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.