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Then was laid the foundation of his passionate attachment to town life. He would have sympathised with Dr. Johnson and applauded his remark, “ If you have seen one green field, you have seen all green fields, let us take a walk down Fleet Street.” In a letter to Wordsworth,
I have passed all my days in London, until I have formed as many and intense local attachments as any of you mountaineers can have done with dead nature. The lighted shops of the Strand and Fleet Street, the innumerable trades, tradesmen, and customers, coaches, waggons, playhouses
the crowds, the very dirt and mud, the sun shining upon houses and pavements, the print shops, the old bookstalls, parsons cheapening books, coffee houses, steams of soups from kitchens, the pantomimes—London itself a pantomime and a masquerade-all these things work themselves into my mind, and feed me, without a power of satiating me
I often shed tears in the motley Strand from fulness of joy at so much life!
At the age of seven he obtained a presentation to Christ's Hospital, probably through the influence of his father's employer, Mr. Salt, and in one of his essays gives an amusing account of the famous Blue Coat Schoolthe detestable food—“Monday's milk porritch, blue and tasteless." “The pease soup of Saturday coarse and choking." “The Wednesday's mess of millet.” The “boiled beef on Thursdays with detestable marigolds floating in the pail to poison the broth.”
“Our scanty mutton scrags on Fridays—and rather more savoury but .grudging portions of the same flesh rotten-roasted or rare on Tuesdays.” Charles, however, escaped some of these gastronomical enormities owing to the kindness of an aunt. “I remember,” says he, “the good old relative (in whom love forbade pride) squatting down upon some odd stone in a by-nook of the cloisters, disclosing the viands (of higher regale than those cates which the raven ministered to the
Tishbite), and the contending passions of L(amb) at the unfolding. There was love for the bringer, shame for the thing brought, and the manner of its bringing; sympathy for those who were too many to share in it: and at top of all, hunger (eldest, strongest of the passions !), predominant, breaking down the stony fences of shame and awkwardness and a troubling over-consciousness."
The upper master of the school at this time was the Reverend James Boyer, a good scholar and able schoolmaster, but with too pronounced a faith in the efficacy of external stimulus for mental dulness, a faith he consistently shewed by his works, to the detriment of many a cuticle. "Nothing was more common," says Lamb, “than to see him make a headlong entry into the schoolroom from his inner recess or library, and with turbulent eye, singling out a lad, roar out · Ods my life, sirrah' (his favourite adjuration) 'I have a great mind to whip you '— then with as sudden a retracting impulse fling back into his lair—and after a cooling lapse of some minutes (during which all but the culprit had totally forgotten the context), drive headlong out again, piecing out his imperfect sense, as if it had been some devil's litany, with the expletory yell, “and I will, too.'”
In his fifteenth year straitened circumstances at home made it necessary for Lamb to leave Christ's Hospital and accept a clerkship; he spent three years at the South Sea House, and then transferred his services to the accountant's office of the East India company, where he remained until pensioned off a few years before his death. “Upon the shelves of that office," he used to say, “are preserved my real works in many folio volumes, the so-called works issued to the public being only the recreation of my leisure hours."
Nowhere, probably, outside of Utopia do the square pegs find angular holes, and the round pegs circular ones.
The world employs Robert Burns to guage ale barrels, and sends Charles Lamb to an accountant's desk where, as he said, “the wood entered into his soul.” “The opera
. omnia of Lamb drawn up in a hideous battalion, at the cost of labour so enormous, would be known only to certain families of spiders in one generation, and of rats in the next. Such a labour of Sisyphus—the rolling up a ponderous stone to the summit of a hill only that it might roll back again by the gravitation of its own dulnessseems a bad employment for a man of genius in his meridian energies. And yet perhaps not. Perhaps the collective wisdom of Europe could not have devised for Lamb a more favourable condition of toil than this very India House clerkship.
For an event occurred a few years after he went to the India House which cast a baleful shadow across Lamb's life, and made it a lingering tragedy; he needed the steadying influence of a regular occupation, and its monotony of systematic application was perhaps a blessing in disguise. His father, suffering now from softening of the brain, had left his situation, and was living upon a pension in Little Queen Street, Holborn. His mother was
, ill and bedridden. There was an hereditary taint of insanity in the family. Charles himself had spent six weeks in a lunatic asylum in the early part of 1796. Amid all the family troubles, poverty, incurable sickness, mental aberration, Mary Lamb had borne the burden and heat of the day, like Martha, “encumbered with much serving.” Incessant in devotion to bedridden mother and imbecile father, taking in work to add a slender pittance to the meagre income and eke out the scanty store, at length she succumbed to the terrible strain, the dreadful malady, that “leprous distilment in the blood,” broke out in a frightful homicidal form. Snatching up a knife in the
a ungovernable fury engendered by insanity, she stabbed her mother to death, Charles, too late, wresting the weapon from her grasp.
After the inquest, the poor creature was consigned to a lunatic asylum, but some time later, having recovered her reason, was given up to her brother at his urgent entreaty, upon the understanding that he should be answerable for her safe keeping. “This calamity of his fireside,” says de Quincey, “followed soon after by the death of his father
determined the future destiny of Lamb. Apprehending with the perfect grief of perfect love that his sister's fate was sealed for life—viewing her as his own greatest benefactress, which she really had been through her advantage by ten years of age--yielding with impassioned readiness to the depth of his fraternal affection what at anyrate he would have yielded to the sanctities of duty as interpreted by his own conscience, he resolved for ever to resign all thoughts of marriage with a young lady whom he loved—forever to abandon all ambitious prospects that might have tempted him into uncertainties, humbly to content himself with the certainties of his Indian clerkship, to dedicate himself for the future to the care of his desolate and prostrate sister, and to leave the rest to God.”
This noble programme of self-denial Charles Lamb heroically carried out, he accepted his responsibility as a sacred duty, with unsurpassable brotherly love he consecrated his life to his sister's welfare, and his protecting care only ceased with death. “ God love her,” he said, his eyes filling with tears, "may we two never love each other less." Having taken his resolution, Lamb never shrunk from the consequences it entailed, or murmured at the cost of sacrifice, he bore the burden with a fortitude of the quiet, passive, martyr kind which makes no noise, which
wins no applause, which simply suffers and endures. Henceforth the two were marked creatures, exposed to all the venom of slanderous tongues, to all the ill-natured satire of foolish and ignoble minds. They were driven from place to place, from lodging to lodging, none caring to harbour the homicidal maniac and her strange guardian. Time after time, and with increasing frequency as life advanced, Mary relapsed into insanity. Again and again had she to be consigned to the sad shelter of a lunatic asylum, and every time she recovered, her brother was there to resume his tender guardianship. Just before one of her attacks they were met walking hand-in-hand towards the mad-house, both bathed in tears.
To keep his sister, Charles had to devise means of aug. menting his income, his salary at the India House being insufficient at that period for their joint support. He worked at literature after office hours. In 1797, he produced, in conjunction with Coleridge and Charles Lloyd, a small volume of poems, and a year later published A Tale of Rosamund Gray and Old Blind Margaret. “What a lovely thing is Rosamund Gray” said Shelley. “How much knowledge of the sweetest and deepest part of our nature in it. When I think of such a mind as Lamb's, when I see how unnoticed remain things of such exquisite and complete perfection, what should I hope for myself if I had not higher objects in view than fame.”
But, unfortunately, work of the best kind is seldom lucrative, and Lamb wanted something more tangible than a poet's applause, he wanted money to enable him to carry out the solemn vow and promise that he had made, and soon after we find him turning his humorous powers to account by supplying a newspaper with six jokes a day at the rate of sixpence a joke! Anything more truly melancholy it is difficult to conceive. They were witticisms