Charles Lamb by Henry Hoppner Meyer

Charles Lamb (1775-1834). Portrait by Henry Hoppner Meyer (1782-1847), 1826. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Charles Lamb
Born February 10, 1775
London, England
Died December 27, 1834 (aged 59)
London, England
Pen name Elia
Occupation clerk
Nationality United Kingdom English
Citizenship British subject
Literary movement Lake Poets
Notable work(s) Tales from Shakespeare, Essays of Elia
Relative(s) Mary Lamb, sister

Charles Lamb (February 10, 1775 - December 27, 1834) was an English poet, fiction writer, literary critic , and essayist of the Romantic era. A close contemporary and personal friend of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, Charles Lamb was considered a critical member of the Lake Poets, but unlike with Wordsworth and Coleridge his poetry never achieved lasting fame. Eventually, Lamb redirected his energies away from verse to prose , and in doing so he became one of the most valuable and enduring essayists of the Romantic period.

Lamb, while a minor poet of the Romantic period, is one of its most invaluable authors. His essays read like the finest journalism, and provide readers with a panoramic view of the life and literary currents of one of the most dramatic periods in English literary history.


Youth Edit

Lamb was born in London, the son of Elizabeth Field and John Lamb. Lamb was the youngest child, with an 11 year older sister Mary, an even older brother John, and 4 other siblings who did not survive their infancy. John Lamb (father), who was a lawyer's clerk, spent most of his professional life as the assistant and servant to a barrister by the name of Samuel Salt who lived in the Inner Temple in London. It was there in the Inner Temple in Crown Office Row that Charles Lamb was born and spent his youth. Lamb created a portrait of his father in his "Elia on the Old Benchers" under the name Lovel. Lamb's older brother was too much his senior to be a youthful companion to the boy but his sister Mary, being born eleven years before him, was probably his closest playmate. Lamb was also cared for by his paternal aunt Hetty, who seems to have had a particular fondness for him. A number of writings by both Charles and Mary suggest that the conflict between Aunt Hetty and her sister-in-law created a certain degree of tension in the Lamb household. However, Charles speaks fondly of her and her presence in the house seems to have brought a great deal of comfort to him.

Some of Lamb's fondest childhood memories were of time spent with Mrs. Field, his maternal grandmother, who was for many years a servant to the Plummer family, who owned a large country house called Blakesware, near Widford, Hertfordshire. After the death of Mrs. Plummer, Lamb's grandmother was in sole charge of the large home and, as Mr. Plummer was often absent, Charles had free rein of the place during his visits. A picture of these visits can be glimpsed in the Elia essay Blakesmoor in H—shire.

"Why, every plank and panel of that house for me had magic in it. The tapestried bed-rooms – tapestry so much better than painting – not adorning merely, but peopling the wainscots – at which childhood ever and anon would steal a look, shifting its coverlid (replaced as quickly) to exercise its tender courage in a momentary eye-encounter with those stern bright visages, staring reciprocally – all Ovid on the walls, in colours vivider than his descriptions."[1]

Little is known about Charles's life before the age of seven. We know that Mary taught him to read at a very early age and he read voraciously. It is believed that he suffered from smallpox during his early years which forced him into a long period of convalescence. After this period of recovery Lamb began to take lessons from Mrs. Reynolds, a woman who lived in the Temple and is believed to have been the former wife of a lawyer. Mrs. Reynolds must have been a sympathetic schoolmistress because Lamb maintained a relationship with her throughout his life and she is known to have attended dinner parties held by Mary and Charles in the 1820s. E.V. Lucas suggests that sometime in 1781 Charles left Mrs. Reynolds and began to study at the Academy of William Bird.[2]

His time with William Bird did not last long, however, because by October 1782 Lamb was enrolled in Christ's Hospital, a charity boarding school chartered by King Edward VI in 1552. Christ's Hospital was a typical English boarding school, and many students later wrote of the terrible violence they suffered there. The upper master of the school from 1778 to 1799 was Reverend James Boyer, a man renowned for his unpredictable and capricious temper. In one famous story Boyer was said to have knocked one of Leigh Hunt's teeth out by throwing a copy of Homer at him from across the room. Lamb seemed to have escaped much of this brutality, in part because of his amiable personality and in part because Samuel Salt, his father's employer and Lamb's sponsor at the school was one of the institute's Governors.

A thorough record of Christ's Hospital is recorded in several essays by Lamb, as well as the Autobiography of Leigh Hunt and the Biographia Literaria of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, (with whom Charles developed a lifelong friendship).

Despite the brutality Lamb got along well at Christ's Hospital, due in part, perhaps, to the fact that his home was not far distant thus enabling him, unlike many other boys, to return often to the safety of home. Years later, in his essay "Christ’s Hospital Five and Thirty Years Ago," Lamb described these events, speaking of himself in the third person as "L."

I remember L. at school; and can well recollect that he had some peculiar advantages, which I and other of his schoolfellows had not. His friends lived in town, and were near at hand; and he had the privilege of going to see them, almost as often as he wished, through some invidious distinction, which was denied to us."[3]

Lamb suffered from a stutter and this "an inconquerable impediment" in his speech deprived him of Grecian status at Christ's Hospital, thus disqualifying him from a clerical career. While Coleridge and other scholarly boys were able to go on to Cambridge, Lamb left school at 14 and was forced to find a more prosaic career. For a short time he worked in the office of Joseph Paice, a London merchant and then, for 23 weeks, until 8 February 1792, held a small post in the Examiner's Office of the South Sea House. Its subsequent downfall in a pyramid scheme after Lamb left would be contrasted to the company's prosperity in the first Elia essay. On 5 April 1792 he went to work in the Accountant's Office for British East India Company, the death of his father's employer having ruined the family's fortunes.Charles would continue to work there for 25 years, until his retirement with pension.

In 1792 while tending to his grandmother, Mary Field, in Hertfordshire, Charles Lamb fell in love with a young woman named Ann Simmons. Although no epistolary record exists of the relationship between the two, Lamb seems to have spent years wooing Miss Simmons. The record of the love exists in several accounts of Lamb's writing. Rosamund Gray is a story of a young man named Allen Clare who loves Rosamund Gray but their relationship comes to nothing because of the sudden death of Miss Gray. Miss Simmons also appears in several Elia essays under the name "Alice M." The essays "Dream Children," "New Year's Eve," and several others, speak of the many years that Lamb spent pursuing his love that ultimately failed. Miss Simmons eventually went on to marry a silversmith by the name of Bartram and Lamb called the failure of the affair his 'great disappointment.'

Family tragedyEdit

Charles and his sister Mary both suffered periods of mental illness. Charles spent six weeks in a psychiatric hospital during 1795. He was, however, already making his name as a poet.

On 22 September 1796, a terrible event occurred: Mary, "worn down to a state of extreme nervous misery by attention to needlework by day and to her mother at night," was seized with acute mania and stabbed her mother to the heart with a table knife.

Although there was no legal status of 'insanity' at the time, a jury returned a verdict of 'Lunacy' and therefore freed her from guilt of willful murder. With the help of friends Lamb succeeded in obtaining his sister's release from what would otherwise have been lifelong imprisonment, on the condition that he take personal responsibility for her safekeeping. Lamb used a large part of his relatively meagre income to keep his beloved sister in a private 'madhouse' in Islington called Fisher House.

The 1799 death of John Lamb was something of a relief to Charles because his father had been mentally incapacitated for a number of years since suffering a stroke. The death of his father also meant that Mary could come to live again with him in Pentonville, and in 1800 they set up a shared home at Mitre Court Buildings in the Temple, where they lived until 1809.

Charles Lamb by William Hazlitt

Portrait by William Hazlitt (1778-1830), 1804. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Literary lifeEdit

Despite Lamb's bouts of melancholia and alcoholism, both he and his sister enjoyed an active and rich social life. Their London quarters became a kind of weekly salon for many of the most outstanding theatrical and literary figures of the day. Charles Lamb, having been to school with Samuel Coleridge, counted Coleridge as perhaps his closest, and certainly his oldest, friend. On his deathbed, Coleridge had a mourning ring sent to Lamb and his sister. Fortuitously, Lamb's first publication was in 1796, when four sonnets by "Mr. Charles Lamb of the India House" appeared in Coleridge's Poems on Various Subjects. In 1797 he contributed additional blank verse to the second edition, and met the Wordsworths, William and Dorothy, on his short summer holiday with Coleridge at Nether Stowey, striking up a lifelong friendship with William. In London, Lamb became familiar with a group of young writers who favoured political reform, including Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Hazlitt, and Leigh Hunt.

Lamb continued to clerk for the East India Company and doubled as a writer in various genres, his tragedy, John Woodvil, being published in 1802. His farce, Mr H, was performed in 1807 at Drury Lane, where it was roundly booed.

In the first years of the 19th century, Lamb began a fruitful literary cooperation with his sister Mary. Together they wrote at least three books for William Godwin’s Juvenile Library. The most successful of these was Tales From Shakespeare, which ran through two editions for Godwin and has been published dozens of times in countless editions ever since. The book contains artful prose summaries of some of Shakespeare's most well-loved works. According to Lamb, he worked primarily on Shakespeare's tragedies, while Mary focused mainly on the comedies. Tales from Shakespeare became a best seller.

Lamb also contributed a footnote to Shakespearean studies at this time with his essay "On the Tragedies of Shakespeare," in which he argues that Shakespeare should be read rather than performed in order to protect the subtlety of Shakespeare's character development from butchering by mass commercial performances.

In 1819, at age 44, Lamb (who, because of family commitments, had never married), fell in love with an actress, Fanny Kelly, of Covent Garden, and proposed marriage. She refused him, and he died a bachelor.

In 1820 Lamb began contributing essays to the London Magazine under the pen name of "Elia". 'His collected London Magazine essays, under the title Essays of Elia, were published in 1823. A second collection, Last Essays of Elia, was published roughly ten years later, shortly before Lamb's death.

Later lifeEdit

Charles Lamb's Cottage

Charles and Mary Lamb's cottage, Bay Cottage, on Church Street in Edmonton, London. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

From 1833 till their deaths Charles and Mary Lamb lived at Bay Cottage, Church Street, Edmonton north of London (now part of the London Borough of Enfield.[4]

Charles Lamb died on 27 December 1834 (just a few months after Coleridge), of a streptococcal infection, erysipelas, contracted from a minor graze on his face sustained after slipping in the street. He was 59.

Lamb is buried in All Saints' Churchyard, Edmonton. His sister, who was ten years his senior, survived him for more than a dozen years. She is buried beside him.



Lamb's first publication was the inclusion of four sonnets in Coleridge's Poems on Various Subjects, published in 1796 by Joseph Cottle. The sonnets were significantly influenced by the poems of Burns and the sonnets of William Bowles, a largely forgotten poet of the late 18th century. Lamb's poems garnered little attention and are seldom read today. As he himself came to realize, he was a much more talented prose stylist than poet. Indeed, one of the most celebrated poets of the day—William Wordsworth—wrote to John Scott as early as 1815 that Lamb "writes prose exquisitely"—and this was five years before Lamb began The Essays of Elia for which he is now most famous.

Notwithstanding, Lamb's contributions to Coleridge's second edition of the Poems on Various Subjects showed significant growth as a poet. These poems included The Tomb of Douglas and A Vision of Repentance. Because of a temporary fall-out with Coleridge, Lamb's poems were to be excluded in the third edition of the Poems. As it turned out, a third edition never emerged. Instead, Coleridge's next publication was the monumentally influential Lyrical Ballads co-published with Wordsworth. Lamb, on the other hand, published a book entitled Blank Verse with Charles Lloyd, the mentally unstable son of the founder of Lloyd's Bank. Lamb's most famous poem was written at this time and entitled The Old Familiar Faces. Like most of Lamb's poems, it is unabashedly sentimental, and perhaps for this reason it is still remembered and widely read today, being often included in anthologies of British and Romantic period poetry. Of particular interest to Lambarians is the opening verse of the original version of The Old Familiar Faces, which is concerned with Lamb's mother, who Mary Lamb killed. It was a verse that Lamb chose to remove from the edition of his Collected Work published in 1818:

I had a mother, but she died, and left me,
Died prematurely in a day of horrors -
All, all are gone, the old familiar faces.


In the final years of the 18th century, Lamb began to work on prose, first in a novella entitled Rosamund Gray, which tells the story of a young girl whose character is thought to be based on Ann Simmonds, an early love interest. Although the story is not particularly successful as a narrative because of Lamb's poor sense of plot, it was well thought of by Lamb's contemporaries and led Shelley to observe, "what a lovely thing is Rosamund Gray! How much knowledge of the sweetest part of our nature in it!" (Quoted in Barnett, page 50)

Although he did not write his first Elia essay until 1820, Lamb’s gradual perfection of the essay form for which he eventually became famous began as early 1802 in a series of open letters to Leigh Hunt’s Reflector. The most famous of these early essays is "The Londoner," in which Lamb famously derides the contemporary fascination with nature and the countryside. He would continue to fine-tune his craft, experimenting with different essayistic voices and personae, for the better part of the next quarter-century.

As an essayist, Lamb is best known for two collections: The first, Essays of Elia, consists of a series of deeply autobiographical memoirs and essays written from the pseudonymous perspective of "Elia" and originally published as a serial for London Magazine. Essays of Elia are acclaimed as some of the finest early examples of the essay form in English, as well as exemplary masterpieces of English prose.

The second work, Tales from Shakespeare, is perhaps more unusual: commissioned as a retelling of Shakespeare's plays for children, Charles and his sister Mary Lamb retold Shakespeare's works while interspersing critical commentary on the plays. Some of Charles Lamb's criticisms would go on to influence the later development of 19th-century Shakespearean criticism.

Besides contributing to Shakespeare's reception with his book Tales From Shakespeare, Lamb also contributed to the recovery of Shakespeare's contemporaries with his book Specimens of the English Dramatic Poets Who Lived About the Time of Shakespeare.

Critical introductionEdit

by Edward Dowden

Charle Lamb's nosegay of verse may be held by the small hand of a maiden, and there is not in it one flaunting, gallant flower; it is, however, fragrant with the charities of home, like blossoms gathered in some old cottage croft. To know his varying subtleties, his play of intellect, his lambent humour, one must turn to his prose writings; but the gentle heart, the unworldly temper, the fine courtesy, betray themselves in every utterance of Lamb.

It was in early manhood and in snatches of time that his first verses were written; he speaks of them as creatures of the fancy and the feeling in life’s more vacant hours, as derivatives from the poetry of Coleridge. And certainly there is less in them of Lamb’s own favourite, Burns, than of Bowles, whom Coleridge at one time idolised. In Coleridge’s volume they modestly made their appearance. "My friend Lloyd and myself came into our first battle under cover of the greater Ajax."

The larger number of his poems are occasional; a few are interesting as records of a love in idleness that gave unusual charm to the memory of some months in Lamb’s prime of youth. From the India House desk it was pleasant to wander in fancy along some forest-glade by the side of fair-haired Anna. But after all, his dear sister, even his good and pious grandame, was closer to Lamb than any beloved "mild-eyed maid." And did there not remain to console him that life-long comrade, his pipe, the parting from which for a season he celebrates in a piece of mirthful fantasy that would readily run from verse into the quaint prose of Elia?

For less pensive companionship he had now and again little Hartley Coleridge, or Thornton Hunt, a guileless traitor enduring imprisonment with his father when Lamb addressed him in verse. Nor in those innocent days of albums was Elia unacquainted with maiden-petitioners—Edith Southey, Dora Wordsworth, Lucy Barton — bashful yet intent to acquire the autograph. Lamb’s deeper and sadder heart lay for the most part in quiet concealment; but once at least, in the mournful music of his "Old Familiar Faces", its monody is heard.[5]


  • "But, then, in every species of reading, so much depends upon the eyes of the reader..." — From Lamb's essay "On the Danger of Confounding Moral with Personal Deformity."
  • "He chose his companions for some individuality of character which they manifested. Hence not many persons of science, and few professed literati, were of his councils. They were, for the most part, persons of an uncertain fortune; ... his intimados, to confess a truth, were, in the world's eyes, a ragged regiment. He found them floating on the surface of society; and the colour, or something else, in the weed, pleased him. ... He never greatly cared for the society of what are called good people." — From Lamb's essay "A Character of the Late Elia."
Charles Lamb Memorial

Charles Lamb memorial, Watch House, Giltspur St., London. Photo by Lon Picman. Licensed under Creative Commons, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

  • "Lawyers, I suppose, were children once." — From Lamb's essay The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple; features in the preface of To Kill a Mockingbird.
  • "Man is a gaming animal. He must always be trying to get the better in something or other." — features in the Essays of Elia, 1823.


Anne Fadiman notes regretfully that Lamb is not widely read in modern times: "I do not understand why so few other readers are clamoring for his company.... [He] is kept alive largely through the tenuous resuscitations of university English departments."[6]

Notwithstanding, there has always been a small but enduring following for Lamb's works, as the long-running and still-active Charles Lamb Bulletin demonstrates. Because of his notoriously quirky, even bizarre, style, he has been more of a "cult favorite" than an author with mass popular or scholarly appeal.

Lamb was honoured by The Latymer Schoo, a grammar school in Edmonton, a suburb of London where he lived for a time; it has six houses, one of which, "Lamb", is named after him.[7]

Three of his poems ("The Old Familiar Faces," "Hester," and "On an Infant dying as soon as born") were included in the Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900.[8]


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  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Poems on Various Subjects (includes four poems by Lamb). London: C.G. & J. Robinson; Bristol: J. Cottle, 1796
    • enlarged as Poems, Second Edition, to which are now added Poems by Charles Lamb, and Charles Lloyd (includes ten poems by Lamb). Bristol: Printed by N. Biggs for J. Cottle and Robinsons, London, 1797.
  • Blank Verse (by Lamb and Charles Lloyd). London: Printed by T. Bensley for J. & A. Arch, 1798.
  • Album Verses, with a Few Others. London: Moxon , 1830.
  • Satan in Search of a Wife. London: Moxon, 1831.
  • The Poetical Works of Charles Lamb. Philadelphia: E.H. Butler & Co., 1858.[9]





  • The King and Queen of Hearts. London: Thomas Hodgkins, 1805.
  • Tales from Shakespeare: Designed for the use of young persons (by Charles Lamb & Mary Lamb, attributed to Charles Lamb). (2 volumes), London: Thomas Hodgkins at the Juvenile Library, 1807; Philadelphia: Published by Bradford & Inskeep, and New York: Inskeep & Bradford, printed by J. Maxwell, 1813.
  • Mrs. Leicester's School (by Charles Lamb and Mary Lamb). London: M.J. Godwin at the Juvenile Library, 1809; George Town: J. Milligan, 1811.
  • The Adventures Of Ulysses. London: T. Davison for the Juvenile Library, 1808; New York: Harper, 1879.
  • Poetry for Children: Entirely original (by Charles Lamb & Mary Lamb). (2 volumes), London: M.J. Godwin at the Juvenile Library, 1809; Boston: West & Richardson, & E. Cotton, 1812.
  • Prince Dorus: Or, Flattery Put Out of Countenance. A Poetical Version of an Ancient Tale. London: Printed for M.J. Godwin at the Juvenile Library, 1811.


Collected editionsEdit


Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy the Poetry Foundation.[19]


Charles Lamb (1775--1834) -- 'The old familiar faces', read by Tony Britton02:13

Charles Lamb (1775--1834) -- 'The old familiar faces', read by Tony Britton

  • Mr. H----, London, Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, 10 December 1806.[19]

See alsoEdit


  • Barnett, George L. Charles Lamb. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1976. ISBN 0805766685
  • Park, Roy (ed.) Lamb as Critic. London: Routledge and Keagen Paul, 1980. ISBN 0710003765
  • Percy Fitzgerald. Charles Lamb: His Friends, His Haunts, And His Books. Folcroft, PA.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1978. ISBN 0841443599


  1. Last Essays of Elia page 7
  2. Lucas, Life of Lamb page 41
  3. The Essays of Elia page 23
  4. Literary Enfield Retrieved 4 June 2008
  5. from Edward Dowden, "Critical Introduction: Charles Lamb (1775–1834)," The English Poets: Selections with critical introductions (edited by Thomas Humphry Ward). New York & London: Macmillan, 1880-1918. Web, July 30, 2016.
  6. Fadiman, Anne. "The Unfuzzy Lamb". At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays. pp. 26–27. 
  7. Lamb, Charles "Best Letters of Charles Lamb." Best Letters of Charles Lamb (2006): 1. Literary Reference Center. EBSCO. Web. 1 Nov. 2009.
  8. Alphabetical list of authors: Jago, Richard to Milton, John. Arthur Quiller-Couch, editor, Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900 (Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919)., Web, May 19, 2012.
  9. The Poetical Works of Charles Lamb, Internet Archive, Apr. 5, 2012.
  10. Poetry for Children (1878), Internet ARchive. Web, Sep. 14, 2013.
  11. Literary Sketches and Letters, Internet Archive, Apr. 5, 2012.
  12. Eliana: Being the hitherto uncollected writings of Charles Lamb (1864), Internet Archive. Web, Sep. 14, 2013.
  13. Mary and Charles Lamb: Poems, letters and remains, Internet Archive. Web, Apr. 5, 2012.
  14. The Complete Works of Charles Lamb, Internet Archive, Apr. 5, 2012.
  15. The Dramatic Essays of Charles Lamb, Internet Archive, Apr. 5, 2012.
  16. Poems, Plays and Miscellaneous Essays, Internet Archive, Apr. 5, 2012.
  17. Essays and Sketches, Internet Archive, Apr. 5, 2012.
  18. The Letters of Charles Lamb: Newly arranged with additions (1888), Internet Archive. Web, Sep. 14, 2013.
  19. 19.0 19.1 Charles Lamb 177-1834, Poetry Foundation, Web, Oct. 28, 2012.

External linksEdit

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