I have an almost feminine partiality for old china. When I go to see any great house, I inquire for the china-closet, and next for the picture gallery. I cannot defend the order of preference, but by saying, that we have all some taste or other, of too ancient a date to admit of our remembering distinctly that it was an acquired one. I can call to mind the first play, and the first exhibition, that I was taken to; but I am not conscious of a time when china jars and saucers were introduced into my imagination.
I had no repugnance then — why should I now have? — to those little, lawless, azure-tinctured grotesques, that under the notion of men and women, float about, uncircumscribed by any element, in that world before perspective — a china tea-cup.
I like to see my old friends — whom distance cannot diminish — figuring up in the air (so they appear to our optics), yet on terra firma still — for so we must in courtesy interpret that speck of deeper blue, which the decorous artist, to prevent absurdity, has made to spring up beneath their sandals.
I love the men with women’s faces, and the women, if possible, with still more womanish expressions.
Here is a young and courtly Mandarin, handing tea to a lady from a salver — two miles off. See how distance seems to set off respect! And here the same lady, or another — for likeness is identity on tea-cups — is stepping into a little fairy boat, moored on the hither side of this calm garden river, with a dainty mincing foot, which in a right angle of incidence (as angles go in our world) must infallibly land her in the midst of a flowery mead — a furlong off on the other side of the same strange stream!
Farther on — if far or near can be predicated of their world — see horses, trees, pagodas, dancing the hays.
Here — a cow and rabbit couchant, and coextensive — so objects show, seen through the lucid atmosphere of fine Cathay.
I was pointing out to my cousin last evening, over our Hyson (which we are old fashioned enough to drink unmixed still of an afternoon) some of these speciosa miracula upon a set of extraordinary old blue china (a recent purchase) which we were now for the first time using; and could not help remarking, how favourable circumstances had been to us of late years, that we could afford to please the eye sometimes with trifles of this sort — when a passing sentiment seemed to over-shade the brows of my companion. I am quick at detecting these summer clouds in Bridget.
“I wish the good old times would come again,” she said, “when we were not quite so rich. I do not mean, that I want to be poor; but there was a middle state;"— so she was pleased to ramble on — “in which I am sure we were a great deal happier. A purchase is but a purchase, now that you have money enough and to spare. Formerly it used to be a triumph. When we coveted a cheap luxury (and, O! how much ado I had to get you to consent in those times!) we were used to have a debate two or three days before, and to weigh the for and against, and think what we might spare it out of, and what saving we could hit upon, that should be an equivalent. A thing was worth buying then, when we felt the money that we paid for it.
“Do you remember the brown suit, which you made to hang upon you, till all your friends cried shame upon you, it grew so thread-bare — and all because of that folio Beaumont and Fletcher, which you dragged home late at night from Barker’s in Covent-garden? Do you remember how we eyed it for weeks before we could make up our minds to the purchase, and had not come to a determination till it was near ten o’clock of the Saturday night, when you set off from Islington, fearing you should be too late — and when the old bookseller with some grumbling opened his shop, and by the twinkling taper (for he was setting bedwards) lighted out the relic from his dusty treasures — and when you lugged it home, wishing it were twice as cumbersome — and when you presented it to me — and when we were exploring the perfectness of it (collating you called it)— and while I was repairing some of the loose leaves with paste, which your impatience would not suffer to be left till day-break — was there no pleasure in being a poor man? or can those neat black clothes which you wear now, and are so careful to keep brushed, since we have become rich and finical, give you half the honest vanity, with which you flaunted it about in that over-worn suit — your old corbeau — for four or five weeks longer than you should have done, to pacify your conscience for the mighty sum of fifteen — or sixteen shillings was it? — a great affair we thought it then — which you had lavished on the old folio. Now you can afford to buy any book that pleases you, but I do not see that you ever bring me home any nice old purchases now.
“When you come home with twenty apologies for laying out a less number of shillings upon that print after Lionardo, which we christened the ‘Lady Blanch;’ when you looked at the purchase, and thought of the money — and thought of the money, and looked again at the picture — was there no pleasure in being a poor man? Now, you have nothing to do but to walk into Colnaghi’s, and buy a wilderness of Lionardos. Yet do you?
“Then, do you remember our pleasant walks to Enfield, and Potter’s Bar, and Waltham, when we had a holyday — holydays, and all other fun, are gone, now we are rich — and the little hand-basket, in which I used to deposit our day’s fare of savory cold lamb and salad — and how you would pry about at noon-tide for some decent house, where we might go in, and produce our store — only paying for the ale that you must call for — and speculate upon the looks of the landlady, and whether she was likely to allow us a table-cloth — and wish for such another honest hostess, as Izaak Walton has described many a one on the pleasant banks of the Lea, when he went a fishing — and sometimes they would prove obliging enough, and sometimes they would look grudgingly upon us — but we had cheerful looks still for one another, and would eat our plain food savorily, scarcely grudging Piscator his Trout Hall? Now, when we go out a day’s pleasuring, which is seldom moreover, we ride part of the way — and go into a fine inn, and order the best of dinners, never debating the expense — which, after all, never has half the relish of those chance country snaps, when we were at the mercy of uncertain usage, and a precarious welcome.
“You are too proud to see a play anywhere now but in the pit. Do you remember where it was we used to sit, when we saw the battle of Hexham, and the surrender of Calais, and Bannister and Mrs. Bland in the Children in the Wood — when we squeezed out our shillings a-piece to sit three or four times in a season in the one-shilling gallery — where you felt all the time that you ought not to have brought me — and more strongly I felt obligation to you for having brought me — and the pleasure was the better for a little shame — and when the curtain drew up, what cared we for our place in the house, or what mattered it where we were sitting, when our thoughts were with Rosalind in Arden, or with Viola at the Court of Illyria? You used to say, that the gallery was the best place of all for enjoying a play socially — that the relish of such exhibitions must be in proportion to the infrequency of going — that the company we met there, not being in general readers of plays, were obliged to attend the more, and did attend, to what was going on, on the stage — because a word lost would have been a chasm, which it was impossible for them to fill up. With such reflections we consoled our pride then — and I appeal to you, whether, as a woman, I met generally with less attention and accommodation, than I have done since in more expensive situations in the house? The getting in indeed, and the crowding up those inconvenient staircases, was bad enough — but there was still a law of civility to women recognised to quite as great an extent as we ever found in the other passages — and how a little difficulty overcome heightened the snug seat, and the play, afterwards! Now we can only pay our money, and walk in. You cannot see, you say, in the galleries now. I am sure we saw, and heard too, well enough then — but sight, and all, I think, is gone with our poverty.
“There was pleasure in eating strawberries, before they became quite common — in the first dish of peas, while they were yet dear — to have them for a nice supper, a treat. What treat can we have now? If we were to treat ourselves now — that is, to have dainties a little above our means, it would be selfish and wicked. It is the very little more that we allow ourselves beyond what the actual poor can get at, that makes what I call a treat — when two people living together, as we have done, now and then indulge themselves in a cheap luxury, which both like; while each apologises, and is willing to take both halves of the blame to his single share. I see no harm in people making much of themselves in that sense of the word. It may give them a hint how to make much of others. But now — what I mean by the word — we never do make much of ourselves. None but the poor can do it. I do not mean the veriest poor of all, but persons as we were, just above poverty.
“I know what you were going to say, that it is mighty pleasant at the end of the year to make all meet — and much ado we used to have every Thirty-first Night of December to account for our exceedings — many a long face did you make over your puzzled accounts, and in contriving to make it out how we had spent so much — or that we had not spent so much — or that it was impossible we should spend so much next year — and still we found our slender capital decreasing — but then, betwixt ways, and projects, and compromises of one sort or another, and talk of curtailing this charge, and doing without that for the future — and the hope that youth brings, and laughing spirits (in which you were never poor till now,) we pocketed up our loss, and in conclusion, with ‘lusty brimmers’ (as you used to quote it out of hearty cheerful Mr. Cotton, as you called him), we used to welcome in the ‘coming guest.’ Now we have no reckoning at all at the end of the old year — no flattering promises about the new year doing better for us.”
Bridget is so sparing of her speech on most occasions, that when she gets into a rhetorical vein, I am careful how I interrupt it. I could not help, however, smiling at the phantom of wealth which her dear imagination had conjured up out of a clear income of poor — hundred pounds a year. “It is true we were happier when we were poorer, but we were also younger, my cousin. I am afraid we must put up with the excess, for if we were to shake the superflux into the sea, we should not much mend ourselves. That we had much to struggle with, as we grew up together, we have reason to be most thankful. It strengthened, and knit our compact closer. We could never have been what we have been to each other, if we had always had the sufficiency which you now complain of. The resisting power — those natural dilations of the youthful spirit, which circumstances cannot straiten — with us are long since passed away. Competence to age is supplementary youth; a sorry supplement indeed, but I fear the best that is to be had. We must ride, where we formerly walked: live better, and lie softer — and shall be wise to do so — than we had means to do in those good old days you speak of. Yet could those days return — could you and I once more walk our thirty miles a-day — could Bannister and Mrs. Bland again be young, and you and I be young to see them — could the good old one shilling gallery days return — they are dreams, my cousin, now — but could you and I at this moment, instead of this quiet argument, by our well-carpeted fireside, sitting on this luxurious sofa — be once more struggling up those inconvenient stair-cases, pushed about, and squeezed, and elbowed by the poorest rabble of poor gallery scramblers — could I once more hear those anxious shrieks of yours — and the delicious Thank God, we are safe, which always followed when the topmost stair, conquered, let in the first light of the whole cheerful theatre down beneath us — I know not the fathom line that ever touched a descent so deep as I would be willing to bury more wealth in than Croesus had, or the great Jew R—— is supposed to have, to purchase it. And now do just look at that merry little Chinese waiter holding an umbrella, big enough for a bed-tester, over the head of that pretty insipid half-Madona-ish chit of a lady in that very blue summer-house.”
Charles Lamb achieved lasting fame as a writer during the years 1820-1825, when he captivated the discerning English reading public with his personal essays in the London Magazine, collected as Essays of Elia (1823) and The Last Essays of Elia (1833). Known for their charm, humor, and perception, and laced with idiosyncrasies, these essays appear to be modest in scope, but their soundings are deep, and their ripples extend to embrace much of human life—particularly the life of the imagination. Lamb is increasingly becoming known, too, for his critical writings. Lamb as Critic (1980) gathers his criticism from all sources, including letters. A new edition of his entertaining letters is also underway. While Lamb was an occasional journalist, a playwright (of small success), a writer for children, and a poet, it is his prose which has endured. He early realized that poetry was not his vocation; his best poetry was written in youth.
The son of John and Elizabeth Field Lamb, Charles Lamb, a Londoner who loved and celebrated that city, was born in the Temple, the abode of London lawyers, where his father was factotum for one of these, Samuel Salt. The family was ambitious for its two sons, John and Charles, and successful in entering Charles at Christ's Hospital, a London charity school of merit, on 9 October 1782. Here he met Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a fellow pupil who was Lamb's close friend for the rest of their lives and who helped stir his growing interest in poetry. Lamb left school early, on 23 November 1789. (Because he had a severe stammer, he did not seek a university career, then intended to prepare young men for orders in the Church of England.) In September 1791 he found work as a clerk at the South Sea House, but he left the following February, and in April he became a clerk at the East India Company, where he remained for thirty-three years, never feeling fitted for the work nor much interested in "business," but managing to survive, though without promotion.
Soon after leaving school, he was sent to Hertfordshire to his ill grandmother, housekeeper in a mansion seldom visited by its owners. Here he fell in love with Ann Simmons, subject of his earliest sonnets (though his first to be published, in the 29 December 1794 issue of the Morning Chronicle, was a joint effort with Coleridge to the actress Sarah Siddons—evidence of his lifelong devotion to the London theater). His "Anna" sonnets, which appeared in the 1796 and 1797 editions of Coleridge's Poems, have a sentimental, nostalgic quality: "Was it some sweet device of Faery / That mocked my steps with many a lonely glade, / And fancied wanderings with a fair-hair'd maid?"; "Methinks how dainty sweet it were, reclin'd"; "When last I roved these winding wood-walks green"; "A timid grace sits trembling in her eye." All were written after the love affair had ended, to Lamb's regret. His early novel, A Tale of Rosamund Gray (1798), is also rooted in the Ann episode.
After the death of Samuel Salt in 1792 the Lambs were in straitened circumstances, mother and father both ill. The elder brother, John, was living independently and was not generous to his family. On Charles (after an unpaid apprenticeship) and his elder sister, Mary, a dressmaker who had already shown signs of mental instability, fell the burden of providing for the family, and Mary took on the nursing as well. Two of Lamb's early sonnets are addressed to her: Mary, who was ten years older than Charles, had mothered him as a child, and their relationship was always a close one. Charles continued to write—a ballad on a Scottish theme, poems to friends and to William Cowper on that poet's recovery from a fit of madness. "A Vision of Repentance" ("I saw a famous fountain, in my dream") treats a truly Romantic theme—the hope of God's forgiveness for the sin of a repentant Psyche. It has a Keatsian charm but little lasting distinction.
The tragedy of 22 September 1796—when Mary, exhausted and deranged from overwork, killed their mother with a carving knife—changed both their lives forever. She was judged temporarily insane, and Lamb at twenty-two took full legal responsibility for her for life, to avoid her permanent confinement in a madhouse. Thereafter she was most often lucid, warm, understanding, and much admired by such friends as the essayist William Hazlitt. She also developed skills as a writer. But she was almost annually visited by the depressive illness which led to her confinement for weeks at a time in a private hospital in Hoxton. (Lamb too had been confined briefly at Hoxton for his mental state in 1795, but there was no later recurrence.) Both were known for their capacity for friendship and for their mid-life weekly gatherings of writers, lawyers, actors, and the odd but interesting "characters" for whom Lamb had a weakness.
For the moment Lamb "renounced" poetry altogether, but he soon took it up again and began work on a tragedy in Shakespearean blank verse, John Woodvil (1802), which has autobiographical elements. While there are a few fine lines and the writing in general is competent but unoriginal, plotting and character are weak: it was never produced. "The Wife's Trial," a late play in blank verse, is of minor interest. It was published in the December 1828 issue of Blackwood's Magazine. His only play to reach the stage, Mr. H——(in prose), was roundly hissed in London when it opened on 10 December 1806, but it was successfully produced in the United States thereafter.
Though soon after his mother's death he announced his intention to leave poetry "to my betters," Lamb continued to write verse of various kinds throughout his life: sonnets, lyrics, blank verse, light verse, prologues and epilogues to the plays of friends, satirical verse, verse translations, verse for children, and finally Album Verses (1830), written to please young ladies who kept books of such tributes. By 1820 he had developed what was to be his "Elia" prose style. He was the first intensely personal, truly Romantic essayist, never rivaled in popularity by his friends Leigh Hunt and William Hazlitt. Many of Lamb's essays before those he signed Elia came out in Hunt's publications."
For students of Lamb and for his recent biographers, Lamb's poetry is mainly of interest as autobiography and as light on the essays, often treating the same subjects. The great French critic Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve admired Lamb's early sonnet "Innocence" so much that he translated it, but most critics then and now agree with Leigh Hunt that Lamb "wanted sufficient heat and music to render his poetry as good as his prose." Alaric A. Watts, another of Lamb's contemporaries, wrote a jingle on Lamb that includes these lines: "For what if thy Muse will be sometimes perverse, / And present us with prose when she means to give verse?" He noted that Lamb's prose is often admirably poetic, so that "we miss not the rhyme." In the twentieth century A. C. Ward has effectively demonstrated that Lamb's poetry lacks both the inspiration and discipline of his prose, concluding that in his poetry "his intensity of emotion is never once matched with an intensely personal manner of expression: he does not find the one perfect mould, and hardly ever lights upon the miraculous right word...." (For "never once" one should substitute "rarely.") E. V. Lucas, Edmund Blunden, George L. Barnett, and William Kean Seymour, however, find in much of it charm, honesty, strength of feeling, and originality. "His poetry," Seymour concludes, "makes a pendant to his Essays, and it is a lustrous and significant pendant." The roles of artist and critic, of course, demand very different abilities: Lamb was, in correspondence, an able critic of the poetry of Coleridge and Wordsworth, who sometimes took his advice. (He met Wordsworth, who became a lifelong friend, through Coleridge in 1797.)"
Of considerable interest are Lamb's blank-verse poems, which reveal--with passion that comes through--his spiritual struggles after the tragedy, as he sought consolation in religion. In one, he doubts whether atheists or deists (such as his friend William Godwin, novelist, philosopher, and publisher of children's books) have adequate answers for the larger questions of life; other poems dwell on the death of the old aunt whose favorite he was (she also appears in his essay "Witches and Other Night-Fears"), on his dead mother with regrets for days gone, on his father's senility, on Mary's fate, and on his growing doubts about institutional religion. Yet these poems are among his most "prosy," with only an occasional impressive passage; their grammatical complexities are hard to follow. Several were published with poems by his Quaker friend Charles Lloyd in their Blank Verse (1798)."
Soon after composing this group he contributed a piece on his grandmother (later developed in "Dream-Children") to Lloyd's Poems on the Death of Priscilla Farmer (1796). The culmination of this period was "The Old Familiar Faces" (written in 1798 and published in Blank Verse), which ends:
some they have died and some they have left me,
And some are taken from me; all are departed;
All, all are gone, the old familiar faces.
This poem is still anthologized; it tells with grace the story of his own youth, touching a universal human chord. Written in 1803 and published in Lamb's 1818 Works, "Hester" takes as its subject a young Quaker whom he had often seen but to whom he had never spoken, though he said he was "in love" with her. She married early and soon died; his poem, a delicate tribute to a charming girl who enhances even Death, ends with lines addressed to her:
My sprightly neighbour, gone before
To that unknown and silent shore,
Shall we not meet, as heretofore,
Some summer morning,
When from thy cheerful eyes a ray
Hath struck a bliss upon the day,
A bliss that would not go away,
A sweet fore-warning?
These are his poetic triumphs. After them came more poems to friends, and also political verses, which are often sharp and clever, even venomous. "The Triumph of the Whale," on the prince regent, whom he sincerely hated, was published in Hunt's Examiner (15 March 1812) and may have had a part in Hunt's two-year incarceration for libel, though the official charge was based on Hunt's editorial a week later. "The Gipsy's Malison," another harsh poem of Lamb's later years--on the ill-born child who is destined to hang--is sometimes anthologized. Like "The Triumph of the Whale," it reveals a bitter aspect of Lamb's complex nature, which shows rarely but persistently in his work. Among Lamb's humorous light-verse pieces, "A Farewell to Tobacco" is one of the best. (He never gave up smoking or lost his taste for drink, though he tried often.)"
In 1808 he published his Specimens of English Dramatic Poets, Who Lived About the time of Shakspeare, with commentary that was later admired by the younger generation of Romantics, particularly Keats, and established Lamb as a critic. For needed cash, he and Mary, at Godwin's request, wrote Poetry for Children (1809), in which their fondness for children shines through the moral verses. It did not reach a second edition, but the Lambs were much more successful with Mrs. Leicester's School (1809) and Tales from Shakespear (1807), which has never since been out of print."
In 1818 Lamb published his early Works, and in 1819 he proposed to Fanny Kelly, a popular comic actress who was later a friend of Dickens and founder of the first dramatic school for girls. She refused him, confiding to a friend that she could not carry Mary's problems too. Charles and Mary did know a sort of parenthood in their 1823 "adoption" of a teenage orphan, Emma Isola, who regarded their home as hers until she married Lamb's new young publisher, Edward Moxon, in 1833."
In the years 1820-1825 Lamb made his reputation as Elia in the London Magazine. By 1825, though he was still a clerk, Lamb's salary had risen after long service, and he was able to retire at fifty with a good pension and provision for Mary. He occupied his new leisure for several years at the British Museum, compiling more dramatic excerpts, which appeared in William Hone's Table Book throughout 1827, and contributing other writings to periodicals. When Album Verses appeared in 1830, followed by the humorous ballad Satan in Search of a Wife (1831), critics found them disappointing fluff. His Last Essays of Elia (1833), from the London Magazine, reminded readers of his true stature."
Brother and sister had had to move many times as the reason for Mary's increasing absences from home became known. Their last move was to a sort of sanitarium at Edmonton, near London, in 1833. Here, while out walking one day in 1834, Lamb fell. He died of erysipelas a few days later. Mary lived on, with a paid companion, till 1847."
Lamb's essays were taught in schools until World War II, when reaction set in--from critics such as F. R. Leavis and others--dulling the sentimental admiration Lamb had till then enjoyed. Yet in the 1970s serious scholars increasingly discovered new virtues in his fine letters and criticism, and new subtleties in the old essays: too long had it been said that the affection he inspired precluded criticism. New biographies and studies have recently appeared, and in the 1980s there began a renewed appreciation for Lamb's prose--though not for his poetry. The Charles Lamb Society of London flourishes, and publishes a bulletin which has become impressively scholarly since its new series began in the 1970s.
— Winifred F. Courtney, Greenwood, South Carolina