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raised by Mary Lamb, the writer’s sister and sometime coauthor of children’s books, who criticized his fondness for outdated words.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 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’s Religio 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...
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The 19th century was a great century for writers. If I could only bring one century of writing with me to a desert island, I would choose the nineteenth without hesitation. Not only for the literature but for the essays: the essayists of the 19th century were wide-ranging in their interests and witty, smart, and wildly and passionately involved with the world they wrote about. They immersed themselves in all sorts of activities, writing being only one their passions, and arguing — discussion and disputation — being the foremost. They ranged from deeply pessimistic (Thomas Carlyle) to profoundly positive (Ralph Waldo Emerson), and they wrote about everything from law and society (Oliver Wendell Holmes) to travels abroad and at home (Washington Irving), to art and politics (John Ruskin) to self-knowledge and civil responsibility (Henry David Thoreau).
My two favorite essayists of the 19th century (or any century, for that matter) are William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb. They wrote about everything and anything, and they wrote well, with passion and with discipline, and with complexity of argument, acuity of observation, and deliverance of truth. Yesterday I read a 1913 collection of Charles Lamb’s essays, entitled Last Essays of Elia. His first Essays of Elia was published in 1823 and his Last Essays of Elia was first published in 1833. In his absolutely marvelous essays, Lamb writes about life in all its humble and daily, as well as unique and grandiloquent, occasions. No matter that he wrote from two centuries past: so many of his observations of human nature, predilections, and pastimes are still true today. Those comments of his that are dated are still fun to read, as when he decries the “modern” art of John Martin and his 1821 painting “Belshazzar’s Feast”. Lamb was right-on his criticisms, the painting is histrionic, and I would love to read what Lamb would write about the lacerations of Pollock or the cubes of Picasso or the shark of Damien Hirst.
Lamb’s detailed but straightforward descriptions of interiors and of landscapes (as in “Blakesmoor in H–Shire”) are evocative time capsules of England in the nineteenth century and a must-read for any lover of the English literature of the time, as he gives a perfect backdrop of information — what everyone reading at the time already knew — that helps with the atmosphere from the Brontes to Austen. His essays on other occasions and situations of his 19th century life also provide escape into that world with picture-perfect visual observations as well as commentary on the social mores of the time, as in “A Wedding”, “The Old Margate Hoy”, “Poor Relations”, and “Captain Jackson”.
Many of his observations are still topical, as well as relevant, as in the “The Tombs in the Abbey” in which he censures the charging of admissions fees into Westminster Abbey, at a cost of two shillings a head. Today’s burdensome fee of fifteen pounds falls as heavily and with as little reason. Lamb argues, “Did you ever see or hear, of a mob in the Abbey, while it was free to all? Do the rabble come there….It is all you can do to drive them into your churches; they do not voluntarily offer themselves. They have, alas! no passion for antiquities, for tomb of king or prelate, sage or poet. If they had, they would no longer be rabble.”
Lamb is a very clever and witty writer, as demonstrated by the above logic turning rabble into worthy abbey-visitors, and in such inventive and pleasurable essays as the must-read “Rejoicings Upon the New Year’s Coming of Age” in which all the days of the year gather at an end of year party. The jesting April Fool places Ash Wednesday next to Christmas Day who proceeds to make that sour puss Lent drink from “the wassail-bowl, till he roared, and hiccup’d“, and began to have a really good time; the poor 29th day of February has a seat off to the side and not enough to eat, and Valentine’s Day plays court to pretty May “slipping amorous billets-doux under the table, till the Dog-days (who are naturally of a warm constitution) began to be jealous, and to bark and rage accordingly.”
Another must-read essay that is both relevant, hysterically funny, and acute in its observations is “Popular Fallacies” wherein Lamb attempts to lay to rest such well-known quips of false wisdom as “Ill-Gotten Gains Never Prosper“, “Handsome is as Handsome Does” (“Those who use this phrase have never seen Mrs. Conrady“), and “Love me, love my dog” ( still so relevant, as a recent house guest proved to me).
I particularly liked his demolition of the saying “Enough is Good as a Feast“. He argues that no one “really believes this saying. The inventor did not believe it himself….It is a vile cold-scrag-of-mutton sophism; a lie palmed upon the palate, which knows better things.” He rightly lumps this saying in with the “class of proverbs which have a tendency to make us undervalue money” and seek to make us see gold as “mere muck.” Lamb argues that “legs and shoulders of mutton, exhilarating cordials, books, pictures, the opportunities of seeing foreign countries, independence, heart’s ease, a man’s own time to himself, are not muck.”
Lamb himself was a man not born to money; he worked for years as a clerk, took on the care of his ill sister, and in his spare time, wrote and read and enjoyed life. He understood money and what its true worth was, as he understood so many things in life. He was able to articulate in his essays all that he observed and thought about, to lay aside the mundane and accepted ideals and to instead develop and present original, exciting, and enlivening ways of thinking about the ordinary happenings and the exceptional, the minor occurrences and the major ones. Lamb was thorough in his examination of life, and in his enjoyment, and he was sought to share that understanding and enjoyment to others through his wide-ranging, free-wheeling, and yet wholly disciplined — and completely gratifying — Essays of Elia.