Charles Lamb, one of the great English essayists, was a child of London, the city that would inspire his best work. Born on Crown Office Row in 1775, he grew up in and around the Inner Temple and was educated at Christ’s Hospital in Newgate Street where he met Coleridge who became a lifelong friend.
He spent thirty-three years working as a clerk in the East India House on Leadenhall Street, writing poems, plays, and essays in his precious spare time. Renowned for his warm sense of humour and legendary social gatherings, he lived at the very heart of the literary scene of his day.
His life, however, was often troubled by drink, depression, and tragedy. In 1796 his sister, Mary, stabbed their mother to death in a bout of insanity. Charles spent the rest of his life caring for his sister, foregoing marriage to ensure that she would not have to be confined indefinitely to an asylum.
His relationship with his sister (who was ten years older than him) was remarkably fruitful; they worked together on numerous literary projects and, in 1807, they published Tales from Shakespeare, a work that has never been out of print.
Lamb’s early literary career was promising. He became known for his poetry, much of it inspired by the Unitarian theology that underpins Coleridge’s Religious Musings. In 1798 he published Blank Verse with Coleridge’s pupil and acolyte Charles Lloyd, which contained his best-known poem, ‘The Old Familiar Faces’.
It is an inspired example of confessional verse in unrhymed stanzas derived from the Elizabethan dramatist Philip Massinger. Using this unexpected vehicle, Lamb manages to universalize his experience of the ‘day of horrors’ when he arrived home to find his mother dead and his sister holding a carving-knife in her hand.
Beginning with that, he reviews other losses he has sustained through his life, before concluding with the elegant refrain, ‘All, all are gone, the old familiar faces.’ Not only does it transcend the particular context out of which it comes, but it sets the tone for much of Lamb’s later prose writing, which also concerns the riches taken from us by time and circumstance.
In the second decade of the nineteenth century he began to write for journals including Leigh Hunt’s Reflector, Examiner and Indicator. At the same time he cultivated his skills as the author of some of the most entertaining letters of the period, which also contain much critical disquisition.
Then, in 1820, came the turning-point in his career; he was asked to contribute to John Scott’s London Magazine. Under the pseudonym ‘Elia’, Lamb began to publish what are now regarded as some of the finest essays in the history of English letters.
In due course these were collected as Elia (1823) and Last Essays of Elia (1833). It was the glory of those essays to seek to retrieve, in fine romantic fashion, that instinct from which the adult has long been cut adrift – a sense of the numinous and magical.
They are a distinctive and inimitable combination of romantic yearning for the intensity of childhood vision, combined with an underlying fear that the world may turn out to be no more than the materialist nightmare – matter in motion.
Elia’s art lay to some extent in his manner; as Lamb told his publisher, John Taylor, ‘The Essays want no Preface: they are all Preface. A Preface is nothing but a talk with the reader; and they do nothing else.’ (Lucas, Letters, II, 350)
Doubtless it was the persona of Elia that enabled Lamb to indulge his prejudices and whims with a freedom he would not have enjoyed otherwise. Such was his success that he was soon the highest-paid contributor to the London Magazine.
Lamb was at the centre of the literary life of his day. He and Mary used to entertain groups of friends at home on Thursday evenings. These were riotous occasions that were mythologized by Hazlitt in one of his finest essays, ‘On the Conversation of Authors’:
“There was Lamb himself, the most delightful in the course of the evening. His serious conversation, like his serious writing, is his best. No one ever stammered out such fine, piquant, deep, eloquent things in half a dozen half-sentences as he does. His jests scald like tears: and he probes a question with a play upon words.”
“What a keen, laughing, hare-brained vein of home-felt truth! What choice venom! How often did we cut into the haunch of letters, while we discussed the haunch of mutton on the table! He always made the best pun, and the best How we skimmed the cream of criticism! How we got into the heart of controversy! How we picked out the marrow of authors!”