Charles Lamb
Charles Lamb; drawing by David Levine

In one of Stephen Potter’s manuals of Lifemanship there are some useful hints on the art of reviewing (“Newstatesmanship,” in those days), notable among them the Hope-Tipping gambit. Hope-Tipping’s formula for getting on top of the books he reviewed was simple but effective: he would find out the quality for which the author in question was most renowned, and then blame him for not having enough of it. He first created a stir in 1930 by complaining about the neglect of “the male and female element in life” in the work of D.H. Lawrence, but this was a relatively crude beginning, and subsequently he perfected his technique. One of his finest strokes was a reference in a review to “the almost open sadism of Charles Lamb.”

On the whole, whether he meant to or not, Hope-Tipping was doing Lamb a good turn. In the twentieth century a lack of cruelty is no very great recommendation in an author, and even in his lifetime Lamb ran the risk of being diminished by his reputation for kindliness and amiability. He took irritable exception when Coleridge, in the poem “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” addressed him as “my gentle-hearted Charles”—“the meaning of gentle is equivocal at best, and almost always means poor-spirited.” But the label stuck, and “Lamb, the frolic and the gentle” of Wordsworth’s memorial lines gradually evolved into the schoolmaster’s favorite, the patron saint of bookishness, Lamb the endlessly companionable and infinitely human. I quote at random from a textbook—it could be almost any textbook of the period—published shortly before the First World War: “His own writings, which are self-revealing in a quite unusual and always charming way, and the recollections of his friends, have made the personality of Lamb more familiar to us than any other in our literature except that of Johnson.”

What once seemed irresistible no longer casts the same spell, and it is a measure of how far the legend has faded that there has been no full-scale biography of Lamb since the two-volume life by E.V. Lucas, originally published in 1905. Now, in their different ways, two new books do something to make good the lack. Winifred Courtney has pieced together a thorough and detailed account of Lamb’s first twenty-seven years, drawing skillfully on recent research (including her own) and providing a particularly clear picture of Lamb’s links with the radical intelligentsia of his youth. David Cecil’s “portrait” is an attractive introduction for the general reader, traditional in its approach but fresh in its enthusiasm (no one could guess from it that the author is now in his eighties). Its judgments are fair-minded but firm, and in its portrayal of a life shadowed by madness it recalls the admirable study of Cowper, The Stricken Deer, with which David Cecil began his literary career as long ago as 1929.

The madness with which Lamb most obviously had to contend was that of his sister Mary. From the moment he wrested the carving knife from her hand—too late to stop her killing her mother—it was Charles who took charge; it was Charles, aged twenty-one, who insisted on her staying in a small private hospital when his brother John, twelve years his senior, wanted to have her committed to an asylum, and Charles who stood surety for her on her release and agreed to look after her for the rest of her life. Two or three years later such an arrangement would no longer have been possible: the “age of confinement” was closing in, and in 1799 new laws were introduced requiring the criminally insane to be kept in custody, as the curious English legal phrase goes, “during His Majesty’s pleasure.” But Lamb was determined to take advantage of the older, looser system, even though he had no illusions about the kind of commitment he was assuming. The mutual devotion of brother and sister, their “double singleness,” is one of the legends of literary history; but it was no idyll. Mary remained subject to recurrent bouts of madness, and who can gauge the amount of strain and sacrifice which the relationship must have imposed on Charles?

The story of Lamb’s own mental breakdown is less familiar, partly because so much less is known about it. In the spring of 1796, a few months before the stabbing and the family tragedy, he wrote to Coleridge, announcing rather jauntily—but how does one announce these things?—that during the winter he had been confined in a madhouse for six weeks, but that he was fully recovered. (“I am got somewhat rational now, & dont bite any one. But mad I was—….”) The letter also contains a poem written to Mary “in my prison-house in one of my lucid intervals,” expressing remorse for having spoken harshly to her, and suggesting how strongly the thought of her must have been running on his mind. Beyond this, there are some brief references to the episode in subsequent letters, and in the comments of friends—not much to go on, but they do offer a few clues.


The immediate causes of Lamb’s breakdown seem to have been overwork—he was already tethered to his clerk’s desk at East India House—and misery at being rejected by the girl he was in love with, Ann Simmons. Mrs. Courtney is excellent on the Ann Simmons affair, which is usually hurried past by writers on Lamb as though it were mere calf love; she makes out a very convincing case for both the attachment and the sense of loss being deep and long-lasting. As for why Lamb was rejected, she argues (as indeed did E.V. Lucas) that one probable reason was that there was reputed to be a history of “lunacy” in the Lamb family: it had skipped a generation, but by the time the break with Ann Simmons took place Mary may well have begun to show disquieting symptoms.

Lamb himself was a highly strung child, afflicted with a severe stammer and prey to the “night fears” which he was to write about in one of his most memorable essays: “I was dreadfully alive to nervous terrors. The night-time, solitude and the dark were my hell.” And he refused to believe that the fear inspired by monsters and apparitions was that of physical injury: “O, least of all! These terrors are of older standing. They date beyond body….” Harpies and Hydras and the rest might “reproduce themselves in the brain of superstition—but they were there before. They are transcripts, types—the archetypes are in us, and eternal.”

This sounds uncannily Jungian, but those who look to Freud for light will be even more forcibly struck by other aspects of the essay. From the age of four to his seventh or eighth year Lamb was haunted every night by the conviction—“an assurance which realized its own prophecy”—that he would find a fearsome hag sitting beside him on the bed. He had always been inquisitive about witches, and he had heard many stories about them from his aunt (his father’s eccentric sister, who doted on him) and from the maid, while his fantasies had taken on their distinctive shape when he came across a picture of the Witch of Endor in a book on the Bible. But aunt, maid, and illustrator were all absolved from any blame. At most, they had simply provided a channel for fears that were already there, fears which could manifest themselves just as readily in a child brought up on the most scrupulously enlightened principles (Lamb was thinking of Leigh Hunt’s son Thornton, “who was never allowed to hear of goblin or apparition, or scarcely to be told of bad men”).

Where there were grounds for reproach, however, it was, in a generalized way, against parents—parents who did not know what they were doing when they left small children to go to sleep by themselves in the dark, without the prospect of a friendly arm or a familiar face to comfort them when they woke screaming.

There is no mention of Lamb’s mother in “Witches, and Other Night-Fears,” but it is hard not to feel that she is there at the very heart of the essay, sitting on that bed. What is certain is that her eldest child was her unashamed favorite. John Lamb was blond and burly and good-looking (like his mother, who is said to have borne a striking resemblance to the actress Mrs. Siddons); he also knew how to get on in the world. Mary and Charles were small and dark and odd. The root of the tragedy, as Charles realized, was that although Elizabeth Lamb was conscientious and hard working, a good mother in the conventional sense, she never really understood her daughter or managed to respond to her with enough warmth: all too frequently she “met her caresses, her protestations of filial affection,…with coldness & repulse.” To some extent the same was plainly true of her attitude to her younger son as well.

Mary mothered him, taught him how to read, laid the emotional foundations of their future life together. He also turned for affection to his aunt. But his mother’s remoteness, or what looked like it, left indelible scars. (His father, who was clerk and general factotum to a lawyer in the Inner Temple, was in his fifties when Lamb was born, and although he is recalled affectionately in one of Lamb’s essays as “the liveliest little fellow breathing,” he does not seem to have played a very commanding part in his childhood. By the time of the tragedy he was infirm and slightly senile: he was present, but too weak to intervene and he received an injury from a fork that Mary hurled across the room.)


It is only against this family background, I believe, that one can make much sense of the otherwise merely picturesque fact, reported by Southey, that during his “phrensy” in the madhouse Lamb suffered from the delusion that he was Young Norval, the hero of John Home’s blank-verse tragedy Douglas. Home’s play was a standard fixture in the late-eighteenth-century repertoire; in particular, the part of Lady Randolph had been prized by leading actresses ever since it had been created by the famous Peg Woffington. It was as Lady Randolph that Mrs. Siddons triumphed over her predecessor and rival, Mrs. Barry, and it was Mrs. Siddons whom Lamb saw playing the role ten years later. As usual when he was young, her acting made a tremendous impression on him. His very first appearance in print was a sonnet addressed to her, published when he was nineteen. Coleridge also had a hand in it, but there is no mistaking Lamb’s presence in the lines comparing the audience’s feelings to those of a child as it clutches its grandmother’s skirts and listens to stories of witches and midnight hags:

Even such the shivering joys thy
   tones impart
Even so thou, SIDDONS! meltest
   my sad heart!

A majestic actress, who looked like his mother—and as Lady Randolph, an actress appearing in a play that was calculated to touch him to the quick.

Essentially Douglas is a “family romance,” a variation on the classic theme of the humble youth who turns out to have been a prince all the time. Young Norval, although he has been brought up as a shepherd, is in reality Lady Randolph’s long-lost son, exposed at birth on the orders of her malevolent old father; fate brings them together again, but she only learns who he is after he has been killed, and the discovery drives her to suicide. The mother whose child was abandoned is at one and the same time acquitted (it was her father’s fault) and punished (her secret has always weighed her down). But if she suffers, it is on account of frustrated maternal love, and her final gesture is one of total commitment. Without her son, life is no longer worth living.

Did Lamb see in the family catastrophe an acting out of his own darkest impulses? Anyone whose madness took the form of imagining that he was Young Norval can hardly have been a stranger to the kind of troublesome feelings that erupted so violently in his sister’s case. But the pressures which produced his breakdown subsided; he stood firm—it was his brother who trembled—when the great crisis came; and for the rest of his life he remained steadfastly sane.

Sanity did not mean peace of mind, however. Most firsthand accounts of Lamb, or the more intelligent of them, suggest someone living under a great deal of strain and tension. His friend P.G. Patmore, who knew him well during his later years, believed that none of his intimates had ever seen him wholly at ease for half an hour together. He was restless and twitchy, a man who longed for company and then quickly resented it. And Patmore perceived something else: that if Lamb’s sweetness and gentleness went straight to the heart, it was partly because they had not been easily come by. They had the air of having been “preserved and persevered in, in spite of opposing and contradictory feelings within, that struggled in vain for mastery.” There was pain to be fought down—it showed in his smile—and a hard view of the world to overcome, the discontent of “an amiable and tender-hearted misanthrope.”

Most witnesses who knew him well agree that Lamb had an exceptionally winning personality. But he could be difficult, too. People meeting him for the first time were frequently repelled by his displays of defensive-aggressive flippancy; friends had to learn to live with his addiction to drink; no one was safe from his relentless punning, which often bordered on what one is tempted to call open sadism. The brilliant caricature in Carlyle’s Reminiscences puts the case for the prosecution at its most extreme:

Insuperable proclivity to gin, in poor old Lamb. His talk contemptibly small, indicating wondrous ignorance and shallowness, even when it was serious and good-mannered, which it seldom was; usually ill-mannered (to a degree), screwed into frosty artificialities, ghastly make-believe of wit:—in fact more like “diluted insanity” (as I defined it) than anything of real jocosity, “humour,” or geniality….

The portrait may reveal as much about Carlyle as it does about Lamb (David Cecil adjudicates very fairly between the two men), but no one reading it could suppose that Carlyle had simply made it all up. It is best taken as a nightmare version of the real Lamb, of what he would have been without the gifts and strength of character that carried him through.

His moral resources were called into full play in his early twenties; his gifts took much longer to blossom. There were false starts and flops—his novella Rosamund Gray, the verse tragedy John Woodvil, a farce called Mr. H.—and it was not until he was forty-five that he began writing as Elia. It is true that if he had died before then he would still have his place in the history books, and still be worth reading on account of his letters (outstanding even in an age of great letter writers) and a handful of fine critical essays. Without the series of essays he published under the pseudonym Elia, indeed, his reputation today would probably be smaller but also higher than it is. Too many claims were made for them in the heyday of the Elian cult, and when the reaction set in it created a prejudice against the rest of Lamb’s work as well, a prejudice which has not yet worn off. Still, if there is a masterpiece among his writings it has to be Elia: the essays represent his one serious claim to be considered an imaginative artist.

Judged in conventional terms, he was a failed artist. Neither in fiction (as commonly understood) nor in drama, nor (apart from one or two mild anthology pieces) as a poet, did he begin to succeed in finding an adequate vehicle for his feelings. But he hammered out a persona in life, and in his letters, and by carrying the process a stage further and inventing Elia he hit on the form he had been looking for. Elia is not quite Lamb and the essays are not quite autobiography: they hover between fiction and reminiscence, transposing and mulling over the experiences that they summon up. In the age of fabulators like Borges and Calvino it should not be too difficult to think of them as adding up to a kind of composite, multi-layered novel. Lamb himself, in his preface to the Last Essays, defends the “late Elia” against the charge of egotism by comparing his technique with that of a novelist, “making himself many, or reducing many unto himself,” and of the dramatist who under cover of his characters “expresses his own story modestly.”

The essays are famous for their humor and pathos. Lamb makes no attempt, even at a fictional remove, to deal with the really tragic and threatening elements in his family history. Instead, he keeps fairly close to the surface of things, allowing his imagination to linger over small foibles, commonplace pretensions, bygone oddities and domesticities. But as Walter Pater wrote, in what is still (along with Hazlitt’s sketch in The Spirit of the Age) much the best brief appreciation of Lamb, his apparent lightness and slightness are not “the low-flying of one from the first drowsy by choice…but rather the reaction of nature, after an escape from fate, dark and insane as in an old Greek tragedy, following upon which the sense of mere relief becomes a kind of passion.” It is his feeling for the precariousness of life that sets Lamb apart from his imitators—that, and his heightened feeling for its reality. Everything is evanescent, and everything has to be lived through. Did the clerks and accountants at the old South Sea House once really exist, with all their worries and idiosyncracies? How can we be sure that even their names have not been invented? “Be satisfied that something answering to them has had a being.” The portraits of the past in Lamb are so many acts of reclamation; the portraits of the present already have a tinge of the past about them.

Not that he was ever the simple backward-looking creature that he sometimes liked to pretend to be. He had a keen appetite for the here and now—the excellent gazetteer compiled by Claude A. Prance makes it clear just how many points of contact he had with the London life of the period—and he was a thorough townsman. “Cockney to the marrow,” Carlyle called him. As for literature, he began by allying himself with the avant-garde; his cultivation of seventeenth-century models was itself, by the standards of the time, a form of modernism; and his mock-antiquarian stance should not be confused with the genuine pedantic article. It did not prevent him from being one of the first to recognize the genius of Blake, or from unerringly singling out Keats as the most gifted poet of the younger generation.

In his twenties Lamb also had the reputation of being a radical. At one stage he even attracted the attentions of the Anti-Jacobin: he was attacked in a squib by George Canning (which he repaid in kind long afterward) and he and his friend Charles Lloyd were caricatured by Gillray as a toad and a frog. But it seems to have been largely a case of guilt by association. He had a good many friends in radical circles—Lloyd, and those other youthful subversives Coleridge and Southey, and leading figures such as John Thelwall—and his natural sympathies, then as later, lay on the liberal side. His own political utterances, however, do not amount to much, although thanks to Mrs. Courtney we now have a somewhat fuller picture than we did. She is the first scholar to have studied the articles contributed by Lamb to the radical newspaper Albion in 1801, when he was twenty-six, which came to light some years ago, and in addition to describing them she reprints one of them as an appendix: a piece called “What Is Jacobinism?” which is in fact the first essay of any kind he is known to have published. A protest against political witch hunts, it forcefully attacks the “general haters” who are ready to brand anything they dislike as Jacobinism: “These men have set up an universal idol, or idea, under that name, to which they find it convenient to refer all evil, something like the Manichaean principle.” The general spirit of tolerance was to remain characteristic of Lamb, if not the particular application.

Despite these undercurrents, it still makes sense to think of him, as critics have traditionally done, as apolitical. As positively apolitical, apolitical by design. He hated systems, orthodoxies, grandiose institutions—and most minor institutions, for that matter. Like “the late Elia,” who was utterly dismayed when some local children once took him for a visiting school governor, he had a horror of looking like “anything important and parochial.” The whole tenor of his work is directed toward resisting regimentation and maintaining the claims of the untidy unofficial inner self.

His convictions on this score can only have been strengthened by the long years he spent drudging for the East India Company. Most writers on Lamb, as Mrs. Courtney says, have underestimated the effect which the wear and tear of work had on him. He toiled away conscientiously in the clerks’ compound, totting up accounts, drugging himself with routine; a well-regarded subordinate, even if his juniors were repeatedly promoted over him (his stammer held him back). The job had its compensations—like all good office workers, he managed to get some of his personal correspondence done during office hours, on office stationery—and, in any case, once he had committed himself to looking after Mary he was more or less doomed to stay put. He had no money of his own, and in an insecure world the East India House represented a refuge as well as a prison. When he was finally pensioned off, he displayed some classic withdrawal symptoms, subtly described in his essay “The Superannuated Man.” But the prison-like aspects of the work were all too oppressive: the tedium and repetition, the recurrent nightmares about having made a mistake, the daily clocking-in in the “Appearance Book,” above all the constant sense of time leaking away. The red ink they used, he said, was “clerk’s blood.”

Yet with all its drawbacks his job seemed preferable to the life of a fulltime author, at the mercy of the “book-sellers” (i.e., publishers) and editors. One of his most splendid letters was sent to the Quaker poet Bernard Barton, who had told him that he was thinking of trying his luck as a freelance:

“Throw yourself on the world without any rational plan of support, beyond what the chance employ of booksellers would afford you”!!!

Throw yourself rather, my dear sir, from the steep Tarpeian rock, slap-dash headlong upon iron spikes. If you had but five consolatory minutes between the desk [Barton worked in a bank] and the bed, make much of them, rather than turn slave to the booksellers. They are Turks and Tartars when they have poor authors at their beck…. Those fellows hate us.

Possibly Lamb overdid his indignation against publishers: it was one way of not having to reveal his honest opinion of Barton’s abilities. But most of what he says in the letter sounds heartfelt enough, and he had always lived up to his own injunction. Literature was reserved for his off-duty hours.

That did not make it any the less of a driving passion. Rather the reverse: it shows how sacred it was to him. Before Elia he was best known for his resurrection work among the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists, and there was a missionary dedication about the man who labored all day among his ledgers and then went home to work on the Specimens of English Dramatic Poets. Does it matter very much at this stage that he often misjudged the plays he discussed or praised them too highly? He was trying to revive interest in writers who had been neglected for generations, and he could never have succeeded as well as he did without overstating his case.

With many of his comments in Specimens, no such defense is called for: they are pertinent, perceptive, and stimulating. To seize on Cornelia’s lament in The White Devil, for instance, at a time when Webster was gathering dust; to contrast it with “Full fathom five” in The Tempest (a contrast which was to be put to good use in The Waste Land); to launch it, so to speak, on a European career, so that within a few years Stendhal would be quoting it in Armance—it is a small-minded critic who is happier emphasizing Lamb’s extravagances rather than this kind of achievement.

The essay on Shakespeare’s tragedies performs an even more notable act of critical justice. It is chiefly notorious for asserting that there is an unbridgeable gap between the experience of reading the tragedies, and more particularly King Lear, and the altogether more superficial experience of seeing them presented on the stage. I think that this is an argument which deserves to be taken a good deal more seriously than it usually is, but in a sense it is a secondary issue. The essay’s true purpose is to establish the full imaginative scope of the tragedies, and in the course of discussing Lear Lamb does something which later generations can too readily take for granted: two hundred years after it was written, he provides the first account of the play that praises it without reserve and adequately reflects its grandeur.

It is his whole critical approach, his Romanticism, that enables him to do this, but personal experience must surely have reinforced his sympathy and empathy with Lear in his madness. “We are in his mind,” he wrote, “we are sustained by a grandeur which baffles the malice of daughters and storms; in the aberrations of his reason, we discover a mighty irregular power of reasoning.” There is a lesser but still powerful parallel in another remarkable essay. “On the Genius and Character of Hogarth.” Arguing against the academicians for Hogarth’s profundity, Lamb instances and analyzes as one of his most telling examples the scene in Bedlam at the end of The Rake’s Progress. And in the best of the purely critical pieces in the essays of Elia he addresses himself squarely to the relation, or rather the opposition, between madness and art. “On the Sanity of True Genius” is the definitive refutation of the myth of the mad artist; it made a natural starting point for Lionel Trilling when he set out to examine latter-day refinements of the same fallacy in his own essay “Art and Neurosis.”

In spite of the papers on Shakespeare and Hogarth and the “Sanity of True Genius,” Lamb’s critical gifts rarely sustained him through an argument of any length. Much of his finest criticism is casual, tangential, thrown out in passing. And not just his criticism, either. Remarks, Gertrude Stein observed, are not literature, but Lamb alone would be enough to prove her wrong. Indeed, some of his comments are more resonant out of context than in. The forebodings he expressed to his friend George Dyer, for instance:

Can we ring the bells backward? Can we unlearn the arts that pretend to civilize, and then burn the world? There is a march of Science; but who shall beat the drums for its retreat?

It is a little disappointing, if you have come across this passage in isolation, to go back to Lamb’s original letter and see that he was writing to Dyer, half banteringly, about rick-burning and agricultural unrest. But the words still stand: he has simply deviated for a few lines into deeper territory, as he often does. His chance phrases get to the heart of the matter; his jokes—the good ones—have a way of provoking serious reflection. And as for Lamb in a mood of unaffected earnestness, his comments on Byron are an eloquent example:

He is great in so little a way. To be a Poet is to be The Man, the whole Man—not a petty portion of occasional low passion worked up into a permanent form of Humanity. Shakespeare has thrust such rubbishly feelings into a corner, the dark dusty heart of Don John in the Much Ado.

He was thinking primarily, as any contemporary would, of Childe Harold and Lara and the like, of Byron the Romantic poseur, the Byron of the best-seller lists. Elsewhere he conceded that the poet had his merits as a satirist. But the whole Byronic charade repelled him, with its spurious glamour (as he saw it) and its personality-mongering. He would not I think have been surprised to learn that posterity finds Byron’s letters more entertaining than his own, or perhaps unduly disturbed. As Hazlitt said of him, “He evades the present; he mocks the future.” As he once wrote himself: “Damn the age; I will write for Antiquity!”

If posterity nonetheless took him to its heart for a hundred years or so, today it seems unlikely that he will ever regain the position he once held. His faults tell too heavily against him: the patches of horrible facetiousness, the pages where he just whiffles along. Worse still, many of his successes are of an order than no longer interests us very much. For his full appeal he depends on a tradition which began to break up a long time ago, on a sense of continuity and easy familiarity with literature which would look almost as out of place in a contemporary English department as it would among the media. Yet anyone willing to go back to him with an open mind will find surprising strengths, and an insight into life all the more effective for not advertising itself as something heavier than it was. Lightness, as Henry James reminds us in one of his essays, is not necessarily a damning limitation: “Who was lighter than Charles Lamb, for instance, and yet who was wiser for our immediate needs?”

This Issue

June 16, 1983