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raised by Mary Lamb, the writer’s sister and sometime coauthor of children’s books, who criticized his fondness for outdated words.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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Preface to The Last Essays of Elia
This poor gentleman, who for some months past had been in a declining way, hath at length paid his final tribute to nature.
To say truth, it is time he were gone. The humour of the thing, if there was ever much in it, was pretty well exhausted; and a two years’ and a half existence has been a tolerable duration for a phantom.
I am now at liberty to confess, that much which I have heard objected to my late friend’s writings was well-founded. Crude they are, I grant you—a sort of unlicked, incondite things—villainously pranked in an affected array of antique modes and phrases. They had not been his, if they had been other than such; and better it is, that a writer should be natural in a self-pleasing quaintness, than to affect a naturalness (so called) that should be strange to him. Egotistical they have been pronounced by some who did not know, that what he tells us, as of himself, was often true only (historically) of another; as in a former Essay (to save many instances)—where under the first person (his favourite figure) he shadows forth the forlorn estate of a country-boy placed at a London school, far from his friends and connections—in direct opposition to his own early history. If it be egotism to imply and twine with his own identity the griefs and affections of another—making himself many, or reducing many unto himself—then is the skilful novelist, who all along brings in his hero, or heroine, speaking of themselves, the greatest egotist of all; who yet has never, therefore, been accused of that narrowness. And how shall the intenser dramatist escape being faulty, who doubtless, under cover of passion uttered by another, oftentimes gives blameless vent to his most inward feelings, and expresses his own story modestly?
My late friend was in many respects a singular character. Those who did not like him, hated him; and some, who once liked him, afterwards became his bitterest haters. The truth is, he gave himself too little concern what he uttered, and in whose presence. He observed neither time nor place, and would e’en out with what came uppermost. With the severe religionist he would pass for a free-thinker; while the other faction set him down for a bigot, or persuaded themselves that he belied his sentiments. Few understood him; and I am not certain that at all times he quite understood himself. He too much affected that dangerous figure—irony. He sowed doubtful speeches, and reaped plain, unequivocal hatred.—He would interrupt the gravest discussion with some light jest; and yet, perhaps, not quite irrelevant in ears that could understand it. Your long and much talkers hated him. The informal habit of his mind, joined to an inveterate impediment of speech, forbade him to be an orator; and he seemed determined that, no one else should play that part when he was present. He was petit and ordinary in his person and appearance. I have seen him sometimes in what is called good company, but where he has been a stranger, sit silent, and be suspected for an odd fellow; till some unlucky occasion provoking it, he would stutter out some senseless pun (not altogether senseless perhaps, if rightly taken), which has stamped his character for the evening. It was hit or miss with him; but nine times out of ten, he contrived by this device to send away a whole company his enemies. His conceptions rose kindlier than his utterance, and his happiest impromptus had the appearance of effort. He has been accused of trying to be witty, when in truth he was but struggling to give his poor thoughts articulation. He chose his companions for some individuality of character which they manifested.—Hence, not many persons of science, and few professed literati, were of his councils. They were, for the most part, persons of an uncertain fortune; and, as to such people commonly nothing is more obnoxious than a gentleman of settled (though moderate) income, he passed with most of them for a great miser. To my knowledge this was a mistake. His intimados, to confess a truth, were in the world’s eye a ragged regiment. He found them floating on the surface of society; and the colour, or something else, in the weed pleased him. The burrs stuck to him—but they were good and loving burrs for all that. He never greatly cared for the society of what are called good people. If any of these were scandalised (and offences were sure to arise), he could not help it. When he has been remonstrated with for not making more concessions to the feelings of good people, he would retort by asking, what one point did these good people ever concede to him? He was temperate in his meals and diversions, but always kept a little on this side of abstemiousness. Only in the use of the Indian weed he might be thought a little excessive. He took it, he would say, as a solvent of speech. Marry—as the friendly vapour ascended, how his prattle would curl up sometimes with it! the ligaments, which tongue-tied him, were loosened, and the stammerer proceeded a statist!
I do not know whether I ought to bemoan or rejoice that my old friend is departed. His jests were beginning to grow obsolete, and his stories to be found out. He felt the approaches of age; and while he pretended to cling to life, you saw how slender were the ties left to bind him. Discoursing with him latterly on this subject, he expressed himself with a pettishness, which I thought unworthy of him. In our walks about his suburban retreat (as he called it) at Shacklewell, some children belonging to a school of industry had met us, and bowed and curtseyed, as he thought, in an especial manner to him. “They take me for a visiting governor,” he muttered earnestly. He had a horror, which he carried to a foible, of looking like anything important and parochial. He thought that he approached nearer to that stamp daily. He had a general aversion from being treated like a grave or respectable character, and kept a wary eye upon the advances of age that should so entitle him. He herded always, while it was possible, with people younger than himself. He did not conform to the march of time, but was dragged along in the procession. His manners lagged behind his years. He was too much of the boy-man. The toga virilis never sat gracefully on his shoulders. The impressions of infancy had burnt into him, and he resented the impertinence of manhood. These were weaknesses; but such as they were, they are a key to explicate some of his writings.
Lamb, Charles. “Preface to The Last Essays of Elia.” . Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 27 Nov 2006. 10 Mar 2018 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/lamb/preface_last_essays_of_elia/>.