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raised by Mary Lamb, the writer’s sister and sometime coauthor of children’s books, who criticized his fondness for outdated words.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...
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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’sReligio 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 of the Inner Temple,” “On Some of the Old Actors,” “On the Artificial Comedy of the Last Century,” “The Old Margate Hoy,” and “Old China.” “Oxford in the Vacation” includes a paragraph-long paean to antiquity, a quality that endears the university to Elia. In “The Old and the New Schoolmaster” Lamb praises the life of the old schoolmaster as idyllic and contrasts it with the hectic existence of the new one. “The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple” laments the passing of the old familiar faces as well as the fashion for fountains and objects to the remodeling of the entrance to the Inner Temple. Elsewhere Lamb observes that “the gardens of Gray’s Inn . . . were then far finer than they are now” (“On Some of the Old Actors”). “Dream Children: A Reverie” again criticizes the modern. Lamb here relates that Blakesware, a country house in Hertfordshire, contained an old chimney piece bearing the carved story of the Children in the Wood. The new owner removed this mantelpiece in favor of a sterile “marble one of modern invention . . . , with no story upon it.” The title of “Barrenness of the Imaginative Faculty in the Production of Modern Art” summarizes Lamb’s conviction; he here compares the skills of the great Renaissance masters with what he regards as the diminished achievement of more recent painters. “There is a cowardice in modern art,” he maintains. The same falling off strikes him in the theater, where no one could any longer perform Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: Or, What You Will (pr. c. 1600-1602, pb. 1623) or Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School for Scandal (1777) as they could in Lamb’s youth, and where the delightful escapism of Restoration comedy had yielded to the “all-devouring drama of common life” (“On the Artificial Comedy of the Last Century”).
In this love for the past Lamb is one with the Romantic movement. Other Romantic traits that surface in the essays are the emphasis on the autobiographical and the dream state. Introspective, Lamb could have said with Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, “It is myself that I portray.” The eighteenth century essays of Joseph Addison and Samuel Johnson adopted a familiar style and a persona—the Tatler, Mr. Spectator, the Rambler, the Idler—but they used this persona to separate writer and subject. The Elia pseudonym may be an anagram for “a lie” as well as for “Lamb.” On August 16, 1820, just before the appearance of “Recollections of the South-Sea House,” Lamb wrote to Barron Field, “You shall have soon a tissue of truth and fiction impossible to be extricated, the interlacing shall be so delicate, the partitions perfectly invisible, it shall puzzle you . . . , & I shall not explain it.” Unlike his essayistic predecessors, however, Lamb used his persona to gain the freedom to get closer to, not further away from, the self. Though reality is thinly disguised, Lamb’s life beats clearly just beneath the veiled surface of his work.
One method of camouflage is the change of names, beginning with Elia himself. Lamb’s father appears as Lovel in “The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple.” Lamb’s brother John becomes his cousin James Elia, and his sister Mary appears as Cousin Bridget. Lamb’s first love, Ann Simmons, is the Alice W—(n) of “Dream Children” and “New Year’s Eve.” Blakesware is translated to Blakesmoor. When Lamb describes his schooldays at Christ’s Hospital, he writes as Elia writing as Samuel Taylor Coleridge; his own experiences are presented as those of a third person, L. Changing dates is another masking device. “The Superannuated Man” deals with Lamb’s retirement but alters his last day at the East India House from March 29 to April 12, 1825. “Recollections of the South-Sea House” supposedly recounts events of 1780, when Lamb was only five years old.
The essential truth of Lamb’s life, particularly his childhood, is, however, little altered. As he recounts in “Oxford in the Vacation,” he was in fact “defrauded . . . of the sweet food of academic institution,” and he enjoyed spending his limited free time at one or the other of the English universities. Coleridge’s habit of borrowing, annotating, and sometimes returning Lamb’s books is accurately depicted in “The Two Races of Men.” Lamb enjoyed the quiet of a Quaker meeting; “My First Play” is a factual account of the beginning of his lifelong love affair with the theater. Even the fictional “A Dissertation upon Roast Pig” includes a recollection of a schoolboy incident in which he gave a beggar an entire plum cake.
“A Dissertation upon Roast Pig” is rightly regarded as one of the finest examples of Lamb’s wit, which relies on exaggeration, word play, and absurdity. Lamb here relates that Bo-bo accidentally burns down the family hut, and that in the conflagration nine suckling pigs perish. Horrified at first, Bo-bo and his father, Ho-ti, soon discover the excellent taste of roast pig (one of Lamb’s favorite dishes). Ho-ti’s cottages thereafter regularly burn down. Once others taste this delicacy, their houses also catch fire, until someone finds a way to cook a pig without consuming a house in the process. His essay also contains the story of the plum cake and so demonstrates how Lamb used humor to distance the tragedies and disappointments of his life. The burned house and the dead pigs transformed into a delicious food could serve as metaphors for the transformation of Lamb’s sorrows into the delightful essays of Elia.
The dream also allows Lamb to get closer to his experience through seeming distance. “The Child Angel: A Dream” purports to recount a vision concerning Ge-Urania, an infant angel. In its imaginative portrayal it seems a tale that Coleridge might have written, and its concerns with childhood and reverie place it squarely within the Romantic sensibility. However, it is uniquely Lamb’s in its nostalgic melancholy, just as the child angel itself is yet another avatar of Lamb, with his fear of hereditary madness and his limp: Ge-Urania “was to know weakness, and reliance, and the shadow of human imbecility, and it went with a lame gait.” In the similarly titled and better-known “Dream Children: A Reverie,” Lamb presents his youthful love for Simmons and his sometimes troubled relationship with his brother John in the guise of a reverie. The piece contains humor and expresses no bitterness, but a gentle sadness suffuses the writing, a sense of loss and regret for what might have been. Like many other Lamb pieces, it plays variations on the ubi sunt theme: Where are all the great actors, the great artists of the past, one’s former friends and acquaintances, where is one’s first love, one’s youth?
Though most of the Elia essays are personal as well as familiar, occasionally they demonstrate Lamb’s skill as a critic. “On the Artificial Comedy of the Last Century” explains that because Restoration comedy is not meant to be taken seriously, it should not be regarded as immoral. “Stage Illusion” extends this argument to comedy in general. Whereas Coleridge argued that at a play the audience engages in a willing suspension of disbelief, Lamb more persuasively maintains that the spectator can enjoy the representation of a coward or a miser only when the spectator recognizes that such a despicable character is being acted, not actually present on the stage. In his essay on the sonnets of Sir Philip Sidney, Lamb takes on another leading Romantic critic, William Hazlitt, to defend the Elizabethan poet. Like Romantic criticism generally, Lamb’s is subjective. Still, his assessments, whether of William Hogarth or Sidney or his favorite actors, are invariably fascinating and usually correct.