We are perhaps over-fond of these arid pastimes nowadays. It is not the "sweet musk-roses," the "apricocks and dewberries" of literature that please us best; like Bottom the Weaver, we prefer the "bottle of hay. Literature exhausted, we may turn to art, and resolve, say, the Sistine Madonna I deprecate the Manes of the "Divine Painter" into some ingenious and recondite rebus.
For such critical chopped-hay--sweeter to the modern taste than honey of Hybla--Charles Lamb had little relish. Charles Lamb was blessed with an intellectual palate as fine as Keats's, and could enjoy the savor of a book or of that dainty, "in the whole mundus edibilis the most delicate," Roast Pig, for that matter without pragmatically asking, as the king did of the apple in the dumpling, "how the devil it got there.
Suggestions not unprofitable for these later days lurk in these traits of Elia the student and critic. How worthy the imitation, for instance, of those disciples who band together to treat a fine poem of Browning, say, or Shelley as they might a chapter in the Revelation,--speculating sagely upon the import of the seven seals and the horns of the great beast, instead of enjoying the obvious beauties of their author.
To the schoolmaster--whose motto would seem too often to be the counsel of the irate old lady in Dickens, "Give him a meal of chaff! How many ingenuous boys, lads in the very flush and hey-day of appreciativeness of the epic virtues, have been parsed, declined, and conjugated into an utter detestation of the melodious names of Homer and Virgil! Better far for such victims had they, instead of aspiring to the vanities of a "classical education," sat, like Keats, unlearnedly at the feet of quaint Chapman, or Dryden, or even of Mr.
Perhaps, by way of preparative to the reading of Charles Lamb's letters, it will be well to run over once more the leading facts of his life. First let us glance at his outward appearance.
Fortunately there are a number of capital pieces of verbal portraiture of Elia. You could not mistake him. He was somewhat stiff in his manner, and almost clerical in dress, which indicated much wear. He had a long, melancholy face, with keen, penetrating eyes; and he walked with a short, resolute step citywards. He looked no one in the face for more than a moment, yet contrived to see everything as he went on. No one who ever studied the human features could pass him by without recollecting his countenance; it was full of sensibility, and it came upon you like new thought, which you could not help dwelling upon afterwards: it gave rise to meditation, and did you good.
This small, half-clerical man was--Charles Lamb. Charles Mathews, wife of the comedian, who met Lamb at a dinner, gives an amusing account of him Lamb's first appearance was not prepossessing. His figure was small and mean, and no man was certainly ever less beholden to his tailor. His 'bran' new suit of black cloth in which he affected several times during the day to take great pride, and to cherish as a novelty that he had looked for and wanted was drolly contrasted with his very rusty silk stockings, shown from his knees, and his much too large, thick shoes, without polish.
His shirt rejoiced in a wide, ill-plaited frill, and his very small, tight, white neckcloth was hemmed to a fine point at the ends that formed part of a little bow. His hair was black and sleek, but not formal, and his face the gravest I ever saw, but indicating great intellect, and resembling very much the portraits of Charles I. From this sprightly and not too flattering sketch we may turn to Serjeant Talfourd's tender and charming portrait,--slightly idealized, no doubt; for the man of the coif held a brief for his friend, and was a poet besides A light frame, so fragile that it seemed as if a breath would overthrow it, clad in clerk-like black, was surmounted by a head of form and expression the most noble and sweet.
His black hair curled crisply about an expanded forehead; his eyes, softly brown, twinkled with varying expression, though the prevalent expression was sad; and the nose, slightly curved, and delicately carved at the nostril, with the lower outline of the face delicately oval, completed a head which was finely placed upon the shoulders, and gave importance and even dignity to a diminutive and shadowy stem. Who shall describe his countenance, catch its quivering sweetness, and fix it forever in words? There are none, alas! Deep thought, striving with humor; the lines of suffering wreathed into cordial mirth, and a smile of painful sweetness, present an image to the mind it can as little describe as lose.
His personal appearance and manner are not unjustly characterized by what he himself says in one of his letters to Manning,  'a compound of the Jew, the gentleman, and the angel. The writings of Charles Lamb abound in passages of autobiography. Its church, its halls, its gardens, its fountain, its river, I had almost said,--for in those young years what was this king of rivers to me but a stream that watered our pleasant places? John Lamb had married Elizabeth Field, whose mother was for fifty years housekeeper at the country-seat of the Plumers, Blakesware, in Hertfordshire, the "Blakesmoor" of the Essays, frequent scene of Lamb's childish holiday sports,--a spacious mansion, with its park and terraces and "firry wilderness, the haunt of the squirrel and day-long murmuring wood-pigeon;" an Eden it must have seemed to the London-bred child, in whose fancy the dusty trees and sparrows and smoke-grimed fountain of Temple Court had been a pastoral.
Within the cincture of its excluding garden-walls, wrote Elia in later years, "I could have exclaimed with that garden-loving poet,  At Blakesware, too, was the room whence the spirit of Sarah Battle--that "gentlewoman born"--winged its flight to a region where revokes and "luke-warm gamesters" are unknown. To John and Elizabeth Lamb were born seven children, only three of whom, John, Mary, and Charles, survived their infancy. Of the survivors, Charles was the youngest, John being twelve and Mary ten years his senior,--a fact to be weighed in estimating the heroism of Lamb's later life.
At the age of seven, Charles Lamb, "son of John Lamb, scrivener, and Elizabeth, his wife," was entered at the school of Christ's Hospital,--"the antique foundation of that godly and royal child King Edward VI. With his schoolfellows Charles seems to have been, despite his timid and retiring disposition he said of himself, "while the others were all fire and play, he stole along with all the self-concentration of a young monk" , a decided favorite.
Le Grice, a schoolmate often mentioned in essay and letter, "was an amiable, gentle boy, very sensible and keenly observing, indulged by his schoolfellows and by his master on account of his infirmity of speech I never heard his name mentioned without the addition of Charles, although, as there was no other boy of the name of Lamb, the addition was unnecessary; but there was an implied kindness in it, and it was a proof that his gentle manners excited that kindness.
For us the most important fact of the Christ's Hospital school-days is the commencement of Lamb's life-long friendship with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, two years his senior, and the object of his fervent hero-worship. Most of us, perhaps, can find the true source of whatever of notable good or evil we have effected in life in the moulding influence of one of these early friendships or admirations. It is the boy's hero, the one he loves and reverences among his schoolfellows,-- not his taskmaster,--that is his true teacher, the setter of the broader standards by which he is to abide through life.
Happy the man the feet of whose early idols have not been of clay. It was under the quickening influence of the eloquent, precocious genius of the "inspired charity boy" that Charles Lamb's ideals and ambitions shaped themselves out of the haze of a child's conceptions. Coleridge at sixteen was already a poet, his ear attuned to the subtlest melody of verse, and his hand rivalling, in preluding fragments, the efforts of his maturer years; he was already a philosopher, rapt in Utopian, schemes and mantling hopes as enchanting--and as chimerical--as the pleasure-domes and caves of ice decreed by Kubla Khan; and the younger lad became his ardent disciple.
Lamb quitted Christ's Hospital, prematurely, in November, , and the companionship of the two friends was for a time interrupted. To part with Coleridge, to exchange the ease and congenial scholastic atmosphere of the Hospital for the res angusta domi, for the intellectual starvation of a life of counting-house drudgery, must have been a bitter trial for him.
But the shadow of poverty was upon the little household in the Temple; on the horizon of the future the blackening clouds of anxieties still graver were gathering; and the youngest child was called home to share the common burden. Charles Lamb was first employed in the South Sea House, where his brother John --a cheerful optimist, a dilettante in art, genial, prosperous, thoroughly selfish, in so far as the family fortunes were concerned an outsider--already held a lucrative post.
It was not long before Charles obtained promotion in the form of a clerkship with the East India Company,--one of the last kind services of Samuel Salt, who died in the same year, ,--and with the East India Company he remained for the rest of his working life. Upon the death of their generous patron the Lambs removed from the Temple and took lodgings in Little Queen Street, Holborn; and for Charles the battle of life may be said to have fairly begun.
His work as a junior clerk absorbed, of course, the greater part of his day and of his year. Yet there were breathing-spaces: there were the long evenings with the poets; with Marlowe, Drayton, Drummond of Hawthornden, and Cowley,--"the sweetest names, which carry a perfume in the mention;" there were the visits to the play, the yearly vacation jaunts to sunny Hertfordshire.
The intercourse with Coleridge, too, was now occasionally renewed. The latter had gone up to Cambridge early in , there to remain--except the period of his six months' dragooning--for the nest four years. During his visits to London it was the habit of the two schoolfellows to meet at a tavern near Smithfield, the "Salutation and Cat" to discuss the topics dear to both: and it was about this time that Lamb's sonnet to Mrs Siddons, his first appearance in print, was published in the "Morning Chronicle. The year was a terribly eventful one for the Lambs. There was a taint of insanity in the family on the father's side, and on May 27, , we find Charles writing to Coleridge these sad words,--doubly sad for the ring of mockery in them The six weeks that finished last year and began this, your very humble servant spent very agreeably in a madhouse at Hoxton.
I am got somewhat rational now and don't bite any one.
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The Best Letters of Charles Lamb by Charles Lamb
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Showing Rating details. More filters. Sort order. He had a very unique style of writing, with quirky observations and side notes.
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His life made his writing make more sense, so be sure to read the introduction. Aug 30, Whitney Moore rated it liked it. There were, however, nuggets for mere mortals like myself, some of which I will cite to bring a smile: "This dark, frieze-coated, hoarse, teeth-chattering month.
Yours is a poetical family. Your "Monody"  is so superlatively excellent that I can only wish it perfect, which I can't help feeling it is not quite.
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