Charles Lamb

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The greatest pleasure I know is to do a good action by stealth, and to have it found out by accident.

Charles Lamb (10 February 177527 December 1834) was an English essayist and poet, best known for his Essays of Elia and for the children's book Tales from Shakespeare, which he produced along with his sister, Mary Lamb.


  • Severe and saintly righteousness
    Composed the clear white bridal dress;
    Jesus, the Son of Heaven's high King
    Bought with his blood the marriage ring
    • A Vision Of Repentance, as quoted in Works of Charles Lamb and Mary Lamb
  • In heav'n, the saint nor pity feels, nor care,
    For those thus sentenced - pity might disturb
    The delicate sense and most divine repose
    Of spiritus angelical
    Blessed be God,
    The measure of his judgments is not fixed
    By man's erroneous standard. He discerns
    No such inordinate difference and vast
    Betwixt the sinner and the saint, to doom
    Such disproportion'd fates.
    Compared with him,
    No man on earth is holy called: they best
    Stand in his sight approved, who at his feet
    Their little crowns of virtue cast, and yield,
    To him of his own works the praise, his due.
    • Composed at midnight, as quoted in The Poetical Works of Charles Lamb, p. 72
  • Look upward, Feeble Ones! look up, and trust
    That He, who lays this mortal frame in dust,
    Still hath the immortal Spirit in His keeping
    In Jesus' sight they are not dead, but sleeping
    • In his letter to Vincent Novello (8 November 1830)
  • MY dearest friend — White or some of my friends or the public papers by this time may have informed you of the terrible calamities that have fallen on our family. I will only give you the outlines. My poor dear dearest sister in a fit of insanity has been the death of her own mother. I was at hand only time enough to snatch the knife out of her grasp. She is at present in a mad house, from whence I fear she must be moved to an hospital. God has preserved to me my senses, — I eat and drink and sleep, and have my judgment I believe very sound. My poor father was slightly wounded, and I am left to take care of him and my aunt. Mr. Norris of the Bluecoat school has been very very kind to us, and we have no other friend, but thank God I am very calm and composed, and able to do the best that remains to do. Write, —as religious a letter as possible— but no mention of what is gone and done with. —With me “the former things are passed away,” and I have something more to do that [than] to feel. God almighty have us all in his keeping.
    • Lamb in September 27, 1796. In his letter to Coleridge; after the family tragedy. As quoted in Works of Charles and Mary Lamb. Letters (1905).
  • I read your letters with my sister, and they give us both abundance of delight. Especially they please us two, when you talk in a religious strain,—not but we are offended occasionally with a certain freedom of expression, a certain air of mysticism, more consonant to the conceits of pagan philosophy, than consistent with the humility of genuine piety. To instance now in your last letter—you say, “it is by the press [sic], that God hath given finite spirits both evil and good (I suppose you mean simply bad men and good men), a portion as it were of His Omnipresence!” Now, high as the human intellect comparatively will soar, and wide as its influence, malign or salutary, can extend, is there not, Coleridge, a distance between the Divine Mind and it, which makes such language blasphemy? Again, in your first fine consolatory epistle you say, “you are a temporary sharer in human misery, that you may be an eternal partaker of the Divine Nature.” What more than this do those men say, who are for exalting the man Christ Jesus into the second person of an unknown Trinity,—men, whom you or I scruple not to call idolaters? Man, full of imperfections, at best, and subject to wants which momentarily remind him of dependence; man, a weak and ignorant being, “servile” from his birth “to all the skiey influences,” with eyes sometimes open to discern the right path, but a head generally too dizzy to pursue it; man, in the pride of speculation, forgetting his nature, and hailing in himself the future God, must make the angels laugh. Be not angry with me, Coleridge; I wish not to cavil; I know I cannot instruct you; I only wish to remind you of that humility which best becometh the Christian character. God, in the New Testament (our best guide), is represented to us in the kind, condescending, amiable, familiar light of a parent: and in my poor mind ’tis best for us so to consider of Him, as our heavenly Father, and our best Friend, without indulging too bold conceptions of His nature. Let us learn to think humbly of ourselves, and rejoice in the appellation of “dear children,” “brethren,” and “co-heirs with Christ of the promises,” seeking to know no further...God love us all, and may He continue to be the father and the friend of the whole human race!
    • Lamb's letter to Coleridge (24 October 1796)’ as quoted in Works of Charles and Mary Lamb (1905), Letter 11.
  • Far transcend my weak invention.
    ’Tis a simple Christian child,
    Missionary young and mild,
    From her store of script’ral knowledge
    (Bible-taught without a college)
    Which by reading she could gather,
    Teaches him to say Our Father
    To the common Parent, who
    Colour not respects nor hue.
    White and Black in him have part,
    Who looks not to the skin, but heart.
    • “The Young Catechist” (1827)
  • Atheists, or Deists only in the name,
    By word or deed deny a God. They eat
    Their daily bread, & draw the breath of heaven,
    Without a thought or thanks; heav'n's roof to them
    Is but a painted ceiling hung with lamps,
    No more, that light them to their purposes.
    They 'wander loose about.' They nothing see,
    Themselves except, and creatures like themselves,
    That liv'd short-sighted, impotent to save.
    So on their dissolute spirits, soon or late,
    Destruction cometh 'like an armed man,'
    Or like a dream of murder in the night,
    Withering their mortal faculties, & breaking
    The bones of all their pride.
    • Living Without God In The World (1798)
  • The flouting infidel doth mock when Christians cry
    • Lamb's letter to Charles Cowden Clarke (summer, 1821), as quoted in Works of Charles and Mary Lamb (1905), Letter 263
  • Cultivate simplicity or rather should I say banish elaborateness, for simplicity springs spontaneous from the heart.
  • I have something more to do than to feel.
I have had playmates, I have had companions,
In my days of childhood, in my joyful school days—
All, all are gone, the old familiar faces.
  • I have had playmates, I have had companions,
    In my days of childhood, in my joyful school days—
    All, all are gone, the old familiar faces.
    • Old Familiar Faces (1798)
  • For God's sake (I never was more serious), don't make me ridiculous any more by terming me gentle-hearted in print.
  • Please to blot out gentle hearted, and substitute drunken dog, ragged head, seld-shaven, odd-ey'd, stuttering, or any other epithet which truly and properly belongs to the Gentleman in question.
  • Separate from the pleasure of your company, I don't much care if I never see a mountain in my life.
  • The man must have a rare recipe for melancholy, who can be dull in Fleet Street.
  • Nursed amid her [London's] noise, her crowds, her beloved smoke, what have I been doing all my life, if I have not lent out my heart with usury to such scenes?
  • Gone before
    To that unknown and silent shore.
    • Hester (1803), st. 7
  • This very night I am going to leave off Tobacco! Surely there must be some other world in which this unconquerable purpose shall be realized.
  • I am determined my children shall be brought up in their father's religion, if they can find out what it is.
  • Who first invented work, and bound the free
    And holiday-rejoicing spirit down
    . . . . . . . . .
    To that dry drudgery at the desk's dead wood?
    . . . . . . . . .
    Sabbath-less Satan!
    • Work (1819)
  • I came home for ever!
  • Riddle of destiny, who can show
    What thy short visit meant, or know
    What thy errand here below?
    • On an Infant Dying as Soon as Born (1827)
  • When my sonnet was rejected, I exclaimed, 'Damn the age; I will write for Antiquity!'
    • Letter to Proctor (22 January 1829), in Oxford Dictionary of Quotations by Subject (2000), p. 526
  • Some cry up Haydn, some Mozart,
    Just as the whim bites. For my part,
    I do not care a farthing candle
    For either of them, nor for Handel.
  • Can we ring the bells backward? Can we unlearn the arts that pretend to civilize, and then burn the world? There is a march of science; but who shall beat the drums for its retreat?
  • The greatest pleasure I know is to do a good action by stealth, and to have it found out by accident.
  • The pilasters reaching down were adorned with a glistering substance (I know not what) under glass (as it seemed), resembling—a homely fancy, but I judged it to be sugar-candy; yet to my raised imagination, divested of its homelier qualities, it appeared a glorified candy.
    • My First Play; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919)
  • Not if I know myself at all.
    • The Old and New Schoolmaster; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919)
  • And half had staggered that stout Stagirite.
    • Written at Cambridge; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919)
  • I like you and your book, ingenious Hone!
    In whose capacious all-embracing leaves
    The very marrow of tradition 's shown;
    And all that history, much that fiction weaves.
    • To the Editor of the Every-Day Book; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919)
  • He might have proved a useful adjunct, if not an ornament to society.
    • Captain Starkey; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919)
  • Neat, not gaudy.
    • Letter to Wordsworth (1806); reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919)
  • Martin, if dirt was trumps, what hands you would hold!
    • Lamb's Suppers; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919)
  • Returning to town in the stage-coach, which was filled with Mr. Gilman's guests, we stopped for a minute or two at Kentish Town. A woman asked the coachman, "Are you full inside?" Upon which Lamb put his head through the window and said, "I am quite full inside; that last piece of pudding at Mr. Gilman's did the business for me."
    • Autobiographical Recollections (Leslie) ; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919)
  • Riches are chiefly good because they give us time.
    • cited in A Little Book of Aphorisms (New York: 1947), p. 186

A Farewell to Tobacco (1805)

  • For I hate, yet love thee, so,
    That, whichever thing I show,
    The plain truth will seem to be
    A constrained hyperbole,
    And the passion to proceed
    More from a mistress than a weed.
  • For thy sake, tobacco, I
    Would do anything but die.
  • Nay, rather,
    Plant divine, of rarest virtue;
    Blisters on the tongue would hurt you.
  • Thou in such a cloud dost bind us,
    That our worst foes cannot find us,
    And ill fortune, that would thwart us,
    Shoots at rovers, shooting at us;
    While each man, through thy height'ning steam,
    Does like a smoking Etna seem.
  • Thou through such a mist dost show us,
    That our best friends do not know us.

Essays of Elia (1823)

  • The red-letter days, now become, to all intents and purposes, dead-letter days.
    • Oxford in the Vacation
  • For with G. D., to be absent from the body is sometimes (not to speak profanely) to be present with the Lord.
    • Oxford in the Vacation
  • The human species, according to the best theory I can form of it, is composed of two distinct races, the men who borrow and the men who lend.
    • The Two Races of Men
  • Your borrowers of books—those mutilators of collections, spoilers of the symmetry of shelves, and creators of odd volumes.
    • The Two Races of Men
  • I conceive disgust at those impertinent and misbecoming familiarities, inscribed upon your ordinary tombstones. Every dead man must take upon himself to be lecturing me with his odious truism, that "such as he now is, I must shortly be." Not so shortly, friend, perhaps, as thou imaginest. In the meantime I am alive. I move about. I am worth twenty of thee. Know thy betters!
    • New Year's Eve
  • A clear fire, a clean hearth, and the rigor of the game.
    • Mrs. Battle's Opinions on Whist; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919)
  • I have no ear.
    • A Chapter on Ears
  • Sentimentally I am disposed to harmony; but organically I am incapable of a tune.
    • A Chapter on Ears; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919)
  • I have been trying all my life to like Scotchmen, and am obliged to desist from the experiment in despair.
    • Imperfect Sympathies
  • Credulity is the man's weakness, but the child's strength.
    • Witches, and Other Night Fears
  • Not many sounds in life, and I include all urban and rural sounds, exceed in interest a knock at the door.
    • Valentine's Day
  • It is good to love the unknown.
    • Valentine's Day; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919)
  • Lawyers, I suppose, were children once.
    • The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple.
  • Presents, I often say, endear absents.
    • A Dissertation upon Roast Pig; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919)
  • It argues an insensibility.
    • A Dissertation upon Roast Pig; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919)

Last Essays of Elia (1833)

  • A poor relation—is the most irrelevant thing in nature.
    • Poor Relations
  • I love to lose myself in other men's minds.
    • Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading
  • When I am not walking, I am reading;
    • Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading
  • Books think for me.
    • Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading
  • Things in books' clothing.
    • Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading
  • Books which are no books.
    • Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919)
  • How sickness enlarges the dimensions of a man's self to himself! he is his own exclusive object. Supreme selfishness is inculcated upon him as his only duty.
    • The Convalescent
  • Your absence of mind we have borne, till your presence of body came to be called in question by it.
    • Amicus Redivivus
  • A pun is a pistol let off at the ear; not a feather to tickle the intellect.
    • Popular Fallacies: IX, That the Worst Puns Are the Best
  • A presentation a copy of a book whoch does not sell, sent you by the author, with his foolish autograph at the beginning of it; for which, if a stranger, he only demands your friendship; if a brother author, he expects from you a book of yours, which does not sell, in return.
    • Popular Fallacies: XI, That We Must Not Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth
  • The good things of life are not to be had singly, but come to us with a mixture.
    • Popular Fallacies: XIII, That You Must Love Me and Love My Dog
  • If peradventure, Reader, it has been thy lot to waste the golden years of thy life—thy shining youth—in the irksome confinement of an office; to have thy prison days prolonged through middle age down to decrepitude and silver hairs, without hope of release or respite; to have lived to forget that there are such things as holidays, or to remember them but as the prerogatives of childhood; then, and then only, will you be able to appreciate my deliverance.
    • “The superannuated man”
  • From a poor man, poor in Time, I was suddenly lifted up into a vast revenue; I could see no end of my possessions; I wanted some steward, or judicious bailiff, to manage my estates in Time for me.
    • “The superannuated man”
  • I have indeed lived nominally fifty years, but deduct out of them the hours which I have lived to other people, and not to myself, and you will find me still a young fellow. For that is the only true time, which a man can properly call his own, that which he has all to himself; the rest, though in some sense he may be said to live it, is other people's time, not his. The remnant of my poor days, long or short, is at least multiplied for me three-fold. My ten next years, if I stretch so far, will be as long as any preceding thirty.
    • “The superannuated man”
  • Each day used to be individually felt by me in its reference to the foreign post days; in its distance from, or propinquity to, the next Sunday. I had my Wednesday feelings, my Saturday nights' sensations.
    • “The superannuated man”
  • Sunday itself—that unfortunate failure of a holyday as it too often proved, what with my sense of its fugitiveness, and over-care to get the greatest quantity of pleasure out of it ...
    • “The superannuated man”
  • A man can never have too much Time to himself, nor too little to do. Had I a little son, I would christen him Nothing-To-Do; he should do nothing. Man, I verily believe, is out of his element as long as he is operative. I am altogether for the life contemplative.
    • “The superannuated man”
  • I have done all that I came into this world to do. I have worked task work, and have the rest of the day to myself.
    • “The superannuated man”



Quotes about Charles Lamb

  • Surely it is a matter of joy, that your faith in Jesus has been preserved; the Comforter that should relieve you is not far from you. But as you are a Christian, in the name of that Saviour, who was filled with bitterness and made druken with wormwood, I conjre you to have recourse in frequent prayer to 'his God and your God,' the God of mercies, and father of all comfort. Your poor father is, I hope, almost senseless of the calamity; the unconscious instrument of Divine Providence knows it not, and your mother is in heaven.
  • Oaths fell from his mouth with a gentleness and sweetness which the blessings of other men cannot reach. His essays of Elia are full of this bright humour, this tender criticism. A ripple of tender laughter rips through them, just broke here and there by a sob.
    • Walter Levin. [1]

See also

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  1. Charles Lamb, In pipefuls.Selected by Walter Lewin.Copes Smoke Room ooklets No.5.Pub 1890, 10 Lord Nelson Street, Liverpool.