Home  »  Volume XII: English THE ROMANTIC REVIVAL The Nineteenth Century, I  »  § 1. Lamb’s early days and friendships

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

VIII. Lamb

§ 1. Lamb’s early days and friendships

BY reason of its intimate nature and the colour which it took from the personal events of his life, the work of Charles Lamb is inseparable from the circumstances in which it came into being. This is peculiarly true of more than one of the great writers of the early nineteenth century. The biographies of Byron, Shelley and Coleridge are necessary complements to the understanding of their poetry. But, in none of these three cases is a succession of incidents so closely interwoven in prose and poetry as is the more peaceful life of Lamb in his writings. Those writings, inspired by the influence of the moment and by a lively remembrance of the past, take their place in the course of a story on which they form a running comment; and it is this story, chequered by the presence of sorrow and tragedy and beautified by the endurance of high human affection, which has given Lamb a special place in literary history. His genius matured in submission to its influence: the experience of daily life was the source of the sympathy with humanity which pervades his style and lends to it an abiding charm.

Lamb’s statement that his father came from Lincoln has never been proved positively, but is probably an exception to his usual habit of embroidering fiction upon fact. John Lamb, whose characteristics are known to us from his son’s affectionate portrait of Lovel, “a man of an incorrigible and losing honesty,” with “a face as gay as Garrick’s, whom he was said greatly to resemble,” was clerk and general factotum to Samuel Salt of the Inner Temple. The father, “as brimful of rogueries and inventions as you could desire,” gave some proof of literary talent in a small volume entitled Poetical Pieces on Several Occasions, the best of which, an amusing description of the daily routine of a lady’s footman, was probably drawn from his own early experience. He married Elizabeth Field, a member of a family of Hertfordshire farmers. They lived in Salt’s house at 2 Crown office row, in the Inner Temple, Mrs. Lamb acting as housekeeper. Their eldest son, John, described by Lamb as James Elia, was born in June, 1763. Mary Lamb was the second child, born in December, 1764. Charles, the youngest, was born on 10 February, 1775 Four other children, two boys and two girls, died in infancy.

Salt’s house in the Temple was Lamb’s home for the first seventeen years of his life. Here, Mary Lamb, ten years his senior,

  • was tumbled early, 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.
  • In the quiet courts and “bricky towres” of the Temple, close to, yet aloof from, “streaming London’s central roar,” Lamb learned to survey the ways of the world about him with sympathetic observation, and to interpret them in their true proportions with an amused delight at their variety and movement. London, “itself a pantomime and masquerade,” early enveloped him with its attraction. “I often shed tears in the motley Strand,” he wrote to Wordsworth in 1801, “from fulness of joy at so much life.” To Manning and to Robert Lloyd, his praise of his native city is equally lyric, and, throughout life, London continued to supply his imagination with material upon which it readily worked its fantasies.

    Lamb learned reading and writing at a day-school in Fetter lane, kept by one William Bird, which he attended with his sister and afterwards described in Captain Starkey, one of the essays contributed to Hone’s Every-Day Book. In October, 1782, he entered Christ’s hospital, having been presented to the foundation by one of the governors, a friend of Samuel Salt. His recollections of the seven years spent here are embodied in an essay printed in The Gentleman’s Magazine for June, 1813, and in the more famous essay in which he blended his own experiences with the less happy memories of his contemporary Coleridge. The friendship with Coleridge, begun at Christ’s hospital, lasted, with one short break, throughout their lives. In a famous apostrophe, touched with that sense of regret for wasted energy and unfulfilled hope which Coleridge’s later career naturally inspired, Lamb has recorded his admiration for the precocious genius of his friend. Coleridge, equally affectionate but less alive to reality, has characterised Lamb as the “gentle-hearted Charles.” Gentle-hearted as he was in the best sense of the word, Lamb resented the epithet, and, in fact, he was made of sterner stuff than Coleridge and proved his capacity to face the facts of a world which, to the poet and philosopher, was an unsubstantial vision.

    In estimating the influence of early memories and friendships upon Lamb’s work, it is impossible to overlook his connection with his mother’s native county Hertford. His grandmother, Mrs. Field, was housekeeper at Blakesware, a large country house in the parish of Widford, four miles east of Ware. The Plumers, its owners, lived principally at Gilston, some miles away, and left Blakesware in charge of Mrs. Field. Charles and Mary Lamb spent many holidays here, roaming freely through the deserted mansion. In the autumn of 1799, Lamb revisited the place and wrote to Southey of the tapestried bedroom and the old “marble hall, with Hogarth’s prints, and the Roman Caesars in marble hung round,” of the wilderness and the village churchyard by the park gates, “where the bones of my honoured grandam lie.” Mary Lamb described the house and recalled a childish experience of her own in The Young Mahometan, one of the tales in Mrs. Leicester’s School. The power of Blakesware upon Lamb’s growing imagination is drawn in Blakesmoor in H——shire, where we see him sitting in the window-seat of the store-room, reading Cowley, wandering through the house and creeping into the haunted room, “but always in the daytime, with a passion of fear,” so fascinated by “the boundaries of his Eden,” that he was ignorant of what lay beyond, and fancied the brook which ran outside the park, “half hid by trees,” to be a romantic lake. In Dream-Children, Blakesware is again described, with its empty rooms, gardens, orangery and fish-pond; his grandmother, bowed down physically with wasting disease but unbowed in spirit, rises before his memory; he recalls her special affection for his elder brother John, “so handsome and spirited a youth, and a king to the rest of us.” A more shadowy reminiscence is the fair-headed Alice, who lies buried in Widford churchyard, connected in thought with the portrait of the Hertfordshire beauty which “hung next the great bay-window” and was the subject of Mary Lamb’s stanzas to “High-born Helen.” “The green plains of pleasant Hertfordshire” supplied a life-long attraction to Lamb, from the days when, a boy at school, he attempted to trace the New River to its source, to the long walks of later years, when he roamed about Enfield or, with Mary Lamb and Barron Field, made his pilgrimage from St. Albans to the home of his relations at Mackery End. It was in these quiet byways that he found his true point of contact with nature; and the placid grace which dispenses its charm amid the parks and woods, grass-bordered lanes and open greens, of Hertfordshire is not unlike the tranquil beauty, never far from poetry, of his prose.

    Lamb left Christ’s hospital in 1789, and, two years later, obtained a temporary appointment in the examiner’s office in the South-Sea house, which he held from September, 1791, to February, 1792. This dignified establishment, in the unexacting service of which his brother John spent his life, is described in the first essay of Elia. In April, 1792, he entered a scene of greater activity in the East India house in Leadenhall street, where, for thirty-three years, he performed his daily duties. In this year, Samuel Salt died and the Lamb family left the Temple, to settle eventually at 7 Little Queen street, Holborn. Between 1792 and 1796, the friendship with Coleridge continued and Coleridge fathered Lamb’s earliest sonnet, which was printed under the initials S.T.C. in The Morning Chronicle of 29 December, 1794. Bowles, “genius of the sacred fountain of tears,” was the inspirer of this and other sonnets, which, by May, 1796, had reached the number of nine. Four of these were published in Coleridge’s Poems on Various Subjects in 1796, and another, addressed to Mary Lamb, is contained in the earliest of the letters to Coleridge which has been preserved. This sonnet was written in a lunatic asylum at Hoxton, where Lamb spent the six weeks at the end of 1795 and the beginning of 1796. There was insanity in his family, which was soon to declare itself tragically; but this was the only occasion on which Lamb himself was affected by it, and the cause which disturbed him so seriously can only be conjectured. The correspondence with Coleridge, extending from May, 1796, to June, 1798, has its moments of playfulness, but is overcast by the melancholy of one who feels himself solitary. Old schoolfellows, however, occasionally came to see him, among them James White, whom he assisted in the authorship of The Falstaff Letters; and he improved his acquaintance with the scholarly and unpractical George Dyer, twenty years his elder. The letters are full of allusions to his reading, chiefly among old English authors, and contain much criticism of Coleridge’s early verse, especially of Religious Musings, to the fineness, and to the inequality, of which Lamb showed himself fully alive. He advocated unitarianism and expressed admiration for Priestley with a fervour which, although it declined in later years, gave permanent colour to his religious convictions, so far as we can gain any glimpse of them.