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...
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