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 Presentation,” and “On the Artificial Comedy of the Last Century.”
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,...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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....
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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...
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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...
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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,...
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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),...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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