The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

VIII. Lamb

§ 7. The Essays of Elia

The London Magazine of August, 1820, contained Recollections of the South-Sea House, the first of the miscellaneous essays which bore the signature Elia. From October, 1820, to the end of 1823, Elia was a regular contributor to this brilliant but shortlived journal. It was a happy thought which led him to seek material for his first essay in his own reminiscences; for it was in the contemplation of these and the weaving of romance into their fabric that he found his true style. He told his publisher, John Taylor, that he adopted the sobriquet Elia out of regard for the feelings of his brother John, still a clerk in the South-Sea house and readily annoyed by trifles. The original Elia was an Italian with literary tastes whom Lamb remembered as a clerk in the service of the company; his death was almost contemporaneous with the borrowing of his name for these essays. Their success was immediate. Lamb was no new writer, and the authorship soon became an open secret; but the charm of the anonymous writer who lavished the treasures of his humour and sympathy easily and confidentially, talking with his readers from a standpoint entirely free from condescension, won its way for its own sake. At the end of 1822, the larger number of the essays were collected for publication in a separate volume. The second series of essays did not appear until 1833, long after Lamb’s connection with The London had ceased.

From what has been said in the course of this chapter it will be seen that a large portion of Lamb’s biography can be written from the essays. His subject was humanity at large, but, in himself, he saw its microcosm. Using his own impressions and recollections as a text for his work, he wrote without a trace of egotism or self-assertion. To himself, he was one of a crowd, sympathising with its most ordinary pleasures and sorrows. His natural humility precluded any consciousness of a mission to teach; he had not even the ambition to formulate a philosophy of life. Among his friends were reckoned many whose example might have fostered this ambition; but, in dedicating himself to the common duties of daily life, he had learned the lesson of self-effacement and that sanity of outlook which defends its possessor from the misfortune of taking himself too seriously. Subjective though his essays are in the sense that they deal largely with himself and his doings, his personality did not project itself so as to bend everything within its reach into the shape of its idiosyncrasies: it was a receptive surface which reflected the ordinary life of the world, with added light and colour.

Quickly sensitive to the cloud and sunshine of the moods that chased each other across it, Lamb’s mind identified itself completely with its subject, and his style is tremulously alive to the smallest variations of the chequered pageant of life. Its prevailing intellectual quality is humour. Few writers, since Shakespeare gave life with equal sympathy to Hamlet and to Falstaff, have understood so fully as Lamb the intertwining of the ludicrous and pathetic elements in human nature. Their apparent opposition was not merely reconciled by him into a complementary relation. He wedded them into close identity; apprehension and sorrow were familiar elements of his own life, but the cheerful genius of laughter was ever ready to recall him to his sense of proportion. His nervous tendency to laugh at a funeral was, in no small degree, the result of his innate sense of contrast. The extravagant side of his humour appears in his inveterate love of punning and in some incidents of his life in which a fastidious critic might hold him guilty of a leaning to horse-play. But he himself disclaimed the reputation of “a profest joker”; and the humour of Elia is an even mixture of tenderness and playfulness. His lighter moods are subdued by an undertone of pathos; where he writes in sadness, a sudden thought sheds a transfiguring gaiety upon his work. “The tender grace of a day that is dead” fills the essays which deal with his early recollections and suffuses the portraits which they contain. Yet, the lighter side of the subject is not forgotten; his portraits are lively representations of their subjects, as the world, and not only the son, brother, or friend saw them. The mingled affection and amusement with which Lamb regarded George Dyer, and described his misadventure in the canal at Islington, is a conspicuous example of the inseparable union of laughter and pathos in his nature and style.

If, however, tender sentiment plays a large part in his humour, the reputation of the “gentle Charles” was not to his liking. Pure mischief was as strong in him as sympathy, and, like Ariel, he found pleasure in dazzling his spectators with illusions. It was quite compatible with his genuine respect for Dyer’s unworldliness to poke fun at it. Even Coleridge could be reminded that his juvenile harangues may have given as much amusement as admiration to the humourist who listened to them. The wanton love of playing with his reader is constantly exercised in an adroit mixture of fact with fiction. The groundwork of Lamb’s reminiscences is habitually true, but there is always an undefinable point at which the superstructure becomes purely imaginary. Dates are altered and the order of incidents reversed. In Christ’s Hospital, he speaks, for a time, in the accents of Coleridge and in contradiction to his own earlier recollections; but, before the essay is done, he takes a third shape to address the shape which he has just quitted—and all this without the least awkwardness or display of mechanism. Sometimes, Lamb may have had a solid reason for these Protean tricks of fancy; but their chief ground is natural love for make-believe. With the inborn habit of turning reality into romance, he combined the delectable passion for throwing dust in the eyes of the serious person to whom the identity of Elia was of more concern than the matter of his essays.

All this—the wide sympathy, the blending of tears and laughter, the freakishness of Elia—must, by themselves, have given peculiar charm to his style. But its magic is enhanced by its purely literary quality. Lamb’s study of the older English authors bred in him that love of quaint turns of phrase and obsolete words which, in writers of less humour, often becomes a disagreeable mannerism. This archaism, however, lending itself well to Lamb’s demure type of humour, was no mere decoration, but part and parcel of his style. The language of his favourite authors, closely woven into the texture of his mind, found its way without an effort into his prose, where, transmuted by his alchemy, it was issued under a new and authentic coinage. Quotations abound in the two volumes of Elia, and their text, probably, contains many less conspicuous reminiscences of sentences and phrases which have been left unnoticed or unidentified. Whole passages are cast in forms which recall the manner of the early seventeenth century prose writers. In Sir Thomas Browne, Lamb found the spirit of the past most nearly akin to his own, with its active curiosity as to the mysteries of life and death, and the zest with which its dignity amused itself with trifles. Thus, the solemn cadences and Latinised constructions of New Year’s Eve and some of the Popular Fallacies, a title which at once recalls Pseudodoxia Epidemica, are full of echoes of Hydriotaphia and The Garden of Cyrus. With this ready faculty of imitating the music of the past, Lamb used singular licence in appropriating its actual strains. The act of borrowing a happy phrase that occurred to him unbidden did not involve the necessity of verification. The words in their new context became his own, and the elusiveness with which he cloaked his fortunate thefts is part of his charm. “What a misfortune,” he wrote to Bernard Barton, “to have a Lying memory!” This exclamation forms part of an apology, more humorous than rueful, for inventing a quotation from George Fox. If, in this case, his memory played him false, it is equally certain that he indulged now and then in deliberate invention. In The Two Races of Men, for example, there are three lines of blank verse for which the inquisitive student will turn with some confidence to the Stewart dramatists and find his trouble unrewarded.

Lamb, with rare good sense, never yielded to the temptation of devoting himself wholly to literature. The India house, whatever drudgery he may have felt in its service, provided him with a welcome mainstay. “There is corn in Egypt, while there is cash at Leadenhall.” He spent his holidays with Mary, sometimes on the south coast, sometimes with friends at Cambridge and elsewhere. In 1822, they visited Paris, where Talma supped with Lamb, but the exertion proved too much for Mary. In the summer of 1823, they removed from Russell street to a six-roomed cottage in Colebrook row, Islington. The New river, the scene of George Dyer’s exploit in the following November, flowed in front of the house: at the back was a garden “to delight the heart of old Alcinous.” Lamb felt “like a great Lord, never having had a house before.” This comparative retirement did not mean loss of friends; he felt himself “oppressed with business all day and Company all night,” and complained of the want of privacy in the first of the short papers contributed to The New Times in 1825, under the signature “Lepus,” the “hare with many friends.”