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Outlines of English and American Literature
Charles Lamb
by Long, William J.


There is a little book called Essays of Elia which stands out from all other prose works of the age. If we examine this book to discover the source of its charm, we find it pervaded by a winsome "human" quality which makes us want to know the man who wrote it. In this respect Charles Lamb differs from certain of his contemporaries. Wordsworth was too solitary, Coleridge and De Quincey too unbalanced, Shelley too visionary and Keats too aloof to awaken a feeling of personal allegiance; but the essays of Lamb reveal two qualities which, like fine gold, are current among readers of all ages. These are sympathy and humor. By the one we enter understandingly into life, while the other keeps us from taking life too tragically.

His Life

Lamb was born (1775) in the midst of London, and never felt at home anywhere else. London is a world in itself, and of all its corners there were only three that Lamb found comfortable. The first was the modest little home where he lived with his gifted sister Mary, reading with her through the long evenings, or tenderly caring for her during a period of insanity; the second was the commercial house where he toiled as a clerk; the third was the busy street which lay between home and work,--a street forever ebbing and flowing with a great tide of human life that affected Lamb profoundly, mysteriously, as Wordsworth was affected by the hills or the sea.

The boy's education began at Christ's Hospital, where he met Coleridge and entered with him into a lifelong friendship. At fifteen he left school to help support his family; and for the next thirty-three years he was a clerk, first in the South Sea House, then in the East India Company. Rather late in life he began to write, his prime object being to earn a little extra money, which he sadly needed. Then the Company, influenced partly by his faithful service and partly by his growing reputation, retired him on a pension. Most eagerly, like a boy out of school, he welcomed his release, intending to do great things with his pen; but curiously enough he wrote less, and less excellently, than before. His decline began with his hour of liberty. For a time, in order that his invalid sister might have quiet, he lived outside the city, at Islington and Enfield; but he missed the work, the street, the crowd, and especially did he miss his old habits. He had no feeling for nature, nor for any art except that which he found in old books. "I hate the country," he wrote; and the cause of his dislike was that, not knowing what to do with himself, he grew weary of a day that was "all day long."

The earlier works of Lamb (some poems, a romance and a drama) are of little interest except to critics. The first book that brought him any considerable recognition was the Tales from Shakespeare. This was a summary of the stories used by Shakespeare in his plays, and was largely the work of Mary Lamb, who had a talent for writing children's books. The charm of the Tales lies in the fact that the Lambs were so familiar with old literature that they reproduced the stories in a style which might have done credit to a writer in the days of Elizabeth. The book is still widely read, and is as good as any other if one wants that kind of book. But the chief thing in Macbeth or The Tempest is the poetry, not the tale or the plot; and even if one wants only the story, why not get it from Shakespeare himself? Another and better book by Lamb of the same general kind is Specimens of English Dramatic Poets Contemporary with Shakespeare. In this book he saves us a deal of unprofitable reading by gathering together the best of the Elizabethan dramas, to which he adds some admirable notes of criticism or interpretation.

Essays of Elia

Most memorable of Lamb's works are the essays which he contributed for many years to the London magazines, and which he collected under the titles Essays of Elia (1823) and Last Essays of Elia (1830). [Footnote: The name "Elia" (pronounced ee'-li-) was a pseudonym, taken from an old Italian clerk (Ellia) in the South Sea House. When "Elia" appears in the Essays he is Charles Lamb himself; "Cousin Bridget" is sister Mary, and "John Elia" is a brother. The last-named was a selfish kind of person, who seems to have lived for himself, letting Charles take all the care of the family.] To the question, Which of these essays should be read? the answer given must depend largely upon personal taste. They are all good; they all contain both a reflection and a criticism of life, as Lamb viewed it by light of his personal experience. A good way to read the essays, therefore, is to consider them as somewhat autobiographical, and to use them for making acquaintance with the author at various periods of his life.

For example, "My Relations" and "Mackery End" acquaint us with Lamb's family and descent; "Old Benchers of the Inner Temple" with his early surroundings; "Witches and Other Night-fears" with his sensitive childhood; "Recollections of Christ's Hospital" and "Christ's Hospital Five-and-thirty Years Ago" with his school days and comradeship with Coleridge; "The South Sea House" with his daily work; "Old China" with his home life; "The Superannuated Man" with his feelings when he was retired on a pension; and finally, "Character of the Late Elia," in which Lamb whimsically writes his own obituary.

If these call for too much reading at first, then one may select three or four typical essays: "Dream Children," notable for its exquisite pathos; "Dissertation on Roast Pig," famous for its peculiar humor; and "Praise of Chimney Sweepers," of which it is enough to say that it is just like Charles Lamb. To these one other should be added, "Imperfect Sympathies," or "A Chapter on Ears," or "Mrs. Battle's Opinions on Whist," in order to appreciate how pleasantly Lamb could write on small matters of no consequence. Still another good way of reading (which need not be emphasized, since everybody favors it) is to open the Essays here or there till we find something that interests us,--a method which allows every reader the explorer's joy of discovery.

To read such essays is to understand the spell they have cast on successive generations of readers. They are, first of all, very personal; they begin, as a rule, with some pleasant trifle that interests the author; then, almost before we are aware, they broaden into an essay of life itself, an essay illuminated by the steady light of Lamb's sympathy or by the flashes of his whimsical humor. Next, we note in the Essays their air of literary culture, which is due to Lamb's wide reading, and to the excellent taste with which he selected his old authors,--Sidney, Brown, Burton, Fuller, Walton and Jeremy Taylor. Often it was the quaintness of these authors, their conceits or oddities, that charmed him. These oddities reappear in his own style to such an extent that even when he speaks a large truth, as he often does, he is apt to give the impression of being a little harebrained. Yet if you examine his queer idea or his merry jest, you may find that it contains more cardinal virtue than many a sober moral treatise.

On the whole Elia is the quintessence of modern essay-writing from Addison to Stevenson. There are probably no better works of the same kind in our literature. Some critics aver that there are none others so good.

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