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Charles Lamb And The Essays Of Elia Post by :IPflyer Category :Essays Author :George Hamlin Fitch Date :November 2011 Read :4208

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Charles Lamb And The Essays Of Elia


Of all the English writers of the last century none is so well beloved as Charles Lamb. Thirty years ago his Essays of Elia was a book which every one with any claim to culture had not only read, but read many times. It was the traveling companion and the familiar friend, the unfailing resource in periods of depression, the comforter in time of trouble. It touched many experiences of life, and it ranged from sunny, spontaneous humor to that pathos which is too deep for tears. Into it Lamb put all that was rarest and best in his nature, all that he had gleaned from a life of self-sacrifice and spiritual culture.

Such men as he were rare in his day, and not understood by the literary men of harder nature who criticised his peculiarities and failed to appreciate the delicacy of his genius. Only one such has appeared in our time--he who has given us a look into his heart in A Window in Thrums and in that beautiful tribute to his mother, Margaret Ogilvie. Barrie, in his insight into the mind of a child and in his freakish fancy that seems brought over from the world of fairyland to lend its glamour to prosaic life, is the only successor to Lamb.

Lamb can endure this neglect, for were he able to revisit this earth no one would touch more whimsically than he upon the fads and the foibles of contemporary life; but it's a great pity that in the popular craze about the new writers, all redolent with the varnish of novelty, we should consign to the dust of unused shelves the works of Charles Lamb. All that he wrote which the world remembers is in Elia and his many letters--those incomparable epistles in which he quizzed his friends and revealed the tenderness of his nature and the delicacy of his fancy.

Robert Louis Stevenson is justly regarded as the greatest essayist of our time, but I would not exchange the Essays of Elia for the best things of the author of Virginibus Puerisque. Stevenson always, except in his familiar early letters, suggests the literary artist who has revised his first draft, with an eye fixed on the world of readers who will follow him when he is gone. But Lamb always wrote with that charming spontaneous grace that comes from a mind saturated with the best reading and mellow with much thought. You fancy him jotting down his thoughts, with his quizzical smile at the effect of his quips and cranks. You cannot figure him as laboriously searching for the right word or painfully recasting the same sentence many times until he reached the form which suited his finical taste. This was Stevenson's method, and it leaves much of his work with the smell of the lamp upon it. Lamb apparently wrote for the mere pleasure of putting his thoughts in form, just as he talked when his stammering tongue had been eased with a little good old wine.

It is idle to expect another Lamb in our strenuous modern life, so we should make the most of this quaint Englishman of the early part of the last century, who seemed to bring over into an artificial age all the dewy freshness of fancy of the old Elizabethan worthies. Can anything be more perfect in its pathos than his essay on "Dream Children," the tender fancy of a bachelor whom hard fate robbed of the domestic joys that would have made life beautiful for him? Can anything be more full of fun than his "Dissertation on Roast Pig," or his "Mrs. Battle's Opinion on Whist"? His style fitted his thought like a glove; about it is the aroma of an earlier age when men and women opened their hearts like children. Lamb lays a spell upon us such as no other writer can work; he plays upon the strings of our hearts, now surprising us into wholesome laughter, now melting us to tears. You may know his essays by heart, but you can't define their elusive charm.

Lamb had one of the saddest of lives, yet he remained sweet and wholesome through trials that would have embittered a nature less fine and noble. He came of poor people and he and his sister Mary inherited from their mother a strain of mental unsoundness. Lamb spent seven years in Christ's Hospital as a "Blue Coat" boy, and the chief result, aside from the foundations of a good classical scholarship, was a friendship for Coleridge which endured through life. From this school he was forced to go into a clerkship in the South Sea house, but after three years he secured a desk in the East India house, where he remained for thirty years.

Four years later his first great sorrow fell upon Lamb. His sister Mary suddenly developed insanity, attacked a maid servant, and when the mother interfered the insane girl fatally wounded her with a knife. In this crisis Lamb showed the fineness of his nature. Instead of permitting poor Mary to be consigned to a public insane asylum, he gave bonds that he would care for her, and he did care for her during the remainder of her life. Although in love with a girl, he resolutely put aside all thoughts of marriage and domestic happiness and devoted himself to his unfortunate sister, who in her lucid periods repaid his devotion with the tenderest affection.

Lamb's letters to Coleridge in those trying days are among the most pathetic in the language. To Coleridge he turned for stimulus in his reading and study, and he never failed to get help and comfort from this great, ill-balanced man of genius. Later he began a correspondence with Southey, in which he betrayed much humor and great fancy. In his leisure he saturated his mind with the Elizabethan poets and dramatists; practically he lived in the sixteenth century, for his only real life was a student's dream life. He contributed to the London newspapers, but his first published work to score any success was his Tales From Shakespeare, in which his sister aided him. Then followed Poets Contemporary With Shakespeare, selections with critical comment, which at once gave Lamb rank among the best critics of his time. He wrote, when the mood seized him, recollections of his youth, essays and criticisms which he afterward issued in two volumes.

Twenty-five essays that he contributed to the LONDON MAGAZINE over the signature of Elia were reprinted in a book, the Essays of Elia, and established Lamb's reputation as one of the great masters of English. Another volume of Essays of Elia was published in 1833. In 1834 Lamb sorrowed over the death of Coleridge, and in November of the same year death came to him. Of all English critics Carlyle is the only one who had hard words for Lamb, and the Sage of Chelsea probably wrote his scornful comment because of some playful jest of Elia.

Charles Lamb's taste was for the writers of the Elizabethan age, and even in his time he found that this taste had become old-fashioned. He complained, when only twenty-one years old, in a letter to Coleridge, that all his friends "read nothing but reviews and new books." His letters, like his essays, reflect the reading of little-known books; they show abundant traces of his loiterings in the byways of literature.

Here there is space only to dwell on some of the best of the Essays of Elia. In these we find the most pathetic deal with the sufferings of children. Lamb himself had known loneliness and suffering and lack of appreciation when a boy in the great Blue Coat School. Far more vividly than Dickens he brings before us his neglected childhood and all that it represented in lonely helplessness. Then he deals with later things, with his love of old books, his passion for the play, his delight in London and its various aspects, his joy in all strange characters like the old benchers of the Inner Temple.

The essay opens with that alluring picture of the South Sea house, and is followed by the reminiscences of Christ's Hospital, where Lamb was a schoolboy for seven years. These show one side of Lamb's nature--the quaintly reminiscent. Another side is revealed in "Mrs. Battle's Opinions on Whist," with its delicate irony and its playful humor, while still another phase is seen in the exquisite phantasy of "Dream Children," with its tender pathos and its revelation of a heart that never knew the joys of domestic love and care. Yet close after this beautiful reverie comes "A Dissertation On Roast Pig," in which Lamb develops the theory that the Chinese first discovered the virtues of roast suckling pig after a fire which destroyed the house of Ho-ti, and that with the fatuousness of the race they regularly burned down their houses to enjoy this succulent delicacy.

The Last Essays of Elia, a second series which Lamb brought out with a curious preface "by a friend of the late Elia," do not differ from the earlier series, save that they are shorter and are more devoted to literary themes. Perfect in its pathos is "The Superannuated Man," while "The Child Angel" is a dream which appeals to the reader more than any of the splendid dreams that De Quincey immortalized in his florid prose. Lamb in these essays gives some wise counsel on books and reading, urging with a whimsical earnestness the claims of the good old books which had been his comfort in many dark hours. It is in such confidences that we come very close to this man, so richly endowed with all endearing qualities that the world will never forget Elia and his exquisite essays.

(The end)
George Hamlin Fitch's essay: Charles Lamb And The Essays Of Elia

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