Charles Lamb as an Essayist
Both as a man and as a writer Charles Lamb occupies a distinct space in the arena of English literature. The circumstances of his personal life were harsh and even tragic. He was in large measure self-educated: his views on life and letters were worked out with an almost desperate geniality in order to preserve and develop a relish for the color and individuality of experience.
Lamb’s essay, thus, has some salient features. In his essays Lamb adopted a pseudonym ‘Elia‘ which was actually the name of an Italian who, like Lamb, too was a clerk at the South-Sea House. The manner and tune of Lamb’s essays are as changeful as their occasion and topic and his themes cover a wide range.
The first characteristic of his essay is its personal and autobiographical nature. As has been said earlier Lamb took the essay as a vehicle of self-revelation, and everywhere Lamb spoke of himself without making himself a subject.
Wit and humour are the second most striking feature of the essays of Lamb, which appeared in various forms and guises. He showed everywhere enough of humour–mild humour, gentle humour, boisterous humour, pungent humour, biting humour, ironical humour satirical humour all types and kind of humour, but never and nowhere are they cruel, malicious or spiteful, cynical or morbid. He made fun of others as well as of himself.
Humour is closely allied with Pathos and thus Pathos is the other important ingredient of Lamb’s essay, “It has been said that Lamb’s humour was largely the effect of a sane and healthy protest against the overwhelming melancholy induced by the morbid taint in his mind. He laughed to save himself from weeping, but he could not prevent his mind from passing at times to the sadder aspects of life. The note of sadness inevitably enters many of Lamb’s essays. Indeed the heart touching pathos of some of the essays is responsible for much of their appeal to the reader.” Lamb had a deep sense of tragedy of his own life and suffered from the feelings of frustration in life, which always stood at the back of the pathos in his essay. His most moving essay ‘Dream Children: A Reverie‘ expresses this feeling of frustration.
Another important characteristic of his essay is his brief character sketches which Lamb did with great artistic skill. Lamb’s characters are brief, mere sketches of the real persons, but too vivid. He had keen observation and insight into human nature. One cannot forget the sketches of his great grandmother, or his lady love whom he depicted with great masterly skill in his essay “Dream Children”, a masterpiece work in English literature.
Lamb loved to give interesting anecdotes in his essay. To illustrate his points or the arguments he raised, Lamb used these anecdotes. They are thus integral parts to his essays and thus served as his another characteristic.
In his essays Lamb could hardly maintain a strict unity of expression. He often stays away from the theme and this rather loose structure of Lamb’s essays stand as his other noteworthy characteristic. Of course in certain essays he kept the theme in mind from its beginning to the end and the essay of our study, “Dream Children” belonged to this category.
Another salient feature of his essays is his delightful interpretation of the life of London. Charles Lamb was born in London and had spend his whole life in the London streets, with the unending waves of tragedies and comedies, pleasures and occupations of the city crowd of London. All these were of great interest to him and whenever and whatever he wrote, he always tried to interpret that crowded London life, its joy, sorrows and sufferings. His sympathetic insight enabled him to depict the life of those for off days which even after so many years, when we read, appear to be almost real to us.
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Lamb’s style is essentially his own and this is his another characteristic. As was said earlier Charles Lamb was greatly influenced by his predecessors like Fuller, Browne and Burton and their influence shines out conspicuously in his style. “However, it should be kept in mind that his style is not so much an imitation as a reflection of the older writers for the spirit he made himself their contemporary.” Though his style borrowed elements from the old writers yet he had wonderfully fused them wholly into a new and individual style. He used the metaphor with so much naturality that made his style rich without the least showiness.
Poetry was not Lamb’s choice and neither was he much of a poet. Yet he created a definite atmosphere of poetry in many of his essays. His Dream Children: A Reverie is superbly poetic and romantic.
Though Lamb had a great love for Wordsworth’s Nature, he was essentially and primarily a Londoner. Born in the Temple, educated at Chirst’s Hospital and spending the whole of his life in London, we can easily realize Lamb’s weakness for the “the great City.” To him the city was a good place for a man to live in and the better place for a booklover who would get there the facilities for bookish culture. In fact, London was Lamb’s country, his university, his family, his beloved and his all. Though Lamb was a clerk in his profession, but he had a strong dislike for commerce and business. His mind always turned towards books and reading. In , The Two Races of Men we get the evidence of Lamb’s love for books. He suffered from a constant regret throughout his life for his want of a university education. Living in London all his life, he tried to forget it, but perhaps failed.
Lamb had no interest in politics, though it was a chief feature of city life. There are no references to politics in his essays as well as Ietters. He never partook in such conversation which was related to politics.
The vividness and picturesque description of nature brought him immense popularity and gave beauty to his writings which always deserve admiration. Lamb’s attitude to the country-side area was not so emotional like Wordsworth who called him “a scorner of the fields”. But he never expressed abhorrence to country, rather he showed a keen and loving appreciation of the beauties of the country. Enjoying a holiday in the countryside, Lamb had written some essays describing the scenery he perceived there. But as he was essentially a lover of town, some deficiencies of his sense were found in his representation of the beauties of colour and the pleasure afforded by sweet scent. He had not possessed the car to catch the music of Nature. Lamb himself confessed these sense-deficiencies in one of his letters. This is called Lamb’s vivid obscurity’. His pictures were vivid but the readers cannot grasp them.
Lamb had a great love for antiquity: “What Lamb loved most in regard to the town, as opposed to the country, was the appearance of stability which the old and venerable buildings in a town give to human effort”. He loved old books and old writers. The dead were in fact alive to him. Lamb bore in his mind a tenderness to women and children. In The Praise of Chimney-Sweepers , he showed his great love for the distressed children.
Lamb was very fond of loving books. The classical allusions, reference to the Bible, quotations he incorporated into his essays are not entirely correct. But he had a full, intelligent and loving acquaintance with all the great writers from the time of Spenser to his own.
As an essayist Lamb occupies a foremost position in the history of English literature. E. V. Lucas rightly says:
“Lamb found the essay a comparatively frigid thing: he left it warm and flexible and companionable.”
Thus, the essays of Charles Lamb contain many features – “refined and exquisite humour, a genuine and cordial vein of pleasantry, a heart touching pathos, a romantic tendency to self-revelation and self-portraiture. His fancy is distinguished by great delicacy and tenderness, and even his conceits are imbued with human feelings and passion.” In whatever he wrote he is always the same Lamb, humour and pathos and love commingled, so that we cannot wonder that Wordsworth wrote about him-
“Oh he was good, if e’er a good man lived !”