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Charles Lamb as an Essayist

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 essayist par 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
The Note of Familiarity:
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. “Never”,
says Compton-Rickett, “was any man more intimate in print than he. He has made
of chatter a fine art.” Lamb disarms the reader at once with his buttonholding familiarity. He
plays with him in a puckish manner, no doubt, but he is always ready to take him into
confidence and to exchange heart-beats with him. In the essays of the writers before him 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. This note of intimacy is quite pleasing, for Lamb is the best
of friends.
No Didacticism:
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.” 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. This didactic tendency reached almost its culmination in
Dr. Johnson who in the Idler 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. 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. 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 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.
Never didactic, the essays treat ordinary subjects in a nostalgic, fanciful way by combining
humor, pathos, and a sophisticated irony ranging from gentle to scathing.
“the most loved writer in English literature”
- E.V.Lucas on Lamb in his biography
His Self-revelation:
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. Walter Pater observes in Appreciations; "With him, as
with Montaigne, the desire of self-portraiture is below all mere superficial tendencies, the real motive
in 'writing at all, desire closely connected with intimacy, that modern subjectivity which may be called
the Montaignesque element in literature. In his each and every essay we feel the vein of his
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 humourous utterence in "A Dissertation
upon Roast Pig," "Grace before Meat," and elsewhere. What else is left then? 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 sister Mary Bridget 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 himself to enable him to nurse his demented sister), however, is touched upon here and
Lamb's excessive occupation with himself may lead one to assume that he is too selfish or.
egocentric, or that he is vulgar or inartistic. Far from that, Egotism with Lamb sheds its usual offensive
accoutrements. The following specific points may be noted in this connexion:
(i) His egotism is free from vulgarity. Well does Compton-Rickett observe: "There is no touch of
vulgarity in these intimacies; for all their frank unreserve we feel the delicate refinement of the man's
spiritual nature. Lamb omits no essential, he does not sentimentalise, and does not brutalise his
memories. He poetises them, preserving them for us in art that can differentiate between genuine
reality and crude realism."
(ii) His artistic sense of discrimination-selection and rejection-has also to be taken into account.
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."
(iii) Though Lamb is an egotist yet he is not self-assertive. He talks about himself not because he
thinks himself to be important but because he thinks himself to be the only object he knows intimately.
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
Lamb's Humour, Pathos, and Humanity:
Charles Lamb fell in love with Alice w-n-, who did not reciprocate his love. Secondly, Lamb’s
sister Mary suffered a mental collapse and in a fit stabbed her mother to death and in the melee the
father too was wounded. Owing to the broken-love-affair and the insanity of his sister, Lamb and his
sister, old bachelor and the maid lived in a sort of “double singleness” and such was the life the cruel
fate destined Lamb to lead.
In “Dream Children”, Lamb the bachelor imagines that he is married and has children who came
to him, to hear stories about their elders. There is poignancy of pathos in this essay towards the end of
the essay. It brings to the notice of the readers the perpetual mental agony the celibate Lamb had felt
time and again.
Similarly “A New Year’s Eve” is considered to be “beautiful and melancholy and profoundly
human” (Hugh Walker: The English Essay and Essayists). Lamb is in a sort of introspection and contrasts
the religious and hopeful child Elia, with the stupid changeling of five-and-forty. Such a thought may be
“Owing to another cause; simply that being without wife or family and having no offspring of my own
to dally with, I turn back upon memory, and adopt my own early idea, as my heir and favourite.” Thus
the recurring theme of Lamb’s bachelorhood is again noticed here. In the essay entitled “Wedding”,
Lamb refers to his acceptance to be present at the wedding of a friend’s daughter because the occasion
would help him to forget his bachelorhood at least for a while.
Lamb makes the readers laugh while narrating the way in which the art of cooking meat was
invented, rather accidentally, for the first time in the world. The father and son become partners in
burning the poor mansion and even his lordship’s town is observed to be on fire. But towards the
conclusion, the author makes the reader feel pity for the tender innocent pig. He requests the cook,
while preparing the sauce, to banish the whole onion tribe or the guilty garlic. Here too, pathos is tinged
with humour.
In spite of the various shocks he received in life Lamb neither curses those responsible for his
disappointments, nor does he wish to paint the world black and ugly. He wants the events of his past life
to be retained as they were.
Lamb could swallow all the bitter experiences in life and write funnily about them. Though the
world failed to give joy or solace to Lamb he does not take shelter in cynicism. Curiously enough he is in
love with his life on earth. He is in love with the green earth, the face of the town and the country and
delicious juices of the green earth, the face of the town and the country and the delicious juices of
meats and fishes. The thought of death haunts Lamb. He shudders and asks if all these things so dearly
loved by him go out with life. We can conclude with the critic who aptly remarked that Lamb laughed to
save himself from weeping.
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, activities, likings, disliking, 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
The subject of the Essays of Elia is Lamb 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".
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.
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.
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.
Lamb’s prose style
As Hugh Walker has pointed out, Lamb’s prose style is not wholly modern. There are several
quotations from these writers scattered all over his essays. Lamb knew these authors’ works so
thoroughly that their thoughts and expressions came naturally to him. His essays take on a special light
and colour and charm because of his style. The language of Lamb is often highly figurative. Metaphors
and similes seem to flow naturally from his pen and each is appropriate and striking for its novelty. In
New Year’s Eve, he compares youth to “hot june” and impending death to “freezing days of December”.
He also compares the poetry by Mr. Cotton with a purging sunlight, thus celebrating the former’s
capability to eradicate any misgivings in the minds of people harbouring any apprehension about the
new year. In New Year’s Eve, there is an allusion to Helicon, ehich was the favourite haunt of the Greek
Muses of poetry, to refer to the poetry by Mr. cotton. There are other allusions too, such as “Lavinian
shores” and “Phoebus’ sickly sister”. Another striking feature of his essays is the poetic style that infuses
some of his passages. In New Year’s Eve, a simple, spontaneous and deep feeling arises when Lamb is
talking of his love for this green earth“I am in love with this green Earth; the face of town and country;…
I am content to stand still at the age to which I am arrived.”

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