Charles Lamb.

Selections from the essays by Elia online

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Copyright, 1897,
By Leach, Shewell, & Sanborn.

C. J. Petees & Son, Ttpogeaphees.

Beewtck & Smith, Peintees.


To Lamb was given the artist's insight to point a
moral while he seemed to adorn a tale. In the leisurely
unfolding of his theme there is a diffused purpose,
slight perhaps, but one that gives a distinct sense of
satisfaction. So unobtrusive is this element that neither
writer nor reader could give definite form to the purpose,
or measure the spiritual intent, for instance, of The Old
Margate Hoy or Dream Children. Por this reason it
has not been an easy matter to annotate the Essays of
Charles Lamb. One hesitates to subject to a process of
analysis a structure of such nicely adjusted proportions,
lest one disturb the equilibrium of the whole, and in so
doing dispel the fine effect of his " self -pleasing quaint-

Humor may be too subtle and pathos too delicate to
intellectualize about. Accordingly, in my notes I have,
for the most part, refrained from offering the student
any impertinence in the form of comments upon the
beauty, pathos, or wit of the selections. These quali-
ties, if they yield their full pleasure, must be discovered
and realized by the reader' for himself. And yet Lamb



needs notes, because of his wilful delight in the use of
initials and puzzling allusions, which to his contempora-
ries, who were in the secret, were full of matter ; but
for the readers of this generation some external help is
needful to make felt their full significance. Only such
aid has been given as will assist the student intellectu-
ally, while emotionally he remains his own interpreter.

C. L. C.
Wilmington, Delawap,e,
December, 1897.



Pbeface iii

Introduction 1

Cmtical and Biogkaphical Keferences 14

Selections : —

Oxford in the Vacation 15

The Two Kaces of Men 25

New Year's Eve 34

Mrs. Battle's Opinions on Whist 44

, A Chapter on Ears 54

A Quakers' Meeting 62

Imperfect Sympathies 70

My Relations 82

Mackery End, in Hertfordshire . 92

The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple 100

Dream Children ; a Eevery 116

Blakesmoor in H shire 122

Poor Relations 130

The Old Margate Hoy 140

The Convalescent 152

The Superannuated Man ^ . . . . 159

Old China IVO

Notes 179



What the historian calls the original sources are uncom-
monly accessible for a life of Charles Lamb, since he has put
his own story, more or less disguised, into his works. The
events were few in a life whose simple happenings he has re-
corded in his own delightful and whimsical way. One need
hardly go beyond the alluring pages of his Essays to learn of
his birthplace, of his father and brother and sister, of his
schooldays at Christ's, made dear to him by the comradeship
of Coleridge, and of those later friends whose good fellowship
helped him to forget " the dead, everlasting dead desk of the
India House."

Charles Lamb was born Feb. 10, 1775, in Crown Office
Kow, in the Temple. In his essay on The Old Benchers of ike
Inner Temple, he thus describes his earliest home : " I was born
and passed the first seven years of my life in the Temple. Its
church, its halls, its gardens, its river, I had almost said — for
in those young years, what was this king of rivers to me but
a stream that watered our pleasant places ? — these are of my
oldest recollections."

His father, John Lamb, who, as a boy, had come up from
Lincolnshire to try his fortune in the great city, was clerk and
companion servant to Mr. Samuel Salt, barrister of the Inner
Temple. Seven children were born to the Lambs, only three



of whom survived childhood, — Charles, the youngest, his
sister Mary, ten years older than himself, and a yet older
brother, John.

Charles had the first rudiments of education from a Mr.
William Bird who kept a school in Fetter Lane. It was in
his seventh year, in 1782, that he received a presentation to
Christ';3 Hospital, and thus passed from " cloister to cloister."
His school-fellows found him a gentle, reticent boy, who, on
account of his delicate frame and difficulty of speech, rarely
joined in the heavier athletics. It is recorded of him as sig-
nificant of the lovableness of his nature, that he never shared
the curt appellations of the Browns and the Smiths, but was
always known as Charles Lamb. Originally a Franciscan con-
vent, the school had preserved a number of ascetic traditions.
The costume of the boys consisted then, as now, of a dark-
blue monk-like coat with a leather girdle, yellow stockings, a
white tie, and bare head. In those days there was stern disci-
pline and fare of monkish frugality at Christ's. From the
essay on Christ 's Hospital Jive and thirty years ago, probably the
most accurate of Lamb's autobiographical writings, we learn
that of a morning the boys had to content themselves with
"battening upon a quarter of a penny loaf moistened with
attenuated small beer, in wooden piggins, smacking of the
pitched leathern jack it was poured from." For him the mo-
notony of school-life was broken by the occasional visit of an
aunt, who came always provided with sweetmeats ; and since
he was within ten minutes' walk of the gardens, the terrace,
and the fountains of the Temple, he was allowed to spend
every half-holiday with his parents. Despite the harshness of
its discipline, Lamb loved the Blue-coat School, founded by
" that godly and royal child, King Edward VI., the flower of


the Tudor name — the young flower that was untimely cropped
as it began to fill our land with its early odors — the boy pa-
tron of boys — the serious and holy child who walked with
Cranmer and Ridley." Touched by its old-world association,
he was proud of its historic cloisters, its monastic customs and
ritual. Nor has the school been unmindful of its student,
who in later years, as master of the essay, brought it renown ;
for each year a Charles Lamb prize, consisting of a silver
medal, is given to the best English essayist among the Blue-
coat boys. Here a life-long and singularly tender friendship
was begun with his fellow-student, Samuel Taylor Coleridge,
whose subtler intellect was of incalculable influence upon
Lamb's later life, when he became the enthusiastic disciple of
the great philosopher.

He was only fourteen when the financial difficulties of his
family obliged him to leave the school where his frankness
and sunny temper had won him love among teachers and
taught. He had then attained the rank of Deputy Grecian,
and in another year might have entered the University.
Christ's Hospital scholarships at the University, however,
were limited to students about to take holy orders, for which
Lamb was disqualified by his stammering tongue. With un-
common taste for books, it must have been a real sorrow to
this boy to part from the studies he loved. From his unusual
acquaintance with things academic, and from the wistful regret
expressed in Oxford in the Vacatioti, we can infer the sacrifice
involved in his being " defrauded of the sweet food of aca-
demic institution."

On leaving school, Charles obtained an appointment in the
South Sea House, where his brother had already been a clerk.
Concerning this period of his life no record remains to us ex-


cept his essay entitled The South Sea House. In 1792 he was
promoted to a position in the accountant's room, in the East
India House at a salary of £70 a year. Here, with a contin-
ually increasing salary, he remained until within nine years of
his death. It was he who bore for his family the real struggle
of life, since his genial, ease-loving brother, John Lamb, stood
aloof in selfish dilettanteism, leaving the weight of the house-
hold to rest on any one who might be willing to take it.

After the death of their good friend Samuel Salt, the fam-
ily left the Temple and took lodgings in Little Queen Street.
Here the fateful year of 1795-1796 brought to the Lamb house-
hold a tragedy which colored all their after life. On the fa-
ther's side there was a taint of insanity in the family. The
baleful heritage showed itself in the gentle and unselfish
sister, Mary Lamb, who, in a paroxysm of madness, took the
life of her own mother. The father, whose body and mind
were both feeble, died soon afterward ; and thus Charles, a
young man of twenty-one, with his afflicted sister, who never
recovered from intermittent attacks of insanity, was left prac-
tically alone in the world. For the rest of his life, and in the
shadow of perpetual sorrow, he never for a moment forgot the
self-imposed task of caring for her. The story is a familiar
one that Charles Lloyd tells of meeting the brother and sister
in the fields near Hoxton, walking hand in hand, and weeping
bitterly; for the ever-recurring premonitions of madness had
appeared, and they were going toward the asylum. In calm
self-renunciation he thus gave expression to the love he bore
this sister, whose large, affectionate heart had show^n him all
a mother's tenderness. It was always to his sister Mary, the
embodiment of unselfishness, that he had looked for active
sympathy. They had been friends from earliest childhood,


when they had spent happy days in occasional visits to Blakes-
ware, Hertfordshire, where their Grandmother Field lived as
housekeeper at the old mansion of the Plumer family.

Like her brother, Mary Lamb was a lover of books. " She
was tumbled early," he tells us, "by accident or design into
a spacious closet of good old English reading, without much
selection or prohibition, and browsed at will upon that fair
and wholesome pasturage." After books, their chief pleasure
was the theatre. In My First Play we have an account of his
childish delight, when he was only seven years old, in the
tragedy of Artaxerxes. Their continued pleasure in " the
cheerful playhouse " is expressed in Old China, where Mary
is supposed to ask her brother, as she muses on earlier days,
" Do you remember . . . when we squeezed our shillings a-
piece to sit three or four times in a season in the one-shilling
gallery — where you felt all the time that you ought not to
have brought me — and the pleasure was the better for a little
shame — and when the curtain drew up, what cared we for
our place in the house, or what mattered it where we were
sitting, when our thoughts were with Rosalind in Arden, or
with Yiola at the Court of Illyria ? "

Lamb's first literary venture was made in 1796, when he
published four sonnets in a collection of verse by Coleridge.
One of these sonnets is addressed to " Anna," Charles Lamb's

first love, who is probably the " Alice "W n," " with the

bright yellow Hertfordshire hair," referred to in succeeding

Then came a story in prose, the " miniature romance "
called A Tale of Rosamund Gray and Old Blind Margaret.
With the exception of the Essays of Elia, this is perhaps the
best known of Lamb's writings. Although the incongruity


and improbability of the plot show its author defective in the
qualities of a story-teller, we like it for its he art- touching
pathos and winning grace.

In 1800 Charles and Mary Lamb returned to the well-loved
Temple, and made it their home for seventeen years. In a
letter of this date, the town-bred " scorner of the fields," as
Wordsworth calls him, thus describes his new home : " By my
new plan I shall be as airy, up four pairs of stairs, as in the
country, and London I would not exchange for Skiddaw,
Helvellyn, James, Walter, and the parson into the bargain.
Oh, her lamps of a night ! her rich goldsmiths, print-shops,
toy-shops, mercers, hardware men, pastry-cooks, St. Paul's
churchyard, the Strand, Exeter Change, Charing Cross, with
the man upon a black horse ! These are thy gods, O London !
All the streets and pavements are pure gold, I warrant you.
At least, I know an alchemy that turns her mud into that
metal ... a mind that loves to be at home in crowds." Blend-
ing the childlike with the larger mind, he confides to us in one
of his essays his delight in the sensuous world. " T am in
love," he says, "with this green earth; the face of town and
country, the unspeakable rural solitudes, and the sweet se-
curity of streets." He drew his inspiration mainly from the
city, and loved even the smoke of Fleet Street, asserting that
it suited his vision.

From the writing of witty paragraphs, epigrams, and other
trifles for the London newspapers, he turned to more serious
work in the dramatic field. Contrary to the advice of Cole-
ridge and Southey, he published a drama in blank verse, called
Pride's Cure, and now known as John Woodvil. Aside from
its want of plot, it was two hundred years behind the times.
" Hang the age ! " exclaimed Lamb one day, when some editor


objected to his style as out of harmony with the taste of the
day, " I'll write for antiquity ! " It was distinctly wanting in
dramatic grasp and development of character, and became the
subject of a crushing, though somewhat ignorant, attack from
the Edinburgh Review. No other modern drama is so faithful
in its reproduction of the spirit of the pre-E,estoration writers,
but imitation of the imagery and rhythm of the old drama-
tists was not appreciated by a generation to whom the realm
of Elizabethan literature was practically unknowm.

His next dramatic venture was a farce called Mr. H ,

which was quite as unsuited to the stage as John Woodvil. Even
the excellent acting of Elliston, the best light comedian of
the day, could not reverse its fate. On the first and only even-
ing on which it was presented, at Drury Lane, the curtain fell
amid a storm of hisses, in which the author heartily joined.

His following work. Tales from Shakespeare, done in con-
junction with his sister Mary, yielded him more success. The
profound acquaintance of brother and sister with Shakespeare,
and their hearty affection for him, made the writing of these
Tales a singularly congenial task. Although the work was
intended for the amusement of children, the literary acumen
revealed gave pleasure to maturer minds as well. Mary Lamb
has left a delightful account of the preparation of this volume.
" Charles," she writes, '' has written Macbeth, Othello, King
Lear, and has begun Hamlet. You would like to see us, as we
often sit writing on one table (but not on one cushion sitting),
like Herm.ia and Helena in the Midsummer ISfighfs Dream, or
rather like an old literary Darby and Joan, I taking snuff, and
he groaning all the while, and saying he can make nothing of
it, which he always says till he has finished, and then he finds
out he has made something of it."


A lover of out-of-the-way learning, Charles Lamb turned
with instinctive delight to the quaint lore of Izaak Walton,
Burton, Fuller, and Browne.- No name occurs so often in the
Essays of Elia as that of his beloved Sir Thomas Browne,
whose " honest obliquity of understanding " strangely appealed
to this godfather of the waifs and strays of literature. He
liked, too, the ppen-heartedness, the stout and free humanity,
of the Elizabethans. In his Detached Thovghts on Books and
Readings, he tells us, " The sweetest names, and which carry
a perfume in the mention, are, Kit Marlowe, Drayton, Drum-
mond of Hawthornden, and Cowley." Although his was an
era of Shakespeare revival, acquaintance with the other Eliza-
bethan dramatists was slight. Accordingly, in his Specimens
of English Dramatic Poets Contemporary with Shakespeare,
Lamb disclosed to the modern world the old English drama-
tists — his "midnight darlings." His intense appreciation of
the poetic in life and in books gave to his criticism the value
of creation, and won for a family of great forgotten poets hosts
of enthusiastic students. His genius for criticism, however,
had its limitations. Wherever the personality of the man
pleased him, or he was sensible of the aroma of the past, there
his judgment was sound and his words sympathetic. But his
long communing with the old-world generation evoked a
jealous suspicion of his contemporaries. Although he was
among the first to recognize the genius of Burns and AVords-
worth, his feeling toward Scott, Byron, and Shelley was one
of dislike, nor did he show any interest in the contemporane-
ous literature of the Continent.

The least fugitive of Lamb's works are the inimitable Es-
says of Elia, begun in 1820, and contributed at the rate of one
or two a month to the London Magazine. He borrowed the


nom de plume of Elia from the name of an Italian who had
been a fellow-clerk in the South Sea House, thirty years be-
fore. Here, more than anywhere else, is revealed, without a
touch of vanity or self-assertion, the personality of the author,
the man Charles Lamb. Here is felt the childlikeness of his
genius in the subtle simplicity and picturesqueness of his vo-
cabulary, and in his sense of pleasure in the homely and fa-
miliar. Here are reflected his odd ways, his exquisite fooling,
his pathos, and his large-hearted tolerance of human follies.
Here, free from the limitations of poetry, story, and drama,
he is at his best. I^or do the Last Essays of Ella, published
ten years later, show any failing in virility or subtle apprecia-
tion of men and things.

Lamb's versatility of sympathy gave him a wide range of
subject, and his treatment was correspondingly broad. Flashes
of sparkling humor are followed by passages charged with
philosophical insight or tender meditation. The editors of
the London Magazine seem to have set no limitation to the
choice of subject, and Lamb, following the mood of the mo-
ment, has written with captivating naturalness of whatever
lay nearest his heart. Nothing but the sure touch of genius,
the virile force of his own nature, could infuse life and color
into themes so slight and commonplace as Ears, Roast Pig,
Chimney Sweeps. He wrote for writing's sake, and his works
consequently do not bear the stamp of the professional author,
but are rather the fruit of a busy man's hours of relaxation.
He always regarded literature as his by-play. It was not easy,
however, for him to bring himself to write, for he was not in-
spired by any purpose to benefit the world, nor was he spurred
by pecuniary necessity or literary ambition. "Disinterested
servant of literature," he did not, like Coleridge, Wordsworth,


and Shelley, share in the unrest of the age. Pater says, " The
exercise of his gift, of his literary art, came to gild or sweeten
a life of monotonous labor, and seemed, so far as regarded
others, no very important thing ; in no way concerned with
the turning of the tide of the great world." He who would
know Charles Lamb through the pages of Ella must submit
to the caprice of his wanderings. An essay called Old China
may prove an informal talk on the joys of moderate poverty,

or Mackery End in H sliire may mean a singularly fine

portrayal of his sister Mary.

In 1825 Lamb retired from the India House, and through
the kindness of the directors received a pension of £450, two-
thirds of his salary. He had never ceased to rebel against
the " drudgery of the desk's dead wood." He wrote Words-
worth in 1822, " I grow ominously tired of official confine-
ment. Thirty years have I served the Philistines and my
neck is not subdued to the yoke."

During the last nine years of his life he lived at Islington,
at Enfield, and finally at Edmonton. He died in December,
1833, and was buried in the little Edmonton churchyard.
William Watson has written a suggestive sonnet. At the Grave
of Charles Lamh, in Edmonton ; " —

" Not here, O teeming City, was it meet
Thy lover, thy most faithful, should repose;
But where the multitudinous life-tide flows
Whose ocean-murmur was to him more sweet
Than melody of hirds at morn, or bleat
Of flocks in Spring-time, there should Earth enclose
His earth, amid thy thronging joys and woes.
There, 'neath the music of thy million feet.
In love of thee this lover knew no peer.
Thine eastern or thy western fane had made


Fit habitation for his noble shade.

Mother of mightier, nurse of none more dear,

Not here, in rustic exile, O not here,

Thy Elia like an alien should be laid."

Friendships counted for much in the life of Charles Lamb.
He liked men, and he was always able to get at the best they
had in them. His largeness of heart drew about him a circle
of what he called " friendly harpies." Although he some-
times'^ complained of their intrusion upon his scant leisure, his
fresh and unspoiled heart never withheld hospitality, especially
to his early friends. " Oh ! it is pleasant," he writes, " as it
is rare, to find the same arm linked in yours at forty which at
thirteen helped it turn over the Cicero De Amicitia or some
other tale of antique friendship which the young heart was
burning even then to anticipate." During their years of resi-
dence in the Temple, Charles and Mary Lamb kept open house
on Wednesday evenings. Few of the most famous men of the
time, but many of the most original litterateurs, gathered
in these homely rooms, where cold meats and abundant porter
always stood on the sideboard. Lamb confessed that he
" never greatly cared for the society of what are called good
people." Coleridge, " the archangel, a little damaged," some-
times came to their parties, and poured forth brilliant mono-
logue. Here Hazlitt gave passionate utterance to his art
theories. Here Leigh Hunt, the social reformer and man of
exquisite fancies, came. Here the Opium Eater came, his va-
pory loves and hates giving way before Elia's volley of puns
and problems. Here the philosopher Godwin came to unfold
startling theories. Here came Barry Cornwall, Bernard Bar-
ton, Crabb Robinson, Southey, and Wordsworth, the last too
sure of his lyric gift to doubt his immortality. Here Miss


Kelly and Charles Kemble were likely to drop in after the
play. And there was that remarkable woman, Mary Lamb,
whose keen judgment and eager intellect made her opinion
valued ; and in the midst of all, the subtle humorist, the simple
and unpretentious host, whose blithe surface never betrayed
the shadow of impending sorrow. His friend Barry Cornwall,
in Charles Lamb: a Memoir, has left us this description of
his personal appearance : " Small and spare in person, and
with small legs ('immaterial legs,' Hood called them), he had
a dark complexion ; dark, curling hair, almost black ; and a
grave look, lightening up occasionally, and capable of sudden
merriment. His laugh was seldom excited by jokes merely
ludicrous ; it was never spiteful ; and his quiet smile was
sometimes inexpressibly sweet — perhaps it had a touch of
sadness in it. His mouth was well shaped ; his lips tremulous
with expression ; his brown eyes were quick, restless, and
glittering ; and he had a grand head, full of thought. Leigh
Hunt said that ' he had a head worthy of Aristotle.' Hazlitt
calls it ' a fine Titian head, full of dumb eloquence,' Al-
though sometimes strange in manner, he was thoroughly un-
affected ; in serious matters thoroughly sincere. It was curious
to observe the gradations in Lamb's manner to his various
guests although it was courteous to all. With Hazlitt he
talked as though they met the subject in discussion on equal
terms. With Leigh Hunt he exchanged repartees ; to Words-
worth he was almost respectful ; with Coleridge he was some-
times jocose, sometimes deferring."

It is not easy to analyze the homely magic of Charles
Lamb's style, to say just what it is that pleases us, but we like
it all the better for its sweet elusive savor. The emotion with
which we regard him is intimate and personal. We feel that


he can never be as other men are ; that it is the unique indi-
viduality of the man, as well as his loyal, self -forgetful life,
which we love. Indeed, no more lovable figure appears in
literary history than that of the dainty, whimsical essayist.

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Online LibraryCharles LambSelections from the essays by Elia → online text (page 1 of 14)