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Outlines of English and American Literature|
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.
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-ä) 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
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
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
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.