The essays Charles Lamb wrote for London Magazine in the early 1820’s, which were collected in the Essays of Elia and Last Essays of Elia, mark the acme of his literary achievement and are an enduring and loved contribution to English letters. Lamb had written familiar essays since 1802. After “The Londoner” appeared in the Morning Post (February 1, 1802), Thomas Manning wrote to him to express admiration for the piece, adding, “If you were to write a volume of essays in the same stile you might be sure of its succeeding.” Although Lamb did not immediately take Manning’s advice, he did over the next sixteen years produce other periodical essays, volumes of criticism, books for children, and a farce. In 1818, his collected works appeared in two volumes.
Then in 1820, John Scott, the editor of the newly established London Magazine, asked Lamb to contribute. Lamb’s “Recollections of the South Sea House” appeared in the August issue, the first of the essays written under the pseudonym “Elia.” Most of the fifty-three items collected in the two volumes of Elia essays were written for the London Magazine between 1820 and 1823, though the last piece in the second volume, “Popular Fallacies,” appeared in the New Monthly Magazine in 1826 (January-June, September).
In the introduction to the Last Essays of Elia, ostensibly written by “a Friend of the Late Elia,” Lamb accuses the essays of being “pranked in an affected array of antique models and phrases.” The same accusation had been raised by Mary Lamb, the writer’s sister and sometime coauthor of children’s books, who criticized his fondness for outdated words. Lamb replied, “Damn the ages! I will write for antiquity!” This love for the past, which was, as Elia’s “friend” conceded, natural to the author, surfaces in a variety of ways, particularly in literary debts, allusions, and subject matter. In “Oxford in the Vacation,” the second essay, Lamb observes that the reader of his previous piece might have taken the author for a clerk. Lamb adds, “I do agnize something of the sort.” The word agnize, acknowledge, probably came to Lamb from William Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor of Venice (pr. 1604, pb. 1622); by 1820, it was no longer a common word. Lamb claims that the libraries of Oxford “most arride and solace” him; arride, to please, is an Elizabethan word that Lamb probably took from Ben Jonson’s Every Man out of His Humour (1599). Similarly, his use of “perigesis” for journey is likely a borrowing from Jonson’s Underwoods (1640) and is the first recorded use of the word in the Oxford English Dictionary since Jonson’s nearly two hundred years earlier. “Visnomy” for physiognomy (in “The Two Races of Men”), “pretermitted” instead of overlooked and “reluct” for rebel against (in “New Year’s Eve”), and “keck” for reject (in “Imperfect Sympathies”) all derive from seventeenth century authors. In at least two instances—“obolary” (having little money) in “The Two Races of Men” and “raucid” for raucous in “To the Shade of Elliston”—Lamb imitated these earlier writers by inventing words; the Oxford English Dictionary credits Lamb as the origin of both.
Lamb knew many of the leading authors of the age, including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, William Hazlitt, Thomas De Quincey, and William Godwin. However his shelves and mind admitted almost no modern literature. His 1808 Specimens of English Dramatic Poets, Who Lived About the Time of Shakespeare with Notes called attention to Elizabethan and Jacobean authors whom Lamb admired and whose influence is evident in his Elia essays. Although Lamb’s formal education ended at the age of fourteen, he read extensively, as is evident from the more than 130 authors he quotes in his work. For example, the epigraph for “A Quaker Meeting” comes from a 1653 poem by Richard Fleckno; that of “Imperfect Sympathies” is taken from Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici (1642). “Christ’s Hospital Five-and-Thirty Years Ago” presents the “wit-combats” between Coleridge and a fellow student in the same way that Thomas Fuller in his History of the Worthies of England (1662) describes the rivalry between Shakespeare and Jonson. The very term “wit-combats” comes from Fuller, whom Lamb called “the dear, fine, silly, old angel.” “Popular Fallacies” is modeled on Browne’s seventeenth century exploration of “vulgar errors.” In “Detached Thoughts on Reading,” Lamb lists some of his favorite authors, among them Christopher Marlowe, Michael Drayton, William Drummond, and Abraham Cowley; the youngest of them, Cowley, died in 1667.
This love for the past is evident in the very titles of the essays: “Christ’s Hospital Five-and-Thirty Years Ago,” “The Old Benchers...
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