English Essays: Sidney to Macaulay.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Introductory Note

Charles Lamb

CHARLES LAMB (1775–1834) was born in the Temple, London, where his father was a clerk to one of the benchers. He was a schoolmate of Coleridge’s at Christ’s Hospital, and shortly after leaving school he entered the Indian House, on the staff of which he worked for thirty-three years. He never married, but lived with his sister Mary as her guardian on account of her inherited tendency to insanity. His friends included (besides Coleridge) Wordsworth, Hunt, Hazlitt, Southey, and many others, and his letters as well as the works he published reveal one of the most attractive personalities in literature.

Lamb wrote a handful of poems marked by delicate sentiment, and made some rather unsuccessful attempts at drama. But his name rests on his essays,—the familiar essays on a great variety of subjects, whimsical, humorous, graceful, quaint; the critical essays, sensitive, illuminating, in the best sense appreciative. He did much for the revival of interest in the Elizabethan drama; and the essay “On the Tragedies of Shakespeare,” is the most distinguished single piece of critical writing that came from his pen. The main thesis of the paper—“that the plays of Shakespeare are less calculated for performance on a stage than those of almost any dramatist whatever”—is, of course, paradoxical; but Lamb’s method was not logical or philosophical as his friend Coleridge’s aimed at being. His criticism is a frank expression of his personal feelings; it is in the proper sense “impressionistic” criticism; and it gets its value from the quality and flavor of the author’s taste and personality. It is thus pure literature—the expression of the man himself—rather than scientific analysis; and in this branch of writing there is nothing in English more delightful.