Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1500
Charles Lamb is one of the most pleasant and most companionable figures in English letters. He was the author of several works of relative unimportance, such as his best-known poem “Old Familiar Faces” published in a volume called simply Blank Verse, 1798 A TALE OF ROSAMUND GRAY (1798), the generally ineffective drama JOHN WOODVIL (1802), and the farce MR. H. (1806), THE ADVENTURES OF ULYSSES (1808), SPECIMENS OF THE ENGLISH DRAMATIC POETS WHO LIVED ABOUT THE TIME OF SHAKESPEARE (1808), and others. But he is deservedly best remembered for his TALES FROM SHAKESPEARE (1807) and the ESSAYS OF ELIA.
The TALES FROM SHAKESPEARE consists of Shakespeare’s plays rewritten, supposedly for children but actually of such high quality that they have been immensely popular with adults also. For the volume Lamb rewrote six tragedies and his sister Mary rewrote fourteen comedies. They did not include the histories, the Roman plays, and two other comedies. The beauty and art with which these stories recapture the essence and style of Shakespeare’s language is remarkable, almost as though the later versions were prose renditions of the plays written by Shakespeare himself. The transition between Shakespeare’s language and that of the Lambs is scarcely visible or of varying quality.
The ESSAYS OF ELIA were first contributed to The London Magazine during the years between 1820 and 1825. Signed “Elia,” they were first published as a book in 1823. A second volume, Last Essays of Elia, appeared in 1833. The most famous of these essays are undoubtedly “Dream Children: A Reverie,” a magical recreation of youth, and “A Dissertation upon Roast Pig,” a whimsical fantasy about the Chinese custom of burning down houses to cook their pork. In these essays Lamb is very consciously a stylist re-creating and revitalizing the language of older English writers, especially Robert Burton, the author of THE ANATOMY OF MELANCHOLY, 1621, and Sir Thomas Browne in his VULGAR ERRORS, published in 1646. In these works Lamb is relaxed, quaint, archaic, and whimsical. From these essays in particular has come the notion, held in the writer’s day as well as since, that Lamb was above all things “gentle,” a term he came to detest and to protest against.
Although Lamb was “gentle” in these essays, he was in life quite the opposite. He was at times somewhat eccentric and given to being different from other people because of a proclivity for the quaint. But he was never a recluse. Instead, he was very much a part of life, which he loved and enjoyed despite the terrible tragedies of his life—the murder of their mother by his sister Mary and the care he gave her during her recurrent fits of insanity.
But Lamb’s letters, surely not among the greatest letters of literary figures, reveal a tough little man who affirmed life in the face of many frustrations and misfortunes. He did not whine over his role in life and generally he was willing to accept it on its own terms rather than try to make it over into a more desirable image.
Stylistically the letters are worlds apart from the language of the essays. In his daily—or rather, nightly—writing he reacts to life in language that is simple, direct, idiomatic, at times racy, snappish, and very ungentle.
Lamb was gregarious and congenial with his friends despite the fact that he stammered-an affliction which added charm to his personality-but reticent among persons he did not know well. When relaxed he was outgoing, boisterous, playful, and a grim punster who often did not know when to drop an overworked pun. Though he was not liked by all persons who knew him, his range of acquaintanceship was wide, including some of the leading authors of the day, especially Coleridge and Wordsworth.
Lamb, contrary to the main Romantic impulse of the day, was a city man by birth and taste. Nature to him, as he told Wordsworth, was dead. But London life was his exhilaration. He loved the rattle, the noise, the masquerade, the pantomime. It fed him without ever filling him. He reacted so strongly to the movement that it sometimes filled him with tears merely to know the joy of it. For this reason he was remarkably indifferent to the world outside London. He did not care for the mountains. He cared next to nothing for the momentous events of the Continent during the years of revolution and the Napoleonic wars, nor apparently for the strife raised in England by these catastrophes. Though liberal in his political leanings, he maintained throughout life a marvelous indifference to political events at home or abroad.
Yet his letters sparkle with the matters that concerned him. He was keenly interested in the writers of his day as well as those of earlier times, their ideas and philosophies, their everyday affairs. He was especially interested in the theater, although his own attempts to write for that medium were disastrously unsuccessful, and his criticism, though not of the first magnitude, was filled with insight and incisiveness. The letters reveal also that Lamb was an enthusiastic devotee of “Lords Food and Drink.”
Lamb was intimate with Coleridge, whom he had met while both were students at Christ’s Hospital. Many of his best letters were written to this life-long friend. Through Coleridge, Lamb met Wordsworth. He also knew William Hazlitt, Robert Southey, Leigh Hunt, and William Godwin, as well as the actress Fanny Kelly, to whom he proposed marriage.
His letters abound with chitchat, the trivial, as well as with serious subjects of much interest to him. He liked Burns, Rousseau’s CONFESSIONS, the philosopher George Berkeley, (he wanted at one time to become a Berkeleyan), the Quakers William Penn and John Woolman.
He was uninhibited in giving advice. He urged Coleridge to be simple in his writing and avoid elaborateness because simplicity is the very essence of expression. He also urged Coleridge to write an epic because it was the only kind of poem that could accommodate the full genius of a poet.
He did not hesitate to criticize his friends or mankind in general. He reacted negatively to Coleridge’s subtitle to his “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” which was called “A Poet’s Reverie,” because he felt the additional part of the title was a derogation to the full work, a poem that was the most affecting he had ever read and one that kept him upset for many days after reading it. He criticized in strong terms some of Wordsworth’s poems in the second edition of LYRICAL BALLADS, though he thought Wordsworth was the greatest poet then alive. He felt that the Preface to this second edition of the BALLADS should have appeared as a separate volume because the comments by the two poets, although they were true, just, and new, tended to diminish the poems in the book.
The letters reveal how, though indifferent to the world, or perhaps because of this indifference, he could be chauvinistic and insist that English life was the best a person could lead. The letters reveal also how he gloried in his food and drink, especially delighting in the food called brawn, a mixture of chopped up parts from the head, feet, legs, and tongue of the pig.
Most poignantly the letters tell the story of the insanity of his sister Mary. Without her and her dreadful deed in killing their mother, his life would surely have been different. In writing of the deed to Coleridge, he stated it directly and candidly. Thereafter the letters abound with the terror of his situation, his dread over the recurrent insanity Mary had visited upon herself, and the delight she and he had during her months of perfect sanity, when they worked together. Their relationship was truly one of the remarkable ones of all time. He cared for her gently, established a pension for her in case she should outlive him (which she did by thirteen years), and during his later years as her fits of insanity came more and more frequently, necessitating her going to a house of detention where she could be better cared for, he accepted his fate with the philosophic resignation that had characterized his behavior throughout life.
Upon his retirement from the East India House after thirty-three years of service, he delighted in his new-found freedom, which he said extended the length of his days to three times their former length, and he hoped that he would be able to adjust to all this new leisure.
On December 22, 1834, Lamb fell in the street, developed erysipelas, and died five days later. The last letter he wrote, on the day he fell in the street, delightfully reveals most of the main interests of his life: he tells how while frying tripe he went out to fetch a book and lost it. He wants the recipient of the letter to locate the book at once or write that she cannot find it. He laments that if the book is lost he will never like tripe again.
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