Charles Lamb’s Selected Prose

Selected ProseCharles Lamb was just 21 years old when his elder sister, in a fit of madness, stabbed his mother through the heart with a kitchen knife. He arrived on the bloody scene just in time to wrench the blade from her shaking hands. By his own petitioning, he spared her from a lifelong sentence to a public madhouse, but only on the condition that he himself take charge of her. And so, from that moment until his death nearly four decades later, Lamb was his sister’s keeper, working long hours in an accounting firm to provide for them and moving frequently between the city and countryside when his sister’s fits of hysteria became unbearable for their neighbours. In this time, he wrote poetry and prose, corresponded with some of the greatest writers of his age – notably Coleridge, Wordsworth and John Clare – and collaborated with his sister on a précis of Shakespeare’s work, The Tales Of Shakespeare, that is still widely read (I have fond memories of flipping through my grandfather’s tattered copy). His poetic ambitions never amounted to much – his verse is seldom anthologized – but in his essays, particularly his Letters Of Elia, he found an outlet adaptable to his strange character and contrarian opinions.

In the essays, he manages the difficult trick of being personal, of projecting a distinct character, without being forthcoming. Under the pseudonym Elia, he could openly discuss, for example, his struggles with alcoholism, his disdain for certain religious ceremonies or his unhappiness in the presence of certain married couples. But each subject is also treated humorously, to the point where it’s often difficult to pinpoint when he is being serious or when he is enjoying his contradictions. The essay “Confessions Of A Drunkard,” for example, is by turns sad and funny, a defence of drunkenness and an earnest account of the anguish of addiction. Here, for example, is one of the earliest paragraphs:

O pause, thou sturdy moralist, thou person of stout nerves and a strong head, whose liver is happily untouched, and ere thy gorge riseth at the name which I have written, first learn what the thing is; how much of compassion, how much of human allowance, thou mayest virtuously mingle with thy disapprobation. Trample not on the ruins of a man. Exact not, under so terrible a penalty as infamy, a resuscitation from a state of death as real as that from which Lazarus rose not by by a miracle.

Here Lamb is cleverly mocking the would-be moralizer, the “sturdy moralist,” who reacts to the “name” of drunkenness without any real understanding or sympathy for what such a condition entails – a death no less real than that suffered by Lazarus. But within the same piece he can transition to a serious tone, enumerating the particular anguish of the public drunkard in terms that cry out for sympathy:

To be an object of compassion to friends, of derision to foes; to be suspected by strangers, stared at by fools; to be esteemed dull when you cannot be witty, to be applauded for witty when you know that you have been dull; to be called upon for the extemporaneous exercise of that faculty which no premeditation can give; to be spurred on to efforts which end in contempt; to be set on to provoke mirth which procures the procurer hatred; to give pleasure and be paid with squinting malice; to swallow draughts of life-destroying wine which are to be distilled into airy breath to tickle vain auditors; to mortgage miserable morrows for nights of madness; to waste whole seas of time upon those who pay it back in little inconsiderable drops of grudging applause, – are the wages of buffoonery and death.

This is the experience of the drunkard, to be pitied by friends and laughed at by enemies, applauded and encouraged in self-destructive behaviour; to knowingly accept the coming hangover in exchange for the temporary madness – and thus respite – of alcohol. The mocking tone, so evident in the early passage, is now entirely absent, and we are treated to Lamb’s singularly beautiful prose: “miserable morrows for nights of madness,” “waste whole seas of time upon those who pay it back in little inconsiderable drops.” He is compelling our sympathy.

This edition of Lamb’s works includes his correspondence, and so occasionally we are treated to the personal experiences that prompted his essays. We are entertained, for example, by his written apologies to dinner hosts he dishonoured by drinking too much of their wine, and we can’t help but note the same half-contrite tone found in his essay: “The great object after supper is to get home, and whether that is obtained in a horizontal posture or perpendicular (as foolish men and apes affect for dignity) I think is little to the purpose.” His letters to Coleridge, his oldest friend, are by contrast devoid of affectation, mockery or innuendo. Here we get Lamb in earnest, whether he’s describing the painfulness of his domestic situation or discussing Wordsworth’s The Prelude. The letters and prose works together give us a vivid portrait of his life, the struggles he faced and the skill with which he transmuted them in his writings, confirming Lamb’s most famous epithet, from his biographer E.V. Lucas, that he is “the most lovable figure in English literature.”