Charles Lamb - (1775-1834)

Charles Lamb is one of the lesser known (today anyway) romantics writing during first wave of English Romanticism, better known for producing the likes of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

He was educated at Christ's Hospital in Newgate Street, contemporanously with Coleridge, of whom he befriended. His extremely volatile and tragic family life has been well documented (in part by Lamb's own pen) - his beloved sister Mary, who was known to experience fits of insanity, went mad in 1796 and stabbed their mother to death. Lamb actually saved the poor girl's life by agreeing to be her keeper for the remainder of her days. His compassion seemed to stem from a personal understanding; he himself became temporarily insane once due to an unrequited love.

Much like Wallace Stevens, Lamb led a career totally apart from his literary one, working as a clerk in London for the East India Company for 32 years (1792-1825), six days a week, nine hours a day. Though his literary works became quite well-read and critically aclaimed, he never left his clerkship to pursue full-time writing.

His literary career began with small amounts of poetry in the 1790s, much of it inspired by the same Unitarian philosophy that underlaid Colridge's work (some of his poems even appeared in Coleridge's Poems in 1797). But it is in prose that Lamb achieved his immortality. His prosaic fame first came from his Tales from Shakespeare (1807 - and hasn't been out of print since). However, Lamb's lasting contribution to English literature comes from his pseudonymously published work Elia. Originally published as seperate essays in the London Magazine from 1820-23, they were later collectively published under the title of the pseudonym - Elia by Charles Lamb (1823). As the romantic scholar Duncan Wu writes -

"It was the glory of those essays to retrieve, in fine romantic fashion, that instinct from which the adult has long been cut adrift - a sense of the numinous and magical. They are a distinctive and inimitable combination of romantic yearning for the intensity of childhood vision, combined with an underlying fear that the world may turn out to be no more than a materialist nightmare - matter in motion."

The two most famous (and complementing) essays from Elia are Imperfect Sympathies and Witches, and Other Night-Fears.

Lamb himself attributed their success to their style -

"The essays want no Preface: They are all Preface. A Preface is nothing but a talk with the reader; and they do nothing else."
(Taken from a conversation with his publisher, John Taylor)

After retiring from the East India Company and moving out to the country, Lamb died of erysipelas on December 27th, 1834.