World Literature

Charles Lamb

 

BORN: 1775, London, England

DIED: 1834, Edmonton, England

NATIONALITY: British

GENRE: Nonfiction, poetry, fiction

MAJOR WORKS:

Blank Verse (1798)

Tales from Shakespeare (1807)

Specimens of English Dramatic Poets, Who Lived About the Time of Shakespeare (1808)

Mrs. Leicester’s School (1809)

Essays from Elia (1823)

 

 

Charles Lamb. Lamb, Charles, photograph. The Library of Congress.

 

Overview

Charles Lamb’s elegant prose made him a major essayist of the Romantic era, and has formed a part of the canon of English literature ever since. His essays have delighted generations of readers, and his literary criticism testifies to his versatility and perceptiveness. He was also well-known to his contemporaries as a novelist, journalist, poet, writer for children, and fine critic, devoted to ‘‘antiquity’’—particularly Latin literature and that of Elizabethan and seventeenth-century writers. His popularity extended through the nineteenth century into the twentieth, but waned after 1934, the centenary of his death. Since the 1960s, however, his reputation has risen again—with the publication of new biographical and critical works celebrating and analyzing his artistry becoming something of a cottage industry.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

A Lonely Survivor and an Early Romantic. Lamb was born in London in 1775, 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. Almost nothing is known about Lamb’s mother.

In 1782, Lamb was accepted as a student at Christ’s Hospital, a London school for the children of impoverished 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 only by his friendship with a fellow student, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The friendship with Coleridge, who would become one of England’s premier Romantic poets, had a particularly strong influence on Lamb’s development as a thinker and an artist.

While in school, Lamb also began to experiment with verse. Since his family’s poverty prevented him from furthering his education, he also took a job immediately upon graduation. Working first as a clerk, he became an accountant at the East India Company, a rapacious joint- stock company whose function in the British colonies was at times quasi-governmental and even military. He remained there until his retirement in 1825. In working for the East India Company, Lamb was participating, however distantly, in one of British history’s ugliest chapters. The Honourable East India Company, as it was officially known, acquired a monopoly on trade with India and, until this monopoly was limited in 1813, succeeded in colonizing—often quite brutally, as was standard colonial practice—nearly the entire Indian subcontinent. During his career at the East India Company’s London offices, Lamb read widely and corresponded frequently with such friends as Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and Robert Southey. It was at Coleridge’s insistence that Lamb’s first sonnets were included in Coleridge’s collection Poems on Various Subjects, published in 1796.

Total Mental Collapse. Near the end of 1795, Lamb collapsed and committed himself to a hospital for the mentally ill. Though biographers are uncertain as to the exact cause of his breakdown, they believe it might have been precipitated by unrequited love. Adding to his misfortune, Lamb’s sister, Mary, who was mentally ill, stabbed their mother to death in 1796—an event that completely transformed Lamb’s life. His father, nearly senile, and his brother, John, 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 intervals of sanity and productivity as a writer, but these were inevitably punctuated by breakdowns. Some biographers attribute Lamb’s own bouts of depression and excessive drinking to the stress of worrying about Mary, with whom he was extremely close. During her lucid periods, however, she and Charles lived peacefully together and even adopted a child.

Bringing About an Elizabethan Renaissance. Lamb’s first published works were his sonnets, which critics praised for their simple diction and delicate poetic manner, but he quickly discovered that his greater talent and inclinations lay elsewhere. His first serious work in prose, A Tale of Rosamund Gray and Old Blind Margaret, appeared in 1798. Lamb, an avid theatergoer, decided to try his hand at drama next; however, John Woodvil (1802), a tragedy in the Elizabethan style, was neither a popular nor a critical success. His next two projects also testify to his love of Elizabethan literature. In 1807, he and Mary collaborated on Tales from Shakespeare, a prose version of William Shakespeare’s plays intended for children. The Tales were generally well received, and the Lambs were commended for expanding the scope of children’s literature in England, though a few critics regarded the Tales as distorted renderings of the plays. That same year, Lamb completed his Specimens of English Dramatic Poets, Who Lived About the Time of Shakespeare, an anthology that included selections from the plays of such Elizabethan dramatists as Christopher Marlowe, John Webster, George Chapman, and Thomas Middleton. Since many of these works were previously unavailable to readers, Lamb’s anthology was an important reference source.

Unexpected Success as an Essayist. In 1820, the editor of the London Magazine invited Lamb to contribute regularly to the periodical. Lamb, eager to supplement his meager income, wrote some pieces under the pseudonym of ‘‘Elia’’ for the magazine. With the overwhelming success of these essays, Lamb became one of the most admired men in London. He and Mary presided over a weekly open house attended by his many literary friends, including Coleridge, William Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt, and Henry Crabb Robinson.

Besides his diverse friendships, Lamb found his chief pleasure in writing, which consumed his evenings and holidays. After his retirement from the East India Company, he devoted more time to his favorite occupation. Charles ‘‘Elia’’ Lamb was still at the peak of his popularity as an essayist when he died suddenly from an infection in 1834.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Lamb's famous contemporaries include:

Jane Austen (1775-1817): British novelist ''of manners'' who is still read today and appreciated for her realism and brilliant wit.

Simon Bolivar (1783-1830): A Venezuela-born resistance leader who was instrumental in Hispanic America's liberation from Spain, and in founding the Spanish colonies of Gran Columbia.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834): A British poet, philosopher, and critic who is widely recognized as one of the founders of the Romantic movement.

Francis Scott Key (1779-1843): An American lawyer and author, composer of the U.S. national anthem, ''The Star-Spangled Banner.''

William Wordsworth (1770-1850): A British poet perhaps best known, along with Coleridge, as the cofounder of the Romantic movement in Europe.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

A key component of Lamb's ouevre is his selection of works about the style and content of pieces by other writers. Here are a few works by authors who also wrote important essays of literary criticism:

Anatomy of Criticism (1957), a survey of the field by Northrop Frye. In this book, the critic reviews the principles and techniques of literary criticism.

Biographia Literaria (1817), a collection of essays by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In this set of autobiographical writings, Coleridge includes pieces on literary criticism and explains his now famous theory of the suspension of disbelief.

The Sacred Wood (1920), critical essays by T. S. Eliot. In this work, Eliot critiques drama and poetry, including that of Dante, William Blake, and William Shakespeare.

Speech Genres and Other Late Essays (1981), a collection of essays by Mikhail Bakhtin. In this complex study set, Bakhtin closely examines such genres as parody, romance, and the picaresque.

 

Works in Literary Context

Lamb’s virtually ignored dramas were inspired by his affinity for the theater. His short experimental writing, such as the novel Rosamund Gray (1798) displays the influence of Henry Mackenzie and Laurence Sterne. His criticism and ‘‘Elia’’ works are similar in language to the writings of Sir Thomas Browne and Robert Burton, though Lamb made them his own. He claimed that he read mainly works from the past, though the assertion was not strictly true. He celebrated the ‘‘quiddities’’ of his favorite little-known books, the theater, childhood and youth, the daily round, the daily grind, and most particularly the surprising qualities of some of his friends, for nearly all of his observations are drawn—or transmuted—from life.

Literary Criticism and Whimsically Personal Essays. In his essays of literary criticism, such as in Specimens of English Dramatic Poets (1807), Lamb supplements each author’s entry with explanatory notes that are now considered his most important critical work. Lamb further elaborated on his views in such essays as ‘‘On the Tragedies of Shakespeare Considered with Reference to Their Fitness for Stage Presentation.’’ There, he argues that the best qualities of Shakespeare’s plays can be fully appreciated only through reading; according to Lamb, stage performances often diminish the play’s meaning, and individual performers often misinterpret Shakespeare’s intended characterizations. Besides his dramatic criticism, Lamb composed sketches in the familiar essay form, a style popularized by Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Robert Burton, and Sir Thomas Browne. These pieces are characterized by a personal tone, narrative ease, and a wealth of literary allusions or references.

When Lamb’s Elia: Essays Which Have Appeared under That Signature in the ‘‘London Magazine’’ was published in 1823, he was already one of the most popular writers in England, but the ‘‘Elia’’ essays enjoyed unparalleled success. Critics were enchanted with Lamb’s highly wrought style and his blending of humor and grief. Never preachy, the essays treat ordinary subjects in a nostalgic, fanciful way, and one of their chief attractions for readers of both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is the gradual revelation of the author’s personality.

Writing for Antiquity, but Influential Among Contemporaries. Lamb’s style is sometimes almost too rich in its seventeenth-century speech patterning. After one of his early literary rejections Lamb declared, ‘‘Damn the age; I will write for Antiquity!’’ This tendency has sometimes been found too quaint, with its ‘‘peradventures,’’ ‘‘marrys,’’ and ‘‘haths’’ or ‘‘seemeths.’’ The many classical allusions are also often lost on the modern reader. But Lamb’s sense is most often clear; his form is brief, subtle, compact, and alive with wry and witty observations on the human condition—mostly on daily, specific, minutiae as they occur to him. Lamb is a true Romantic in his rejection of abstraction, rhetorical rules, and broad philosophic systems.

Lamb was among the first to appreciate Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and the works of John Clare and William Blake, including Blake’s paintings. His criticism, mainly in letters, of the work of Coleridge and Wordsworth was sometimes heeded by those poets. John Keats was captivated by Lamb’s comments on Shakespeare. Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray were both influenced by Lamb’s character studies. And the Brontes, Robert Browning, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf praised him. In a letter to Clive Bell in 1908 Woolf wrote, ‘‘I had no notion what an exquisite writer Lamb is.... God knows how I shall have the courage to dip my pen tomorrow.’’

 

Works in Critical Context

Though he initially achieved prominence as a drama critic, Lamb’s greatest fame came through his ‘‘Elia’’ essays, written between 1820 and 1825.

A Disputed Critical Legacy. Lamb’s importance as a critic has been much debated. Some scholars, most recently Rene Wellek, have commented on his literary prejudices and his lack of consistent critical methodology. Lamb’s thesis in ‘‘On the Tragedies of Shakespeare’’ is considered especially controversial. Because Lamb theorized that Shakespeare’s works were best unperformed, such critics as T. S. Eliot held Lamb personally responsible for what Eliot termed ‘‘the detrimental distinction’’ between drama and literature in the English language. Conversely, such diverse critics as Henry Nelson Coleridge, Algernon Charles Swinburne, and E. M. W. Tillyard have asserted Lamb’s historical importance and hailed his Specimens in particular as a critical landmark.

The “Elia” Essays (1820-1825). No such controversy surrounds the ‘‘Elia’’ essays, which have been almost universally praised by reviewers since their initial appearance. Although some scholars considered Lamb’s style imitative of earlier English writers, the majority now accept that quality as one of the author’s distinctive hallmarks, along with his fondness for the obscure and other idiosyncrasies. Stylistic studies by Walter Pater, Arthur Symons, A. G. van Kranendonk, and Donald H. Reiman explore diverse aspects of Lamb’s essay-writing artistry. Both early and recent critics, including Thomas De Quincey, Bertram Jessup, and Gerald Monsman, have probed the ‘‘Elia’’ persona—proving that readers’ curiosity about Lamb’s personality has not waned.

In one of the more recent studies of Lamb, Mons- man has written that the creation of ‘‘Elia’’ was an ‘‘exorcism’’ of Lamb’s troubled family’s past. And while most critics acknowledge Lamb’s contribution to the rediscovery of Elizabethan drama in nineteenth-century England, his reputation rests on the ‘‘Elia’’ essays, whose humor and spontaneity continue to capture the imaginations of modern readers.

 

Responses to Literature

1. Lamb is famous for arguing that Shakespeare’s plays are more successful as literature than when presented on stage, where actors draw attention away from the author’s words and may even misinterpret them. Others argue that to read Shakespeare’s plays as prose is to deny their very purpose as staged works. With whom do you side, and why? Do you agree with some of the points each side makes? If so, which ones and why?

2. Lamb once spent six weeks ‘‘very agreeably in a madhouse’’—a fact he reported to Coleridge in the first of his letters to survive. Scholars attribute the breakdown to a number of possible causes. Research the different theories offered to explain Lamb’s breakdown. In your opinion, which one best fits the facts you know about Lamb? What evidence do you find for or against this in his artistic production?

3. Though he waged a lifelong battle with depression, Lamb was never again to suffer a complete breakdown. Many critics have suggested that Lamb’s writing, his whimsy, his humor, and the strong expression of feeling so often discernible in his work kept him going. Consider Lamb’s writing, and the craft of writing in general: How would writing help to preserve one’s sanity? What benefit do you find in writing? What disadvantages might there be to creative writing as therapy?.

4. Specimens of English Dramatic Poets and other Lamb works were read far into the nineteenth century and admired by both generations of Romantics. In both style and content they depicted the intellectual preferences and favored themes of Romantic society. Considering such works, how would you characterize their first readers? What can you deduce about nineteenth-century tastes, values, desires? What was important to Romantic era men and women?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Barnett, George L. Charles Lamb. Boston: Twayne, 1976.

De Quincey, Thomas. ‘‘Recollections of Charles Lamb.’’ Volume 3 of The Collected Writings of Thomas De Quincey, 14 volumes. Ed. David Masson. Edinburgh: A. & C. Black, 1889-1890.

Monsman, Gerald. Confessions of a Prosaic Dreamer: Charles Lamb’s Art of Autobiography. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1984.

Park, Roy, ed. Introduction to Lamb as Critic. London and Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980.

Pater, Walter. ‘‘Charles Lamb.’’ In his Appreciations. London and New York: Macmillan, 1889.

Reiman, Donald H. ‘‘Thematic Unity in Lamb’s Familiar Essays.’’ Chap. 13. Romantic Texts and Contexts. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987.

The Works of Charles Lamb, 2 volumes. London: Ollier, 1818.

Tillyard, E. M. W., ed. Introduction to Lamb’s Criticism. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1923.

Periodicals

Aaron, Jane. ‘‘Charles and Mary Lamb: The Critical Heritage.’’ Charles Lamb Bulletin, new series 59 (July 1987): 73-85.

Bald, R. C. ‘‘Charles Lamb and the Elizabethans.’’ University of Missouri Studies 21 (1946): 169-174.

Monsman, Gerald. ‘‘Pater’s Child in the House’ and the Renovation of the Self.’’ Studies in Literature and Language 28 (Fall 1986): 281-295.

Web sites

Project Gutenberg. Lamb, Charles, 1775-1834. Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://www.gutenberg.org/browse/authors/l#a293.

Quotidiana. Charles Lamb Essays. Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://essays.quotidiana.org/lamb/.

Riehl, Joe. Charles Lamb, Elia (1775-1834). Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://www.ucs.louisiana.edu/~jer6616/.