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the mild humanity of the gentlest of beings into the unreasoning
ferocity of the tiger.

The London "Times" of September 26, 1796, contained the following
paragraph: -

"On Friday afternoon the coroner and a jury sat on the
body of a lady in the neighborhood of Holborn, who died in
consequence of a wound from her daughter the preceding day.
It appeared by the evidence adduced that while the family
were preparing for dinner, the young lady seized a case-knife
lying on the table, and in a menacing manner pursued a little
girl, her apprentice, round the room. On the calls of her
infirm mother to forbear, she renounced her first object, and
with loud shrieks approached her parent. The child, by her
cries, quickly brought up the landlord of the house, but too
late. [7] The dreadful scene presented him the mother lifeless,
pierced to the heart, on a chair, her daughter yet wildly standing
over her with the fatal knife, and the old man, her father,
weeping by her side, himself bleeding at the forehead from
the effects of a severe blow he received from one of the forks
she had been madly hurling about the room.

"For a few days prior to this, the family had observed
some symptoms of insanity in her, which had so much increased
on the Wednesday evening that her brother, early the next
morning, went to Dr. Pitcairn; but that gentleman was not at

"The jury of course brought in their verdict, - _Lunacy_."

I need not supply the omitted names of the actors in this harrowing
scene. Mary Lamb was at once placed in the Asylum at Hoxton, and the
victim of her frenzy was laid to rest in the churchyard of St. Andrew's,
Holborn. It became necessary for Charles and his father to make an
immediate change of residence, and they took lodgings at Pentonville.
There is a pregnant sentence in one of Lamb's letters that flashes with
the vividness of lightning into the darkest recesses of those early
troubles and embarrassments. "We are," he wrote to Coleridge, "_in a
manner marked_."

Charles Lamb after some weeks obtained the release of his sister from
the Hoxton Asylum by formally undertaking her future guardianship, - a
charge which was borne, until Death released the compact, with a
steadfastness, a cheerful renunciation of what men regard as the
crowning blessings of manhood, [8] that has shed a halo more radiant even
than that of his genius about the figure - it was "small and mean," said
sprightly Mrs. Mathews - of the India House clerk.

As already stated, the mania that had once attacked Charles never
returned; but from the side of Mary Lamb this grimmest of spectres never
departed. "Mary A is again _from home_;" "Mary is _fallen ill_ again:"
how often do such tear-fraught phrases - tenderly veiled, lest! some
chance might bring them to the eye of the blameless sufferer - recur in
the Letters! Brother and sister were ever on the watch for the symptoms
premonitory of the return of this "their sorrow's crown of sorrows."
Upon their little holiday excursions, says Talfourd, a strait-waistcoat,
carefully packed by Miss Lamb herself, was their constant companion.
Charles Lloyd relates that he once met them slowly pacing together a
little footpath in Hoxton fields, both weeping bitterly, and found on
joining them that they were taking their solemn way to the old asylum.
Thus, upon this guiltless pair were visited the sins of their fathers.

With the tragical events just narrated, the storm of calamity seemed to
have spent its force, and there were thenceforth plenty of days of calm
and of sunshine for Charles Lamb. The stress of poverty was lightened
and finally removed by successive increases of salary at the India
House; the introductions of Coleridge and his own growing repute in the
world of letters gathered about him a circle of friends - Southey,
Wordsworth, Hazlitt, Manning, Barton, and the rest - more congenial, and
certainly more profitable, than the vagrant _intimados_, "to the world's
eye a ragged regiment," who had wasted his substance and his leisure in
the early Temple days.

Lamb's earliest avowed appearance as an author was in Coleridge's first
volume of poems, published by Cottle, of Bristol, in 1796. "The
effusions signed C.L.," says Coleridge in the preface, "were written by
Mr. Charles Lamb, of the India House. Independently of the signature,
their superior merit would have sufficiently distinguished them." The
"effusions" were four sonnets, two of them - the most noteworthy -
touching upon the one love-romance of Lamb's life, [9] - his early
attachment to the "fair-haired" Hertfordshire girl, the "Anna" of the
Sonnets, the "Alice W - -n" of the Essays. We remember that Ella in
describing the gallery of old family portraits, in the essay,
"Blakesmoor in H - -shire," dwells upon "that beauty with the cool, blue,
pastoral drapery, and a lamb, that hung next the great bay window, with
the bright yellow Hertfordshire hair, _so like my Alice_."

In 1797 Cottle issued a second edition of Coleridge's poems, this time
with eleven additional pieces by Lamb, - making fifteen of his in
all, - and containing verses by their friend Charles Lloyd. "It is
unlikely," observes Canon Ainger, "that this little venture brought any
profit to its authors, or that a subsequent volume of blank verse by
Lamb and Lloyd in the following year proved more remunerative." In 1798
Lamb, anxious for his sister's sake to add to his slender income,
composed his "miniature romance," as Talfourd calls it, "Rosamund Gray;"
and this little volume, which has not yet lost its charm, proved a
moderate success. Shelley, writing from Italy to Leigh Hunt in 1819,
said of it: "What a lovely thing is his 'Rosamund Gray'! How much
knowledge of the sweetest and deepest part of our nature in it! When I
think of such a mind as Lamb's, when I see how unnoticed remain things
of such exquisite and complete perfection, what should I hope for myself
if I had not higher objects in view than fame?"

It is rather unpleasant, in view of this generous - if overstrained -
tribute, to find the object of it referring later to the works of his
encomiast as "thin sown with profit or delight." [10]

In 1802 Lamb published in a small duodecimo his blank-verse tragedy,
"John Woodvil," - it had previously been declined by John Kemble as
unsuited to the stage, - and in 1806 was produced at the Drury Lane
Theatre his farce "Mr. H.," the summary failure of which is chronicled
with much humor in the Letters. [11]

The "Tales from Shakspeare," by Charles and Mary Lamb, were published by
Godwin in 1807, and a second edition was called for in the following
year. Lamb was now getting on surer - and more remunerative - ground; and
in 1808 he prepared for the firm of Longmans his masterly "Specimens of
the English Dramatic Poets contemporary with Shakspeare." Concerning
this work he wrote to Manning: -

"Specimens are becoming fashionable. We have Specimens
of Ancient English Poets, Specimens of Modern English
Poets, Specimens of Ancient English Prose Writers,
without end. They used to be called 'Beauties.' You have
seen Beauties of Shakspeare? so have many people that
never saw any beauties _in_ Shakspeare,"

From Charles Lamb's "Specimens" dates, as we know, the revival of the
study of the old English dramatists other than Shakespeare. He was the
first to call attention to the neglected beauties of those great
Elizabethans, Webster, Marlowe, Ford, Dekker, Massinger, - no longer
accounted mere "mushrooms that sprang up in a ring under the great oak
of Arden." [12]

The opportunity that was to call forth Lamb's special faculty in
authorship came late in life. In January, 1820, Baldwin, Cradock, and
Joy, the publishers, brought out the first number of a new monthly
journal under the name of an earlier and extinct periodical, the "London
Magazine," and in the August number appeared an article, "Recollections
of the South Sea House." over the signature _Elia_. [13] With this
delightful sketch the essayist Elia may be said to have been born. In
none of Lamb's previous writings had there been, more than a hint of
that unique vein, - wise, playful, tender, fantastic, "everything by
starts, and nothing long," exhibited with a felicity of phrase certainly
unexcelled in English prose literature, - that we associate with his
name. The careful reader of the Letters cannot fail to note that it is
_there_ that Lamb's peculiar quality in authorship is first manifest.
There is a letter to Southey, written as early as 1798, that has the
true Elia ring. [14] With the "London Magazine," which was
discontinued in 1826.

Elia was born, and with it he may be said to have died, - although some
of his later contributions to the "New Monthly" [15] and to the
"Englishman's Magazine" were included in the "Last Essays of Elia,"
collected and published in 1833. The first series of Lamb's essays under
the title of Elia had been published in a single volume by Taylor and
Hessey, of the "London Magazine," in 1823.

The story of Lamb's working life - latterly an uneventful one, broken
chiefly by changes of abode and by the yearly holiday jaunts,
"migrations from the blue bed to the brown" - from 1796, when the
correspondence with Coleridge begins, is told in the letters. For
thirty-three years he served the East India Company, and he served it
faithfully and steadily. There is, indeed, a tradition that having been
reproved on one occasion for coming to the office late in the morning,
he pleaded that he always left it "so very early in the evening." Poets,
we know, often "heard the chimes at midnight" in Elia's day, and the
plea has certainly a most Lamb-like ring. That the Company's directors,
however, were more than content with the service of their literate
clerk, the sequel shows.

It is manifest in certain letters, written toward the close of 1824 and
in the beginning of 1825, that Lamb's confinement was at last telling
upon him, and that he was thinking of a release from his bondage to the
"desk's dead wood." In February, 1825, he wrote to Barton, -

"Your gentleman brother sets my mouth watering after
liberty. Oh that I were kicked out of Leadenhall with
every mark of indignity, and a competence in my fob! The
birds of the air would not be so free as I should. How
I would prance and curvet it, and pick up cowslips, and
ramble about purposeless as an idiot!"

Later in March we learn that he had signified to the directors his
willingness to resign,

"I am sick of hope deferred. The grand wheel is in agitation
that is to turn up my fortune; but round it rolls,
and will turn up nothing, I have a glimpse of freedom, of
becoming a gentleman at large, but I am put off from day
to day. I have offered my resignation, and it is neither accepted
nor rejected. Eight weeks am I kept in this fearful
suspense. Guess what an absorbing state I feel it. I am
not conscious of the existence of friends, present or absent.
The East India directors alone can be that thing to me. I
have just learned that nothing will be decided this week.
Why the next? Why any week?"

But the "grand wheel" was really turning, to some purpose, and a few
days later, April 6, 1825, he joyfully wrote to Barton, -

"My spirits are so tumultuary with the novelty of my
recent emancipation that I have scarce steadiness of hand,
much more mind, to compose a letter, I am free, B.B., - free
as air!

"'The little bird that wings the sky
Knows no such liberty,'

I was set free on Tuesday in last week at four o'clock. I
came home forever!"

The quality of the generosity of the East India directors was not
strained in Lamb's case. It should be recorded as an agreeable
commercial phenomenon that these officials, men of business acting in "a
business matter," - words too often held to exclude all such Quixotic
matters as sentiment, gratitude, and Christian equity between man and
man, - were not only just, but munificent. [16] From the path of Charles
and Mary Lamb - already beset with anxieties grave enoughthey removed
forever the shadow of want. Lamb's salary at the time of his retirement
was nearly seven hundred pounds a year, and the offer made to him was a
pension of four hundred and fifty, with a deduction of nine pounds a
year for his sister, should she survive him.

Lamb lived to enjoy his freedom and the Company's bounty nearly nine
years. Soon after his retirement he settled with his sister at Enfield,
within easy reach of his loved London, removing thence to the
neighboring parish of Edmonton, - his last change of residence.
Coleridge's death, in July, 1834, was a heavy blow to him. "When I heard
of the death of Coleridge," he wrote, "it was without grief. It seemed
to me that he had long been on the confines of the next world, that he
had a hunger for eternity. I grieved then that I could not grieve; but
since, I feel how great a part he was of me. His great and dear spirit
haunts me. I cannot think a thought, I cannot make a criticism on men or
books, without an ineffectual turning and reference to him. He was the
proof and touchstone of all my cogitations." Lamb did not long outlive
his old schoolfellow. Walking in the middle of December along the London
road, he stumbled and fell, inflicting a slight wound upon his face. The
injury at first seemed trivial; but soon after, erysipelas appearing, it
became evident that his general health was too feeble to resist. On the
27th of December, 1834, he passed quietly away, whispering in his last
moments the names of his dearest friends.

Mary Lamb survived her brother nearly thirteen years, dying, at the
advanced age of eighty-two, on May 20, 1847. With increasing years her
attacks had become more frequent and of longer duration, till her mind
became permanently weakened. After leaving Edmonton, she lived chiefly
in a pleasant house in St. John's Wood, surrounded by old books and
prints, under the care of a nurse. Her pension, together with the income
from her brother's savings, was amply sufficient for her support.

Talfourd, who was present at the burial of Mary Lamb, has eloquently
described the earthly reunion of the brother and sister: -

"A few survivors of the old circle, then sadly thinned, attended her
remains to the spot in Edmnonton churchyard where they were laid above
those of her brother. In accordance with Lamb's own feeling, so far as
it could be gathered from his expressions on a subject to which he did
not often or willingly refer, he had been interred in a deep grave,
simply dug and wattled round, but without any affectation of stone or
brickwork to keep the human dust from its kindred earth. So dry,
however, is the soil of the quiet churchyard that the excavated earth
left perfect walls of stiff clay, and permitted us just to catch a
glimpse of the still untarnished edges of the coffin, in which all the
mortal part of one of the most delightful persons who ever lived was
contained, and on which the remains of her he had loved with love
'passing the love of woman' were henceforth to rest, - the last glances
we shall ever have even of that covering, - concealed from us as we
parted by the coffin of the sister. We felt, I believe, after a moment's
strange shuddering, that the reunion was well accomplished; although the
true-hearted son of Admiral Burney, who had known and loved the pair we
quitted from a child, and who had been among the dearest objects of
existence to him, refused to be comforted."

There are certain handy phrases, the legal-tender of conversation, that
people generally use without troubling themselves to look into their
title to currency. It is often said, for instance, with an air of
deploring a phase of general mental degeneracy, that "letter-writing is
a lost art." And so it is, - -not because men nowadays, if they were put
to it, could not, on the average, write as good letters as ever (the
average although we certainly have no Lambs, and perhaps no Walpoles or
Southeys to raise it, would probably be higher), but because the
conditions that call for and develop the epistolary art have largely
passed away. With our modern facility of communication, the letter has
lost the pristine dignity of its function. The earth has dwindled
strangely since the advent of steam and electricity, and in a generation
used to Mr. Edison's devices, Puck's girdle presents no difficulties to
the imagination. In Charles Lamb's time the expression "from Land's End
to John O'Groat's" meant something; to-day it means a few comfortable
hours by rail, a few minutes by telegraph. Wordsworth in the North of
England was to Lamb, so far as the chance of personal contact was
concerned, nearly as remote as Manning in China. Under such conditions a
letter was of course a weighty matter; it was a thoughtful summary of
opinion, a rarely recurring budget of general intelligence, expensive to
send, and paid for by the recipient; and men put their minds and
energies into composing it. "One wrote at that time," says W.C. Hazlitt,
"a letter to an acquaintance in one of the home counties which one would
only write nowadays to a settler in the Colonies or a relative
in India."

But to whatever conditions or circumstances we may owe the existence of
Charles Lamb's letters, their quality is of course the fruit of the
genius and temperament of the writer. Unpremeditated as the strain of
the skylark, they have almost to excess (were that possible) the prime
epistolary merit of spontaneity. From the brain of the writer to the
sheet before him flows an unbroken Pactolian stream. Lamb, at his best,
ranges with Shakspearian facility the gamut of human emotion,
exclaiming, as it were at one moment, with Jaques, "Motley's the only
wear!" - in the next probing the source of tears. He is as ejaculatory
with his pen as other men are with their tongues. Puns, quotations,
conceits, critical estimates of the rarest insight and suggestiveness,
chase each other over his pages like clouds over a summer sky; and the
whole is leavened with the sterling ethical and aesthetic good sense
that renders Charles Lamb one of the wholesomest of writers.

As to the plan on which the selections for this volume have been made,
it needs only to be said that, in general, the editor has aimed to
include those letters which exhibit most fully the writer's distinctive
charm and quality. This plan leaves, of course, a residue of
considerable biographical and critical value; but it is believed that to
all who really love and appreciate him, Charles Lamb's "Best Letters"
are those which are most uniquely and unmistakably Charles Lamb's.

E. G. J. _September_, 1891.

[1] Letter L.

[2] Cowley.

[3] The James Elia of the essay "My Relations."

[4] Letter I.

[5] Talfourd's Memoir.

[6] Carlyle.

[7] It would seem from Lamb's letter to Coleridge (Letter IV.) that it
was _he_, not the landlord, who appeared thus too late, and who snatched
the knife from the unconscious hand.

[8] The reader is referred to Lamb's beautiful essay, "Dream Children."

[9] If we except his passing tenderness for the young Quakeress, Hester
Savory, Lamb admitted that he had never spoken to the lady in his life.

[10] Letter LXXXIII.

[11] Letters LXV IL., LXVIII., LXIX.

[12] W. S. Landor.

[13] In assuming this pseudonym Lamb borrowed the name of a fellow-clerk
who had served with him thirty years before in the South Sea House, - an
Italian named Elia. The name has probably never been pronounced as Lamb
intended. "_Call him Ellia_," he said in a letter to J. Taylor,
concerning this old acquaintance.

[14] Letter XVII.

[15] The rather unimportant series, "Popular Fallacies," appeared in the
"New Monthly."

[16] In the essay "The Superannuated Man" Lamb describes, with
certain changes and modifications, his retirement from the India House.



_May_ 27, 1796.

Dear Coleridge, - Make yourself perfectly easy about May. I paid his bill
when I sent your clothes. I was flush of money, and am so still to all
the purposes of a single life; so give yourself no further concern about
it. The money would be superfluous to me if I had it.

When Southey becomes as modest as his predecessor, Milton, and publishes
his Epics in duodecimo, I will read 'em; a guinea a book is somewhat
exorbitant, nor have I the opportunity of borrowing the work. The
extracts from it in the "Monthly Review," and the short passages in your
"Watchman," seem to me much superior to anything in his partnership
account with Lovell. [1] Your poems I shall procure forthwith.

There were noble lines in what you inserted in one of your numbers from
"Religious Musings," but I thought them elaborate. I am somewhat glad
you have given up that paper; it must have been dry, unprofitable, and
of dissonant mood to your disposition. I wish you success in all your
undertakings, and am glad to hear you are employed about the "Evidences
of Religion." There is need of multiplying such books a hundred-fold in
this philosophical age, to _prevent_ converts to atheism, for they seem
too tough disputants to meddle with afterwards....

Coleridge, I know not what suffering scenes you have gone through at
Bristol. My life has been somewhat diversified of late. The six weeks
that finished last year and began this, your very humble servant spent
very agreeably in a madhouse at Hoxton. I am got somewhat rational now,
and don't bite any one. But mad I was and many a vagary my imagination
played with me, - enough to make a volume, if all were told. My sonnets I
have extended to the number of nine since I saw you, and will some day
communicate to you. I am beginning a poem in blank verse, which, if I
finish, I publish. White [2] is on the eve of publishing (he took the
hint from Vortigern) "Original Letters of Falstaff, Shallow," etc.; a
copy you shall have when it comes out. They are without exception the
best imitations I ever saw. Coleridge, it may convince you of my regards
for you when I tell you my head ran on you in my madness as much almost
as on another person, who I am inclined to think was the more immediate
cause of my temporary frenzy.

The sonnet I send you has small merit as poetry; but you will be curious
to read it when I tell you it was written in my prison-house in one of
my lucid intervals.


If from my lips some angry accents fell,
Peevish complaint, or harsh reproof unkind,
'T was but the error of a sickly mind
And troubled thoughts, clouding the purer well
And waters clear of Reason; and for me
Let this my verse the poor atonement be, -
My verse, which thou to praise wert e'er inclined
Too highly, and with partial eye to see
No blemish. Thou to me didst ever show
Kindest affection; and wouldst oft-times lend
An ear to the desponding love-sick lay,
Weeping my sorrows with me, who repay
But ill the mighty debt of love I owe,
Mary, to thee, my sister and my friend.

With these lines, and with that sister's kindest remembrances to Cottle,
I conclude.

Yours sincerely,


[1] Southey had just published his "Joan of Arc," in quarto. He and
Lovell had published jointly, two years before, "Poems by Bion and

[2] A Christ's Hospital schoolfellow, the "Jem" White of the Elia essay,
"The Praise of Chimney-Sweepers."



(_No month_) 1796.

_Tuesday night_. - Of your "Watchman," the review of Burke was the best
prose. I augured great things from the first number. There is some
exquisite poetry interspersed. I have re-read the extract from the
"Religious Musings," and retract whatever invidious there was in my
censure of it as elaborate. There are times when one is not in a
disposition thoroughly to relish good writing. I have re-read it in a
more favorable moment, and hesitate not to pronounce it sublime. If
there be anything in it approaching to tumidity (which I meant not to
infer; by "elaborate" I meant simply "labored"), it is the gigantic
hyperbole by which you describe the evils of existing society: "snakes,
lions, hyenas, and behemoths," is carrying your resentment beyond
bounds. The pictures of "The Simoom," of "Frenzy and Ruin," of "The
Whore of Babylon," and "The Cry of Foul Spirits disinherited of Earth,"
and "The Strange Beatitude" which the good man shall recognize in
heaven, as well as the particularizing of the children of wretchedness
(I have unconsciously included every part of it), form a variety of
uniform excellence. I hunger and thirst to read the poem complete. That
is a capital line in your sixth number, -

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