We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Foremother Poet: Mary Lamb (1764-1847) · 12 May 07

Dear Anne,

I sent you the foremother poet posting I sent to Wompo yesterday morning. I’ll preface it with a remark I omitted: Mary Lamb was said to have been mad when she murdered her mother. I know nothing of what was said at the trial, and fear she was exonerated using some rhetoric rooted in distrust and dismissal of older women and ideas about “bad mothers.”

Foremother: Mary Lamb (1764-1847)

The first poem is “an allegory of ferocious beasts caged in a tower menagerie” (Craciun, “ML: The Subject of Violence”, Romanticism and Women Poets, ed. HKLinkin and SCBehrendt). Mary is fascinated by their power and rage (suppressed violence), perhaps this is her version of the more typical woman’s fable of a caged bird. The second poem celebrates lesbian love. The third comes from a much longer poem, Salome; Salome is famous for having chopped off the head of John the Baptist, and was a favorite theme of Artemisia Gentileschi (Renaissance woman painter, raped and humiliated in a trial where she accused the man) as well as the artists of the fin de siecle. The poem was printed by Charles Lamb and not attributed to himself; as far as I can tell it has not been reprinted since. So I quote the one passage I’ve come across.

The Beasts in the Tower

Within the precincts of this yard,
Each in his narrow confines barr’d,
Dwells every beast that can be found
On Afric or on Indian ground.
How different was the life they led
In those wild haunts where they were bred,
To this tame servitude and fear,
Enslav’d by man, they suffer here!

In that uneasy close recess
Couches a sleeping Lioness;
That next den holds a Bear; the next
A Wolf, by hunger ever vext;
There, fiercer from the keeper’s lashes,
His teeth the fell Hyena gnashes;
That creature on whose back abound
Black spots upon a yellow ground,
A Panther is, the fairest beast
That haunteth in the spacious East.
He underneath a fair outside
Does cruelty and treach’ry hide.

That cat-like beast that to and fro
Restless as fire does ever go,
As if his courage did resent
His limbs in such confinement pent,
That should their prey in forests take,
And make the Indian jungles quake,
A Tiger is. Observe how sleek
And glossy smooth his coat: no streak
On satin ever match’d the pride
Of that which marks his furry hide.
How strong his muscles! he with ease
Upon the tallest man could seize,
In his large mouth away could bear him,
And in a thousand pieces tear him:
Yet cabin’d so securely here,
The smallest infant need not fear.

That lordly creature next to him
A Lion is. Survey each limb.
Observe the texture of his claws,
The massy thickness of those jaws;
His mane that sweeps the ground in length,
Like Samson’s locks, betok’ning strength.
In force and swiftness he excels
Each beast that in the forest dwells;
The savage tribes him king confess
Throughout the howling wilderness.
Woe to the hapless neighbourhood,
When he is press’d by want of food!
Of man, or child, of bull, or horse,
He makes his prey; such is his force.
A waste behind him he creates,
Whole villages depopulates.
Yet here within appointed lines
How small a grate his rage confines!

This place methinks resembleth well
The world itself in which we dwell.
Perils and snares on every ground
Like these wild beasts beset us round.
But Providence their rage restrains,
Our heavenly Keeper sets them chains;
His goodness saveth every hour
His darlings from the Lion’s power


High-Born Helen

High-born Helen, round your dwelling
These twenty years I’ve paced in vain:
Haughty beauty, thy lover’s duty
Hath been to glory in his pain.

High-born Helen, proudly telling
Stories of thy cold disdain;
I starve, I die, now you comply,
And I no longer can complain.

These twenty years I’ve lived on tears,
Dwelling for ever on a frown;
On sighs I’ve fed, your scorn my bread;
I perish now you kind are grown.

Can I, who loved my beloved
But for the scorn “was in her eye,”
Can I be moved for my beloved,
When she “returns me sigh for sigh”?

In stately pride, by my bed-side
High-born Helen’s portrait’s hung;
Deaf to my praise, my mournful lays
Are nightly to the portrait sung.

To that I weep, nor ever sleep,
Complaining all night long to her
Helen, grown old, no longer cold,
Said, “You to all men I prefer.”

(summer 1800)

According to Craciun, in Mary Lamb’s “Salome,” Salome demands the head of a “most severely good” John the Baptist who “preached penitence and tears” and concludes with a long passage on Salome’s “beauty in unloveliness.” Lamb would refer to her mother as “saint” (whether ironically or not I can’t tell), and this poem celebrates the femmes fatales:

When painters would by art express
Beauty in unloveliness,
Thee, Herodias’ daughter, thee,
They fittest subject take to be.
They give thy form and features grace;
But ever in thy beauteous face
They show a steadfast cruel gaze,
An eye unpitying; and amaze
In all beholders deep they mark,
That thou betrayest not one spark
Of feeling for the ruthless deed,
That did thy praiseful dance succeed.
For on the head they make you look,
As if a sullen joy you took,
A cruel triumph, a wicked pride,
That for your sport a saint had died.


While there may be numerous poems by Charles Lamb to Mary in the above allegorical fantastic style (which refer to violence and despair), it’s not provable they are to Mary; this sonnet by Charles is:

If from my lips some angry accents fell,
Peevish complaint, or harsh reproof unkind,
‘Twas but the error of a sickly mind
And troubled thoughts, clouding the purer well,
And waters clear, of reason; and for me
Let this my verse the poor atonement be
My verse, which thou to praise wert ever inclined
Too highly, and with a partial eye to see
No blemish. Thou to me didst ever show
Kindest afFection, and would oft-times lend
An ear to the desponding love-sick lay,
Weeping my sorrows with me, who repay
But ill the mighty debt of love I owe,
Mary, to thee, my sister, and my friend.



Their story—of this brother and sister—is quickly told. They were pseudo-gentry, people of learning with no money and property. While Lamb is today perhaps still best known for his Essays of Elia (once set texts for exams but delightful nonetheless), he wrote a good deal of poetry (and plays too), and was a close friend to Coleridge when they were young. Charles left school at 15 to become a clerk in an office (a long life of drudgery followed in the accounting department of the East India Company), 35 years. The other career open to him was that of a clergyman and he stuttered so it was thought he would not have been able to be successful. He became an alcoholic (not usually mentioned, but very important—as Thackeray’s alcoholism and death from syphilis is also omitted, and years of real pain preceding that death), but his steady ways enabled him to support his sister who in 1796 had murdered their mother but had not been hung, but rather (after some time in one of these awful asylums depicted in some of her poems, indirectly of course) remitted to his custody.

They really spent much of their adult lives as authors. Among their projects was Tales from Shakespeare (1807), adaptations of plays into texts for children, and short stories for children. Partly due to their friendship with Godwin, they were successful in the literary marketplace, and this cheered their lives—though Mary’s authorship remained unknown. She did write a powerful protest essay, “On Needlework” protesting the destructive effects of women’s unpaid labor on their intellect and status. if you read the piece about what led to the mother’s death, you will see that Mary was pushed into supporting the family at one point by long hours as a seamstress and then she had to come to tend to the difficult older relatives she was supporting and who of course had power and authority over her.

Charles found solace by his writing; my feeling is this motive is part of what makes his writing so appealing.

Charles did fall in love once, with an actress, Fanny Kelly, and proposed marriage, but was refused; Kelly wrote to her sister that she could not put herself into “that atmosphere of sad mental uncertainty which surrounds his domestic life.” Later in life Charles and Mary adopted a little girl, Emma Isola; they met her while on a holiday at Cambridge. When her father died, they took full responsibility. Charles predeceased Mary (his span was 1775-1834). Mary was taken in by her nurse and then her hurse’s sister; she died at age 82 and was buried alongside Charles.

For those who would like to know what details have come down to us, an online biographical essay by Judy Anne White tells something of the situation in the Lamb household which led to this murder and acquittal too:

“Mary Lamb was born on 3 December 1764 in London. Her older brother, John, had been born a year earlier; Charles was born on 10 February 1775. Only these three of seven children born to John and Elizabeth Field Lamb survived infancy. John Lamb’s employer and benefactor, Samuel Salt, installed the Lamb family in living quarters below his own at the London Temple, the vast complex where barristers lived and worked. The three children enjoyed the benefits of fine schooling: Charles and Mary attended Mr. William Bird’s school; John and Charles were accepted at the day school at Christ’s Hospital.

The Lambs’ parents and benefactors ensured that the children’s education continued beyond the classroom. Salt allowed them to wander in his personal library; the three children thus developed a love of books unusual in the progeny of a servant. Mary and Charles were also allowed to attend theater performances at the age of five or six and became enthusiastic theatergoers. In addition, the matriarch of the Plumer family, their grandmother’s employer, allowed the children to visit the rural Plumer estate, Blakesmere, where they profited not only from intellectual and aesthetic experiences in a mansion decorated with paintings, sculptures, and tapestries, but also from immersing themselves in a natural environment teeming with plant and animal life. All of these experiences would benefit the Lambs as writers.

Practical considerations prevented the two younger Lamb children from exploring further educational or other “idle” careers. In 1789 governors of the Christ’s Hospital school decided that Charles should not go on to university, his stuttering being too great a handicap for a clergyman; instead, they secured for him an apprenticed clerkship at the office of a Mr. Paice. Charles found another job at the South Sea House a year later and after six months found employment at the East India House, where he would spend the rest of his working life.

After Salt’s death in 1792 the Lambs were forced to leave the London Temple for a cramped dwelling in High Holborn. Both parents’ health deteriorated rapidly afterward; Mrs. Lamb, presumably arthritic, became chair-bound, and Mr. Lamb began to show signs of senility. In addition, John, the eldest, moved out and left the rest of the family to fend for themselves.

At this time Charles shared some of his finest hours with his old schoolmate Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who returned to London in 1794. They spent evenings and weekends at the Salutation and Cat, where they drank ale and discussed philosophy and religion. Their relationship also led to the first publication of Charles’s writings, as Coleridge generously added four of Lamb’s sonnets to his own first volume of poetry.

Meanwhile, the family’s burdens fell entirely upon Mary’s shoulders. Young Charles was working on probation without pay, and so the sole surviving daughter took up her needle and entered the dressmaking business to support her family. Charles’s long hours at the East India House precluded his participation in the daily care of his parents and the elderly aunt who lived with them; Mary spent her remaining energies making her ailing elders comfortable. The family’s survival came to depend on Mary’s success as a businesswoman and a nurse. Thus was the stage set for a tragedy of major proportions: Mary’s temporary insanity and murder of her mother in September 1796.

It was Charles who took command of his family’s affairs from that day forward. He put his family’s needs before his own. When Mary had been returned to his custody after treatment at a Hoxton asylum, he set up separate lodgings for her. He then moved his father and his aging Aunt Hetty to a house in Chapel Street, Pentonville. For months Charles, the devoted son and brother, worked long hours at the East India House and then returned home to care for his aged relatives.


I took the above from a variety of sources, including the Net and the GMU database


Posted by: Ellen

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