Charles Lamb 1775-1834
(Also wrote under the pseudonym Elia) English essayist, critic, poet, dramatist, and novelist.
The following entry presents criticism on Lamb from 1984 through 1998. For additional information on Lamb's life and career, see NCLC, Volume 10.
A well-known literary figure in nineteenth-century England, Lamb is chiefly remembered for his “Elia” essays, works celebrated for their witty and ironic treatment of everyday subjects. Through the persona of “Elia,” Lamb developed a highly personal narrative technique to achieve what many critics regard as the epitome of the familiar essay style. Extremely popular in Lamb's day, the “Elia” essays first appeared in the London Magazine between 1820 and 1825, but were later collected into two volumes. These nostalgic works have appealed to readers throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, particularly because of their gradual revelation of Lamb's literary alter ego and his humorous idiosyncrasies. Lamb's other writings include criticism of William Shakespeare's dramas and the virtual rediscovery of a number of neglected Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights in the early nineteenth century. A dramatist and a skilled poet, Lamb was also a noted children's author, frequently in collaboration with his sister, Mary. Lamb's essays are thought to demonstrate a characteristically Romantic imagination akin to that of the poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, Lamb's contemporaries and friends. Overall, Lamb is highly regarded as an essayist, an original and perceptive critic, and a noteworthy correspondent with the renowned literati of early nineteenth-century England.
Lamb was born in London, the youngest of seven children, of whom only three survived into adulthood. His father was a law clerk who worked in the Inner Temple, one of the courts of London, and wrote poetry in his spare time. In 1782 Lamb was accepted as a student at Christ's Hospital, a school in London for the children of poor families. He excelled in his studies, especially in English literature, but the seven years away from home proved lonely. Later Lamb wrote that his solitude was relieved by his friendship with a fellow student, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who also encouraged Lamb's early poetic compositions. Since his family's poverty prevented him from furthering his education, Lamb took a job immediately upon graduation. Working first as a clerk, he became an accountant at the East India Company, a prestigious trade firm. At Coleridge's insistence, Lamb's first sonnets were included in the collection Poems on Various Subjects, published by Coleridge in 1796. That same year, Lamb's sister, who suffered from mental illness throughout her life, stabbed her mother to death in a “day of horrors” that completely transformed Lamb's life. His father and his elder brother wanted to commit Mary permanently to an asylum, but Lamb succeeded in obtaining her release and devoted himself to her care. From then on, Mary enjoyed long periods of sanity and productivity as a writer, but these were inevitably disrupted by breakdowns. In 1798 Lamb published Blank Verse with his friend Charles Lloyd. The volume contains Lamb's best known poem, “The Old Familiar Faces.” His first serious work in prose, A Tale of Rosamund Gray and Old Blind Margaret, also appeared in 1798. In the first two decades of the nineteenth century, Lamb produced two dramas, including the poorly received farce Mr. H———; or, Beware a Bad Name (1806), and a number of works intended for children and written with his sister. Meanwhile he began contributing literary articles to an assortment of newspapers and periodicals. Soon Lamb had established himself as a highly astute and eloquent critical voice with such essays as “On the Genius and Character of Hogarth” and “On the Tragedies of Shakespeare Considered with Reference to Their Fitness for Stage Presentation”—pieces later republished in The Works of Charles and Mary Lamb (1903-05). His volume Specimens of English Dramatic Poets, Who Lived about the Time of Shakespeare, helped bring about a renewed interest in Jacobean drama upon its publication in 1808. In 1820 the editor of the London Magazine invited Lamb to contribute regularly to his periodical. Lamb, eager to supplement his income, wrote some pieces under the pseudonym “Elia” for the magazine. With the success of these essays Lamb became one of the most admired literary men in London. He and Mary presided over a weekly open house, attended by friends including Coleridge, William Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt, and Henry Crabb Robinson. Lamb retired from the East India Company in 1825, left London, and devoted more time to writing. Though distant from his literary acquaintances in the English metropolis, Lamb was still at the peak of his popularity as an essayist when he died suddenly in 1834.
Although he began his literary career as a sonneteer, Lamb quickly discovered that his talent and inclination lay in prose, not verse. His first fictional work, a short novel entitled A Tale of Rosamund Gray and Old Blind Margaret, displays the influence of eighteenth-century sentimental writers Henry Mackenzie and Laurence Sterne. Lamb's next literary composition, John Woodvil (1802), set shortly after England's monarchical Restoration in 1660, owes a debt to Elizabethan tragedy and features a commentary on the politics of Lamb's day via historical analogy. Lamb's collaborative works with his sister, Mary, all fall into the category of juvenile literature and include Mrs. Leicester's School (1807), a collection of children's stories and poems, Tales from Shakespear (1807), simplified renderings in prose of William Shakespeare's most famous plays, and Poetry for Children (1809). Lamb also adapted Homer's epic poem The Odyssey for younger readers in The Adventures of Ulysses (1808). Among Lamb's critical writings, his anthology Specimens of English Dramatic Poets, Who Lived about the Time of Shakespeare includes selections from the plays of such Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists as Christopher Marlowe, John Webster, George Chapman, and Thomas Middleton. Since many of these works were previously unobtainable to early nineteenth-century readers, Lamb's compilation was an important reference source and is supplemented with explanatory notes now considered among Lamb's most significant critical work. In a related essay, “On the Tragedies of Shakespeare Considered with Reference to Their Fitness for Stage Presentation,” Lamb argued that the best qualities of Shakespeare's drama can be fully appreciated only through reading: according to Lamb, stage performances often diminish the play's meanings, and individual performers often misinterpret Shakespeare's intended characterizations. Lamb's most prominent works were his last: the collections Elia: Essays Which Have Appeared under That Signature in the “London Magazine” and The Last Essays of Elia were published in 1823 and 1833, respectively. Featuring sketches in the familiar essay form—a style popularized by Michel de Montaigne, Robert Burton, and Sir Thomas Browne—the “Elia” essays are characterized by Lamb's personal tone, narrative ease, and wealth of literary allusions. Never didactic, the essays treat ordinary subjects in a nostalgic, fanciful way by combining humor, pathos, and a sophisticated irony ranging from gentle to scathing. Among the essays, “Christ's Hospital Five and Thirty Years Ago” features a schoolboy reminiscence of Coleridge, while “Confessions of a Drunkard” treats with ambivalence a theme that punctuated Lamb's own life. Counted among his most significant writings, Lamb's discerning and lively correspondence is collected in The Letters of Charles Lamb (1935).
Lamb's “Elia” essays have been nearly universally extolled by reviewers since their initial appearance. While some scholars have considered Lamb's style imitative of earlier English writers, the majority now accept that quality as one of “Elia's” distinctive hallmarks, along with his fondness for the obscure and other idiosyncrasies. In addition to the elegant prose of his essays, works that have delighted generations of readers, Lamb's critical writings testify to his versatility and insight, although some commentators have faulted his unsystematic critical method. During the nineteenth century, Lamb's collected writings tended to elicit highly polarized critical reactions. By the beginning of the twentieth century, however, Lamb's status as one of England's most beloved writers was affirmed, and today he is remembered as a perceptive critic and the finest practitioner of the familiar essay form in English. The “Elia” essays maintained their popularity until the 1930s, when Lamb's reputation suffered a near total reversal as critic F. R. Leavis and his disciples reappraised the Elian style. The Leavisite critique echoed throughout academia, and Lamb's works ceased to be studied seriously by British scholars for several decades. By the mid 1960s, however, critics such as George Barnett and later Gerald Monsman undertook the process of rehabilitating Lamb's standing by producing detailed studies of his essays. The Charles Lamb Society and its quarterly publication, The Charles Lamb Bulletin, the main source of contemporary Lamb criticism, have assisted in this renewed interest and study of Lamb's works, covering such topics as Lamb's theories of drama, his poetry, and especially his “Elia” essays, whose enduring humor and spontaneity continue to capture the imaginations of modern readers.
Poems on Various Subjects [with Samuel Taylor Coleridge] (poetry) 1796
Blank Verse [with Charles Lloyd] (poetry) 1798
A Tale of Rosamund Gray and Old Blind Margaret (novel) 1798
John Woodvil (drama) 1802
Mr. H———; or, Beware a Bad Name (drama) 1806
Mrs. Leicester's School [with Mary Lamb] (short stories and poetry) 1807
Tales from Shakespear [with Mary Lamb] (short stories) 1807
The Adventures of Ulysses (short stories) 1808
Specimens of English Dramatic Poets, Who Lived about the Time of Shakespeare [editor] (dramas) 1808
Poetry for Children [with Mary Lamb] (poetry) 1809
Elia: Essays Which Have Appeared under That Signature in the “London Magazine” [as Elia] (essays) 1823
Album Verses [with others] (poetry) 1830
The Last Essays of Elia [as Elia] (essays) 1833
*The Works of Charles and Mary Lamb. 7 vols. (essays, novel, short stories, poetry, and dramas) 1903-05
The Letters of Charles Lamb. 3 vols. (letters) 1935
*This work includes the essays “On the Genius and Character of Hogarth,” “On the Tragedies of Shakespeare Considered with Reference to Their Fitness for Stage...
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SOURCE: Misenheimer, James B., Jr. “Aesthetic Universality: The Nostalgia of Elia 150 Years after.” The Charles Lamb Bulletin, n.s., no. 53 (January 1986): 128-41.
[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture in 1984, Misenheimer concentrates on Lamb's nostalgic vision by examining six of his representative Elian essays.]
At this approaching December 27, marking the 150th anniversary of Charles Lamb's death, we celebrate and reflect upon his life of almost sixty years, a life replete with a unique combination of joie de vivre and the most intense kind of personal tragedy. As Dr. Johnson remarked of David Garrick, so may it be said also of Lamb, one of the most beloved writers in any language, that his death ‘eclipsed the gaiety of nations’.
I consider it a very special privilege to be with you, the members of The Charles Lamb Society, in this commemorative month, myself an Elian, though I reside thousands of miles from where Lamb throve, suffered, wrote, sauntered, and mused. In a sense it is profoundly ironic that the banner of Lamb should have been so widely unfurled, given his unassuming, self-effacing nature and the deprecation of self implied in his exhorting of Coleridge not to refer to him as ‘gentle-hearted’. I am pleased, therefore, to share with you my thoughts on the aesthetic tenacity of Elian nostalgia in 1984.
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SOURCE: Peal, W. Hugh. “In Search of Charles Lamb.” The Kentucky Review 6, no. 2 (summer 1986): 3-23.
[In the following essay, Peal presents an overview of Lamb's life and literary career by detailing numerous manuscripts and letters from his personal collection of Lamb's writings.]
The search for Charles Lamb began in my case, as so many searches do, as the result of a gift. The gift was a copy of Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb, and the giver was an aunt who believed that little boys should be introduced to good literature at the earliest and most impressionable ages. The gift was not one which could be classified as a collector's item. It was a small oblong volume bound in green cloth with cheap iridescent decoration. The paper was cheap, and the printing would not have been approved by Didot or Baskerville. It was, however, the best copy obtainable from Sears & Roebuck, the only book vendor available to the lady, and she knew that ten year old boys can quickly find the kernel in a nut in spite of the forbidding shell.
Whether children of these days can be interested in the Tales from Shakespeare seems to me doubtful. A good many of the stories were somewhat threadbare and worn Renaissance material even in Shakespeare's time, and the plays are readable now only because of the extraordinary beauty of the poetry and the subtleties of the...
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SOURCE: Aaron, Jane. “Charles and Mary Lamb: The Critical Heritage.” The Charles Lamb Bulletin, n.s., no. 59 (July 1987): 73-85.
[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture, Aaron summarizes the vicissitudes of Lamb's literary reputation since his death.]
In 1975, this society, the Charles Lamb Society, marked the bicentenary of Lamb's birth with an address by George L. Barnett on ‘The History of Charles Lamb's Reputation’.1 Barnett's essay concentrated mainly on the critical reception of Lamb's writings when they first appeared, and dealt but briefly with the subsequent ramifications in Lamb's literary prestige. There are contradictions and anomalies in the history of Lamb's reputation which have not yet been fully explored, and which can cast an interesting light not only upon Lamb himself but also upon the processes and trends of literary criticism generally, during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The aim of this present paper is to expand upon Barnett's account, and to continue it into the 1980s. The history of Mary Lamb's reputation, unrecorded by Barnett, also deserves attention, both for its own intrinsic interest and for the further light it casts on the reception of her brother's life and writings.
A striking characteristic of our critical heritage on the Lambs is the consistency of its violent internal contradictions. From the...
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SOURCE: Misenheimer, James B., Jr., and Carolyn Misenheimer. “Another Elia: Essays in a Minor Key.” The Charles Lamb Bulletin, n.s., no. 60 (October 1987): 109-22.
[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture, the Misenheimers probe the ironic wit and technique of four lesser-known Elian essays.]
To refer to ‘another Elia’ will to some seem paradoxical, since those who know him know that there is only one Elia, true and everlasting, and that he is likely to remain unique across the ages yet to be born. Elia's most memorable artistic strengths have been seen by posterity as residing primarily in the realm of the nostalgic and prominently in the mode of the ironic, though neither is all pervasive. Indeed, as recently as 1984, when the sesquicentennial of the death of Charles Lamb was observed, essays appeared in both popular news magazines and scholarly journals alike celebrating the aesthetic universality of Elian nostalgia, alive and well as we approach the end of the twentieth century. To seem to contradict or to deny, therefore, the sacrosanctity of the true Elia would seem unequivocally presumptuous and wrongheaded.
This paper is in no way designed to detract from the Elia whom we know and love but, rather, to explore combinations of techniques and attitudes which seem to harken away from the firmly defined centre of Elian accomplishment. Since in December 1984...
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SOURCE: Nicholes, Joseph. “Politics by Indirection: Charles Lamb's Seventeenth-Century Renegade, John Woodvil.” The Wordsworth Circle 19, no. 1 (winter 1988): 49-55.
[In the following essay, Nicholes describes Lamb's historical drama, John Woodvil, as an analogical commentary on the political situation contemporary to Lamb.]
The idea that Charles Lamb was one of the least politically minded of Romantic writers has been, since Lamb's own day, a prominent feature of his literary reputation. Burton Pollin and Winifred Courtney have shown, however, that Lamb was more concerned with politics than either he or his friends and biographers have been prepared to admit. “That Lamb was not apolitical can no longer be in doubt,” writes Mrs. Courtney in her recent critical biography Young Charles Lamb: 1775-1802 (1982), “nor did he just stop being political after a certain age” (p. 186).1 Lamb began his historical drama, John Woodvil: A Tragedy, within a month of being lampooned as a Jacobin in a cartoon by James Gillray and poem by George Canning in the July, 1798, Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine.2 The historical setting of John Woodvil, just after the Restoration of 1660, when examined in light of a late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century practice of drawing analogies between contemporary politics and the constitutional crises of the...
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SOURCE: Sokol, B. J. “Coleridge on Charles Lamb's Poetic Craftsmanship.” English Studies 71, no. 1 (February 1990): 29-34.
[In the following essay, Sokol examines Samuel Taylor Coleridge's revisions to a Lamb sonnet and notes Lamb's subsequent abandonment of verse composition.]
Before twice printing it together with his own poems in 1796, Coleridge considerably modified Charles Lamb's sonnet beginning ‘Was it some sweet device of Faery’.1 These unasked-for emendations are variously replied to in several of Lamb's letters to Coleridge of 1796 and 1797.2 Since then a number of critics have expressed sympathetic indignation with Coleridge on Lamb's behalf.3 But if Lamb himself felt any injury on account of his poem's treatment, he largely disguised such reactions in the bantering and self-depreciatory tone of his letters.4
It is possible that Lamb did suffer a disguised hurt that contributed to the subsequent cooling of his relations with Coleridge. This is not made less possible because the rift was also surely related to Coleridge's ‘Nehemiah Higgenbottom’ parody sonnets (1797) which affronted Lamb's poet's pride,5 and Charles Lloyd Jr.'s malicious portrait of Coleridge in the novel Edmund Oliver (1798). Likewise although there may be other good reasons for Lamb's intended abandoning of poetry in about 1796, these do...
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SOURCE: Schoenfield, Mark. “Voices Together: Lamb, Hazlitt, and the London.” Studies in Romanticism 29, no. 2 (summer 1990): 257-72.
[In the following essay, Schoenfield analyzes Lamb's essay “The Old and the New Schoolmaster” in the contexts of periodical publication in the early nineteenth century and of William Hazlitt's adjoining article, “Old Antiquity.”]
At this instant, [Hazlitt] may be preparing for me some compliment, above my deserts, as he has sprinkled many such among his admirable books, for which I rest his debtor; or, for anything I know, or can guess to the contrary, he may be about to read a lecture on my weaknesses.
—Charles Lamb, London Magazine 1823
Mr. Lamb has succeeded not by conforming to the Spirit of the Age, but in opposition to it. … His style runs pure and clear, though it may often take an underground course.
—William Hazlitt, Spirit of the Age 1825
M M. Bakhtin, in The Dialogic Imagination, speaks of heteroglossia as a moment, simultaneously textual and historical, in which different voices mix, sometimes in harmony, sometimes in collision, as an analogue to various social distributions, whether occupational, geographic, or sexual:
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SOURCE: Monsman, Gerald. “Charles Lamb's Elia as Clerk: The Commercial Employment of a Literary Writer.” The Wordsworth Circle 21, no. 3 (summer 1990): 96-100.
[In the following essay, Monsman explores the relationship between Lamb's occupation as an accounting clerk for the East India Company and his work as a creative writer.]
In “Recollections of Charles Lamb” (1838), Thomas Dequincey describes his first encounter with Lamb at the East India House, seated at “a very lofty writing-desk, separated by a still higher railing from that part of the floor on which the profane—the laity, like myself—were allowed to approach the clerus, or clerkly rulers of the room. Within the railing, sat, to the best of my remembrance, six quill-driving gentlemen; not gentlemen whose duty or profession it was merely to drive the quill, but who where then driving it—gens de plume, such in esse, as well as in posse—in act as well as habit.”1 Dequincey's mock-heroic elevation of the humble clerks to priestly or scholarly status by a play on the etymological derivation of clerk (from the late Latin clericus and Greek kleros) helps to define the Elia persona in relation to the life behind it. Although Lamb had joked that his “true works may be found on the shelves of Leadenhall Street, filling some hundred Folios,” he also hinted in the same...
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SOURCE: Heller, Janet Ruth. “Lamb and Reader-Response Criticism.” In Coleridge, Lamb, Hazlitt, and the Reader of Drama, pp. 115-27. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990.
[In the following excerpt, Heller assesses Lamb's “On the Tragedies of Shakespeare” and other critical essays that concentrate on the act of reading as a creative process.]
Scholars have recently devoted many books, articles, and conferences to the responses of readers to texts and investigated different authors' concepts of “the implied reader.”1 Writers like Stanley Fish, Walter Slatoff, and Wolfgang Iser have explored the demands that poets and novelists make on the reading public. However, few twentieth-century critics have taken any interest in the reader's reaction to a published play, perhaps because they define drama as solely a performing art.
Since reader-response scholars have neglected plays, one must turn to film criticism to find comparisons of the responses of readers to dramas, novels, and short stories and the responses of audiences to motion pictures based on works of fiction. Adaptations of Shakespeare's plays have generated debates among film critics. While commentators such as Jack J. Jorgens view movies as “truest to the effect of Shakespeare's dramatic verse,” other scholars complain that films are overly concerned with setting and other external details and thus...
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SOURCE: Wedd, Mary R. “That Dangerous Figure—Irony.” The Charles Lamb Bulletin, n.s., 73 (January 1991): 1-12.
[In the following essay, Wedd discusses Lamb's subtle and complex use of irony in his Elian essay “Poor Relations.”]
Irony, the Oxford Dictionary tells us, is a ‘Figure of speech in which the intended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used’, often ‘taking the form of sarcasm or ridicule in which laudatory expressions are used to imply condemnation or contempt’; as when Swift put forward ‘A Modest Proposal for preventing the Children of Poor People from being a Burden to their Parents or the Country …’—by using them as meat. ‘I grant’, says Swift, ‘this food will be somewhat dear but never mind, the rich can afford it’. As readers are reputed to have believed implicitly in Gulliver and written letters to him, is it perhaps possible today for a market-economy-based politician to consider quite seriously Swift's ‘Modest Proposal’ if other measures already taken do not have the required result?
As this example from Swift demonstrates, irony can easily misfire where writer and reader do not share the same set of values and Lamb was well aware of this. If you aim to condemn an action by praising it, you may end by being believed. This is particularly so when the device is used with great variety and subtlety, as it often is...
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SOURCE: Natarajan, Uttara. “‘A Soul Set Apart’: Lamb and the Border-Land of Imaginative Experience.” The Charles Lamb Bulletin, no. 75 (July 1991): 85-92.
[In the following essay, Natarajan emphasizes Lamb's use of the outsider's perspective in his essays.]
On the 27th September, 1796, Lamb wrote to Coleridge to tell him that
my poor dear dearest sister in a fit of insanity has been the death of her own mother. I was at hand only time enough to snatch the knife out of her grasp.1
Coleridge responds with suitably solemn and exalted religious consolation, offering, among other sentiments, the following observation upon his friend's condition following the catastrophe:
I look upon you as a man called by sorrow and anguish and a strange desolation of hopes into quietness, and a soul set apart and made peculiar to God.2
Coleridge is quick to predict a familiar tragic pattern for Lamb's story—it is the classical pattern of an Oedipus or an Orestes estranged by catastrophe, i.e. condemned by the awfulness of an experience so far beyond the ordinary that they must henceforth remain permanently outside it. In this way, the tragic protagonist becomes the inhabitant of a limbo or twilight world, irrevocably removed from the mainstream social...
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SOURCE: Parker, Mark. “Ideology and Editing: The Political Context of the Elia Essays.” Studies in Romanticism 30, no. 3 (fall 1991): 473-94.
[In the following essay, Parker suggests the political relevance of Lamb's seemingly apolitical Elian essays by considering the circumstances of their original publication in the London Magazine.]
Mario Praz presents a singular picture of Charles Lamb in The Hero in Eclipse—as a man whose essays trace his determined probing of the wounds given him by nascent capitalism, whose ideals are aristocratic but whose place as a clerk is socially ambiguous, and whose “Biedermeier” aesthetic is marked by an “ability to express the quintessence of bourgeois feeling.”1 This tendentious assessment has not been taken up by later critics, who have preferred immanent or at least more formal approaches to the essays of Elia. But beneath the somewhat programmatic thrust of Praz's remark lies an important yet unregarded aspect of Lamb: the social and political context of his essays.
Book length studies have traced Lamb's development as a craftsman (Barnett), examined his creation of a “neutral ground” as an escape from pressures of work and personal tragedy (Frank), presented a reading of the essays from a phenomenological perspective (Randel), and read us a loosely deconstructive lecture on Lamb's examination of the authorial...
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SOURCE: Wilson, D. G. “How Green Was My Elia?” The Charles Lamb Bulletin, n.s., 78 (April 1992): 185-92.
[In the following essay, Wilson documents Lamb's literary responses to nature and the natural world.]
I want to share with you some ideas about Lamb's character relating to his experience of nature and natural things, and the ways in which he wrote about them.
A love of the country is taken, I know not why, to indicate the presence of all the cardinal virtues. It is one of those outlying qualities which are not exactly meritorious, but which, for that very reason, are the more provocative of a pleasing self-complacency. People pride themselves upon it as upon early rising, or upon answering letters by return of post … To say that we love the country is to make a claim to a similar excellence. We assert a taste for sweet and innocent pleasures, and an indifference to the feverish excitements of artificial society. I, too, love the country … but I confess … that I love it best in books. In real life I have remarked that it is frequently damp and rheumatic, and most hated by those who know it best … [we] can share the worthy Johnson's remark when enticed into the Highlands by his bear-leader that it is easy ‘to sit at home and conceive rocks, heaths and waterfalls’. Some slight basis of experience must doubtless be provided on which to rear any...
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SOURCE: Wordsworth, Jonathan. “Elia: An Introduction.” The Charles Lamb Bulletin, n.s., 78 (April 1992): 202-206.
[In the following essay, Wordsworth briefly surveys the traits of Lamb's literary persona, Elia.]
Then there is Charles Lamb, a long way from his friend Hazlitt in ways and manners; he is very fond of snuff, which seems to sharpen up his wit every time he dips his plentiful fingers into his large bronze-coloured box, and then he … throws himself backwards on his chair and stammers at a joke or pun with an inward sort of utterance ere he can give it speech. …
Back in Helpstone after his 1824 visit to London, John Clare is recalling the literary scene. Hazlitt ‘sits a silent picture of severity’, now and then intervening ‘with a sneer that cuts a bad pun or a young author's maiden table-talk to atoms’. Lamb, by contrast, is ‘a good sort of fellow, and if he offends it is innocently done’. ‘Who is not acquainted with Elia?’, Clare continues, giving to his question almost a Miltonic ring (‘Who would not sing for Lycidas?’),
as soon as the cloth is drawn, the wine and he become comfortable. His talk now doubles and threbles into a combination, a repetition, urging the same thing over and over again, till at last he leaves off, with scarcely a ‘goodnight’ in his mouth,...
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SOURCE: Woodbery, Bonnie. “Lamb's Early Satire of the Economists.” The Charles Lamb Bulletin, no. 81 (January 1993): 26-30.
[In the following essay, Woodbery considers Lamb's “Edax on Appetite” and “Hospita on the Immoderate Indulgence of the Pleasures of the Palate” as satirical attacks on the economic theories of Thomas Malthus, Jeremy Bentham, and others.]
In The Spirit of the Age, William Hazlitt captured in print the myth that Charles Lamb had ‘succeeded not by conforming to the Spirit of the Age, but in opposition to it. … His taste in French and German literature is somewhat defective: nor has he made much progress in the science of Political Economy or other abstruse studies’.1 Lamb, however, was not as ignorant about economic matters as Hazlitt would lead us to believe. In a letter dated 28 November 1810, Lamb tells Hazlitt that he has sent to him a copy of Cobbett's Political Register for 24 November 1810, which contained Hazlitt's letter upon ‘Mr. Malthus and the Edinburgh Reviewers’.2 (Hazlitt's Reply to Malthus had been criticized in the Edinburgh Review for August 1810). Lamb says ‘I sent you on Saturday a Cobbett containing your reply to Edinb. Rev. which I thought you would be glad to receive as an example of attention on the part of Mr. Cobbett to insert it so speedily’.3 Before closing, Lamb informs...
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SOURCE: Perry, Seamus. “Charles Lamb and the Cost of Seriousness.” The Charles Lamb Bulletin, no. 83 (July 1993): 78-89.
[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture, Perry evaluates Lamb's ironic and idiosyncratic approach to comedy and seriousness in his Elian essays.]
It is a great honour and pleasure to address the Charles Lamb Society; and I am both pleased and surprised by my invitation. Pleased, because it finally forced me to fulfil a promise I had made myself repeatedly for a long time, which was attentively to read again the Elia essays; and surprised, because, as that self-made promise will indicate, I am not a Lambian—Lamb is not, in the brutal terminology of the young aspirant academic, my ‘specialty’. I hardly have the gall to advertise myself to you as a ‘fresh pair of eyes’, for that would carry the quite unwarranted implication that yours are jaded: and your excellent Bulletin provides quarterly evidence that such an implication would be very wide of the mark. But my comparative innocence does lead me to ask myself a question which to the life-long aficionado perhaps is less pressing: what precisely is going on in the Elia essays?
Lamb's essay style and procedure have been frequently, and latterly belittlingly, described as ‘charming’, ‘beguiling’: hardly concepts likely to appeal to the Scrutineer...
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SOURCE: Mulvihill, James. “‘Essence’ and ‘Accident’ in Lamb's Elia Essays.” Clio 24, no. 1 (fall 1994): 37-54.
[In the following essay, Mulvihill traces affinities between Lamb's essays and Enlightenment moral philosophy, illustrated by the “dialectic of essence and accident” in Elia and The Last Essays of Elia.]
Essayists, according to William Hazlitt, are, “if not moral philosophers, moral historians, and that's better: or they are both, they found the one character upon the other; their premises precede their conclusions.”1 In this lecture “On the Periodical Essayists,” in Lectures on the English Comic Writers (1819), Hazlitt praises the essayist's art as “the best and most natural course of study. It is in morals and manners what the experimental is in natural philosophy” (6:91). The influence of eighteenth-century moral philosophy on the English Romantics has most recently been explored by Alan Bewell in Wordsworth and the Enlightenment. Bewell convincingly argues that William Wordsworth's entire corpus, the individual lyrics as much as the long poems, comprises “poetic ‘essays’ on specific moral subjects, not only on the faculties of the mind (as in the 1815 classification of Poems), but also on the origin and progress of social institutions such as the family, property, religion, myth, poetry, and language.” Thus,...
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SOURCE: Clark, Sandra. “Charles Lamb and Jacobean Drama.” The Charles Lamb Bulletin, no. 90 (April 1995): 58-67.
[In the following essay, Clark comments on Lamb's highly personal and eccentric, but perceptive, style in his Specimens of English Dramatic Poets, Who Lived about the Time of Shakespeare.]
In the tongue-in-cheek autobiography-cum-obituary he wrote dated 18 April 1827, Charles Lamb drew attention to his Specimens of English Dramatic Poets who lived about the time of Shakespeare in terms characteristic of the wry, self-denigrating character he had created for himself;1 except that he is misleading about its date (it was published 19 rather than, as he says here, 15 years earlier) his account of it is accurate: he was ‘the first to draw the public attention to the old English dramatists’. He was also the inspiration for others. Coleridge's Notes and Lectures upon Shakespeare and some of the Old English Dramatists and Hazlitt's course of lectures on the Elizabethan Dramatists (1821) were to follow: Wordsworth and Keats were both stimulated by Lamb's interest, and full of admiration for Specimens; Keats in fact gave Fanny Brawne a copy of it for her birthday, and he noted of Lamb's comments on Heywood's A Woman Killed with Kindness that ‘this is the most acute deep sighted and spiritual piece of criticism ever penned’.2 Victorian...
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SOURCE: Woodbery, Bonnie. “Lamb's ‘Confessions of a Drunkard’ in Context.” The Charles Lamb Bulletin, no. 90 (April 1995): 94-100.
[In the following essay, Woodbery places Lamb's “Confessions of a Drunkard” in its appropriate contexts of time and publication to view the essay as “a satiric portrait of a drunkard that parodies both Utilitarian ideals and evangelical tracts of conversion,” revealing Lamb's ambivalent feelings concerning alcohol.]
We know1 from the records kept by the ancient wine firm of Messrs Berry Brothers and Co. on the weight of their distinguished customers that in 1814, when Charles Lamb was 39, he weighed in at a mere 9 stone 3[frac12] lbs., or approximately 129[frac12] lbs. ‘in boots’.2 Other descriptions of Lamb's size include Thomas Hood's observation that Lamb had almost ‘immaterial legs’ and Carlyle's less than flattering depiction of Lamb as the ‘leanest of mankind’, in ‘tiny blackbreeches buttoned to the knee cap and no further, surmounting spindle legs also in black’.3 His size then could well have contributed to an intoxication that more than one of his acquaintances recalled. De Quincey relates that ‘the most noticeable feature of [Lamb's] intoxication was the suddenness with which it ascended to its meridian’.4 It was De Quincey's belief that six glasses of wine during dinner plus one or two...
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SOURCE: Ruddick, William. “Recent Approaches to Charles Lamb.” The Charles Lamb Bulletin, no. 98 (April 1997): 50-53.
[In the following essay, Ruddick summarizes trends in Lamb scholarship since the 1960s.]
Taking on the editorship of the Charles Lamb Bulletin has led me to review the current situation in Lamb studies.1 The availability of most of the required tools for research in the form of accurate texts, of letters and a much increased biographical knowledge of Lamb's closest literary friends (in particular Coleridge) has stimulated historical investigation of Lamb's work and its connection with that of other members of the group. At the same time study of the Elia persona and Lamb's use of masks has shown his subtleties as a practitioner of ambiguity, paradox, the avoidance of resolution and closure, and other features which have been much emphasized by recent criticism generally. Close readings of the Elia essays which also explore their use of myth and literary allusion are also now appearing. And recent critics have demonstrated the power with which Lamb developed features of imagination which are now thought to be centrally Romantic. At the same time there is room for much new thought and investigation. I will try to suggest where, in my view, some of these areas lie.
Lamb criticism takes the form of trickles rather than a broad stream. The Charles...
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SOURCE: Chandler, David. “A Study of Charles Lamb's ‘Living without God in the World.’” The Charles Lamb Bulletin, no. 99 (July 1997): 86-101.
[In the following essay, Chandler explicates Lamb's largely neglected poetic response to atheism entitled “Living without God in the World.”]
Mystery of God! thou brave and beauteous world, Made fair with light and shade and stars and flowers, Made fearful and august with woods and rocks, Jagg'd precipice, black mountain, sea in storms, Sun, over all, that no co-rival owns, But thro' Heaven's pavement rides as in despite Or mockery of the littleness of man! I see a mighty arm, by man unseen, Resistless, not to be controul'd, that guides, In solitude of unshared energies, All these thy ceaseless miracles, O world! Arm of the world, I view thee, and I muse On Man, who trusting in his mortal strength, Leans on a shadowy staff, a staff of dreams. We consecrate our total hopes and fears To idols, flesh and blood, our love, (heaven's due) Our praise and admiration; praise bestowed By man on man, and acts of worship done To a kindred nature, certes do reflect Some portion of the glory and rays oblique Upon the politic worshipper,—so man Extracts a pride from his humility. Some braver spirits of the modern stamp Affect a Godhead nearer: these talk loud Of mind, and independant [sic.] intellect, Of energies omnipotent in man, And man of his own fate artificer;...
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SOURCE: Riehl, Joseph E. “Criticism in Lamb's Lifetime.” In That Dangerous Figure: Charles Lamb and the Critics, pp. 5-26. Columbia, S. C.: Camden House, 1998.
[In the following excerpt, Riehl discusses late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century critical reaction to Lamb's works.]
The first reactions to Lamb in England were political or, more accurately, class-biased, and later criticism of Lamb has followed the patterns set down in the beginning of his career. And from the beginning, partisan detractors of Lamb have generally also attacked his companions, what is termed his “coterie,” which included Wordsworth, Coleridge, Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt, and other figures of the English Romantic movement. The atmosphere established from the beginning was adversarial. Lamb's detractors of the period brought forward almost all the charges which would be made against him later in the century, and likewise his friends and defenders set out the themes which would continue to be used defensively throughout the next two centuries. From the first, reaction to Lamb seemed to divide his critics along class and political lines. Repeatedly, for instance, Lamb is advanced as either the fullest expression of the Romantic critical mind, or, as the perpetrator of its worst excesses. Criticism of Lamb, therefore, is often highly revealing of critical biases, and he serves as a critical litmus test, or touchstone, since...
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Beer, John. “Did Lamb Understand Coleridge?” The Charles Lamb Bulletin, no. 56 (October 1986): 232-49.
Details the complex personal and literary association between Lamb and his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Courtney, Winifred F. “Charles Lamb and John Keats: The Relationship.” Bulletin of Research in the Humanities 87, no. 1 (1986-87): 82-100.
Observes Keats's considerable regard for those few works by Lamb he had read.
Garnett, Mark. “Lamb's Politics.” The Charles Lamb Bulletin, no. 77 (January 1992): 150-56.
Maintains that Lamb was not apolitical, but rather a politically astute moderate liberal.
Ruddick, Bill. “Walter Scott, Charles Lamb, and William Godwin: Some Shared Opinions and Personal Contacts.” The Charles Lamb Bulletin, no. 84 (October 1993): 136-42.
Recounts the declining personal relationship between Lamb and Godwin, and that between Godwin and Scott.
Watters, Reggie. “‘We Had Classics of Our Own’: Charles Lamb's Schoolboy Reading.” The Charles Lamb Bulletin, no. 104 (October 1998): 114-28.
Surveys the tales of adventure that Lamb read in his youth.
Wedd, Mary R. “Charles Lamb—Friend and Critic.” The Charles Lamb...
(The entire section is 814 words.)