In graceful prose not unworthy of his subject, the distinguished English biographer Lord David Cecil paints an endearing portrait of “St. Charles,” as Thackeray was later to call Lamb. Saint he was, certainly, and sinner, too. The death of Lamb’s mother at the hands of his intermittently mad sister, Mary, caused him lasting grief and was permanently to color his future career with melancholy. He appears at once, upon this dreadful domestic upheaval, to have resigned any hopes or ambitions he may have entertained for himself; from that time forward his life is one of selfless devotion to his unhappy sister.
In his earliest years Lamb suffered a great deal from night fears produced by his vivid imagination. He was sickly as a boy, laboring as he did under the twin impediments of an awkward gait and a persistent stammer, not qualities calculated to win friends among the unruly schoolboys common in the England of the late 18th century; yet, he proved to be popular with his fellows, and his childhood was, on the whole, a happy one. By a stroke of good fortune, Mr. Samuel Salt, who employed Lamb’s father as a scrivener, happened to be a governor of Christ’s Hospital and arranged for young Charles to be enrolled as a pupil at that venerable institution. There—in the antique costume still donned by the scholars of his day—Lamb first met the youthful Coleridge who was to exert such a profound influence over him. As David Cecil puts it: “Getting to know Coleridge was to prove the most important event in Charles Lamb’s school life.” He goes on to describe the precocious philosopher exercising his uncommon talents among his admiring schoolfellows. “An archangel a little damaged,” was Lamb’s quaint description of Coleridge long afterwards. That description seems perfectly to capture the essence of the man whose genius produced The Ancient Mariner.
Indeed Lamb was later to become closely connected with several of the leading figures of the English Romantic movement: Coleridge, Wordsworth, Southey, Hazlitt, and De Quincey were all, at one time or another, to be found at Lamb’s literary gatherings in his chambers at the Inner Temple. Lamb himself, of course, never was a writer by profession. The constant attention required by Mary meant that he was compelled to hold regular employment, and thus he passed the greater portion of his life behind a desk in the offices of the East India Company in London.
For most of us, I suspect, Charles Lamb is more familiar today as Elia the essayist than Lamb the poet or Lamb the playwright. As a literary form, the essay proved to be the ideal medium of expression for his talents, yet for years he poured his energies into producing poems and plays that never caught the public’s imagination. At one point a play of his was performed at a theater in Drury Lane; but when the audience began to hiss its disapproval, Lamb joined in for fear he might be discovered as the playwright. The essays are characterized by a charm and simplicity unmatched in English letters. Liberally sprinkled with archaisms. Lamb’s prose reveals his intense admiration for the poets and dramatists of the 17th century. Indeed, Lamb did much to restore interest in many a neglected figure from that age.
In the pages of David Cecil’s readable study. Lamb emerges as a man at once lovable and capable of exciting our pity. Yet pity he never looked for; by his own exertions he provided for Mary and himself and never was dependent on the charity of his friends. Certainly he suffered much from lowness of spirits brought on by Mary’s increasingly frequent bouts of insanity which caused him to indulge a fondness for strong drink. “You must die first,” he observed once to Mary. But all his unselfish planning came to nothing—Mary outlived him by 10 years.
A Portrait of Charles Lamb is by no means a complete study of its subject: for a fuller work we may turn to that of E.V. Lucas. As an introduction to the essential features of Lamb’s life, though, it is excellent and ought surely to promote in us a desire to read more of that delightful writer.
[A Portrait of Charles Lamb, by David Cecil (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons) $19.95]