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Charles Lamb

(1775—1834) essayist

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was born in London. His father, the Lovel of ‘The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple’ in Essays of Elia, was the clerk to Samuel Salt, a lawyer, whose house in Crown Office Row was Lamb's birthplace and his home during his youth. He was educated at Christ's Hospital, where he formed an enduring admiration for S. T. Coleridge. After a few months at the South Sea House he obtained at 17 an appointment in the East India House, where he remained until his retirement in 1825. For a short time in 1795–6 he was mentally deranged, and the threat of madness became a shadow on his life. In 1796 his sister Mary, in a fit of insanity, killed their mother. Lamb undertook the charge of his sister, who remained liable to periodic breakdowns, and she repaid him with sympathy, and affection. Four sonnets by Lamb appeared in 1796 in a volume of poems by Coleridge. In 1798 appeared Blank Verse by Charles Lloyd and Charles Lamb, which included the poem ‘The Old Familiar Faces’. In the same year appeared the Tale of Rosamund Gray and Old Blind Margaret, a melodramatic, sentimental village tragedy. In 1802 Lamb published John Woodvil (at first called Pride's Cure), a tragedy in the Elizabethan style; and in 1806 his farce Mr H proved a failure at Drury Lane. With his sister he wrote Tales from Shakespear (1807), designed to make Shakespeare's plays familiar to the young; The Adventures of Ulysses (1808); and Mrs Leicester's School (1809), a collection of stories. In 1808 he published Specimens of English Dramatic Poets who lived about the time of Shakespeare. He wrote for Leigh Hunt's Reflector and for the Examiner, and in 1814 contributed to the Quarterly Review an article (much altered by Gifford, the editor) on Wordsworth's The Excursion. A collection of his miscellaneous writings in prose and verse appeared in 1818. From 1820 to 1823 Lamb was a regular contributor to the London Magazine, in which appeared the first series of essays known as Essays of Elia, published in a collected volume in 1823. The second series was published in 1833.

Lamb's literary criticism is scattered and small in volume. He had no interest in critical theory and a poor sense of structure, but his sympathies were wide and his sensitivity acute. His Letters have been edited by E. W. Marrs (3 vols, 1975–8).

Subjects: Literature

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