ESSAYS OF ELIA. Charles Lamb's Essays, the most famous and delightful of his works, were written in the spare hours of his busy life, and were originally published chiefly as contributions to the London Magazine from 1820 to 1833. The first collected volume,
The substance of many of the essays consists in reminiscences of Lamb's early years, toward which he looked back with a tender and ro mantic yearning. He describes, for example, in the essay entitled 'Christ's Hospital Five-and Thirty Years Ago,' his schoolboy life and his first association with Samuel Taylor Coleridge; in "Blakesmoor in H—shire," a visit with his sister, Bridget Elia (Mary Lamb), to an old mansion in the country in his childhood; in 'My First Play,' his earliest sensations in the theatre; in "Old Benchers of the Inner Tem ple," the curious personalities of the antique lawyers with whom he had become acquainted in his boyhood home in London. In these essays and others which refer to the circum stances of his own life, Lamb admits us freely to the inner circle of his thought. He frankly confesses his weaknesses and his prejudices. He pictures in "The Superannuated Man' his sensations on finding himself at last free from the business routine of a lifetime; he even writes the 'Confessions of a Drunkard," speak ing seriously and truthfully of his own experi ence. Finally, in that most beautiful of all the essays, 'Dream Children,' he indulges in a vision, regretful but not unmanly, of what might have been had the circumstances of his sad life been different. In all this Lamb is lovable and charming. If a tender melancholy pervades some of the essays, others, like the famous "Dissertation on Roast Pig,' are full of hilarious fun. In the majority of his sketches humor and pathos go hand in hand. The senti ment is relieved by brilliant flashes of wit which make Lamb rank as one of the chief of English humorists; the laughter is tempered by kindly sympathy.
Lamb's romantic love of bygone things is apparent everywhere in the essays. He com plains of "the decay of beggars in the me tropolis? writes "the praise of chimney sweepers," describing with delightful humor the annual dinner given in their honor by his friend Jem White. He confesses to an almost femi nine delight in old china, prefers the sun-dial to the clock and the old type of schoolmaster to the new. In human personality Lamb is most interested in out-of the-way characters, with some peculiar humor or bias, 'odd like the old-fashioned clerks of the South Sea House or the immortal, whist-playing Sarah Battle. A number of the essays deal with literary matters, particularly with the drama, in which he was much interested, and with those older authors like Sir Thomas Browne, toward whom he was drawn by his antiquarian instinct and by his liking for the unusual and piquant in literature as in life. As a critic Lamb is appreciative and informal, relishing his favorite authors rather than judging them. He is the best and most enthusiastic of all book-lovers.
Whatever his subject Lamb casts upon it the magic of a style rich in personality, pictur esque, brilliantly witty and singularly respon sive to the author's mood. Quaint turns of phrase and antiquated words, borrowed from the older writers of whom Lamb was fond, give a touch of oddity to his language which suits his highly individual type of humor.
The 'Essays of Elia) are the most attractive example in our literature of the personal or informal essay, compounded of wit and senti ment, observation and reflection, familiar in tone, whimsical and unexpected in idea, hut richly human and often touching by way of intimation and suggestion on the deepest truths.
Consult 'The Works of Charles and Mary Lamb' (ed. E. V. Lucas, 1903-05) ; (The Essays of Elia' (In 'Everyman's Library)), and (The World's Classics' (Oxford) ; essays on Lamb in Walter Pater's 'Appreciations); A. Birrell's 'Obiter Dicta' (2d series); G. E. Woodberry's (Makers of Literature,' and C. T. Winchester's 'A Group of English Essayists.' For biblio graphy, consult 'Cambridge History of English Literature' (Vol. XII).