Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1001
Charles Lamb was born in Crown Office Row, Inner Temple, London, on February 10, 1775. His father, described under the name Lovel in Lamb’s essay “The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple,” was an assistant and servant to Samuel Salt, a member of Parliament. Through the generosity of Salt, Lamb in 1782 was allowed to enroll in the celebrated charity school, Christ’s Hospital, where he continued for seven years. Among his fellows was Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
In 1789 he left school and, in 1791, became a clerk in the South Sea House. In 1792 he went to work for the East India Company, where, except for a six-week period (1795-1796), when he was confined in an asylum, he was employed for thirty-three years, the span of time coinciding with his principal literary activities.
In 1796 his sister Mary, ten years his senior, who shared with him a hereditary mental disorder marked by recurrent mania, stabbed their mother to death. The responsibility of caring for Mary devolved upon Charles, who lived the rest of his life with her in what he called “a kind of double singleness.” They were devoted to each other, and she was both a good companion and a valuable literary collaborator during her long periods of lucidity. Her recurring intervals of instability, however, provided a source of anxiety for the rest of Lamb’s life. Mary appears as Bridget Elia in Lamb’s essays.
To Lamb’s close friendship with Coleridge is to be credited his emergence as a poet, and in Coleridge’s Poems on Various Subjects (1796) were included four sonnets by Lamb. Through Coleridge, Lamb established friendships with Dorothy and William Wordsworth, with Robert Southey, and with Charles Lloyd. In 1798 Lamb and Lloyd published a volume titled Blank Verse, assembling some of Lamb’s best lyrics, among them “The Old Familiar Faces.” The same year saw the publication of his prose romance A Tale of Rosamund Gray and Old Blind Margaret, a melodramatic and sentimental story with sources in Lamb’s family misfortunes. The income from his clerkship at the East India House, though assured, was small, and Lamb augmented his means by writing humorous sketches for newspapers. Aspiring to less transitory fame, he composed and offered to the actor John Kemble a tragedy, John Woodvil, which drew heavily on his favorites, the Elizabethans. Undeterred by indifference to this effort, he wrote a farce, Mr. H.: Or, Beware a Bad Name, a Farce in Two Acts, and enjoyed enthusiastic hopes when it was scheduled to be staged at Drury Lane. Produced in December, 1806, it was greeted with derision; Lamb added his own hisses to those of the audience.
Mary Lamb had been approached by the wife of William Godwin (later Percy Bysshe Shelley’s father-in-law) with the request that she prepare for Godwin, who was publishing books for children, a collection of prose versions of William Shakespeare’s plays. Accordingly, with her brother’s help, she wrote Tales from Shakespeare. The work achieved instant success, and Godwin got out a complete two-volume edition of the twenty tales as well as several illustrated sixpenny pamphlets each containing one. Charles Lamb wrote paraphrases of six tragedies; Mary Lamb, the remainder. He had already conceived one slight juvenile story for Godwin’s list, and afterward he furnished others, including Adventures of Ulysses, based on the Odyssey, and Mrs. Leicester’s School, the latter being chiefly the work of Mary Lamb.
In 1808 Lamb published Specimens of English Dramatic Poets, Who Lived About the Time of Shakespeare, with Notes. This volume prints brief excerpts from English Renaissance drama with Lamb’s often brilliant critical commentaries. This work demonstrated his originality as a critic and was an important contribution to the Romantic rediscovery of Tudor-Stuart drama.
Leigh Hunt, in 1810, began to edit a quarterly magazine, The Reflector. To this Lamb contributed some of his finest critical pieces, notably essays on William Hogarth and on Shakespeare’s tragedies. These essays brought out even more distinctly his genius as an interpreter of the English literary past. Unfortunately, The Reflector was short-lived, and this fact, with the improvement in Lamb’s salary from the East India Company, diminished his incentive to write. Until 1820 he wrote little else, though the publication of The Works of Charles Lamb (1818) in two volumes attracted favorable notice.
In 1820 Lamb began contributing a series of essays to the newly established London Magazine. These essays, written under the name of “Elia,” proved to be the perfect expression of Lamb’s literary genius. Combining humorous intimacy with an almost Shakespearean perfection of phrase, they are among the finest familiar essays in English literature.
In 1825 he was pensioned by the company and almost at once redoubled his studies in the drama. His writing days were near their end, however. As Mary Lamb’s mental instability grew, his worries multiplied. In 1834 Coleridge died. Two months later Lamb fell while walking in the road near his house at Edmonton, Middlesex, and a few days later, on December 27, 1834, he died of an infection, diagnosed as erysipelas, spreading from a facial scratch. He was in his sixtieth year.
The distinctive qualities of Lamb’s literary personality are best seen in such essays as “The Praise of Chimney-Sweepers,” “Witches and Other Night Fears,” “Christ’s Hospital Five and Thirty Years Ago,” “The Two Races of Men,” “Sanity of True Genius,” “Dream Children: A Reverie,” and “The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple.” These complexly wrought familiar essays, numbering several of his best, reveal Lamb’s characteristic humor, irony, fancy, and delicately archaic style. Lamb was not only a personal essayist: His critical intelligence, as manifested in his voluminous letters and in his formal criticism, was of extremely high quality. If he lacked Coleridge’s interest in critical theory, he was often more than his equal in critical sensitivity and originality. The proof of Lamb’s critical powers lies in his remarkable insight into the minor Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, which, by his critical evaluations, he revived from its two centuries of neglect as literature.