Stewed Lamb

The great man of letters Charles Lamb was naturally shy — wine allowed him to shine on conversation. Sometimes, though, he would overindulge


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.”

Lamb’s most famous piece on drink is his “Confessions of a Drunkard”, first published in The Philanthropist in 1813. The extent to which this was an autobiographical essay is disputed. Crabb Robinson thought it corresponded fairly accurately to the circumstances of Lamb’s own life, though Lamb himself, when he republished the essay in 1822, chose to throw a mist over the issue of whether or not he had sat for his own portrait when he wrote it:

We deny not that a portion of his own experiences may have passed into the picture (as who, that is not a washy fellow, but must at some times have felt the after-operation of a too-generous cup?) but then how heightened? how exaggerated!

There are touches in the essay which resonate with Lamb’s own dependence on wine, as for instance when the essayist addresses himself “to the weak, the nervous; to those who feel the want of some artificial aid to raise their spirits in society to what is no more than the ordinary pitch of all around them without it. This is the secret of our drinking.” It is possible, too, to detect an autobiographical charge when Lamb explains some of the more unexpected consequences of habitual over-indulgence, which he describes as “that state, in which, paradoxical as it may appear, reason shall only visit him through intoxication: for it is a fearful truth, that the intellectual faculties by repeated acts of intemperance may be driven from their orderly sphere of action, their clear day-light ministeries, until they shall be brought at last to depend, for the faint manifestation of their departing energies, upon the returning periods of the fatal madness to which they owe their devastation. The drinking man is never less himself than during his sober intervals.”

However, Lamb seems not to have needed to experience dissipation to understand it. As a boy he had immersed himself in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, and in his early twenties he attempted to imitate them. John Woodvil was composed in 1799, and published in 1802. It is set in the years following the Restoration of Charles II. The hero, John Woodvil, has inherited the family estate, where he carouses with his cavalier cronies, and neglects Margaret, the orphan ward of his father, to whom he used to be attached. Meanwhile his father, Sir Walter, who had fought on the parliamentarian side in the Civil War, and who was excluded from the general pardon after the Restoration, lives in hiding in Sherwood Forest with his other son, Simon. At the pitch of intoxication, Woodvil reveals the secret of his father’s hiding-place to one of his drinking friends, Lovel, who then goes to Nottingham and attempts to arrest Sir Walter. Simon drives Lovel off, but Sir Walter expires, mortified by the knowledge that his other son has betrayed him. Woodvil himself is chastened and reformed by the catastrophe. The play ends with the hint that he will be reconciled to Margaret, and will find consolation in religion after an epiphany in church:

It seem’d, the guilt of blood was passing from me 

Even in the act and agony of tears, 

And all my sins forgiven.

Even Lamb’s friends thought that John Woodvil left much to be desired. Southey wrote to Charles Danvers that “Lamb . . . is printing his play, which will please you by the exquisite beauty of its poetry, and provoke you by the exquisite silliness of its story.” Southey is surely right that the merits of Lamb’s play are to be found in certain passages, rather than in its dramatic integrity. For instance, Woodvil’s soliloquy just before he betrays his father both expresses the elation imparted by wine, and supplies a hint of the hubristic disaster to come:


My spirits turn to fire, they mount so fast. 

My joys are turbulent, my hopes show like fruition. 

These high and gusty relishes of life, sure, 

Have no allayings of mortality in them. 

I am too hot now and o’ercapable, 

For the tedious processes, and creeping wisdom, 

Of human acts, and enterprises of a man.

Its counterpart is his equally acute soliloquy on “the morning after”:

A weight of wine lies heavy on my head, 

The unconcocted follies of last night. 

Now all those jovial fancies, and bright hopes, 

Children of wine, go off like dreams. 

This sick vertigo here 

Preacheth of temperance, no sermon better.

The only interesting feature of the plot of John Woodvil is that, in the end, Woodvil finds his own best self through the self-loss of drunkenness. Even as a young man, and before he had waded far out into the sea of dissipation, Lamb was presciently aware of the double potency of wine.

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