Here he was fortunate enough to have for a schoolfellow the afterwards famous Samuel Taylor Coleridge, his senior by rather more than two years, and a close and tender life-long friendship began which had a singularly great influence on the whole of his after career. When the time came for leaving school, where he had learned some Greek and acquired considerable facility in Latin composition, Lamb, after a brief stay at home (spent, as his school holidays had often been, over old English authors in the library of Mr Salt), was condemned to the labours of the desk,—an “unconquerable impediment” in his speech disqualifying him for a school exhibition, and thus depriving him of the only means by which he could have obtained a university education. For a short time he held a clerkship in the South Sea House under his elder brother John, and in 1792 he entered the accountant’s office in the East India House, where during the next three and thirty years the hundred folios of what he used to call his true “works” were produced. A dreadful calamity soon came upon him, which seemed to blight all his prospects in the very morning of life.
There was insanity in the family, which in his twenty-first year had led to his own confinement for some weeks in a lunatic asylum; and, a few months afterwards, on the 22d of September 1796, his sister Mary, “worn down to a state of extreme nervous misery by attention to needlework by day and to her mother by night,” was suddenly seized with acute mania, in which she stabbed her mother to the heart. The calm self-mastery and loving self-renunciation which Charles Lamb, by constitution excitable, nervous, and timid, displayed at this crisis in his own history and in that of those nearest him, will ever give him an imperishable claim to the reverence and affection of all who are capable of appreciating the heroisms of common life.
His sister was of course immediately placed in confinement, and with the speedy return of comparative health came the knowledge of her fatal deed; himself calm and collected, he knew how to speak the words of soothing and comfort. With the help of friends he succeeded in obtaining her release from the life-long restraint to which she would otherwise have been doomed, on the express condition that he himself should undertake the responsibility for her safe keeping.
It proved no light charge; for, though no one was capable of affording a more intelligent or affectionate companionship than Mary Lamb during her long periods of health, there was ever present the apprehension of the recurrence of her malady; and, when from time to time the premonitory symptoms had become unmistakable, there was no alternative but her removal, which took place in quietness and tears. How deeply the whole course of Lamb’s domestic life must have been affected by his singular loyalty as a brother need not be pointed out; for one thing, it rendered impossible his union with Alice Winterton, whom he appears to have truly loved, and to whom such touching reference was made long afterwards in Dream Children, a Reverie.
Lamb’s first appearance as an author was made in the year of the great tragedy of his life (1796), when there were published in the volume of Poems on Various Subjects by Coleridge four sonnets by “Mr Charles Lamb of the India House.” In the following year he also contributed along with Charles Lloyd some pieces in blank verse to Coleridge’s new volume of Poems. In 1798 he published a short and pathetic prose tale entitled Rosamund Gray, and in 1799 he was associated with Coleridge and Southey in the publication of the Annual Anthology, to which he had contributed a short religious poem in blank verse entitled “Living without God in the World”; the company in which he was thus found brought upon him the irrelevant and pointless ridicule of Canning and Gillray. His next public appearance was not more fortunate.
His John Woodvil (1801), a slight dramatic piece written in the style of the earlier Elizabethan period, and containing some genuine poetry and happy delineation of the gentler emotions, but as a whole deficient in plot, vigour, and character, was held up to ridicule by the Edinburgh Revieiv as a specimen of the rudest condition of the drama, a work by “a man of the age of Thespis.” The dramatic spirit, however, was not thus easily quenched in Lamb. His next effort (1806) was a farce, named Mr II, the point of which lay in the hero’s anxiety to conceal his name, “Hogsflesh”; it has recently been put upon the boards with success in America, but in London it did not survive the first night of its appearance. Its author bore the failure with rare equanimity and good humour, and soon struck into new and more successful fields of literary exertion.
In 1807 appeared Tales founded on the Plays of Shakespeare, written by Charles and Mary Lamb; and in 1808 Specimens of English Dramatic Poets who lived about the time of Shakespeare, with short but felicitous critical notes. In the same year Mary Lamb, assisted by her brother, also published Poetry for Children and a collection of short school-girl tales under the title Mrs Leicester’s School; and to the same date belongs the Adventures of Ulysses, designed by Lamb as a companion to the Adventures of Telemachus. In 1810 began to appear Leigh Hunt’s quarterly periodical, The Reflector, in which Lamb published much (including the essays on the tragedies of Shakespeare and on Hogarth) that subsequently appeared in the first collective edition of his Works (2 vols. 12mo), which appeared in 1818.
The establishment of the London Magazine in 1820 stimulated him to the production of a series of new essays which rose into instant popularity, and may be said to form the chief cornerstone in the small but classic temple of his fame. The first of these, as it fell out, was a description of the old South Sea House, with which Lamb happened to have associated the name of a “gay light-hearted foreigner” called Elia, who had frequented it in the days of his service there. The pseudonym adopted on this occasion was retained for the subsequent contributions which appeared collectively in a post 8vo volume of Essays in 1823. After a brief career of five years the London Magazine came to an end ; and about the same period Lamb’s long connexion with the India House terminated, a pension of about £450 having been assigned to him.
The increased leisure, however, for which he had long sighed, did not prove favourable to literary production, which henceforth was limited to a few trifling contributions to the New Monthly and other serials. The malady of his sister, which continued to increase with ever shortening intervals of relief, broke in painfully on his lettered ease and comfort; and it is unfortunately impossible to ignore the deteriorating effects of an over-free indulgence in the use of tobacco and alcohol on a temperament such as his. His removal on account of his sister to the quiet of the country, by tending to withdraw him from the stimulating society of the large circle of literary friends who had helped to make his Wednesday evening “at homes” so remarkable, doubtless also tended to intensify his listlessness and helplessness.
One of the brightest elements in the closing years of his life was the friendship and companionship of Emma Isola, whom he and his sister had adopted, and whose marriage in 1833 to Mr Moxon, though a source of unselfish joy to Lamb, left him more than ever alone. While living at Edmonton, he was overtaken by an attack of erysipelas brought on by an accidental fall as he was walking on the London road ; after a few days’ illness he painlessly passed away on December 27, 1834. The sudden death of one so widely known, admired, and beloved as Charles Lamb fell on the public, as well as on his own attached circle, with all the poignancy of a personal calamity and a private grief. His memory wanted no tribute that affection could bestow, and Wordsworth has commemorated in simple and solemn verse the genius, virtues, and fraternal devotion of his early friend.
In depth of thought and splendour of genius Charles Lamb was surpassed by not a few of his contemporaries, but as an essayist he is entitled to a place beside Montaigne, Sir Thomas Browne, Steele, and Addison. He unites many of the characteristics of each of these writers,—refined wit, exquisite humour, a genuine and cordial vein of pleasantry, and heart-touching pathos. His fancy as an essayist is distinguished by great delicacy and tenderness; and even his conceits are imbued with human feeling and passion. He had an extreme and almost exclusive partiality for our earlier prose writers, particularly for Fuller, Browne, and Burton, as well as for the dramatists of Shakespeare’s time ; and the care with which he studied them is apparent in all he ever wrote.
It shines out conspicuously in his style, which has an antique air, and is redolent of the peculiarities of the 17th century. Its quaintness has subjected the author to the charge of affectation, but there is nothing really affected in his writings. His style is not so much an imitation as a reflexion of the older writers; for in spirit he made himself their contemporary. A confirmed habit of studying them in preference to modern literature had made something of their style natural to him; and long experience had rendered it not only easy and familiar but habitual. It was not a masquerade dress he wore, but the costume which showed the man to most advantage.
With thought and meaning, often profound, though clothed in simple language, every sentence of his essays is pregnant, and in this respect he bears a strong resemblance to the writers already named. If he had their manner, he possessed their spirit likewise. To some of his essays and specimens we are considerably indebted for the revival of the dramatic writers of the Shakespearian age; for he preceded Gifford and others in wiping the dust of ages from the works of these authors.
In his brief comments on each specimen he displays exquisite powers of discrimination ; his discernment of the true meaning of his author is almost infallible. As a poet Lamb is not entitled to so high a place as that which can be claimed for the essayist and critic. His dependence on Elizabethan models is here also manifest, but in such a way as to bring into all the greater prominence his native deficiency in “the accomplishment of verse.” Yet it is impossible, once having read, ever to forget the tenderness and grace of such verses as those to Hester Savory and on “The Old Familiar Faces,” or the quaint humour of “A Farewell to Tobacco.” As a letter writer also Lamb is entitled to rank very high.
The Letters of Charles Lamb, with a sketch of his life by one of his executors, Sir Thomas Noon Talfourd, appeared in 2 vols, in 1837, and Final Memorials of Charles Lamb, by the same hand, were published in 1848. Supplementary to these is the Memoir by another personal friend B. W. Procter (Barry Cornwall) published in 1866. See also Fitzgerald’s Charles Lamb, his Friends, his Barents, and his Books, 1866; Cradock’s Charles Lamb, 1867 ; and Carew Hazlitt’s Mary and Charles Lamb : Poems, Letters, and Remains, 1874. There have been several complete editions of the Works of Lamb; of these the fullest as well as most recent is that of Fitzgerald, Life, Letters, and Writings of Charles Lamb, 6 vols., 1870-76).