I am I believe nearly the only man now surviving who knew much of the
excellent "Elia." Assuredly I knew him more intimately than any other
existing person during the last seventeen or eighteen years of his life.
In this predicament and because I am proud to associate my name with his
I shall endeavor to recall former times and to bring my old friend before
the eyes of a new generation.
I request the "courteous reader" to accept for what they are worth these
desultory labors of a lover of letters; and I hope that the advocate for
modern times will try to admit into the circle of his sympathy my
recollections of a fine Genius departed.
No harm--possibly some benefit--will accrue to any one who may consent to
extend his acquaintance to one of the rarest and most delicate of the
Humorists of England.
B. W. PROCTER.
Biography: Few Events.
His Devotion to it.
Tendency to Literature.
Influence of Antique Dwellings.
Qualities of Mind.
Sympathy for neglected Objects.
Birth and Parentage.
South Sea House and India House.
Condition of Family.
Death of Mother.
Mary in Asylum.
Charles's Means of Living.
Brother and Sister.
Liking for Burns &c.
Southey and Coleridge.
Visit to the Lakes.
Ode to Tobacco.
Dramatic Specimens &c.
Inner Temple Lane.
Hogarth and Sir J. Reynolds.
Lamb Hazlitt and Hunt.
Russell Street and Theatrical Friends.
Tendency of Mind.
Mode of Life.
Love of Smoking.
Tastes and Opinions.
Love of Books.
Epitaph upon them.
Transfer of Magazine.
Monthly Dinners and Visitors.
Essays of Elia: Their Excellence and Character.
Visit to Paris.
Quarrel with Southey.
Leaves India House.
Specimen of Lamb's Humor.
Death of Mr. Norris.
Letters to Barton.
Opinions on Books.
Breakfast with Mr. N. P. Willis.
Moves to Enfield.
Caricature of Lamb.
Albums and Acrostics.
Pains of Leisure.
The Barton Correspondence.
Death of Hazlitt.
Munden's Acting and Quitting the Stage.
Lamb becomes a Boarder.
Moves to Edmonton.
Death of Coleridge.
Lamb's Fall and Death.
Death of Mary Lamb.
_Introduction.--Biography: Few Events.--One predominant.--His Devotion to
it.--Tendency to Literature.--First Studies.--Influence of Antique
Dwellings.--Early Friends.--Humor.--Qualities of Mind.--Sympathy for
neglected Objects.--A Nonconformist.--Predilections.--Character.--Taste.--
The biography of CHARLES LAMB lies within a narrow compass. It comprehends
only few events. His birth and parentage and domestic sorrows; his
acquaintance with remarkable men; his thoughts and habits; and his
migrations from one home to another--constitute the sum and substance of
his almost uneventful history. It is a history with one event
For this reason and because I in common with many others hold a book
needlessly large to be a great evil it is my intention to confine the
present memoir within moderate limits. My aim is not to write the "Life
and Times" of Charles Lamb. Indeed Lamb had no influence on his own
times. He had little or nothing in common with his generation which was
almost a stranger to him. There was no reciprocity between them. His
contemplations were retrospective. He was when living the centre of a
small social circle; and I shall therefore deal incidentally with some of
its members. In other respects this memoir will contain only what I
recollect and what I have learned from authentic sources of my old friend.
The fact that distinguished Charles Lamb from other men was his entire
devotion to one grand and tender purpose. There is probably a romance
involved in every life. In his life it exceeded that of others. In
gravity in acuteness in his noble battle with a great calamity it was
beyond the rest. Neither pleasure nor toil ever distracted him from his
holy purpose. Everything was made subservient to it. He had an insane
sister who in a moment of uncontrollable madness had unconsciously
destroyed her own mother; and to protect and save this sister--a gentle
woman who had watched like a mother over his own infancy--the whole
length of his life was devoted. What he endured through the space of
nearly forty years from the incessant fear and frequent recurrence of his
sister's insanity can now only be conjectured. In this constant and
uncomplaining endurance and in his steady adherence to a great principle
of conduct his life was heroic.
We read of men giving up all their days to a single object--to religion
to vengeance to some overpowering selfish wish; of daring acts done to
avert death or disgrace or some oppressing misfortune. We read mythical
tales of friendship; but we do not recollect any instance in which a great
object has been so unremittingly carried out throughout a whole life in
defiance of a thousand difficulties and of numberless temptations
straining the good resolution to its utmost except in the case of our
poor clerk of the India House.
This was substantially his life. His actions thoughts and sufferings
were all concentred on this one important end. It was what he had to do;
it was in his reach; and he did it therefore manfully religiously. He
did not waste his mind on too many things; for whatever too much expands
the mind weakens it; nor on vague or multitudinous thoughts and
speculations; nor on dreams or things distant or unattainable. However
interesting they did not absorb him body and soul like the safety and
welfare of his sister.
Subject to this primary unflinching purpose the tendency of Lamb's mind
pointed strongly towards literature. He did not seek literature however;
and he gained from it nothing except his fame. He worked laboriously at
the India House from boyhood to manhood; for many years without repining;
although he must have been conscious of an intellect qualified to shine in
other ways than in entering up a trader's books. None of those coveted
offices which bring money and comfort in their train ever reached
Charles Lamb. He was never under that bounteous shower which government
leaders and persons of influence direct towards the heads of their
adherents. No Dives ever selected him for his golden bounty. No potent
critic ever shouldered him up the hill of fame. In the absence of these
old-fashioned helps he was content that his own unassisted efforts should
gain for him a certificate of capability to the world and that the choice
reputation which he thus earned should with his own qualities bring
round him the unenvying love of a host of friends.
Lamb had always been a studious boy and a great reader; and after passing
through Christ's Hospital and the South Sea House and being for some
years in the India House this instinctive passion of his mind (for
literature) broke out. In this he was without doubt influenced by the
example and counsel of Samuel Taylor Coleridge his school-fellow and
friend for whom he entertained a high and most tender respect. The first
books which he loved to read were volumes of poetry and essays on serious
and religious themes. The works of all the old poets the history of
Quakers the biography of Wesley the controversial papers of Priestley
and other books on devout subjects sank into his mind. From reading he
speedily rose to writing; from being a reader he became an author. His
first writings were entirely serious. These were verses or letters
wherein religious thoughts and secular criticisms took their places in
turn; or they were grave dramas which exhibit and lead to the
contemplation of character and which nourish those moods out of which
humor ultimately arises.
So much has been already published that it is needless to encumber this
short narrative with any minute enumeration of the qualities which
constitute his station in literature; but I shall as a part of my task
venture to refer to some of those which distinguish him from other
Lamb's very curious and peculiar humor showed itself early. It was perhaps
born of the solitude in which his childhood passed away; perhaps cherished
by the seeds of madness that were in him that were in his sister that
were in the ancestry from which he sprung. Without doubt it caught color
from the scenes in the midst of which he grew up. Born in the Temple
educated in Christ's Hospital and passed onwards to the South Sea House
his first visions were necessarily of antiquity. The grave old buildings
tenanted by lawyers and their clerks were replaced by "the old and awful
cloisters" of the School of Edward; and these in turn gave way to the
palace of the famous Bubble now desolate with its unpeopled Committee
Rooms its pictures of Governors of Queen Anne's time "its dusty maps of
Mexico dim as dreams and soundings of the Bay of Panama." These things
if they impressed his mind imperfectly at first in time formed themselves
into the shape of truths and assumed significance and importance; as
words and things glanced over hastily in childhood grow and ripen and
enrich the understanding in after days.
Lamb's earliest friends and confidants with one exception were
singularly void of wit and the love of jesting. His sister was grave; his
father gradually sinking into dotage; Coleridge was immersed in religious
subtilties and poetic dreams; and Charles Lloyd sad and logical and
analytical was the antithesis of all that is lively and humorous. But
thoughts and images stole in from other quarters; and Lamb's mind was
essentially quick and productive. Nothing lay barren in it; and much of
what was planted there grew and spread and became beautiful. He himself
has sown the seeds of humor in many English hearts. His own humor is
essentially English. It is addressed to his own countrymen; to the men
"whose limbs were made in England;" not to foreign intellects nor perhaps
to the universal mind. Humor which is the humor of a man (of the writer
himself or of his creations) must frequently remain in its fragrant
blossoming state in the land of its birth. Like some of the most delicate
wines and flowers it will not bear travel.
Apart from his humor and other excellences Charles Lamb combined
qualities such as are seldom united in one person; which indeed seem not
easily reconcilable with each other: namely much prudence with much
generosity; great tenderness of heart with a firm will. To these was
superadded that racy humor which has served to distinguish him from other
men. There is no other writer that I know of in whom tenderness and
good sense and humor are so intimately and happily blended; no one whose
view of men and things is so invariably generous and true and
independent. These qualities made their way slowly and fairly. They were
not taken up as a matter of favor or fancy and then abandoned. They
struggled through many years of neglect and some of contumely before
they took their stand triumphantly and as things not to be ignored by any
Lamb pitied all objects which had been neglected or despised. Nevertheless
the lens through which he viewed the objects of his pity--beggars and
chimney-sweepers and convicts--was always clear: it served him even when
their short-comings were to be contemplated. For he never paltered with
truth. He had no weak sensibilities few tears for imaginary griefs. But
his heart opened wide to real distress. He never applauded the fault; but
he pitied the offender. He had a word of compassion for the sheep-stealer
who was arrested and lost his ill-acquired sheep "his first last and
only hope of a mutton pie;" and vented his feelings in that sonnet
(rejected by the magazines) which he has called "The Gypsey's Malison."
Although he was willing to acknowledge merit when it was successful he
preferred it perhaps when it was not clothed with prosperity.
By education and habit he was a Unitarian. Indeed he was a true
Nonconformist in all things. He was not a dissenter by imitation nor from
any deep principle or obstinate heresy; nor was he made servile and
obedient by formal logic alone. His reasoning always rose and streamed
through the heart. He liked a friend for none of the ordinary reasons;
because he was famous or clever or powerful or popular. He at once took
issue with the previous verdicts and examined the matter in his own way.
If a man was unfortunate he gave him money. If he was calumniated he
accorded him sympathy. He gave freely; not to merit but to want.
He pursued his own fancies his own predilections. He did not neglect his
own instinct (which is always true) and aim at things foreign to his
nature. He did not cling to any superior intellect nor cherish any
inferior humorist or wit.
Perhaps no one ever thought more independently. He had great enjoyment in
the talk of able men so that it did not savor of form or pretension. He
liked the strenuous talk of Hazlitt who never descended to fine words. He
liked the unaffected quiet conversation of Manning the vivacious
excursive talk of Leigh Hunt. He heard with wondering admiration the
monologues of Coleridge. Perhaps he liked the simplest talk the best;
expressions of pity or sympathy or affection for others; from young
people who thought and said little or nothing about themselves.
He had no craving for popularity nor even for fame. I do not recollect
any passage in his writings nor any expression in his talk which runs
counter to my opinion. In this respect he seems to have differed from
Milton (who desired fame like "Blind Thamyris and blind Maeonides") and
to have rather resembled Shakespeare who was indifferent to fame or
assured of it; but perhaps he resembled no one.
Lamb had not many personal antipathies but he had a strong aversion to
pretence and false repute. In particular he resented the adulation of the
epitaph-mongers who endeavored to place Garrick the actor on a level
with Shakespeare. Of that greatest of all poets he has said such things as
I imagine Shakespeare himself would have liked to hear. He has also
uttered brave words in behalf of Shakespeare's contemporary dramatists;
partly because they deserved them partly because they were unjustly
forgotten. The sentence of oblivion passed by ignorant ages on the
reputation of these fine authors he has annulled and forced the world to
confess that preceding judges were incompetent to entertain the case.
I cannot imagine the mind of Charles Lamb even in early boyhood to have
been weak or childish. In his first letters you see that he was a thinker.
He is for a time made sombre by unhappy reflections. He is a reader of
thoughtful books. The witticisms which he coined for sixpence each (for
the Morning Chronicle) had no doubt less of metallic lustre than those
which he afterwards meditated; and which were highly estimated.
_Effodiuntur opes_. His jests were never the mere overflowings of the
animal spirits but were exercises of the mind. He brought the wisdom of
old times and old writers to bear upon the taste and intellect of his day.
What was in a manner foreign to his age he naturalized and cherished. And
he did this with judgment and great delicacy. His books never unhinge or
weaken the mind but bring before it tender and beautiful thoughts which
charm and nourish it as only good books can. No one was ever worse from
reading Charles Lamb's writings; but many have become wiser and better.
Sometimes as he hints "he affected that dangerous figure irony;" and he
would sometimes interrupt grave discussion when he thought it too grave
with some light jest which nevertheless was "not quite irrelevant." Long
talkers as he confesses "hated him;" and assuredly he hated long
In his countenance you might sometimes read--what may be occasionally read
on almost all foreheads--the letters and lines of old unforgotten
calamity. Yet there was at the bottom of his nature a buoyant self-
sustaining strength; for although he encountered frequent seasons of
mental distress his heart recovered itself in the interval and rose and
sounded like music played to a happy tune. Upon fit occasion his lips
could shut in a firm fashion; but the gentle smile that played about his
face showed that he was always ready to relent. His quick eye never had
any sullenness: his mouth tender and tremulous showed that there would
be nothing cruel or inflexible in his nature.
On referring to his letters it must be confessed that in literature
Lamb's taste like that of all others was at first imperfect. For taste
is a portion of our judgment and must depend a good deal on our
experience and on our opportunities of comparing the claims of different
pretenders. Lamb's affections swayed him at all times. He sympathized
deeply with Cowper and his melancholy history and at first estimated his
verse perhaps beyond its strict value. He was intimate with Southey and
anticipated that he would rival Milton. Then his taste was at all times
peculiar. He seldom worshipped the Idol which the multitude had set up. I
was never able to prevail on him to admit that "Paradise Lost" was greater
than "Paradise Regained;" I believe indeed he liked the last the best.
He would not discuss the Poetry of Lord Byron or Shelley with a view of
being convinced of their beauties. Apart from a few points like these his
opinions must be allowed to be sound; almost always; if not as to the
style of the author then as to the quality of his book or passage which
he chose to select. And his own style was always good from the beginning
in verse as well as in prose. His first sonnets are unaffected well
sustained and well written.