Charles Lamb was born in London, the son of a lawyer’s clerk and the youngest child in the family. He was taught by his sister Mary, eleven years his senior, to read at an early age and had lessons at home from a Mrs Reynolds, with whom he remained in contact for the rest of her life. In 1782 he attended Christ’s Hospital School, where Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a fellow pupil some years older. Lamb left school at the age of fourteen and worked in a clerical capacity for a London merchant, then at the Examiner’s Office of the South Sea House. He later was employed in the Accounts Office for the British East India Company where he was to spend the rest of his working life, retiring at fifty with a pension.
In 1796 tragedy struck the family when his sister Mary in a demented rage stabbed their mother to death, after which she was admitted to a mental institution, the jury having returned a verdict of lunacy. At the age of 22 Lamb heroically and loyally took on the burden of looking after his sister who was in and out of mental institutions for several years. She later lived with him and their home became a kind of salon for the leading literary and theatrical figures of the day.
Lamb’s best poetry was written in his youth and his first publication as a poet was the inclusion of four sonnets in Coleridge’s Poems on Various Subjects in 1796, which included the poem Innocence. His contribution to Coleridge’s second edition of this work included the poems The Tomb of Douglas and A Vision of Repentance. Many of his poems such as The Lord’s Prayer and The Young Catechist reflect his Christian beliefs but his best known poems are probably The Old Familiar Faces (1789) and On an Infant Dying as Soon as Born (1828).
Charles Lamb is better known today for his prose works which include A Tale of Rosamund Gray (1798), a romance reflecting his disappointments in love, Tales From Shakespeare (1807), a retelling of the plays for children, which he wrote together with his sister, a children’s version of The Odyssey, The Adventures of Ulysses (1808). Between 1822 and 1833 his Essays of Elia were published in The London Magazine.