Monday, January 04, 2016

Charles Lamb

As I mentioned in my best-of-the-year-post, I've been slowly making my way through Everybody's Lamb, a 550-page collection of Charles Lamb's writings, accompanied by E. H. Shepard drawings. It was published by Harcourt Brace in 1923, and it's hard for me to imagine even then that Lamb's writing could have been thought to be in any way for "everybody."

Lamb's essays are thoroughly approachable and written in a conversational and witty prose style, yet they're also clearly of another time. Montaigne, for example, would on the surface appear more clearly dated and inaccessible, what you soon discover in reading him is that his themes are for the most part universal, his essays attempts to come to terms with problems of human character. Lamb, on the other hand, tends more to the observational and the modest--and while he marshals far, far fewer classical and literary references than Montaigne, he ties his thinking much more to the moment of his writing, to the clerks of the India House where he worked, the milieu of the playhouse and theater, the odd qualities of ladies playing cards. It's a late Georgian and Regency world, and while Lamb's sensibility retains its familiarity all these centuries later, it's nonetheless hard to imagine it attracting an audience at the scale of even a marketing person's extension of the term "everybody."

That said, I'm certainly part of that more modest everybody, and I'm grateful for the existence of the book, in particular because it mixes in a number of Lamb's letters, which are wonderful examples of the art. He achieves the difficult feat of maintaining a light, amused touch even as he allows his letters, frequently, to convey genuine feeling. You quickly realize, reading them, that his correspondence with Hazlitt and Coleridge and Wordsworth was a lifeline to him, a way for him to escape his workaday world of clerks and figures, and also his home life, which was bound to his poor mad sister. He never asks for our (or his correspondents') pity, but we feel it nonetheless, mixed with admiration for his cheer and fortitude.

This letter, to Miss Fryer, a family friend, lays bare Lamb's struggle a bit more clearly than most, but at the same time it is suffused with love, a love that clearly makes possible the doing of his duty to his sister:
Your letter found me just returned from keeping my birthday (pretty innocent!) at Dover-street. I see them pretty often. I have since had letters of business to write, or should have replied earlier. In one word, be less uneasy about me; I bear my privations very well; I am not in the depths of desolation, as heretofore. Your admonitions are not lost upon me! It is no new thing for me to be left to my sister. When she is not violent, her rambling chat is better to me than the sense and sanity of this world. Her heart is obscured, not buried; it breaks out occasionally; and one can discern a strong mind struggling with the billows that have gone over it. I could be nowhere happier than under the same roof with her. Her memory is unnaturally strong; and from ages past, if we may so call the earliest records of our poor life, she fetches thousands of names and things from the ten years she lived before me. What took place from early girlhood to her coming of age principally lives again (every important thing and every trifle) in her brain with the vividness of real presence. For twelve hours incessantly she will pour out without intermission all her past life, forgetting nothing, pouring out name after name to the Waldens as a dream; sense and nonsense; truths and errors huddled together; a medley between inspiration and possession. What things we are!
"Her heart is obscured, not buried." Patience, love, fortitude. If you've not tried Lamb, and this intrigues you at all, I heartily suggest seeking him out. You could start with his oddly backward-looking, even death-obsessed plaint about New Year's, "New Year's Eve," from 1821; its insouciant humor reflects the other side of Lamb:
I care not to be carried with the tide, that smoothly bears human life to eternity, and reluct at the inevitable course of destiny. I am in love with this green earth; the face of town & country; the unspeakable rural solitudes, & the sweet security of streets. . . . Any alteration, on this earth of mine, in diet or in lodging, puzzles and discomposes me. My household-gods plant a terrible fixed foot, and are not rooted up without blood. . . . I conceive disgust at those impertinent and misbecoming familiarities, inscribed upon your ordinary tombstones. Every dead man must take upon himself to be lecturing me with his odious truism, that 'such as he now is, I must shortly be.' Not so shortly, friend, perhaps, as thou imaginest. In the meantime, I am alive. I move about. I am worth 20 of thee. Know thy betters!
"The sweet security of streets." Two hundred years later, this urbanite, looking out on snow and quiet on his own residential street, from which nothing short of death will uproot him, knows whereof Lamb speaks.


  1. What a great commentary on Lamb's work. I appreciate your contrast of Lamb with Montaigne. While I have enjoyed some of Lamb's essays over the years I much prefer the challenge of Montaigne to stir my soul.

  2. Thanks for your posting about Charles Lamb. My knowledge of Lamb has been limited to the Shakespeare tales and a biographical account of his sister's mental/emotional problems. Your posting reminds me that I ought to revisit Lamb's Shakespeare in conjunction with my own Shakespeare reading project for 2016 at Thanks.