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

VIII. Lamb

§ 9. His later life

This episode is one sign of the change which came over Lamb during the last decade of his life. He was approaching his fiftieth year. Through the greater part of 1824, he suffered from depression and nervous weakness, which led him to refer to himself as Tremulus or Tremebundus. His interest in The London Magazine began to decline. His daily work became irksome to him, and, on 29 March, 1825, he “came home for ever” from the India house, “a freed man.” Out of a pension of £450, £9 a year was kept back as a provision for Mary in case of her survival. The relief and strangeness of his freedom were described in The Superannuated Man. “Mary,” he wrote to Wordsworth, “wakes every morning with an obscure feeling that some good has happened to us.” To one “in wasted health and sore spirits,” this “Hegira, or Flight from Leadenhall” was, at first, an unmixed blessing; but the enforced idleness which it produced was the cause of much mental unhappiness in Lamb’s closing years. It was succeeded, in the summer of 1825, by a nervous fever, which afforded a subject for the essay called The Convalescent. In company with Allsop and his wife, the Lambs went into lodgings at Enfield during July and August. On his return to Islington, he was again ill, and Mary’s reason succumbed to the strain. Nevertheless, 1825 was a productive year, and 1826 saw the appearance of Popular Fallacies, which contains some of Lamb’s most ingenious, if more artificial, writing. In 1826, he was complaining of his health; his head was “a ringing Chaos,” and it is evident that he had fears for his sanity. His connection with The London Magazine had ceased in 1825, and, in September, 1826, he wrote to Barton that he had “forsworn periodicals,” in some annoyance at Henry Colburn’s dilatory treatment of his contributions to The New Monthly Magazine. He found some occupation in reading the Garrick plays at the British museum from ten to four daily: the extracts which he made from them were printed in Hone’s Table Book throughout 1827.

One consolation of these chequered years was the presence in their house of Emma Isola, the orphan daughter of Charles Isola, one of the esquire bedells of the university of Cambridge. They met her during one of their visits to a Cambridge friend, Mrs. Paris; she came to them during her holidays from school, and was eventually adopted by them. In 1833, she married Edward Moxon the publisher. Meanwhile, in September, 1827, Lamb, who had found a welcome refuge from Islington in summer visits to Enfield, took a house at Enfield known as Chase side, “the snuggest, most comfortable house, with every thing most compact and desirable.” He found delight in the neighbourhood of his favourite Hertfordshire and in correspondence with, and occasional visits from, his friends. Bryan Waller Procter, George Darley, Talfourd, Vincent Novello and Henry Crabb Robinson are among those who shared his intimacy at this time, with Walter Wilson, the biographer of Defoe, and others with whom his friendship had ripened during his later residence in London. Occasionally, he went to London to draw his pension. Once, he dined at Talfourd’s to meet Wordsworth, always his idol among contemporary poets. He brought home old books, including the works of Aquinas, which he lent to Coleridge in his retirement at Highgate. For some time, Mary had been able to remain at home during her long illnesses, but, for Lamb, these were periods of enforced solitude. In the summer of 1829, he was obliged to send her to Fulham, and he felt lonely and out of spirits. His pity was always for her; of himself, he seldom spoke without a touch of humour to relieve his melancholy. But his anxieties led him, in 1829, to seek lodgings with his neighbours, the Westwoods, “the Baucis and Baucida of dull Enfield.” Thomas Westwood was a retired haberdasher, a person of some consequence in Enfield, who sang sea-songs at threescore-and-ten and had a single anecdote. With this worthy man, the Lambs remained till May, 1833. Their cares, in 1830, were increased by the illness of Emma Isola, at Bury St. Edmunds. Lamb, on her recovery, fetched her home; and it was on this journey that he escaped from the conversation of “a well-inform’d man,” by answering his question, “What sort of a crop of turnips do you think we shall have this year?” with the delightful retort, “It depends, I believe, upon boiled legs of mutton.” The alternation between high spirits and despair at Mary’s “deplorable state” is painfully marked in the letters of this period. Westwood’s house became, to him, “a house of pest and age,” and, with the approaching marriage of Emma to Moxon, the situation became unbearable. In May, 1833, he made his final move to a cottage in Church street, Edmonton, where a couple named Walden, who took in mental patients, arranged to lodge and board the brother and sister exclusively.

The best of Lamb’s prose work, written at Enfield appeared, in 1833, in the second volume of Elia, which Moxon published. In June, 1830, the same publisher had brought out a small volume of his fugitive verse under the title Album Verses. Instinctive delicacy of workmanship, sincere pathos and pure and artless emotion, give Lamb a unique place among those poets who, in occasional verse of an unpretentious order, offer, from time to time, a clear and unruffled reflection of “the light that never was on sea and land.” Alone of his lyrics, The Old Familiar Faces, written under severe emotional stress, is immortal; but Album Verses contains a number of sonnets and simple lyrics whose charm, less compelling than the poetic prose of Dream-Children, nevertheless springs from the same fount of reminiscence and consciousness of the mingled pleasure and pain of mortal joys. His sense of poetic style reaches a climax in the chiming and haunting lines of the sonnet The Gipsy’s Malison. Less “curiously and perversely elaborate,” to use his own phrase, are the triplets In the Album of Lucy Barton and In His Own Album, and the pieces in octosyllabic couplets, in which he was indebted to Marvell and other seventeenth century poets and happily imitated their natural fluency. It is a characteristic of Lamb’s humour that he could indulge in doggerel without producing that sense of incongruity which is often the fate of the lighter efforts of the great masters of poetry. Verses like the famous Going or Gone do not rise from the merely formal point of view above the plane of Keats’s lines on Teignmouth or Oxford; but they are filled with pathos and a sense of the irrevocable, and the union of laughter and tears, conspicuous in Elia, is fully achieved in this simple piece of verse.

Lamb’s letters from his retirement at Edmonton refer with unabated interest to the chief alleviations of his life—books and pictures. He tells Cary, the translator of Dante, that, with the aid of his translation and Emma’s knowledge of Italian, he and his sister have read the Inferno. These studies were interrupted by Emma’s marriage in August, 1833. On the evening of the wedding, Mary was restored to her senses, “as if by an electrical stroke.” This was merely temporary. Lamb was content to be with her.

  • When she is not violent, her rambling chat is better to me than the sense and sanity of this world. Her heart is obscured, not buried; it breaks out occasionally; and one can discern a strong mind struggling with the billows that have gone over it.
  • Meanwhile, his brotherly devotion had undermined his health, and intemperance was overcoming his shattered nervous system. On this point, it is impossible to dwell too leniently. Lamb’s habitual weakness was simply an incident in a life the key-note of which was the abandonment of selfish ease for a path of unusual difficulty, and it neither hardened his heart nor dimmed his intellect. It is probable that the death of Coleridge, in July, 1834, was a blow from which he never recovered. On 21 November, he wrote in the album of a London bookseller his famous tribute to the memory of his friend, “the proof and touchstone of all my cogitations.” “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.” A month later, while out walking, he fell down and cut his face; erysipelas ensued, and, on 29 December, he died. Mary survived him for thirteen years; she died in 1847, and was buried in the same grave with him in the churchyard at Edmonton.