfortless, or with fancy ‘archly bending‘ moralise on most familiar things.  He made much of that which had been made so little of before.  His attraction for and attention to all that was unpretentious almost amounted to a foible, although it was the natural reaction of his dislike to all that was pretentious.  But if his subjects be poor there is nothing sordid in his treatment.  Poverty looks rich when clothed by his gentle loving spirit.  Here there is nothing of the solemn, priest-like severity of Wordsworth; nothing of the stern squalor of Crabbe.  The dim and dirt-begrimed image is transfigured by an overflow of this kindliest human soul.  No lost heir was ever recovered from the chimney-sweeper’s clutches and stripped of his dark disguise with more loving tendance or peculiar care than that with which Lamb brings in his outsider of humanity, his foundling, and touches the poor dim face so tenderly with a dropping tear and then lights it up suddenly with a smile of his humour, till the common human features are seen and the lost likeness is recognised.  Then, the raiment for which the old rags are exchanged.  How precise and dainty it is! Slightly old-fashioned of course, for it has been kept some time, laid up in lavender as it were.  He turns out his new-found favourites with a touch of modest gentility and antique grace, and introduces them to us with an air at once fine and formal.  His beggar, his chimney-sweeper is at heart a gentleman, for they come from a gentle heart.  Whatsoever common-place or outcast subject he may be at work on, he touches that nature which lies at the root of all gentlehood.  And so artistic and sure is his touch that he appears to feature and finish common clay with the delicate sharpness of marble.  Yet so human is his spirit that he seems to lay on endearment after endearment, caress after caress, so that the result looks more like a simple growth of Nature than a complex work of Art; a live child rather than the statue of one.  If his material be common-place, his handling is quite uncommon.

    The most minute poring of personal affection cannot discover anything very precious in Lamb’s poetry.  He was not a poet, but a humorist.  He could not have been meant by nature for a poet.  She had not given him a musical soul.  He did not care to wander and muse alone; had not the poet habit.  We are told that he would rather be in a crowd of people whom he disliked, than be left by himself.  Mental haze and twilight he shunned because of the terrible shadows that might take living shape.  His gleams of poetry are almost inseparable from the twinkle of his humour, and when he wrote his verses he had not got into that vein of incomparable humour which afterwards yielded such riches to his essays and letters.

    Some lines written a year after his mother’s death have a keener thrill and a more searching accent than usual.  He thankfully feels the ‘sweet resignedness of hope drawn heavenward’ on the ebbing tide of their great affliction, and rejoices over one of Mary ‘s recoveries.


                                   Thou didst not keep
Her soul in death.  O keep not now, my Lord,
Thy servants in far worse — in spiritual death
And darkness, blacker than those feared shad-
O’ the valley all must tread.  Lend us Thy
Thou dear Physician of the sin-sick soul,
And heal our cleansed bosoms of the wounds
With which the world hath pierced us thro’
           and thro’
Give us new flesh, new birth.


There are few things in poetry more pathetic than this:      


                             Thou and I, dear friend,
With filial recognition sweet, shall know
One day the face of our dear mother in heaven;
And her remembered looks of love shall greet,
With answering leeks of love; her placid
Meet with a smile as placid; and her hand
With drops of fondness wet, nor fear repulse.


    His criticisms are generally as perfect as they are brief.  They are only glances at the subject, yet they go to the heart of the matter.  They are all essence of criticism, and a sentence often contains more than many a long and elaborate review.  But it is in his essays and letters that he lives most fully and comes home most closely to the business and bosoms of men.

    Charles Lamb was no teacher of his time, and had no commanding or immediate influence on his contemporaries.  He lifted up no banner, summoned no contending hosts to the conflict, did no battle on the side of faction or party, and was possessed of no vast intellectual powers.  But this he was — one of the most affectionate, most lovable, most piquantly imperfect of dear, good fellows that ever won their way into the human heart, and one of the most hearty, most English, most curiously felicitous humorists — emphatically one of the best — that ever lived.  He has left us in his works a perennial source of refining pleasure, full of freshness and moral health, and kindly communicative warmth, over which countless readers will bend with smiling face or moistened eye; and the sad will feel a solace, the weary gather heart’s-ease, the cold and narrow of nature may warm them and expand in the generous glow to be found in the writings of Charles Lamb.  And this he did: — He threw his life in with that of his sister, for her to share the best of both.  He took her hand and drew her to his side, and made his abode in the same desert with her, where they dwelt together in ‘double singleness.’ He chose to stand with her straight under the black cloud always suspended over them, always threatening danger and possible death, on purpose to be near her and administer unto her such a cup of comfort as could be filled for her by a brother’s love.  For many long and troubled years he kept his proud resolve and bore his burden contentedly, fought his battle nobly, carried his shield in front of his sister, and smiled in her face sweetly, while his own heart often ached so bitterly.  He triumphed in his tragic conflict with an adverse fate, and in his life he has left us one of the noblest illustrations of our English sense of duty; a beacon that will long shine through the night of time with a still and holy light, a look of lofty cheer, and kindle encouragement in the lives of many others who have to suffer long and journey desolately, and climb the hill Difficulty with more at heart than they can well bear.  And surely we may conclude with and rest in the pleasant thought that a sorely tried soul like this of Lamb’s can now look back over the past life with its sordid cares and clouds of confusion, its failures and defects, its slips of the foot in climbing, and feel what we can now see: that is, the clear victorious result of all, and calmly smile at all that’s past from some unclouded summit.