What are the characteristics of Romanticism in the essays of Charles Lamb?

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Susan Hurn | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Many of the works of Charles Lamb are reflective of the literary  Romanticism of his age. He was more interested in content over form; the expression of thought and feeling was paramount in his writing. His work was imaginative, frequently examining with some wonderment those aspects of life that cannot be explained through rational thought or analysis, life's mysteries. Like other Romantics, Lamb was fascinated with the past, with antiquity, and with fantasy.

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jameadows | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator

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Many of Charles Lamb's essays had Romantic elements. He wrote using the pseudonym Elia, and one of his collections of essays is often referred to as the "Elia essays." One of his Elia essays, "Old China," contains two monologues about the past between Elia and his cousin, Bridget. Like Romantic poets, Lamb's essay concentrates on personal experience and reflection. The characters in the essay speak over china dishes, which is a reference to the external world. Their talk over the china dishes shows the tension between their external and internal worlds in a manner that is characteristic of the Romantic writers. The china cups they use are, like Keats's Grecian urn, a static element in an ever-changing world. The theme of the essay relates to the loss of youth and innocence--which is a central theme of Romanticism.

Another example of his essays that has a Romantic element is "Dream Children: A Reverie," which is a discursive, dreamlike essay in which Lamb fancifully imagines telling his children, which he does not have, about his childhood. His essay involves his imagining that he had married a past girlfriend, and so the essays feature an element of the imagination that is Romantic in nature. He does not write to prove a point or to use reason; instead, his essays meander in a way that is dreamlike. Like the work of Romantic poets, Lamb's essay is about the lost dreams and innocence of childhood. 

Reference: Richard Haven. The Romantic Art of Charles Lamb. ELH Vol. 30, No. 2 (Jun., 1963), pp. 137-146.

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