07
Nov
09

Charles Lamb (2 of 2)

Lamb’s letter, however, contain much of his most perceptive criticism and reveal his personal tastes.  The criticism often appears in the form of marginalia, reactions, and responses: brief comments, delicately phrased, but hardly ever argued through.

It was the founding of the London Magazine in 1820 that gave birth to “Elia” and to Lamb’s greatest achievements in literature.  The essays are almost wholly autobiographical (though often he appropriated to himself the experiences of others).  Many of the best deal with things half a century past;  vistas revealed by an imagination looking back down the experiences of a lifetime.  Lamb adopted the pseudonym “Elia” (the name of a fellow clerk) in order to spare the feelings of his elder brother, John, at that time a clerk in the South Sea house, which is the subject of the essay. 

The persona of “Elia” predominates in nearly all of the essays, Lamb’s style, therefore, is highly personal and mannered, its function being to “create” and delineate this persona, and the writing though sometimes simple is never plain.  The essays conjure up, with humour and sometimes with pathos, old acquaintances such as Samuel Salt, recall scenes from childhood and from later life, indulge the author’s sense of playfulness and fancy, and avoid only whatever is urgent or disturbing:  politics, suffering, sex, religion.  The first essays were published separately in 1823; a second series appeared, as The Last Essays of Elia, in 1833.

After Lamb’s retirement from the India House, a worsening of his sister’s condition obliged the pair to move to Edmonton.  This separation from the friends who gave him life and courage did not help his spirits.  His tendency to drink too heavily became more pronounced.  He died at Edmonton from complications to a wound suffered in a fall.  His sister outlived him by 13 years.

The standard edition of the works of Charles and Mary Lamb, edited by  E.V. Lucas, appeared in 7 volumes in 1903-05.  The best available edition of the letters, edited by Lucas, appeared in 3 volumes in 1935.  The standard biography, also by Lucas, was published in 1905 (rev. ed. 1921).  These is valuable critical material in Charles Lamb and his Contemporaries (1933), by Edmund Blunden, and in English Literature, 1815-1832 (in vol. 10 of Oxford History of English Literature) (1963), by Ian Jack. – The New Encyclopedia Britannica

 

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