Charles Lamb began his literary career writing poetry and continued to write verse his entire life. He tried his hand at other genres, however, and is remembered primarily for his familiar essays. These essays, originally published in the London Magazine, were collected in Essays of Elia (1823) with another collection appearing ten years later, Last Essays of Elia (1833). In addition to his poetry and essays, Lamb wrote fiction, drama, children’s literature, and criticism. He wrote one novel, A Tale of Rosamund Gray and Old Blind Margaret (1798). In 1802, he published his first play, John Woodvil: A Tragedy, which was followed shortly by another attempt at drama: Mr. H.: Or, Beware a Bad Name, a Farce in Two Acts (pb. 1806). In addition to several prologues and epilogues, he published two other dramas: The Pawnbroker’s Daughter: A Farce (pb. 1825) and The Wife’s Trial (pb. 1827). In addition, he wrote (largely in collaboration with his sister Mary) several children’s books: The King and Queen of Hearts (1805), Tales from Shakespeare (1807), Adventures of Ulysses (1808), Mrs. Leicester’s School (1809), and Prince Dorus (1811). Lamb’s criticism appeared in various periodicals but was never systematically collected and published during his lifetime. He did publish copious critical notes to accompany his voluminous extracts from Elizabethan plays, Specimens of English Dramatic Poets, Who Lived About the Time of Shakespeare, with Notes (1808).
Much of Charles Lamb’s literary career was spent in search of an appropriate genre for his particular genius. He wrote poetry, drama, fiction, and criticism, but of these he truly distinguished himself only in criticism. When he happened upon the persona of Elia and the familiar essay, however, these early efforts contributed to his success. As if he had been in training for years preparing to create the Essays of Elia, Lamb applied what he had learned from each of the earlier literary forms in which he had worked. Incorporating his knowledge of the importance of rhythm, dramatic context, characterization, dialogue, tone, and point of view, he placed it into the Essays of Elia collections and created masterpieces.
Today’s literary critics value the essays of Lamb because they embody and reflect in prose the Romantic predisposition found in the great poetry of the day. These familiar essays have a biographical impulse, organic form, symbolic representation, syntactic flexibility, and occasional subject matter. The popularity of Lamb’s essays, however, does not depend on their historical or theoretical relevance. The Essays of Elia collections were as celebrated in Lamb’s day as they are in modern times and for the same reason: The character of Elia that Lamb creates is one of the most endearing personae in English literature. Elia’s whimsical reminiscences may border on the trivial, but that is insignificant, because...
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Barnett, George Leonard. Charles Lamb. Boston: Twayne, 1976. This volume is an excellent introduction to Lamb. Barnett supplies a biography interwoven with an analysis of Lamb’s major works. Supplemented by a chronology of Lamb’s life and work, an index, and a bibliography. Suitable for all students.
Cornwall, Barry. Charles Lamb: A Memoir. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1866. Serious students of Lamb will find this old book essential, as it was written only thirty-two years after Lamb’s death, by a contemporary who knew him well. Lamb was astonishingly well loved, and his work held in high esteem by his contemporaries. It is interesting to see that the reputation of his work remains good today.
Hine, Reginald Leslie. Charles Lamb and His Herfordshire. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1949. Lamb was born in London, in town, but his heart was in his adopted home in the country, in Herfordshire. This book sheds valuable light on Lamb’s personality, which was shaped by his attachment to country life. Contains paintings and drawings of Lamb and Herfordshire, bibliography, and index.
Howe, Will David. Charles Lamb and His Friends. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1944. Lamb was a lovable man and had many friends who wrote about him. Howe has stitched together many of these reminiscences and allowed the modern reader to see how Lamb’s friends viewed him, and how he saw himself. Contains an index and a bibliography.
Lucas, Edward V. The Life of Charles Lamb. 5th ed. 2 vols. London: Methuen, 1921. This book remains the standard biography on Lamb. It is built on information gathered from Lamb’s writings. Lucas provides a great many facts about Lamb’s life but little critical analysis of his work. Valuable for all students.
Riehl, Joseph E. That Dangerous Figure: Charles Lamb and the Critics. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1998. An examination of criticism by Lamb’s contemporaries of his works, with extensive bibliographic references.