Charles Lamb - Biography
Charles Lamb was an important English poet and literary critic of Welsh origin. He was born in London on February 10th 1775. As an expert of the Shakespearean period as well as an author of talent, Lamb would come to be considered one of the most significant literary critic of his time. Moreover, Lamb would be celebrated for his simple, yet not simplistic, personal reflections on daily life, which would always be supplemented with a distinctive sense of both humor and tragedy. Lamb’s two most famous works were to be Essays of Elia, and, Tales from Shakespeare, in fact a children’s book. He would actually write the latter in collaboration with his sister, Mary Lamb (1764 - 1847). Charles Lamb also had an older brother, John, named after their father, as well as four other brothers and sisters who would not survive their infancy. Lamb would come to be described by his main biographer, E.V. Lucas, as the most touching character in English literature.
Lamb’s parents were Elizabeth Field and John Lamb. Charles would be their last child after Mary, who was born 11 years earlier while John, the brother, would be born even earlier than his sister. The father was a clerk for a lawyer. Years later Charles would write a kind of biographical portrait of him in a piece entitled “Elia on the Old Benchers” and would refer to him by the name of “Lovel”.
Charles Lamb would become a close friend of the famous British philosopher, literary critic and poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 - 1834). In fact Lamb’s first published work would be four sonnets which would be included in the 1796 Poems on Various Subjects by Coleridge. And yet because Lamb had a stutter he would not only be disqualified at boarding school for a clerical career, but while Coleridge and others would be able to go on to university, Lamb stopped his schooling at the age of 14. Notwithstanding this would not prevent Lamb to become an important member, and indeed to play an important part in a circle of famous authors. This included important literary figures such as poet William Wordworth (1770 - 1850), essayist and poet Leigh Hunt (1784 - 1859), writer and literary critic William Hazlitt (1778 - 1830) as well as poet Robert Southey (1774 - 1843).
In 1819 at the age of 44, Lamb who had never married mostly because of his commitment to his troubled family, would fall in love with Fanny Kelly, an actress from Covent Garden. He would eventually propose to her but she would refuse and he would in the end die single. Unmarried, Lamb would live with his sister, Mary Lamb, who too would stay single as she almost perpetually would suffer from serious mental disorders. In fact, in 1796, in a fit of insanity, she would stab their mother, Elizabeth, killing her with a kitchen knife. After that, in spite of the difficult turn of events Charles did all he could to stay close to his sister and would even in fact end up becoming Mary’s official guardian, thus making it possible for her to be released form the mental hospital. It is noteworthy to keep in kind that when she felt at home and well enough, Mary could be one of the most creative, lively woman.
Case in point, together with his sister Charles would write the famous Tales of Shakespeare, a collection of 20 tales inspired by the eminent playwright. Published in 1807 this book remains to this day a classic of British literature for youth. The first publisher of the work was the British journalist, political philosopher and novelist William Godwin (1756 - 1836), husband of the English philosopher and one of the first advocate of women’s right Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 - 1797), and also father of British writer Mary Shelley (1797 - 1851). The book was to be constantly reprinted to this day and was even finally illustrated for the first time in 1899 by Arthur Rackham (1867 - 1939). The work would also be translated into several languages and thus made available across the globe.
In the Essays of Elia, Lamb’s intimate and informal tone of voice would captivate many readers, old and young. The name of “Elia” had actually been the alias he had used whenever he would contribute to the renowned London Magazine. The essays describes the strange world of the author’s fictional alter ego that is embodied is the melancholic character Elia. It is as a true painter of modern life that Lamb reinvents here the tradition of essay writing. He does so, for instance, by mixing subjective bias, sensuality and critical thinking. In those essays Lamb makes good use of irony, nostalgia, a shares with us his vivid fascination for the details of things, including the very minutes of everyday life. In sum, Essays of Elia constitute a singular text in which the author is clearly fascinated by the diversity of things, the unreality of the past, the absolute uniqueness of experience as well as a keen awareness of the limitation of writing.
Lamb’s writings also includes poetry with Blank Verse (1798), and with Pride’s Cure (1802). Novels, such as The Adventures of Ulysses (1808) which was written with children in mind as the audience, it is thus reminiscent of The Tales from Shakespeare. But also Specimens of English Dramatic poets who lived about the time of Shakespeare (1808), which is essentially a kind of anthology of sections from Elizabethan dramas together with commentaries. This work has been said to have had a significant impact on the way nineteenth century English verses would come to be written. In On the Tragedies of Shakespeare (1811) Charles Lamb examines and is critical of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be”. He would controversially state in the piece that:
I confess myself utterly unable to appreciate that celebrated soliloquy in Hamlet, beginning 'To be or not to be', or to tell whether it be good, bad, or indifferent; it has been so handled and pawed about by declamatory boys and men, and torn so inhumanly from its living place and principle of continuity in the play, till it is become to me a perfect dead member.
We also have pieces such as Witches and Other Night Fears (1821) and The Last Essays of Elia (1833), which is the second volume of the famous Essays of Elia (1823). This last volume would in fact be published shortly before Lamb’s death. It includes essay titles such as A Bachelor’s Complaint of the Behaviour of Married People; The Two Races of Men; My First Play; Confessions of a Drunkard; Mrs. Battle’s Opinions on Whist as well as others. In a very real sense, while in his lifetime Lamb was encouraged by many for his hard work in literature, he actually enjoyed very little appreciation for his unique talent while he was alive. Not surprisingly perhaps, he would thus go through difficult moments of doubt with regards to his work and seriously seems to have wondered about his ability to write anything worth mentioning. In fact, in similar ways to his sister, Mary, he too would suffer episodes of psychological illness. Be that as it may, Charles Lamb left us with a very rich legacy o f work ranging from short stories, essays, poetry, even plays, as well as letters filled with his exceptional intimate style and humor.
Lamb would succumb of an infection he would unfortunately contract from a minor cut on his face after having fallen in the street, in fact only several months after Coleridge. Charles Lamb would die at Edmonton, a suburb of London on December 27th 1834 at the age of 59. He is buried at All Saint’s Churchyard, also in Edmonton. Mary, his sister would survive him by more than a decade and would be buried next to him. It is interesting to note that in 1849, 15 years after Lamb’s death, the French author Eugène Forcade (1820 - 1869) would describe Lamb as having been of an eminently friendly nature, an original writer, a kind of hero constantly caring for his poor sister.