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Monday, September 5, 2011

Lamb as an English Essayist

Monday, September 5, 2011 - 267 Comments

Discuss Lamb as an English essayist.
Justify the claim of Charles Lamb as the Prince among the English essayists.
“In the essay Lamb has no superior.” Discuss the appropriateness of this remark.
Illustrate from the essays you have read, the peculiar qualities of Lamb’s genius which have endeared him to his reader.
What are the causes of Lamb’s enduring popularity as an essayist?


Charles Lamb has been acclaimed by common consent as the Prince among English essayist. He occupies a unique position in the history of English essay. William Hazlitt, himself a great essayist, praised Lamb in high terms: “The prose essays, under the signature of Elia form the most delightful section amongst Lamb’s works. They traverse a peculiar field of observation, sequestered from general interest, and they are composed in a spirit too delicate and unobtrusive to catch the ear of the noisy crowd, clamouring for strong sensations. This retiring delicacy itself, the pensiveness chequered by gleams of the fanciful, and the humour that is touched with cross-lights of pathos, together with the picturesque quaintness of the objects casually described, whether men, or things, or usages; and in the rear of all this the constant recurrence to ancient recollections and to decaying forms of household life, as things retiring before the tumult of new and revolutionary generations – these traits in combination communicate to the papers a grace and strength of originality which nothing in any literature approaches, whether for degree or kind of excellence, except the most felicitous papers of Addison, such as those on Sir Roger de Coverley and some other sin the same vein of compostion.” Hugh Walker also applauds the genius of Lamb, “There are essayists like Bacon, of more massive greatness, and other like Sir Thomas Browne, who can attain loftier heights of eloquence, but there is no other who has in an equal degree the power to charm. If an attempt be made to discover the secret of this power, it will be found that first and chief among the factors contributory to it is the incomparable sweetness of disposition which Lamb not only possessed but had a unique gift of communicating to his writings.” These verdicts of such critics are a sufficient testimony to the greatness of the genius of Charles Lamb. In fact, Lamb’s essays are popular for various reasons, such as genial humour, touching pathos, humanitarian outlook, practical commonsense, nobility and gentility of nature and above all the revelation of their creator’s self. These factors, individually as well as collectively, have won for Lamb a unique place in the history of English essay. Let us have a look into them one by one.

The Immense Variety of Essays

Lamb’s essays are as various as the very human nature. Lamb’s ‘thinking heart’ finds a tale in everything that he saw or experienced. In fact, since Bacon, essay had been used as a vehicle to give expression to the writer’s thoughts and ideas on matters of general interest. But Lamb did not find pleasure in expressing his thought systematically. His themes are suggested by sudden flashes of imagination. As a matter of fact, his essays are his own revelations. It is his likes and dislikes—prejudices and opinions that find place in the essays. In the words of Edmund Blunden, Lamb’s essays “range from the vision of beautiful children that never were to be to the drollery consequent upon old George Dyer’s tumbling into the New River’s tenuous trickle, from nonsensical rebellion against Beethoven, Bath, Mozart to the contemplation of true and false imaginative paintings. Perhaps the editors of the London Magazine had not placed any conditions upon Lamb regarding the choice of subject matter for his essays. He was free to choose any subject at his will from his experiences of life, and to reproduce them in any form, and with any discursiveness into which he might be allured on the way.” Blunden further remarks, “In treatment almost every essay moves through a series of moods, wild and sweet, grave and subdued, clear and practical, sumptuous and sonorous—Elia is all there. They are promiscuous, meagre and fragmentary, the essays are differenced many blossomed and handsome.”

Autobiographical Nature of the Essays
From the Essays of Elia the whole life of Lamb may be reconstructed. His essays are deeply personal and autobiographical. As Thomson remarks, “Lamb wrote in his essays a record of episodes which can be connected with the addition of a few links and the elimination of a considerable amount of delightful fiction into a substantial account of a large part of his life.” Ainger also expresses the same view, “A large portion of Lamb’s history is related in these essays, and with the addition of a few names and dates, a complete biography may be constructed from them alone.” In several well-known essays, Lamb describes the various facets of his life. For example, in Christ’s Hospital he tells about his days of childhood at the Temple, in Blakesmoor in Hertfordshire, he describes his boyish days of fun and merry making, his holiday trips to the sea-side with his sister Mary, his recovery from serious illness, the drudgery of the office work and other various details of his life. In My Relations, he gives full and living pictures of his relations—his brother John (James Elia) and his sister Mary (Bridget Elia). His father is the Lovel of the Old Benchers, his grandmother in Dream Children. In the words of H. G. Hill, “Apart from these biographical details revealed in his essays, the man himself is more than reflected in his work.” Lamb’s sweet and charming personality reflected in his essays is the secret of the popularity of Essays of Elia.

Humour and Pathos

Humour in the essays of Lamb is the humour of life. It is most akin to pathos. We can say that it is saving grace for him, for after all it enables him to detach himself from the painful realities, or rather to view them as things apart from himself. Lamb needs to put a good face upon life with the dark tragedy ever haunting him in life. According to Ainger, “With Lamb, as with all true humorists, humour was but one side of an acute and almost painful sympathy.” His humour is a mingling of laughter and tears, and they are again angelic laughter and angelic tears. Lamb was a man who could never have cherished any bitter feeling in his heart. He had a comedy view of life—and he could see life and see it steadily and as a whole. It is there that we must look for the unique distinction of his humour. If he were interested and even immersed in the pageantry of life, he could in a moment loosen all his bond and be a liberated spirit, surveying the ills of life with the pity of an angel.” His overflowing charity was materially helped by his gift of constructing comedy out of the meanest stuff of human nature. In the beggar who cheated him he saw a comedian playing a part, and joyously paid his money for his performance; he was peculiarly ready to believe in the art which plays with the elements of life—which creates a fantastic world of its own—like humanity but detached from the condition of human beings. “Thus, the pageantry of life often dissolves away before his gaze, and he seems to be “moving about in worlds not realized.’ The precious gift of humour thus enables him to dissociate himself from the realities, and construct a new world of humanity in which we catch a faint reflection of reality.
Mystification in the Essays
Lamb had a turn for mystification. He delighted in weaving threads of fiction in the web of truth. In many of his essays, he has changed the names of persons and places. Dream Children is a beautiful specimen of mystification. The whole essay is the product of fancy. Likewise, essays, such as, Christ’s Hospital, Blakesmoor in H-Shire, the South-sea House, The Superannuated Man, are full of enchanting examples of mystification. In fact, Lamb has such a unique gift of mingling fact and fiction that his figures taken from life become insensible transformed into the immortal creations of a fairy land. This mystification, this blending of fact and fiction is unique in English literature.
Poetic Quality
Lamb’s essays are lyrics in prose. They are rich in poetic cadence and beauty. According to Sampson, “Lamb’s finest essays are nearest of all to poetry.” Likewise Legouis, also appreciates poetic element in these essays: “Though he did not write of them in verse, his exquisitely wrought prose with its rich literary tone, preserves the poetic history of words and enriches them with echoes scarcely less than does Keat’s poetry.” In fact, it is in prose that Lamb the poet is to be found. The whole of Dream Children and much of a Quaker’s Meeting are steeped in rich poetry. There is spontaneous ease and grace of poetry in the Essays of Elia.
The style of the essays of Lamb is equally charming. As Saintsbury observes, “The style of Lamb is as indefinable as it is inimitable and his manner and method defy selection and specification as much as the fluttering of a butterfly.” It is easy to notice conversational ease, epigrammatic depth, emotional fervour, sparkling wit, moving pathos, deep in sight into man and manners, shy satire, wild fun and many other stylistic qualities. It is quite difficult to analyse Lamb’s style. It is as various as the mood of the essayist. But everywhere the manner harmonises with the matter. He writes the pure chaste prose of 18th century masters as in Bachelor’s Complaint and Modern Gallantry: affects the manner of Browne, Burton and Fuller with their love of Latinism, archaism, witty obliquity, shy play of fancy, grotesque humour or pensive melancholy; or produces sentences as epigrammatic and nervous, as weighty and pregnant as those of Bacon and Hazlitt. About the distinct character of Lamb’s style, Hugh Walker rightly remarks, “Neither the brilliancy of Hazlitt, nor the harmony of De Quincey, nor the vigour of Macaulay, nor the eloquence of Ruskin, nor the purity of Goldsmith could for a moment be thought capable of expressing the meaning of Lamb.”
Thus Lamb’s sovereignty in the realm of English essay is unquestioned. His essays are the greatest contribution to this genre of literature. Their unique charm lies in the bewitching personality of their creator. As Deighton remarks, “no amount of study will stale their infinite variety and that if they have been read a hundred times, they will be all the better loved the hundred and first time.” Lamb is rightly entitled to a place as an essayist beside Montaigne, Sir Thomas Browne, Steele and Addison. His essays “are among the daintiest things in the whole range of English literature. They were archaic when they were written, and yet their old world air was as neutral and native to Lamb as if he had been a resurrected Elizabethan. For combined humour, taste, penetration and vivacity, they are unsurpassed, perhaps unequalled. Lamb’s theme is London, which he knew and loved so well; he is her great prose-poet. 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!”

Gulliver’s Travels

“Gulliver’s Travels is aimed not at human beings in particular but at human nature." How far do you agree with this view?

About the nature of man, David Ward explains in very clear terms when he remarks:
“Gulliver, the son of Adam, as I have called him, is posed with a problem, and by the same token poses a problem for the reader which can be stated in the traditional language of theology. Whether we use the language of theology or not, the problem remains the same: Gulliver gives another hint to it in the passage quoted, when he speaks of the “frequent discourses with my master concerning the nature of manhood.” The special faculty which distinguishes man from other animals, according to Locke and almost every thinker of the time is reason. “That is the key factor in the nature of manhood. But we can hardly agrue that to a Houyhnhnms. Confronted with the similarities between the real world as we know it and the microcosmic society to the Yahoos, we might come to the conclusion that key to “the Nature of Manhood” is man’s helpless tendency to foulness and evil – and this is the conclusion both Gulliver and the Houyhnhnms come to. Man after all, is the most destructive animal which has ever populated the earth; air, the plants, the other animals; the way he fouls and destroys his surroundings with methodical efficiency, exceeds anything that, the rat can do. We surely cannot resist this conclusion any more than we could resist the Brobdingnag’s summary description of the little-worlders as Odious Vermin.”
Here a clear distinction has been made by David Ward between the human beings and the animals. Reason is the basic faculty which distinguishes the man from the animal. If a human being does not possess reason in his nature, that particular human being is no more than an animal. The “reason” is cultivated in the human nature. If the human nature is devoid of reason, then the human being as well as an animal is at par, rather worse than an animal.
In Gulliver’s Travels, there are three types of beings, who are portrayed in the fourth part of the book. There are the human beings themselves, represented by Gullivers countrymen. Gulliver gives a detailed account of these countrymen to his enquire master. Then there are Yahoos, who represent mankind in general who possess all types of evils, which have been immensely exaggerated and their good qualities completely eliminated. The third types are that of Houyhnhnms or the horses, which according to Gulliver represent perfection. This perfection is on account of the fact that they possess the great quality of reason. Though the entire mankind is immensely degraded when a contrast is made between the Houyhnhnms with Yahoos who represent that part of mankind who by nature are corrupt and spend their money in drinking, whoring, and gambling and many commit such crimes coining false money, rape and sodomy. This picture of the human beings is positively correct. But everyone will agree that we cannot blame the entire mankind. All human beings are not guilty of such crimes and that there are many good men also in all human societies.
A letter that Swift wrote to Alexander Pope in connextion with Gulliver’s Travel offers considerable help to understand Swift’s attitude towards mankind. The relevant part of the letter reads as follows:
“But principally I hate and detest the animal called man although I heartily love. John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth… I have got materials towards a treatise, proving the falsity of that definition Animal Rationale and to show, it should be only Rational Capex. Upon this great misanthropy, the whole building of my travel is created.”
In another letter Swift writes:
“Drown the world, I am not content with despising it but I would anger it, if I could with safety. I tell you after all that I do not hate mankind; it is Vous Autres who late them, because you would have them reasonable animals, and are angry for being disappointed.”
The gist of all these statements is that his main aim is achieved when he says that “I want to vex the world rather than divert it: especially when he declares that he has “ever hated all nations, professions and communities and all his love is towards individuals. It means that he realizes that we cannot blame the entire humanity but he hates and detests that animal called man. Swift does not believe that a man is a rational animal called man. Swift does not believe that man is a rational animal through he does believe that man is capable of becoming rational, if he makes the necessary effort. That is why Swift adds that upon this great foundation of misanthropy, the whole building of Gulliver’s Travels has been erected. He wanted to shake people out of their complacency and to make them aware of their own faults and shortcomings. One thing which is quite evident that when Gulliver refuses to go back to England, we should not identify him with Swift, who completely parts company with Gulliver. It is Gulliver basically who becomes the hater of mankind and even of the members of his own family. Swift does not share his extreme misanthropy. In fact, we may even say that Swift is here mocking at the development that has changed Gulliver completely. We should also not forget that Swift had a number of friends with whom he had genuine attachment and he had lot of love and affection for them. Among the women, Stella was the lady with whom he had profound and deep affection. Under this impression, he had written to Pope that though “he hated communities and professions, he loved particular individuals.” So Gulliver’s Travels is aimed not at these particular individuals who are rational in their behaviour, but at human nature of those who are professional whom he hated.

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