Charles Lamb: Biography, Essays & Poems

Instructor: Susan Nagelsen

Susan has directed the writing program in undergraduate colleges, taught in the writing and English departments, and criminal justice departments.

Charles Lamb wrote essays, poetry, fiction, and drama. He was an engaging and thoughtful writer who captured the Romantic period completely. He was unsuccessful at love, but his friendships were many and valued. We'll be looking at this man's life, career, and exploits in this lesson.

Charles Lamb
Charles Lamb

Impoverished Beginning

In a story that almost sounds like it was written by Dickens, Charles Lamb was born in 1775 in London, England to parents who were servants. His mother and father's employer, Samuel Salt, Esquire, was responsible for assuring Lamb's education. Salt sponsored both of the Lamb boys' educations and like his brother, Charles attended Christ's Hospital School when he was seven. What's remarkable about this is the fact that it was there that he met Samuel Coleridge, who would become a lifelong friend and supporter. Charles stuttered, and this caused him to quit school at age fourteen, while his friend Samuel went on to Cambridge.

Charles went to work, and after a couple of false starts he landed a job at the East India House where he worked as an accountant. His work was dull and boring, but it provided stability that was necessary in his life. He wasn't rich, but he was able to live comfortably on his salary. If his work was the stabilizing force, there were two other events that changed his life by orders of magnitude.

Life Altering Events

Love eluded Charles even though he tried. He fell in love with Ann Simmons around 1792, but his grandmother discouraged the relationship because there was insanity in his family. This sent Ann into the arms of a London pawnbroker, named Barton. Almost thirty years later in Charles' Elia Essays, the main character, Elia, in the poem 'Dream Children', imagined a life with the woman he was unable to win over, wondering what their children would've been like. It's a classic 'The One That Got Away' story, really.

Charles' luck with love didn't improve much as the years went on. In 1795, he was so distressed over another love interest lost that he had himself committed to an asylum for the mentally insane for six weeks. In a letter, he told Coleridge that he 'was indeed mad, but he is better now.'

The second major event that dramatically impacted his life was when his sister, Mary Lamb--who was ten years older than Charles and had been taking care of him for years--stabbed their mother to death, in a fit of madness. She was tried and found to be insane. The courts didn't send her to an asylum, but rather put Charles in charge of her well-being. Charles and Mary's bond grew deeper and more connected as the years went on and Mary lived with him for the rest of his life. They were constant companions, except when she was having one of her mad spells, then she would go to the asylum to recover.

Through Charles' letters we learned that although he and Mary had suffered tremendously, his engaging personality drew people to them. There were a great number of friends who cared deeply for them, and they held gatherings where the house was filled with lawyers, writers, actors, and other charming and entertaining friends. Charles Lamb was someone who enjoyed the party; he loved good food and good drink. He was often the life of the event because he was so entertaining; he had the ability to make people laugh and feel comfortable, and he was a wonderful storyteller.

Disappointing End

He worked for his entire life at East India House, retiring in 1825, though he wasn't happy in retirement. He found that he was at a loss without work in his life. He also was struggling with Mary's illness playing a larger role and taking her away from him more frequently and for longer periods of time. In order to combat these feelings, he began drinking more. When Coleridge died in July of 1834, Charles' health began to decline, seeming to show that he had lost the will to live. Charles died in December of 1834, a few short months after the loss of his friend.

Letters, Poetry, and Essays

His letters shed light on his relationship with other writers of the time. As a writer, Charles Lamb surrounded himself with other writers. He met Wordsworth, Hazlitt, and other contemporary writers of the time because they were friends with Coleridge.

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