Charles Lamb’s attitude toward poetry evolved as he matured. As a young man, he considered himself an aspiring poet. He experimented with rhythms, modeled his diction after Sir Philip Sidney and his sentiment after William Lisle Bowles, discussed theory with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and took pleasure in criticizing his own and others’ work. In his early verse, there is little of the humor, irony, or modesty that typify his later writing. Lamb is not only serious but also self-consciously so, dealing with weighty topics in an elevated style. His early poems are heavy with melancholy and despair, even before Mary killed their mother. The poems are also personal and confessional and suggest an adolescent indulgence in emotion. Writing to Coleridge in 1796, Lamb explained, “I love my sonnets because they are the reflected images of my own feelings at different times.”
Following Mary’s disaster, Lamb’s reality became as tragic as he had previously imagined. He wrote to Coleridge, “Mention nothing of poetry. I have destroyed every vestige of past vanities of that kind.” This was the first of several renunciations of poetry made by Lamb throughout his life, but—like similar renunciations of liquor and tobacco—it was temporary. In a few months, he was sending Coleridge new verses, but the subject matter was altered. Lamb turned to poetry for solace and consolation, composing religious verse. His interest in poetry had revived, but the sensational occurrences that influenced the rest of his life encouraged him to become one of the least sensational of poets. From this new perspective, he counseled Coleridge to “cultivate simplicity,” anticipating William Wordsworth’s preface to Lyrical Ballads (1798). In his next letter to Coleridge, he praised Bowles and Philip Massinger and said he favored “an uncomplaining melancholy, a delicious regret for the past.” Lamb’s early sentimentality had been displaced by real tragedy, and his poetry changed accordingly.
With the healing passage of time, Lamb’s literary interests shifted. In the years 1800 to 1805, he wrote several poems, but for the most part, these middle years of his literary career were spent as a journalist. Around 1820, Lamb again began to write poetry, but of a completely different sort. The last period of his poetic production had been spent writing album verse and other occasional poems. As he matured, Lamb outgrew his earlier confessional mode and turned to people and events around him for subjects. He used his imagination to a greater degree, coloring reality, creating fictions, and distancing himself from his subject. His poetry changed with him, and it came to reflect a fictitious personality similar to the Elia of the essays. Like the Elia essays, Lamb’s later poetry contains many autobiographical elements, but they are cloaked and decorous. In place of self-indulgent confessions is a distance and control not found in the early verse.
Lamb wrote and published most of his serious verse—that which is most often anthologized—in the period between 1795 and 1800. His best and worst poems are among these efforts, which are autobiographical and despondent. They mourn the loss of love, of bygone days, and of happier times. They vary greatly in form, as Lamb experimented with different meters and structures. He was most successful in tight and traditional verse forms and least successful in blank verse. In fact, his blank verse is bad, a surprising situation since his strength in more structured forms is in the control and variation of meter and rhythm.
A favorite form of Lamb’s throughout his life was the sonnet, which he began writing early in his career. Appropriately enough, two of his earliest and best poems are English sonnets, published in Coleridge’s Poems on Various Subjects (1796). This first significant publication by Lamb shows the influence of the Elizabethans on his poetry. His syntax, imagery, and diction suggest the practice of two centuries earlier. One of these sonnets, “Was it some sweet device of Faery,” mourns a lost love “Anna” and is clearly a response to the loss of Ann Simmons. The poem’s sophisticated rhythm, with frequent enjambment and medial stops, transcends its commonplace subject. Here, as often in Lamb’s poetry, the handling of rhythm turns what might be a mediocre effort into an admirable poem. His use of rhetorical questions in this sonnet is skillful, too. Unlike the stilted tone that such questions often provide, in this sonnet the questions actually help to create a sense of sincerity.
Another sonnet from the same volume, “O, I could laugh to hear the midnight wind,” also treats the subject of lost love. The poem is nicely unified by the images of wind and wave, and it reflects the Romantic idea of the unity of human beings and cosmos. It also presents another Romantic concept, the value of the imagination and the powerful influence of memory. This poem is a reminder that much of Wordsworthian theory was not unique to Wordsworth. The ideas that the poem considers may be Romantic, but the style is that of an earlier day. The diction is antique, the imagery tightly unified, and the sonnet form itself conventionally developed. Lamb’s prosody is pleasant but not novel.
In 1797, Coleridge’s book of poetry went into a second edition, but with an amended title, “. . . to which are now added Poems by Charles Lamb.” Lamb had already contributed four poems to the earlier edition, but now there appeared fourteen of his poems. The additional ones are, on the whole, inferior to the initial four; seven are sonnets written about the same time as those that Coleridge had already published. Of interest is one addressed to Mary and written before her tragedy, “If from my lips some angry accents fell.” The closing lines give a sense of the personal nature of these verses:
Thou to me didst ever shewKindest affection; and would oft times lendAn ear to the desponding love-sick lay,Weeping with sorrows with me, who repayBut ill the mighty debt of love I owe,Mary, to thee, my sister and my friend.
The other poem of note in this volume was published in a supplement at the end of the edition. Lamb was...
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