So Charles Lamb writes to his friend Maria Fryer on St. Valentine’s Day, 1834, four days after his fifty-ninth and final birthday. He has just returned from “keeping my birthday (pretty innocent!),” he reports, and is thanking Fryer for her concern over his health. His sister is Mary Lamb. In 1796, she had fatally stabbed their mother with a kitchen knife and attacked their father. Charles obtained Mary’s release from lifelong imprisonment on the condition he take legal responsibility for her. They lived together, when Mary wasn’t confined to an asylum, until his death on Dec. 27, 1834, and even collaborated on the bestselling Tales from Shakespeare (1807). Such is the unlikely recipe for becoming one of the funniest writers in the language.
Today is my unlikely sixtieth birthday – “unlikely” because I’ve done little to merit even modest longevity. When young, I lived in such a way as to ensure my continuing existence would prove a minor miracle. I’ve outlived Lamb and Horace, Montaigne (dead, like Lamb, at fifty-nine), Spinoza, George Herbert, Pascal, Donne (dead, too, at fifty-nine), Sterne, Keats, Lincoln, Thoreau, Chekhov, Proust and Liebling (another one dead at fifty-nine). Even Shakespeare and Joyce. In 1797, Coleridge (who, remarkably, made it to age sixty-one) wrote “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” and dedicated it to Lamb. Three times he addresses his childhood friend as “gentle-hearted Charles.” In a letter to Coleridge on Aug. 14, 1800, Lamb writes:
“In the next edition of the `Anthology’…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.”
George Gilfillan (1813-1878) was a Scottish writer little remembered today who in 1846 published Gallery of Literary Portraits. In his brief life of Lamb, he composed an epitaph-worthy summary of the essayist’s virtues, a mixed bag but one any respectable writer would happily claim as his own:
“In his smallest composition you find all his qualities — his serious laugh — his quaint originality — his intolerance of cant — his instinctive attachment to all odd things, and all queer ambiguous people — his `very tragical mirth,’ the arabesque border of fun that edges his most serious speculations — his hatred of solitude — his love of cities — his shyness of all contested questions — his style so antique, yet racy, imitative yet original — his passion for old English authors — his enjoyment of recondite beauties, and the fine subtlety of his critical judgment.”