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Stewed Lamb
July/August 2013

 

Charles Lamb, like many men of letters, found solace and inspiration in wine. Writing popular journalism increased the great strain under which he already lived as a result of his sister's intermittent insanity and her murder of their mother; wine relaxed him. He enjoyed company, but stammered and was shy; wine allowed him to shine in conversation. And wine would sometimes also supply or reinforce that vein of romantic fantasy which is so characteristic of Lamb's prose.

Wine operated on Lamb in a curious way, which was memorably described by his friend, Thomas De Quincey:

Over Lamb, at this period of his life, there passed regularly, after taking wine, a brief eclipse of sleep. It descended upon him as softly as a shadow . . .  On awaking from his brief slumber, Lamb sat for some time in profound silence and then, with the most startling rapidity, sang out — "Diddle, diddle, dumpkins" . . . not looking at me but as if soliloquizing. For five minutes he relapsed into the same deep silence; from which again he started up into the same abrupt utterance of "Diddle, diddle, dumpkins."

The effects of alcohol on Lamb were not always so seraphic and innocent. His work as a journalist drew him into hard-drinking company, which meant late hours and reckless consumption. Yet Lamb was still employed as a clerk in the accounts department of the East India Company, and so had to rise early in order to compose his pieces for the Morning Post before beginning his day job. Unsurprisingly, he would later recall with a groan "those headaches at dawn of day", and the need "to rouse ourselves at the detestable rap of an old hag of a domestic, who seemed to take a diabolical pleasure in her announcement that it was ‘time to rise'; and whose chappy knuckles we have often yearned to amputate, and string them up at our chamber-door, to be a terror to all such unseasonable rest-breakers in future."

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