xxxxxThe English writer Charles lamb is known for his Tales from Shakespeare, a children’s book written in collaboration with his sister Mary, and for his Essays of Elia, a series of witty articles first begun in 1820. In these he recalls commonplace events which had occurred in his lifetime, describing them in a charming, attractive style. Their subject matter was extremely diverse and sometimes fanciful by nature, but he avoided certain topics, such as politics, religion and sex, in order not to disturb or offend. Among these essays were A Dissertation on Roast Pig, Dream Children, Mrs Battle’s Opinions on Whist and The Supernatural Man. He was also a successful literary critic, gaining a reputation for his appraisal of Elizabethan drama in general and Shakespeare’s tragedies in particular. He was closely associated with Coleridge and Leigh Hunt, and numbered among his friends Wordsworth, Southey and, as we shall see, Hazlitt and Clare. He worked as a clerk for the East India Company in London for over 30 years, and for much of that time cared for his mentally troubled sister.

CHARLES LAMB 1775 - 1834  (G3a, G3b, G3c, G4, W4)


Lamb: detail, after the English portrait painter Henry Meyer (c1782-1847), 1826 – National Portrait Gallery, London. Mary: c1847, artist unknown. Hazlitt: self-portrait, c1802, contained in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography – Maidstone Museum and Art Gallery, Kent, England. Clare: detail, by the English portrait painter William Hilton (1786-1839), 1820 – National Portrait Gallery, London.

xxxxxThe English writer Charles Lamb is best known for his Tales from Shakespeare, written specifically for children, and his charming series entitled Essays of Elia, a rambling set of observations on commonplace events, experienced during his own lifetime. He was also, however, an outstanding literary critic, and produced a number of valuable works of criticism, particularly on Elizabethan drama in general and Shakespeare’s tragedies in particular.

xxxxxLamb was born in London and attended the school at Christ’s Hospital. It was there that he met his lifelong friends Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Leigh Hunt. On leaving school at the age of 15, he began work as a clerk in the accounting department of the East India Company, then in India House, and he remained there until his retirement in 1825, over thirty years later. Tragedy struck in 1796 when his sister Mary, suffering from a mental disorder - possibly hereditary - stabbed their mother to death in a fit of madness. It is to Lamb’s great credit that, despite his own nervous disposition, he agreed to become her guardian and to take care of her for the rest of his life. As a result, they both became devoted to each other.

xxxxxHe began his literary career in the late 1790s when some poems he had written - including his Old Familiar Faces - were published by his friend Coleridge in his second edition of Poems on Various Subjects, produced in 1797. There followed a sentimental prose romance, A Tale of Rosamund Gray, in 1798, and, four years later, a poetic tragedy in blank verse entitled John Woodvil. Then in 1807, at the invitation of the philosopher William Godwin, he and his sister produced Tales from Shakespeare, a collection of prose adaptations of the bard’s plays, specially written for children. This work proved an instant success, and the following year, writing in the same vein, Lamb published The Adventures of Ulysses, a children’s version of Homer’s Odyssey. And it was at this time that he began to show his talent as a literary critic. His reputation was firmly established by his Specimens of English Dramatic Poets Who Lived about the Time of Shakespeare of 1808, a well-written work which did much to revive interest in Elizabethan drama, and by his On the Tragedies of Shakespeare, published in Leigh Hunt’s magazine Reflector three years later. Then in the early 1820s appeared On the Artificial Comedy of the Last Century.

xxxxxBut Lamb’s greatest contribution to English literature came in 1820 when he began to contribute a number of witty and sometimes whimsical essays to The London Magazine, founded that year. Written under the pseudonym Elia, and produced over the next five years, they were later published in book form as Essays of Elia in 1823 and Last Essays of Elia ten years later. Almost entirely autobiographical, the best of them deal with episodes and experiences of childhood and adult life over half a century. Written in a simple but attractive, charming style, they are centred for the most part around the humdrum events of everyday life, together with a little space for pathos and flights of fancy. Among the best known are South Sea House, the first one produced, A Dissertation on Roast Pig, Dream Children, Mrs Battle’s Opinions on Whist, The Supernatural Man, and Christ’s Hospital. What is most notable and refreshing is that these essays avoid all reference to subjects that might disturb or offend, such as politics, religion, sex and suffering.

xxxxxIn 1825 Lamb retired on the grounds of ill-health, and he and his sister moved to Edmonton, mainly because of Mary’s worsening condition. Separated from his friends, he became somewhat dispirited and began to drink heavily. He died in 1834 after a fall. Mary was committed to a mental institute and survived him by 13 years. To this last period of his life belongs one of his best poetic works, On an Infant Dying As Soon As it Was Born, produced in 1828, and Satan in Search of a Wife, published three years later.

xxxxxLamb had a great deal of personal charm and, despite a stutter, was a good conversationalist. He contributed much to English literature but, above all, he was one of the most able masters of the essay form. Apart from Coleridge and Hunt, he numbered among his friends William Wordsworth, Robert Southey, and, as we shall see, both William Hazlitt and John Clare. And during the early 1820s he befriended the English writer De Quincey, helping him to procure the publication of his famous work, Confessions of an Opium-Eater.

xxxxxIncidentally, the pseudonym Elia was thought by some to be a play on the words “I lie”, but it would seem that it was the name of a clerk employed at South Sea House, where his elder brother John was working. ……

xxxxx…… Inxthe production of Tales from Shakespeare his sister Mary played a major part. She wrote the preface and the comedies and histories. Lamb confined himself to the six tragedies, but originally only his name appeared on the title page - though there might well have been a good reason for that.


William Hazlitt

and John Clare

xxxxxThe English writer William Hazlitt (1778-1830), like his friend Charles Lamb, is remembered for his essays. Intellectually stimulating and written in an easy, colourful style, they cover a wide variety of topics well beyond those relating to art, literature and politics. In addition, he was one of the most outstanding literary critics of his day, providing penetrating and by no means flattering appraisals of present as well as past men of letters.

xxxxxHe was born in Maidstone but, as the son of a Unitarian preacher, spent his early years in Ireland and North America. On his return he attended the Unitarian seminary in Hackney for a time but, somewhat quarrelsome and moody by nature, he soon tired of this, and with the encouragement of his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whom he met in 1798, he went to Paris to try his hand at painting. Failing to make headway as an artist, he then turned to the study of philosophy, and in 1805 produced his On the Principles of Human Action, a work which brought little return.


xxxxxThus by 1811, now a married man, he was finding it hard to make a living. However, it was in that year that he began writing for the London Morning Chronicle and very soon gained a reputation as a critic and essayist. Then as from 1817 he became more widely known and appreciated following the publication of two of his major works: The Round Table, a collection of 40 essays produced from articles he had written for Leigh Hunt’s Examiner, and his Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays, a work of outstanding merit which did much to renew interest in the subject. Then followed other critical works, based on his series of lectures on English drama. These included Lectures on the English Poets, Views of the English Stage, Essays on the English Comic Writers and, in 1821, Dramatic Literature of the Age of Elizabeth. Then four years later came his The Spirit of the Age (or Contemporary Portraits), considered by many to be his masterpiece. Penetrating in their analysis and trenchant in their style, these works were well received, and made him a leading critic in the English romantic period. However, his scathing comments resulted in a number of heated disputes and the loss of some of his friends who, at one time or another, included Coleridge, Lamb, Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats.

xxxxxBut from the early 1820s Hazlitt gave most of his time over to essay writing, contained for the most part in his two famous books Table Talk, published in 1821 and The Plain Speaker, produced five years later. These essays were attractive not only for their width of interest - which, apart from the popular subjects included fringe articles on topics like travel, facing death and prizefighting - but also for the casual, engaging prose in which they were written. Once started they were hard to put down. Later collections, edited by his son William, were Literary Remains, Sketches and Essays, and Winterslow, and these contained some of his finest pieces. But not all his work was in essay form during this late period. Following his divorce in 1822, for example, he was jilted in a love affair and gave a frank account of his feelings in the Liber Amoris (or The New Pygmalion) in 1823. And also belonging to this decade was his Sketches of the Principal Picture Galleries in England, Notes of a Journey in France and Italy, and Life of Napoleon, a four volume work which tended to sing the emperor’s praises and did not go down too well.

xxxxxIncidentally, a literary critic of outstanding ability, he believed that “a genuine criticism should reflect the colour, the light and shade, and the soul and body of a work”.

xxxxxThe English writer William Hazlitt (1778-1830), like Lamb, made his name as an essayist and critic. His essays, contained mainly in his The Round Table, Table Talk and The Plain Speaker, covered a wide range of subjects and became admired for their acute observation and their witty, colourful style. In addition, a large number of works, many based on his lectures on English drama, made him one of the outstanding literary critics of his day. These included Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays, Lectures on the English Poets, Views of the English Stage, Dramatic Literature of the Age of Elizabeth and, in 1825, The Spirit of the Age (or Contemporary Portraits). Penetrating in analysis and trenchant in style, they were well received, but his scathing criticism lost him a number of friends, among whom were numbered Coleridge, Wordsworth, Lamb, Shelley and Keats. In the last years of his life he wrote Sketches of the Principal Picture Galleries in England and a four-volume Life of Napoleon.


xxxxxA young poet who was befriended by Charles Lamb was John Clare (1793-1864). A farm lad from Northamptonshire, England, he produced his first volume of poems - Poems, Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery - in 1820. Written in simple verse and showing a great love of nature, they proved extremely popular. Over the next 15 years he produced three other volumes, but these were not so successful, and he fell on hard times. To support his large family he was forced to work on the land again. Eventually he suffered a mental breakdown, and spent the last 23 years of his life in an asylum. There he produced some moving poems as to his tormented state of mind.

xxxxxA young English poet who was befriended by Charles Lamb was John Clare (1793-1864). He gained fleeting fame in 1820 with the publication of his first volume of poetry - Poems, Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery - and this earned him a sudden wave of popularity and a measure of financial security. Sadly for him, neither was to last.

xxxxxHe was born at Helpston, near Peterborough, Northamptonshire, in 1793, the son of a farm labourer, and he was himself working in the fields at the age of seven. A shy, pensive lad, he soon showed his poetic gift, fed by his own observation of country life and the folk ballads told to him by his parents and other village folk. Dubbed the “Northamptonshire Peasant Poet”, his early verse, woven around the scenes of rural life, proved highly popular. Many were attracted by the simplicity of his lines, his deep love and understanding of nature, and the joy he found in the simplest of pleasures.

xxxxxOn the strength of this unexpected rise to fame he visited London and, for a short time, mixed uneasily in literary and upper-class circles. He made a few friends, including Charles Lamb, but it was hardly his scene. Later that year he returned home and married Martha Turner, the daughter of a neighbouring farmer. In future poems she became his “Patty of the Vale”.

xxxxxBut his overnight success proved to be of short duration. His later volumes, such as Other Poems (1821), The Shepherd’s Calendar (1827), and The Rural Muse (1835), proved much less successful. The novelty of his work had run its course, and despite some generous patronage and his genuine lyrical talent, within a few years he was reduced to poverty. Unable to support his wife and seven children, he was obliged to return to the land and work once more as a farm labourer. The stress and strains of such a life took its toll, and he suffered a mental breakdown in 1837. His publisher obtained for him a place in a private asylum in Epping, Essex, but four years later he escaped and made his own way back to Northamptonshire, an incredible journey which he later recorded in prose. After some six months at home, he was certified insane and in 1841 was sent to an asylum in Northampton. He died there in 1864. Ironically, some of his most moving poetry was written in these last years of his life. One such poem, given below, gives some idea of his mental torment at that time.

I am! yet what I am who cares, or knows?

My friends foresake me like a memory lost.

I am the self-consumer of my woes;

They rise and vanish, an oblivious host,

Shadows of life, whose very soul is lost.

And yet I am – I live – though I am toss’d

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,

Into the living sea of waking dream,

Where there is neither sense of life, nor joys,

But the huge shipwreck of my own esteem

And all that’s dear. Even those I loved the best

Are strange – nay, they are stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man has never trod – for

For scenes where women never smiled or wept – for

There to abide with my Creator, God,

And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept.

Full of high thoughts, unborn. So let me lie, --

The grass below; above, the vaulted sky.

xxxxxIncidentally, in December 2004 the villagers of Glinton, Cambridgeshire, alarmed at a proposal by British Telecom to erect a phone mast near the parish church of St. Benedict, sent a letter of protest to BT and enclosed the poem Glinton Spire, composed by Clare in 1832. In this he described how the church’s “taper spire” predominated “over the level landscape and the mind”, making “common things around it glow with beauty not their own”. As a result, BT withdrew their application to build the mast, anxious to ensure that the church, a Grade One listed building dating from the 12th century, was not disturbed!