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Charles Lamb As The Prince Of English Essays

Autobiographical elements in Charles Lamb’s essays

Autobiographical elements in Charles Lamb’s essays

Charles Lamb's attitude in his essays is autobiographical-for his essays convey such elements from where we get to know his personality, nature, character, relatives, work places and people around him. Thus the subjective note in his essays is vital. As he belongs to the romantic age, the personal “I” is prominent is his essays. In almost all the essays, we find and we learn something about his life. Thus he speaks about his life, likings, whims and feelings. Lamb talks to the reader as if he were his friend and confesses and confider in him. Lamb's own personality is the basis for most of his essays. His own memories are reflected in them.
Actually autobiography is that kind of writing in which the writer's states, life and conditions are delineated. His personal experiences are revealed in autobiography. Moreover, the facts of personal life of the writer and the activities, relatives, friends, likings, dislikings, character etc. are written by the writer himself. In Charles Lamb's essays, we find the autobiographical touch. However, the autobiographical elements that we can get from his essays are written below:-

From his essays, we, the readers, come to know about Charles Lamb's life and we learn certain facts of his life- he was born at the Inner Temple and he was schooled at Christ's Hospital and he worked at South Sea House and India House as a clerk. We know that he was a bachelor; we also know that he apparently loved but was refused by his early beloved. We get to know a great deal about his school life in the essay "Christ's Hospital Five and Thirty Years Ago". We know that he had some privileges in his school. He says about himself in the guise of Coleridge, "I remember L. at school, and can well recollect that he had some peculiar advantages, which I and others of his school fellows had not". Again he says "His friends lived in town, and were near at hand; and he had the privilege of going to see them, almost as often as he wished". Moreover, he got his "extraordinary bread and butter" "from the hot-loaf of the Temple".

The reason for why his essays appeal autobiographical is his subjective note which is predominant in all his essays. The subject of the Essays of Elia is Lamb himself. In all of them, he makes some reference to himself. And the personal "I" is so abound in his essays that readers ere sometimes fretted, although some critics consider that use as an extra charm of Lamb's essays. In almost all the essays, he talks about himself, his family, relatives, and friends. From these essays, we come to know about his personality, nature and character which are revealed by himself. After reading his essays, we know all about his stammer, his work al India House and his companions there. It is this quality of self-revelation and confidential tone that entitles Lamb to be called the "Prince of English essayists".

We also come to know about his relatives and friends. In the essay "The South Sea House”, he writes about his colleagues and gives the readers a very clear view about them. Similarly, In "Christ's Hospital", he tells about his relatives and friends. Some of his relatives and friends lived in London and who were, no doubt, very caring to him. They used to bring delicious foods for him in Christ's Hospital and used to look after him very cordially. He says in “Christ’s Hospital”, in the guise of Coleridge, "He had his hot plate of roast veal, or the more tempting griskin...., cooked in the paternal kitchen...., and bought him daily by his maid or aunt". In the same essay, we have collections about a number of other friends who studied with him. We know his friends lived in town. In “Christ’s Hospital Five And Thirty Years Ago”, he says, "His friends lived in town, and were near at hand".

From the essays like “The South Sea House”, “Christ’s Hospital Five And Thirty Years Ago”, “A Bachelors Complaint”, we got to know about his activities and the jobs that he used to do in his student and professional life. In the essay “Christ’s Hospital Five And Thirty Years Ago”, we see that he was not like his other school fellows and enjoyed much concessions than other's. We also come to know that "he was a home-seeking lad" and did not enjoy him much with other boys. Other essays tell his feelings, ideas, dreams and unfulfilled longings. But through all the essays shine the personality of a man who was alive to the absurdities of the world, sympathetic towards others' sufferings and tolerant towards shortcomings.

As we know that Charles Lamb was a bachelor and worked at The South Sea House and India House, he had experiences some bitter and humorous experiences from there. These experiences sometimes seem humorous and sometimes seem pathetic. In the essay “A Bachelors Complaint”, he tells about some of the bitter experiences and expresses his agony for the behaviour of the married people whom he thinks pretend lovers. Here he says, " What oftenest offends of at the houses of married persons where I visit, is an error of quite a description:- it is that they are too loving". He thinks that the married people generally show that they are "too loving" and they show these things to the unmarried people "so shamelessly". This type of behaviour of the married people is painful to him.

Charles Lamb is a true lover of the past. He loves past people, books, buildings and fashions, and does not care much about future. Memories of the past haunt him; recollections of events of the past are more important than the present; old familiar faces hold more attraction for him. In the essay, “The South Sea House” and “Christ’s Hospital Five And Thirty Years Ago”, Lamb is seen as a visualizer of the past memories. In “The South Sea House”, he says about the building as "it was forty years ago, when I knew it- a magnificent relic". Here he recollects the memory of the old building, its damp and dark rooms, the inner rooms which were even more sparsely peopled and the gloomy cellar which saw no light of the sun.

Although Charles Lamb loved the past things, he loved his life and was loath to die. Like all other man, he loved the sun, the breeze, solitary walks, the very green earth. He declares his love for good food and drink. He also loves the theatre, books, good company, gossip and scandal. And again from many of his essays, we come to know that he likes irony, jokes, pun and paradox. He never wanted to hide his likings, dislikings, whims and oddities. He frankly confesses all these things to the readers. He desires the friendship of his readers, and not merely their respect. He confider in them all about his own weakness, follies and foibles.

As Charles Lamb loved fun, he sometimes used to mystify the readers by declaring something true to be false, or by mischievously changing names and speaking under assumed personality. In the essay, “Christ’s Hospital Five And Thirty Years Ago” , he writer in the guise of Coleridge. And it is the last three or two paragraphs when he unveils the curtain and writes as Charles Lamb.

Lamb speaks of his personal reactions to various aspects of life in all his essays. Even in the essays like “Christ’s Hospital Five And Thirty Years Ago”, “The South Sea House” , where he is primarily concerned with other people, he is talking about them from his personal point of view. In “The South Sea House”, he delineates the characters of Evans, Thomas Tame and John Tipp by his thoughts and feelings. And the comments about them are his own. He comments about John Tipp, "He sang, certainly, with other notes than to the orphan lyre". Them again he comments about the clerks of The South Sea House, “they formed a sort of Noah's ark” .

In most of the essays, he reveals the incidents, people and glories of the past. As a result he picturizes not only other people's conditions and states, but also his own conditions, feelings and character. In fact, his own life is revealed by his essays. So, considering the subject matter of his essays, it can be said that a large portion of Lamb's biography can be written from his essays.
What is an Essay?

Essays have protean shapes and, therefore, it is understandable that though numerous attempts have been made to give a definition of the essay yet none has met with complete success. Most of such attempts succeed in covering only a part of the compositions which commonly go under the label of essays. A comprehensive definition which would over essays as different as those of Bacon, Addison, Lamb, Macaulay and E. V. Lucas is yet to come.

Here is Dr. Johnson’s famous definition:

“The essay is a loose sally of the mind, an irregular, indigested piece, not a regular and orderly composition.”

This description or definition touches upon only one aspect-though a very important aspect of the essay. J. B. Priestly, himself a noted essayist, defines the essay as:

“a genuine expression of an original personality-an artful and enduring kind of talk.”

In A. C. Benson’s words, the essay is:

“a reverie, the frame of mind in which a man says in the words of an old song ‘says I to myself

I.J.H. Lobban defines the essay as:

“a short…. discursive article on any literary, philosophical, or social subject, viewed from a personal or historical standpoint.”

Murray’s Dictionary defines the essay as:

“a composition of moderate length on any particular subject…originally implying want of finish, but now said of a composition more or less elaborate in style, though limited in range.”

This plethora of definitions does not contain one which may be called omnibus. A working definition of the essay may, however, be given as follows:

An essay is a short, incomplete, informal, light, subjective literary composition in prose.

This definition is not rigid but pragmatic and has the advantage of being applicable to a vast proportion of essays.


The essay was, in the words of Douglas Bush,

“one of the late courses in the banquet of literature.”

Bacon was undoubtedly the father of the essay in England. A glance, however, may be cast at the rudiments of the essay which may be found in the works of some prose writers before Bacon. Philip Sidney’s Defence of Poesie anticipates the regular critical essay. Caxton’s prefaces are also more or less of the nature of essays. Gascoigne’s Making of Verse consists of critical essays. Gosson’s School of Abuse is remarkably likewise.

However, the first real essayist who employed the term “essay” for his compositions and who had more or less a clear conception of what he was about, was Francis Bacon. He published a collection of ten essays in 1597 which he enlarged and revised in the subsequent editions of 1612 and 1625. Bacon borrowed the general conception of the essay from the French writer Montaigne whose Essais had appeared in 1580, seventeen years before the first of his own. Bacon must have perceived that the new genre was a fit vehicle for the expression of many ideas of his own. The word “essay”, etymologically speaking, means a trial or an attempt-something tentative, unorganized, lacking thoroughness. Bacon called his own essays “dispersed meditations,” indicating thereby their lack of method and organization. They are, according to him, “certain brief notes set down rather significantly than curiously.” With the publication of these “notes” Bacon emerged as the first of English essayists and in the words of Hugh Walker, he remains,

“for sheer mass and weight of genius the greatest.”

Bacon followed by succeeding essayists is compared by Douglas Bush to “a whale followed by a school of porpoises.” In a word, Bacon’s greatness as an essayist is due not only to his precedence, but also excellence.

Some peculiar features of Bacon’s essays may now be referred to. One of their distinct features is their “impersonalness.” We do not find in them the same warmth of personality and subjectivity as we find in the essays of, say, Lamb-the essayist par excellence. Bacon is always stately and magnificent and disdains to mix with his readers or to talk familiarly to them. He is a teacher rather than a companion. Well did he call his essays “Counsels Civil and Moral.” His constant effort is to train the reader in the ways of the world. He was himself an out-and-out careerist, and his approach to the affairs of the world as well as in the bulk of his “counsels” is that of a careerist. He keeps himself aloof from moral and emotional considerations, and often looks like an English cousin of Machiavelli.

Baconian Style
As regards his use of language, Bacon is an anti-Ciceronian. He excels in giving short, pregnant, and pithy aphorisms packed with the worldly wisdom and experience of a lifetime. His English achieves a high degree of compression, thanks to

(1) The use of the weightiest and simplest words and

(2) A persistent avoidance of superfluous words and, very often, ven connectives.

As Will Durant puts it in The Story of Philosophy,

“Bacon abhors padding, and disdains to waste a word; he offers us infinite riches in a little phrase.”

The laconic quality of Bacon’s style suffers a little in the second and third editions of his essays, when he adds a little colour and mellowness to his English. Even then, he remains a stringent adherent of brevity and a sworn enemy of all woolliness of expression. His importance in the history of English prose lies not only in his naturalization of the essay in England but also in the evolution of a pliant model of English prose. His immediate predecessors and contemporaries like Ascham, Hooker, Sidney, Lyly, and Raleigh wrote a prolix, involved, highly Latinised, excessively decorated, and unwieldy prose which could never become a model of utilitarian, work a day prose suited to topics both high and low. As Hugh Walker observes, in his Essays Bacon provided such a model-for all his successors to follow, though, of course, with a few changes.

The Characters Writers:

If Bacon was the father of the English essay, he had few real “sons” as none of his followers resembled him. Among his successors may be mentioned Ben Jonson and a comparatively unknown writer Sir William Cornwallis who, in his own way, set the tone of honest self-examination and unassuming communication. Ben Jonson’s forceful personality continually breaks through his Discoveries, a collection of notes on contemporary men of letters and affairs.

In the first half of the seventeenth century the essay took the form of what is called the “character.” The most important character writers were Joseph Hall, Sir Thomas Overbury, and John Earste. All of them modeled their characters on the first character writer-the ancient Greek writer Theophrastus. A character generally speaking is a formalised character-sketch of a typical figure such as a merchant, a fanatic Puritan, a milkmaid, or a drunkard. The characterisation was often touched with satire and a didactic tendency. Some of the characters drawn by seventeenth-century character writers are just wooden types but a few are alive and somewhat individualised. The character by its nature did not lend itself to self-portrayal. Nor did it resemble Baconian essay-on account of its humour and witty and satiric touches making for social criticism. Towards the Restoration the character died, having outlived its utility.

The subjects of Characterology fall into roughly three categories:

a) a type__ a self conceited man, a blunt man
b) a social type
c) a place or scene

Other Essayists of the Seventeenth Century:

Among the essayists of the seventeenth century other than the character writers may be mentioned Sir Thomas Browne, Abraham Cowley, Halifax, Sir William Temple, and John Dryden.
Browne did not write an essay in a strict sense, but his most famous work Religio Medici can be treated as a personal essay, provided we overlook its length. Browne was a delightful egotist and, as has been said, it is the perfect egotist who is the perfect essayist. Montaigne, the first essayist in world literature, had said about his collection of essays:

“I myself am the subject of my book.”

That is the approach of a typical essayist; but Bacon in his performance had struck a sharp note of contrast with his model. Browne, however, in words reminiscent of Montaigne, observed:

“The world that I regard is myself. It is the microcosm of my own frame that I cast mine eye on.”

His rambling, informal, and highly personal approach gives him the true temper of a genuine essayist such as Lamb or Hazlitt.

Abraham Cowley wrote a charmingly fresh prose and revealed himself in quite a few intimately: personal essays such as “Of Myself.” “I confess,” writes he,

“I love littleness almost in all things. A little convenient estate, a little cheerful house, a little company and very little feast; and if I were ever to fall in love again (which is a great passion, and therefore I hope I have done with it) it would be, I think, with prettiness rather than with majestical beauty.”

Though in some of his essays he assumes a markedly didactic tone, yet we can justly treat him as a connecting link between Bacon and the romantic essayists.

Halifax wrote a few essays which are discursive but couched in a pleasant style. Sir William Temple also wrote some good essays but he treated his topics rather academically, so that his essays come close to being “popular lectures.”

Dryden was a versatile man of letters, being essayist, poet, critic and dramatist. In every department of literature he has much to his credit. Modern prose, it is said, begins with Dryden. Many of his prose writings are of the nature of critical essays, but his most ambitious work, the Essay of Dramatic Poesy, is in dialogue form and looks more like a treatise than an essay.

The Essay in the Eighteenth Century:

The eighteenth century is known in the history of English literature for its creation and development of the periodical essay which was “invented” by Steele in the beginning of the century and which expired near its end. Defoe was a busy journalist and some of his prose writings came very near the essay form. However, it is Steele who has the pride of place as the originator of the periodical essay. His periodical paper The Taller first appeared in 1709. It was taken out thrice weekly and every issue contained an essay, mostly on “the various flaws of dress and morals:” Steele was first assisted and then overshadowed by his friend Addison. The Taller ran to 271 numbers most of which came from the pen of Steele himself. After The Taller, The Spectator started its memorable career of 555 numbers, most of which were written by Addison. As Addison put it, the aim of The Spectator was to attack those vices which were “too trivial for the chastisement of the law and too fantastical for the cognizance of the pulpit.” Steele and Addison gave particular attention to women, especially their tendency to indulge in French fopperies, follies, and frivolities. Their head-dresses, “partly patches”, hooped petticoats, and other sartorial extravagances found in Steele and Addison enthusiastic critics, who recommended the virtues of chastity, domesticity, and modesty, and also, what may seem a little prudish, “discretion.” Addison and Steele became also the moral censors of the age, and did some really good work with their satire and sense of comedy wedded to a very serious aim. Their papers reconstruct before us England of the age of Queen Anne with its coffee-houses, theatres, stock-exchange, merchants, and commercial activity, street cries, and the ships and traffic of the Thames. They also did well in giving a pretty vast, if not Muntimate, glimpse of the rural life and manners. The peculiar nature of the periodical essays as practised by Addison and Steele was accepted with very few modifications, by all the subsequent periodical essayists.

Some differentiation between Steele and Addison may here be made. They were quite different in nature and this difference percolated down to their style. Steele was warm-hearted, lazy, careless and rambling. Macaulay calls him “a scholar among rakes and a rake among scholars.” Addison, on the other hand, was very “correct,” well-mannered, very calculating, and exact. Dr. Johnson’s famous tribute to Addison’s prose style is worth quoting:

“Whosoever wishes to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the volumes of Addison.”

However, many modern critics have turned their approval to Steele, at the cost of Addison. Even in the nineteenth century, Leigh Hunt could write:

“I prefer Steele with all his faults to Addison with all his essays.”

Pope and Swift also wrote some periodical essays. Pope was the greatest poet and Swift, the greatest prose writer, of the first half of the eighteenth century. But the most important name after Addison, in the list of periodical essayists, is that of Dr. Johnson whose essays appeared twice a week in The Rambler and also every Saturday in a newspaper. The latter group goes under the title of the Idler essays. In both of them Dr. Johnson showed himself in the mantle of a very serious moralist without the humour and sense of comedy which characterised Steele and Addison. His style, too, lacked the sprightliness and lucidity of that of his predecessors.
Oliver Goldsmith contributed to many periodicals. His own periodicalThe Bee ran to only eight weekly numbers. The Citizen of the World,Goldsmith’s best work, is a collection of essays which originally appeared inThe Public Ledger as “Chinese Letters.” Goldsmith’s essays are rich in human details, a quivering sent! mental ism, and candidness of spirit. His prose style is, likewise, quite attractive. He avoids bitterness, coarseness, pedantry, and stiff wit. His style, in the words of George Sherburn,

“lacks the coldness of the aristocratic manner, and it escapes the tendency of his generation to follow Johnson into excessive heaviness of diction and balanced formality of sentence structure…It is precisely for this lack of formality and for his graceful and sensitive ease, fluency, and vividness that we value his style.”

The Romantic Essayists-Leigh Hunt, Haziitt, De Quincey, and Lamb:

The early nineteenth century saw in England the emergence of the romantic spirit both in verse and prose. The romantic essayists, like Leigh Hunt, Haziitt, De Quincey, and Charles Lamb, had many traits in common; for instance, their tendency of self-revelation, their subjective approach, their button holding familiarity, their congenial and tolerant humour, their occasional pathos, their inspiration as stylists from the writers of the past, and their visionary and somewhat .extravagant nature.

Of course, it is wrong to assume that all of them wrote according to a formula. All had their own individual views and predilections though the conception of the essay was the same in each case. Their essays entirely agree with the tentative definition of the essay we have given at the outset. Lamb has well been called “the prince of the English essayists” and “the essayist par excellence.” Haziitt and Lamb, with Coleridge, are the most eminent of all the romantic literary critics. As a critic, Haziitt is sometimes equal to Lamb but as an essayist, he yields the palm to Lamb.


Montaigne, a French writer, was the father of the essay, and it was Francis Bacon who naturalised the new form in English. However, there is much difference between his essays and the essays of his model. Montaigne’s essays are marked by his tendency towards self-revelation, a light-hearted sense of humour, and tolerance. But Bacon in his essay is more an adviser than a companion: he is serious, objective, and didactic. It has well been said that the essay took a wrong turn in the hands of Bacon. For two centuries after Bacon the essay in England went on gravitating towards the original conception held by Montaigne, but it was only in the hands of the romantic essayists of the early nineteenth century that it became wholly personal, light, and lyrical in nature. From then onwards it has seen no essential change. The position of Lamb among these romantic essayists is the most eminent. In fact, he has often been called the prince of all the essayists England has so far produced. Hugh Walker calls him the essayistpar excellence who should be taken as a model. It is from the essays of Lamb that we often derive our very definition of the essay, and it is with reference to his essays as a criterion of excellence that we evaluate the achievement and merit of a given essayist. Familiarity with Lamb as a man enhances for a reader the charm of his essays. And he is certainly the most charming of all English essay. We may not find in him the massive genius of Bacon, or the ethereal flights (O altitude) of Thomas Browne, or the brilliant lucidity of Addison, or the ponderous energy of Dr. Johnson, but none excels him in the ability to charm the reader or to catch him in the plexus of his own personality.

Charles Lamb as an Essayist

Charles Lamb a well known literary figure in the nineteenth century is chiefly remembered for his “Elia” essays, work famous for his wit and ironic treatment of everyday subjects. Because of his nostalgia and humorous idiosyncrasies, his works were conspicuously known throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century. He brought a new kind of warmth to English prose. His sentences can be intense, they can sneer, they can scream, but they always have a kind of rounded glow, like a welcoming, slightly melancholy fireplace. Writing in that genre which has been called “the personal essay,” again and again Lamb made literary delightfulness of the things that tormented him most—including his resentments and drunkenness—and his sentences are usually beautiful.

Lamb’s contribution to the English essay also lies in his changing the general tone from formality to familiarity. This change was to be accepted by all the essayists to follow. Alone or with his sister Mary (when she wasn’t violently insane), he wrote such works as Tales from Shakespeare, The Adventures of Ulysses, Poetry for Children, The Works of Charles Lamb, The Essays of Elia and The Last Essays of Elia.

There is no didacticism in his essays. As we observe in the works of former essayists, we are aware of a well-marked distance between the writer and ourselves. Bacon and Addison perch themselves, as it were, on a pedestal, and cast pearls before the readers standing below. In Cowley, the distance between the reader and writer narrows down-but it is there still. It was left for Lamb to abolish this distance altogether. He often addresses the reader (“dear reader”) as if he were addressing a bosom friend. He makes nonsense of the proverbial English insularity and “talks” to the readers as “a friend and man” (as Thackeray said he did in his novels). This note of intimacy is quite pleasing, for Lamb is the best of friends.

He is a friend, and not a teacher. Lamb shed once and for all the didactic approach which characterises the work of most essayists before him. Bacon called his essays “counsels civil and moral.” His didacticism is too palpable to need a comment. Cowley was somewhat less didactic, but early in the eighteenth century Steele and Addison-the founders of the periodical essay-set in their papers the moralistic, mentor-like tone for all the periodical essayists to come. Even such “a rake among scholars and a scholar among rakes” as Steele arrogated to himself the air of a teacher and reformer. This didactic tendency reached almost its culmination in Dr. Johnson who in theIdler and Rambler papers gave ponderous sermons rather than what may be called essays. Lamb is too modest to pretend to proffer moral counsels. He never argues, dictates, or coerces. We do not find any “philosophy of life” in his essays, though there are some personal views and opinions flung about here and there not for examination and adoption, but just to serve as so many ventilators to let us have a peep into his mind. “Lamb”, says Cazamian, “is not a moralist nor a psychologist, his object is not research, analysis, or confession; he is, above all, an artist. He has no aim save the reader’s pleasure, and his own.” But though Lamb is not a downright pedagogue, he is yet full of sound wisdom which he hides under a cloak of frivolity and tolerant good nature. He sometimes looks like the Fool in King Lear whose weird and funny words are impregnated with a hard core of surprising sanity. As a critic avers,

“though Lamb frequently donned the cap and bells, he was more than ajester; even his jokes had kernels of wisdom.”

In his “Character of the Late Elia” in which he himself gives a character-sketch of the supposedly dead Elia, he truly observes: “He would interrupt the gravest discussion with some light jest; and yet, perhaps not quite irrelevant in ears that could understand it.”

The Rambling Nature of His Essays and His Lightness of Touch:

The rambling nature of his essays and his lightness of touch are some other distinguishing features of Lamb as an essayist. He never bothers about keeping to the point. Too often do we find him flying off at a tangent and ending at a point which we could never have foreseen. Every road with him seems to lead to the world’s end. We often reproach Bacon for the “dispersed” nature of his “meditations”, but Lamb beats everybody in his monstrous discursiveness. To consider some examples, first take up his essay “The Old and the New School-master.” In this essay which apparently is written for comparing the old and new schoolmaster, the first two pages or thereabouts contain a very humorous and exaggerated description of the author’s own ignorance. Now, we may ask, what has Lamb’s ignorance to do with the subject in hand? Then, the greater part of the essay “Oxford in the Vacation” is devoted to the description of his friend Dyer. Lamb’s essays are seldom artistic, well-patterned wholes. They have no beginning, middle and end. Lamb himself described his essays as “a sort of unlicked incondite things.” However, what these essays lose in artistic design they gain in the touch of spontaneity. This is what lends them what is called “the lyrical quality.”

Lamb’s Humour, Pathos, and Humanity:

Lamb’s humour, humanity, and the sense of pathos are all his own; and it is mainly these qualities which differentiate his essays from those of his contemporaries. His essays are rich alike in wit, humour, and fun. Hallward and Hill observe in the Introduction to their edition of the Essavs of Elia :

“The terms Wit. Humour and Fun are often confused but they are really different in meaning. The first is based on intellect, the second on insight and sympathy, the third on vigour and freshness of mind and body. Lamb’s writings show all the three qualities, but what most distinguishes him is Humour, for his sympathy is ever strong and active.”

Humour in Lamb’s essays constitutes very like an atmosphere “with linked sweetness long drawn out.” Its Protean shapes range from frivolous puns, impish attempts at mystification, grotesque buffoonery, and Rabelaisian verbosity (see, for example, the description of a “poor relation”) to the subtlest ironical stroke which pierces down to the very heart of life. J. B. Priestley observes in English Humour: “English humour at its deepest and tenderest seems in him [Lamb] incarnate. He did not merely create it, he lived in it. His humour is not an idle thing, but the white flower, plucked from a most dangerous nettle.” What particularly distinguishes Lamb’s humour is its close alliance with pathos. While laughing he is always aware of the tragedy of life-not only his life, but life in general. That is why he often laughs through his tears. Witness his treatment of the hard life of chimney sweepers and Christ’s Hospital boys. The descriptions are touching enough, but Lamb’s treatment provides us with a humorous medium of perception rich in prismatic effects, which bathes the tragedy of actual life in the iridescence of mellow comedy. The total effect is very complex, and strikes our sensibility in a bizarre way, puzzling us as to what is comic and what is tragic.


A word, lastly, about Lamb’s peculiar style which is all his own and yet not his, as he is a tremendous borrower. He was extremely influenced by some “old-world” writers like Fuller and Sir Thomas Browne. It is natural, then, that his style is archaic. His sentences are long and rambling, after the seventeenth-century fashion. He uses words many of which are obsolescent, if not obsolete. But though he “struts in borrowed plumes”, these “borrowed plumes” seem to be all his own. Well does a critic say:

“The blossoms are culled from other men’s gardens, but their blending is all Lamb’s own.”

Passing through Lamb’s imagination they become something fresh and individual. His style is a mixture certainly of many styles, but a chemical not a mechanical mixture.” His inspiration from old writers gives his style a romantic colouring which is certainly intensified by his vigorous imagination. Very like Wordsworth he throws a fanciful veil on the common objects of life and converts them into interesting and “romantic” shapes. His peculiar style is thus an asset in the process of “romanticising” everyday affairs and objects which otherwise would strike one with a strong feeling of ennui. He is certainly a romantic essayist. What is more, he is a poet.
What strikes one particularly about Lamb as an essayist is his persistent readiness to reveal his everything to the reader. The evolution of the essay from Bacon to Lamb lies primarily in its shift from

(i) Objectivity to subjectivity, and
(ii) From formality to familiarity.

Of all the essayists it is perhaps Lamb who is the most autobiographic. His own life is for him “such stuff as essays are made on.” He could easily say what Montaigne had said before him-

”I myself am the subject of my book.”

The change from objectivity to subjectivity in the English essay was, by and large, initiated by Abraham Cowley who wrote such essays as the one entitled. “Of Myself.” Lamb with other romantic essayists completed this change.

His essays are, as it were, so many bits of autobiography by piecing which together we can arrive at a pretty authentic picture of his life, both external and internal. It is really impossible to think of an essayist who is more personal than Lamb. His essays reveal him fully-in all his whims, prejudices, past associations, and experiences. “Night Fears” shows us Lamb as a timid, superstitious boy. “Christ’s Hospital” reveals his unpalatable experiences as a schoolboy. We are introduced to the various members of his family in numerous essays like “My Relations’ “The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple,” and “Poor Relations.” We read of the days of his adolescence in “Mackery End in Hertfordshire.” His tenderness towards his sister Mary is revealed by “Mrs. Battle’s Opinions on Whist.” His professional life is recalled in “The South-Sea House” and “The, Superannuated Man.” His sentimental memories full of pathos find expression in “Dream Children.” His prejudices come to the fore in “Imperfect Sympathies” and “The Confessions of a Drunkard.” His gourmandise finds a humours utterence in “A Dissertation upon Roast Pig,” “Grace before Meat,” and elsewhere. What else is left then?
David Daiches maintains:

“The writer’s own character is always there, flaunted before the reader, but it is carefully prepared and controlled before it is exhibited.”

Very little, except an indulgence in self-pity at the stark tragedy of his life. Nowhere does he seem to be shedding tears at the fits of madness to which his siter Mary Bridget of the essays) was often subject and in one of which she knifed his mother to death. The frustration of his erotic career (Lamb remained in a state of lifelong bachelorhood imposed by enable him to nurse his demented sister), however, is touched upon here and there. In “Dream Children,” for instance, his unfruitful attachment with Ann Simmons is referred to. She got married and her children had to “call Bartrum father.” Lamb is engaged in a reverie about “his children” who would have possibly been born had he been married to Alice W-n (Ann Simmons). When the reverie is gone this is what he finds: “…and immediately awaking, I found myself quietly seated in my bachelor arm-chair where I had fallen asleep, with the faithful Bridget [his sister Mary] unchanged by my side…but John L (his brother John Lamb) was gone for ever.” How touching!

Thus his egotism is born of a sense of humility rather than hauteur. Samuel C. Chew observes:

“Like all the romantics he is self-revelatory, but there is nothing in him of the ‘egotistical-sublime.’ Experience had made him too clear-sighted to take any individual, least of all himself, too seriously. The admissions of his own weaknesses, follies, and prejudices are so many humorous warnings to his readers.”

Poor Relations by Charles Lamb

Charles Lamb occupies a unique place among English essayists. It is his essays that have secured the permanence of his name. Through all his essays, there runs a vain of warm sympathies, genial humour, tenderness and pathos. He attracts the readers by his humanity and tenderness. He usually writes under the pen name of "Elia".

Poor Relations is one of the most interesting essays of Lamb. Lamb begins the essays- with an element of humour and ends it with an element of pathos. He gives many metaphorical phrases to describe the poor relation. The poor relation is an unwanted and unwelcomed visitor. His presence is embracing to other in the house. Lamb calls the poor relations;

"The most irrelevant thing in nature, a haunting conscience, an unwelcome remembrance, a drain on your purse, a stain in your blood,…" and so on.

The whole description of the manners and habits of the poor relation is full of humours. The poor relation enters the house with a smiling face but at once he feels embraced. He holds out his hand to shake but draws it back again. He is having some kind of complex. He is a puzzle to the servants. He reminds his unwelcoming past.

Lamb says,

"His memory is unseasonable, his compliments perverse; his talk a trouble…"

Lamb then talks about a female gender poor relation.

"There is a worse evil under the Sun and that is a female poor relation."

A female poor relation is revealed by her ragged clothes. She is all the time conscious of her poverty. She exposes her inferiority at the dinner table.

Richard Amlet is a character in the comedy, the confederacy, produced by sir John Vanburugh. He is a son of Mrs.Amlet, a rich but vulgar trade woman. She stands as an obstacle to her son in marrying a rich lady.

Lamb then gives an account of poor. W__, that is, Favell, who had studied with him at the Christ hospital school. Later Favell went to the Oxford. He loved the place very much but disliked the society. Favell has pride and self respect. When his father, a house painter settled near Oxford. He could not endure his poverty. He ran away from the university and joined the army. Soon he was killed in St.Sebastin.

Elia narrates another incident. This is about Mr.John Billet, he is a relative of Lamb's father.he used to meet Lamb's father on Saturdays. One fine day he met an insult from the hands of Lamb's aunt. He could not endure that and died soon at the mint in 1771. After his death, they found five pounds, fourteen shillings and a penny in his desk, which was enough for his funeral. He left the world without any debt.

Thus Lamb has given a psychological insight in his descriptions of the habits and manners of poor relations.

The richness of his language and his wealth of ideas are well illustrated in the following paragraph from Poor Relations:

"A Poor Relation is the most irrelevant thing in nature, a piece of impertinent correspondency, an odious approximation,a haunting conscience, a preposterous shadow, lengthening in the noontide of our prosperity, an unwelcome remembrancer, a perpetually recurring mortification, a drain on your purse,a more intolerable dun upon your pride, a drawback upon success, a rebuke to your rising, a stain in your blood, a blot on your 'scutcheon, a rent in your garment, a death' s head at your banquet, Agathocles' pot, a Mordecai in your gate, a Lazarus at your door, a lion in your path, a frog in your chamber, a fly in your ointment, a mote in your eye,a triumph to your enemy, an apology to your friends, the one thing not needful, the hail in harvest, the ounce of sour in a pound of sweet.Is that not an astounding procession of metaphors !"

The rather famous opening sentence of his essay “Poor Relations” is 140 words long. And it makes clear that a richer member of the family has contempt for a poorer.

As he often does, Lamb is expressing a way of mind as a means of criticizing it. He wants people to think, There's something wrong with this.

The question, How should we see a person different from ourselves? is in the work of Lamb in many ways. It's the most important question in the world. Lamb did not say plainly that an economic system which has some people be poor while others make profit from them, is bad and wrong in itself. But he did see that the situation of some persons' being richer than others, brought out hurtful contempt. The passage I just quoted mingles terrific scorn for the “poor relation” with a feeling of shame (as in the phrase “a haunting conscience”).

Later there's this, about one's relief when the poor relation leaves:

When he goeth away, you dismiss his chair into a corner, as precipitately as possible, and feel fairly rid of two nuisances.

(The “nuisances” are the extra chair and the person.) The rhythm of that passage is very fine. But the question is: Can we see other people in the way expressed there, and yet respect ourselves, feel inwardly at ease? Or will we punish ourselves in some fashion? The answer is always the latter. Our contempt for people has us feel (for example) nervous, anxious, dull, empty, self-disgusted, deeply unsure of ourselves. Charles Lamb did not know this.

In Praise of Chimney Sweepers
In Praise of Chimney-Sweepers is a gentle little book, a romantic look at the children who cleaned chimneys for a living, spending their days in the duct-work removing creosote buildup in order to prevent chimney fires, one of the great dangers of fuel-burning heating systems. Lamb talks of their humour, their love for sassafras tea (the original root beer), their joyful smiles. He eulogizes a friend, James White, who organized an annual banquet for young chimney-sweepers in Smithfield. He touches only briefly on the popular rumour that adult chimney-sweepers often kidnapped young boys, toddlers, even, to use as apprentices, since they could go where adults could not. He does not mention at all the ghastly, dangerous, often fatal working conditions. Lamb’s chimney-sweepers are rather younger than Mary Poppins’, but no less unrealistic.

Scrutinization of Lamb’s essays:

Charles Lamb is essentially an essayist, but in his Essays of Elia are several sketches that bear marks of the short-story structure. A Dissertation upon Roast Pig is a combination of essay and story. The introduction gravely announces that the art of roasting was inadvertently discovered; it then gives the story as it is supposed to be found in an old manuscript. This story is the portion to be used in class. It begins about the third sentence and runs half-way through the essay. In reading it we find the series of events, suspense, and the changing-around of situation that mark the true short story. There is much humor. In Dream-Children: a Revery, are shown great richness of feeling and delicacy of imagination. Hardly more than a fragile sketch, this bears in it the single impression, movement, and climax of the true short story. Lamb uses beautiful art in his side remarks relative to the acts of the children; he constructs a world of boys and girls and family background and all out of fancy. These little boys and girls of Lamb's imagination are worth meeting.

Briefly, his Essays of Elia and Last Essays of Elia, artfully artless in their personal and conversational tone. His critical principles were neither consistent nor were they applied with any great subtlety. He could confuse antiquarian with literary value, or identify oddness with greatness. He believed in strength, colour, individuality and outspokenness in literature. Thus Charles Lamb introduced the new literary norm in the history of the English Essays.