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- Charles Lamb - 4/25 -
provided, or unprovided, with the means of learning, they were neither lifted up beyond their own family nor depressed by mean habits, such as an ordinary charity school is supposed to generate. They floated onwards towards manhood in a wholesome middle region, between a too rare ether and the dense and abject atmosphere of pauperism. The Hospital boy (as Lamb says) never felt himself to be a charity boy. The antiquity and regality of the foundation to which he belonged, and the mode or style of his education, sublimated him beyond the heights of the laboring classes.
From the "Christ's Hospital five and thirty years ago," it would appear that the comforts enjoyed by Lamb himself exceeded those of his schoolfellows, owing to his friends supplying him with extra delicacies. There is no doubt that great tyranny was then exercised by the older boys (the monitors) over the younger ones; that the scholars had anything but choice and ample rations; and that hunger ("the eldest, strongest of the passions") was not a tyrant unknown throughout this large institution.
Lamb remained at Christ's Hospital for seven years; but on the half- holidays (two in every week) he used to go to his parents' home, in the Temple, and when there would muse on the terrace or by the lonely fountain, or contemplate the dial, or pore over the books in Mr. Salt's library, until those antiquely-colored thoughts rose up in his mind which in after years he presented to the world.
Amongst the advantages which Charles derived from his stay at Christ's Hospital, was one which, although accidental, was destined to have great effect on his subsequent life. It happened that he reckoned amongst his schoolfellows one who afterwards achieved a very extensive reputation, namely, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This youth was his elder by two years; and his example influenced Lamb materially on many occasions, and ultimately led him into literature. Coleridge's projects, at the outset of life, were vacillating. In this respect Lamb was no follower of his schoolfellow, his own career being steady and unswerving from his entrance into the India House until the day of his freedom from service--between thirty and forty years. His literary tastes, indeed, took independently almost the same tone as those of his friend; and their religious views (for Coleridge in his early years became a Unitarian) were the same.
When Coleridge left Christ's Hospital he went to the University--to Jesus College, Cambridge; but came back occasionally to London, where the intimacy between him and Lamb was cemented. Their meetings at the smoky little public house in the neighborhood of Smithfield--the "Salutation and Cat"--consecrated by pipes and tobacco (Orinoco), by egg-hot and Welsh rabbits, and metaphysics and poetry, are exultingly referred to in Lamb's letters. Lamb entertained for Coleridge's genius the greatest respect, until death dissolved their friendship. In his earliest verses (so dear to a young poet) he used to submit his thoughts to Coleridge's amendments or critical suggestions; and on one occasion was obliged to cry out, "Spare my ewe lambs: they are the reflected images of my own feelings."
It was at a very tender age that Charles Lamb entered the "work-a-day" world. His elder brother, John, had at that time a clerkship in the South Sea House, and Charles passed a short time there under his brother's care or control, and must thus have gained some knowledge of figures. The precise nature of his occupation in this deserted place, however (where some forms of business were kept up, "though the soul be long since fled," and where the directors met mainly "to declare a dead dividend"), is not stated in the charming paper of "The South Sea House." Charles remained in this office only until the 5th April, 1792, when he obtained an appointment (through the influence, I believe, of Mr. Salt) as clerk in the Accountant's Office of the East India Company. He was then seventeen years of age.
About three years after Charles became a clerk in the India House, his family appear to have moved from Crown Office Row into poor lodgings at No. 7 Little Queen Street, Holborn. His father at that time had a small pension from Mr. Salt, whose service he had left, being almost fatuous; his mother was ill and bedridden; and his sister Mary was tired but, by needle-work all day, and by taking care of her mother throughout the night. "Of all the people in the world" (Charles says), "she was most thoroughly devoid of all selfishness." There was also, as a member of the family, an old aunt, who had a trifling annuity for her life, which she poured into the common fund. John Lamb (Charles's elder brother) lived elsewhere, having occasional intercourse only with his kindred. He continued, however, to visit them, whilst he preserved his "comfortable" clerkship in the South Sea House.
It was under this state of things that they all drifted down to the terrible year 1796. It was a year dark with horror. There was an hereditary taint of insanity in the family, which caused even Charles himself to be placed, for a short time, in Hoxton Lunatic Asylum. "The six weeks that finished last year and began this (1796), your very humble servant spent very agreeably in a madhouse, at Hoxton." These are his words when writing to Coleridge.
Mary Lamb had previously been repeatedly attacked by the same dreadful disorder; and this now broke out afresh in a sudden burst of acute madness. She had been moody and ill for some little time previously, and the illness came to a crisis on the 23d of September, 1796. On that day, just before dinner, Mary seized a "case-knife" which was lying on the table, pursued a little girl (her apprentice) round the room, hurled about the dinner forks, and finally, in a fit of uncontrollable frenzy, stabbed her mother to the heart.
Charles was at hand only in time to snatch the knife out of her grasp, before further hurt could be done. He found his father wounded in the forehead by one of the forks, and his aunt lying insensible, and apparently dying, on the floor of the room.
This happened on a Thursday; and on the following day an inquest was held on the mother's body, and a verdict of Mary's lunacy was immediately found by the jury. The Lambs had a few friends. Mr. Norris--the friend of Charles's father and of his own childhood--"was very kind to us;" and Sam. Le Grice "then in town" (Charles writes) "was as a brother to me, and gave up every hour of his time in constant attendance on my father."
After the fatal deed, Mary Lamb was deeply afflicted. Her act was in the first instance totally unknown to her. Afterwards, when her consciousness returned and she was informed of it, she suffered great grief. And subsequently, when she became "calm and serene," and saw the misfortune in a clearer light, this was "far, very far from an indecent or forgetful serenity," as her brother says. She had no defiant air, no affectation, nor too extravagant a display of sorrow. She saw her act, as she saw all other things, by the light of her own clear and gentle good sense. She was sad; but the deed was past recall, and at the time of its commission had been utterly beyond either her control or knowledge.
After the inquest, Mary Lamb was placed in a lunatic asylum, where, after a short time, she recovered her serenity. A rapid recovery after violent madness is not an unusual mark of the disease; it being in cases of quiet, inveterate insanity, that the return to sound mind (if it ever recur) is more gradual and slow. The recovery, however, was only temporary in her case. She was throughout her life subject to frequent recurrences of the same disease. At one time her brother Charles writes, "Poor Mary's disorder so frequently recurring has made us a sort of marked people." At another time he says, "I consider her as perpetually on the brink of madness." And so, indeed, she continued during the remainder of her life; and she lived to the age of eighty-two years.
Charles was now left alone in the world. His father was imbecile; his sister insane; and his brother afforded no substantial assistance or comfort. He was scarcely out of boyhood when he learned that the world has its dangerous places and barren deserts; and that he had to struggle for his living, without help. He found that he had to take upon himself all the cares of a parent or protector (to his sister) even before he had studied the duties of a man.
Sudden as death came down the necessary knowledge: how to live, and how to live well. The terrible event that had fallen upon him and his, instead of casting him down, and paralyzing his powers, braced and strung his sinews into preternatural firmness. It is the character of a feeble mind to lie prostrate before the first adversary. In his case it lifted him out of that momentary despair which always follows a great calamity. It was like extreme cold to the system, which often overthrows the weak and timid, but gives additional strength and power of endurance to the brave and the strong.
"My aunt was lying apparently dying" (writes Lamb), "my father with a wound on his poor forehead, and my mother a murdered corpse, in the next room. I felt that I had something else to do than to regret. _I had the whole weight of the family upon me;_ for my brother--little disposed at any time to take care of old age and infirmity--has now, with his bad leg, exemption from such duties; and I am now left alone."
In about a month after his mother's death (3d October), Charles writes, "My poor, dear, dearest sister, the unhappy and unconscious instrument of the Almighty's judgment on our house, is restored to her senses; to a dreadful sense of what has passed; awful to her mind, but tempered with a religious resignation. She knows how to distinguish between a deed committed in a fit of frenzy and the terrible guilt of a mother's murder." In another place he says, "She bears her situation as one who has no right to complain." He himself visits her and upholds her, and rejoices in her continued reason. For her use he borrows books ("for reading was her daily bread"), and gives up his time and all his thoughts to her comfort.
Thus, in their quiet grief, making no show, yet suffering more than could be shown by clamorous sobs or frantic words, the two--brother and sister-- enter upon the bleak world together. "Her love," as Mr. Wordsworth states in the epitaph on Charles Lamb, "was as the love of mothers" towards her brother. It may be said that his love for her was the deep life-long love of the tenderest son. In one letter he writes, "It was not a family where I could take Mary with me; and I am afraid that there is something of dishonesty in any pleasures I take without her." Many years afterwards (in 1834, the very year in which he died) he writes to Miss Fryer, "It is no new thing for me to be left with my sister. When she is not violent, _her rambling chat is better to me than the sense and sanity of the world."_ Surely there is great depth of pathos in these unaffected words; in the love that has outlasted all the troubles of life, and is thus tenderly expressed, almost at his last hour.
John Lamb, the elder brother of Charles, held a clerkship, with some considerable salary, in the South Sea House. I do not retain an agreeable impression of him. If not rude, he was sometimes, indeed generally, abrupt and unprepossessing in manner. He was assuredly deficient in that courtesy which usually springs from a mind at friendship with the world. Nevertheless, without much reasoning power (apparently), he had much cleverness of character; except when he had to purchase paintings, at which times his judgment was often at fault. One of his sayings is mentioned in the (Elia) essay of "My Relations." He seems to have been, on one occasion, contemplating a group of Eton boys at play, when he observed, "What a pity it is to think that these fine ingenuous lads will some day be changed into frivolous members of Parliament?" Like some persons who, although case-hardened at home, overflow with sympathy towards distant objects, he cared less for the feelings of his neighbor close at hand than for the eel out of water or the oyster disturbed in its shell.
John Lamb was the favorite of his mother, as the deformed child is frequently the dearest. "She would always love my brother above Mary," Charles writes in 1796, "although he was not worth one tenth of the
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