Three Unpublished Songs by Charles Lamb for Mary Shelley

By Bennett, Betty T. | Wordsworth Circle, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Three Unpublished Songs by Charles Lamb for Mary Shelley


Bennett, Betty T., Wordsworth Circle


Inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's tears on hearing a sad song, Charles Lamb composed three songs for her and sent them to his muse the next day with the injunction that she not "be offended." (1) Though Lamb did not date the songs, the watermark, J GREEN & SON / 1833 on the songs' bifolium reveals that they could not have been written before 1833, the year before Lamb's death on 27 December 1834. (2)

Charles and Mary Lamb first met the young Mary Shelley when they became friends with her father, William Godwin, in 1800 (Marrs, 1, 27n, 185-6). Beyond family friendship, the Lambs played an significant role in her early education through their highly influential books for children, including Tales from Shakespear (1807) and Specimens of English Dramatic Poets (1808), published by M.J. Godwin and Co., William and MaryJane Godwins' Juvenile Library. Mary Shelley expressed her friendship and her admiration for the Lambs in various references to them in her letters (e.g., 1, 393). In addition, she also praised Charles Lamb's works in her professional writing, beginning with Frankenstein, in which she cited his 1798 poem, "The Old Familiar Faces" (1, 31). In her 1823 essay "Giovanni Villani" she commented: "I cannot help here alluding to the papers of 'Elia,' which have lately appeared in a periodical publication. When collected together, they must rank among the most beautiful and highly valued specimens of the kind of writing spoken of in the text" (Liberal, 4, 281-97). In her 1830 Blackwood's review of her father's novel Cloudesley, she wrote: "The beautiful tale of Rosamond Gray, by Charles Lamb, occurs to us as the most perfect specimen of the species of writing to which we allude" (XXVII [May], 711-16).

The Lambs' letters indicate a mutual admiration and friendship for Mary Shelley. They also invited her to their parties, where she met a number of important figures in her life, among them the actor/playwright John Howard Payne and the publisher Edward Moxon. Charles Lamb demonstrated his admiration professionally as well. His biographer, Sir Thomas Noon Talfourd, remarked that Lamb "made some amends for his indifference to Shelley, by his admiration of Mrs. Shelley's Frankenstein, which he thought the most extraordinary realisation of the idea of a being out of nature which had ever been affected" (Lucas, 1, 488). Lamb also recommended Mary Shelley as an author to John Taylor and James Augustus Hessey, proprietors of the London Magazine, in September 1823 (Letters, 1, 394).

Lamb's three songs, another token of his regard, are comparable to occasional verses he wrote to friends throughout his life, including Fanny Kelley, Samuel Rogers, and Barry Cornwall (Bryan Waller Procter). Perhaps his best known verse in this genre was addressed to Leigh Hunt's eldest child, Thornton Hunt, "To T. L. H. a child" (Examiner 1815; Shelley Journal, 1, 158-9).

In Lamb's comments on his songs for Mary Shelley, he played his own critic through the kind of punning jokes that he abundantly incorporated in his personal and professional communications. Given the context, the "A.S.S." below suggests the letters may stand for "Author of Sentimental Songs." His "Dogear" appears to be a reference to his well-known habit of bending down the corners of book-pages, his own and those belonging to friends, as reminders. The following three songs, "Pity's Tear," "Beauty's Tear," and "A Mother's Tear," would therefore "dogear" a party that Charles Lamb and Mary Shelley had both attended, as well as their genial and enduring friendship. …

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