Charles Lamb grew up in downtown London and went to school at Christ’s Hospital where he first met lifelong friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He served in various office positions as the needs of his family required, and at age 24, with the death of his father, was placed in charge of all the family’s needs. He published his first poems in 1796 in a Coleridge collection, and published various works through the early years of the 19th century, when he had his first break with Tales of Shakespeare (1807), a joint project with his sister Mary. By this time he had gained a footing in London’s literary elite circle and had become friends with William Wordsworth, Percy Shelley, William Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt, and others. All his adult life he wrote for periodicals in England, particularly London Magazine, and covered everything from dreams, religion, and politics, to marriage, food, and love. Before he died he published Essays of Elia (1823), and Final Essays of Elia (1833), both collections of his contributions to London Magazine.
Essays by Charles Lamb
All fool’s dayThe more laughable blunders a man shall commit in your company, the more tests he giveth you, that he will not betray or overreach you.
A bachelor’s complaint of the behaviour of married peopleNothing is to me more distasteful than that entire complacency and satisfaction which beam in the countenances of a new-married couple.
A chapter on earsSentimentally I am disposed to harmony. But organically I am incapable of a tune.
A complaint of the decay of beggars in the metropolisThere was a dignity springing from the very depth of their desolation; as to be naked is to be so much nearer to the being a man, than to go in livery.
Detached thoughts on books and readingI love to lose myself in other men's minds. When I am not walking, I am reading; I cannot sit and think. Books think for me.
A dissertation upon roast pigPig—let me speak his praise—is no less provocative of the appetite, than he is satisfactory to the criticalness of the censorious palate.
Dream children: A reverieWe are nothing; less than nothing, and dreams. We are only what might have been, and must wait upon the tedious shores of Lethe millions of ages before we have existence, and a name.
Edax on appetiteAn original peculiarity of constitution is no crime; that not that which goes into the mouth desecrates a man, but that which comes out of it.
The genteel style in writingthe rank of the writer is never more innocently disclosed, than where he takes for granted the compliments paid by foreigners to his fruit-trees.
Grace before meatThe form then of the benediction before eating has its beauty at a poor man's table, or at the simple and unprovocative repasts of children. It is here that the grace becomes exceedingly graceful.
The LondonerI was born, as you have heard, in a crowd. This has begot in me an entire affection for that way of life, amounting to an almost insurmountable aversion from solitude and rural scenes.
Mackery end, in HertfordshireThose slender ties, that prove slight as gossamer in the rending atmosphere of a metropolis, bind faster, as we found it, in hearty, homely, loving Hertfordshire.
Modern gallantryHe was the Preux Chevalier of Age; the Sir Calidore, or Sir Tristan, to those who have no Calidores or Tristans to defend them.
Mrs. Battle's opinions on whistMan is not a creature of pure reason he must have his senses delightfully appealed to.
New Year’s EveEvery man hath two birth-days: two days, at least, in every year, which set him upon revolving the lapse of time, as it affects his mortal duration.
The old and new schoolmasterThe modern schoolmaster is expected to know a little of every thing, because his pupil is required not to be entirely ignorant of any thing.
On some of the old actorsOf all the actors who flourished in my time--a melancholy phrase if taken aright, reader--Bensley had most of the swell of soul, was greatest in the delivery of heroic conceptions, the emotions consequent upon the presentment of a great idea to the fancy.
Oxford in the vacationThe mighty future is as nothing, being every thing! the past is every thing, being nothing,
Popular fallaciesCoolness is as often the result of an unprincipled indifference to truth or falsehood, as of a sober confidence in a man's own side in a dispute.
Preface to The Last Essays of EliaBetter it is, that a writer should be natural in a self-pleasing quaintness, than to affect a naturalness (so called) that should be strange to him.
A Quaker’s meetingFor a man to refrain even from good words, and to hold his peace, it is commendable; but for a multitude, it is great mastery.
Sanity of true geniusSo far from the position holding true, that great wit (or genius, in our modern way of speaking), has a necessary alliance with insanity, the greatest wits, on the contrary, will ever be found to be the sanest writers.
The south-sea houseTo the idle and merely contemplative, to such as me, old house! there is a charm in thy quiet:--a cessation--a coolness from business--an indolence almost cloistral--which is delightful!
The two races of menThere is a class of alienators more formidable than that which I have touched upon: I mean our borrowers of books--those mutilators of collections, spoilers of the symmetry of shelves, and creators of odd volumes.
Valentine’s dayNot many sounds in life, and I include all urban and all rural sounds, exceed in interest a knock at the door.
In comparing modern with ancient manners, we are pleased to compliment ourselves upon the point of gallantry; a certain obsequiousness, or deferential respect, which we are supposed to pay to females, as females.
I shall believe that this principle actuates our conduct, when I can forget, that in the nineteenth century of the era from which we date our civility, we are but just beginning to leave off the very frequent practice of whipping females in public, in common with the coarsest male offenders.
I shall believe it to be influential, when I can shut my eyes to the fact, that in England women are still occasionally — hanged.
I shall believe in it, when actresses are no longer subject to be hissed off a stage by gentlemen.
I shall believe in it, when Dorimant hands a fish-wife across the kennel; or assists the apple-woman to pick up her wandering fruit, which some unlucky dray has just dissipated.
I shall believe in it, when the Dorimants in humbler life, who would be thought in their way notable adepts in this refinement, shall act upon it in places where they are not known, or think themselves not observed — when I shall see the traveller for some rich tradesman part with his admired box-coat, to spread it over the defenceless shoulders of the poor woman, who is passing to her parish on the roof of the same stage-coach with him, drenched in the rain — when I shall no longer see a woman standing up in the pit of a London theatre, till she is sick and faint with the exertion, with men about her, seated at their ease, and jeering at her distress; till one, that seems to have more manners or conscience than the rest, significantly declares “she should be welcome to his seat, if she were a little younger and handsomer.” Place this dapper warehouseman, or that rider, in a circle of their own female acquaintance, and you shall confess you have not seen a politer-bred man in Lothbury.
Lastly, I shall begin to believe that there is some such principle influencing our conduct, when more than one-half of the drudgery and coarse servitude of the world shall cease to be performed by women.
Until that day comes, I shall never believe this boasted point to be any thing more than a conventional fiction; a pageant got up between the sexes, in a certain rank, and at a certain time of life, in which both find their account equally.
I shall be even disposed to rank it among the salutary fictions of life, when in polite circles I shall see the same attentions paid to age as to youth, to homely features as to handsome, to coarse complexions as to clear — to the woman, as she is a woman, not as she is a beauty, a fortune, or a title.
I shall believe it to be something more than a name, when a well-dressed gentleman in a well-dressed company can advert to the topic of female old age without exciting, and intending to excite, a sneer:— when the phrases “antiquated virginity,” and such a one has “overstoocl her market,” pronounced in good company, shall raise immediate offence in man, or woman, that shall hear them spoken.
Joseph Paice, of Bread-street-hill, merchant, and one of the Directors of the South–Sea company — the same to whom Edwards, the Shakspeare commentator, has addressed a fine sonnet — was the only pattern of consistent gallantry I have met with. He took me under his shelter at an early age, and bestowed some pains upon me. I owe to his precepts and example whatever there is of the man of business (and that is not much) in my composition. It was not his fault that I did not profit more. Though bred a Presbyterian, and brought up a merchant, he was the finest gentleman of his time. He had not one system of attention to females in the drawing-room, and another in the shop, or at the stall. I do not mean that he made no distinction. But he never lost sight of sex, or overlooked it in the casualties of a disadvantageous situation. I have seen him stand bare-headed — smile if you please — to a poor servant girl, while she has been inquiring of him the way to some street — in such a posture of unforced civility, as neither to embarrass her in the acceptance, nor himself in the offer, of it. He was no dangler, in the common acceptation of the word, after women: but he reverenced and upheld, in every form in which it came before him, womanhood. I have seen him — nay, smile not — tenderly escorting a marketwoman, whom he had encountered in a shower, exalting his umbrella over her poor basket of fruit, that it might receive no damage, with as much carefulness as if she had been a Countess. To the reverend form of Female Eld he would yield the wall (though it were to an ancient beggar-woman) with more ceremony than we can afford to show our grandams. He was the Preux Chevalier of Age; the Sir Calidore, or Sir Tristan, to those who have no Calidores or Tristans to defend them. The roses, that had long faded thence, still bloomed for him in those withered and yellow cheeks.
He was never married, but in his youth he paid his addresses to the beautiful Susan Winstanley — old Winstanley’s daughter of Clapton — who dying in the early days of their courtship, confirmed in him the resolution of perpetual bachelorship. It was during their short courtship, he told me, that he had been one day treating his mistress with a profusion of civil speeches — the common gallantries — to which kind of thing she had hitherto manifested no repugnance — but in this instance with no effect. He could not obtain from her a decent acknowledgment in return. She rather seemed to resent his compliments. He could not set it down to caprice, for the lady had always shown herself above that littleness. When he ventured on the following day, finding her a little better humoured, to expostulate with her on her coldness of yesterday, she confessed, with her usual frankness, that she had no sort of dislike to his attentions; that she could even endure some high-flown compliments; that a young woman placed in her situation had a right to expect all sort of civil things said to her; that she hoped she could digest a dose of adulation, short of insincerity, with as little injury to her humility as most young women: but that — a little before he had commenced his compliments — she had overheard him by accident, in rather rough language, rating a young woman, who had not brought home his cravats quite to the appointed time, and she thought to herself, “As I am Miss Susan Winstanley, and a young lady — a reputed beauty, and known to be a fortune — I can have my choice of the finest speeches from the mouth of this very fine gentleman who is courting me — but if I had been poor Mary Such-a-one (naming the milliner) — and had failed of bringing home the cravats to the appointed hour — though perhaps I had sat up half the night to forward them — what sort of compliments should I have received then? — And my woman’s pride came to my assistance; and I thought, that if it were only to do me honour, a female, like myself, might have received handsomer usage: and I was determined not to accept any fine speeches, to the compromise of that sex, the belonging to which was after all my strongest claim and title to them.”
I think the lady discovered both generosity, and a just way of thinking, in this rebuke which she gave her lover; and I have sometimes imagined, that the uncommon strain of courtesy, which through life regulated the actions and behaviour of my friend towards all of womankind indiscriminately, owed its happy origin to this seasonable lesson from the lips of his lamented mistress.
I wish the whole female world would entertain the same notion of these things that Miss Winstanley showed. Then we should see something of the spirit of consistent gallantry; and no longer witness the anomaly of the same man — a pattern of true politeness to a wife — of cold contempt, or rudeness, to a sister — the idolater of his female mistress — the disparager and despiser of his no less female aunt, or unfortunate — still female — maiden cousin. Just so much respect as a woman derogates from her own sex, in whatever condition placed — her handmaid, or dependent — she deserves to have diminished from herself on that score; and probably will feel the diminution, when youth, and beauty, and advantages, not inseparable from sex, shall lose of their attraction. What a woman should demand of a man in courtship, or after it, is first — respect for her as she is a woman; — and next to that — to be respected by him above all other women. But let her stand upon her female character as upon a foundation; and let the attentions, incident to individual preference, be so many pretty additaments and ornaments — as many, and as fanciful, as you please — to that main structure. Let her first lesson be-with sweet Susan Winstanley — to reverence her sex.