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raised by Mary Lamb, the writer’s sister and sometime coauthor of children’s books, who criticized his fondness for outdated words.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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Essays of Elia is a collection of essays written by Charles Lamb; it was first published in book form in 1823, with a second volume, Last Essays of Elia, issued in 1833 by the publisher Edward Moxon.
The essays in the collection first began appearing in The London Magazinein 1820 and continued to 1825. Lamb's essays were very popular and were printed in many subsequent editions throughout the nineteenth century. The personal and conversational tone of the essays has charmed many readers; the essays "established Lamb in the title he now holds, that of the most delightful of English essayists." Lamb himself is the Elia of the collection, and his sister Mary is "Cousin Bridget." Charles first used the pseudonym Elia for an essay on the South Sea House, where he had worked decades earlier; Elia was the last name of an Italian man who worked there at the same time as Charles, and after that essay the name stuck.
American editions of both the Essays and the Last Essays were published in Philadelphia in 1828. At the time, American publishers were unconstrained by copyright law, and often reprinted materials from English books and periodicals; so the American collection of the Last Essays preceded its British counterpart by five years.
Critics have traced the influence of earlier writers in Lamb's style, notably Sir Thomas Browne and Robert Burton – writers who also influenced Lamb's contemporary and acquaintance, Thomas De Quincey.
Some of Lamb's later pieces in the same style and spirit were collected into a body called Eliana.
The following essays are included in the collection:
- "The South-Sea House"
- "Oxford In The Vacation"
- "Christ's Hospital Five-And-Thirty Years Ago"
- "The Two Races Of Men"
- "New Year's Eve"
- "Mrs Battle's Opinions On Whist"
- "A Chapter On Ears"
- "All Fools' Day"
- "A Quakers' Meeting"
- "The Old and The New Schoolmaster"
- "Valentine's Day"
- "Imperfect Sympathies"
- "Witches And Other Night-Fears"
- "My Relations"
- "Mackery End, In Hertfordshire"
- "Modern Gallantry"
- "The Old Benchers Of The Inner Temple"
- "Grace Before Meat"
- "My First Play"
- "Dream-Children; A Reverie"
- "Distant Correspondents"
- "The Praise Of Chimney-Sweepers"
- "A Complaint Of The Decay Of Beggars In The Metropolis"
- "A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig"
- "A Bachelor's Complaint Of the Behaviour Of Married People"
- "On Some Of The Old Actors"
- "On The Artificial Comedy Of The Last Century"
- "On The Acting Of Munden".
And in Last Essays of Elia:
- "Blakesmoor in H——shire"
- "Poor Relations"
- "Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading"
- "Stage Illusion"
- "To the Shade of Elliston"
- "The Old Margate Hoy"
- "The Convalescent"
- "Sanity of True Genius"
- "Captain Jackson"
- "The Superannuated Man"
- "The Genteel Style of Writing"
- "Barbara S——
- "The Tombs in the Abbey"
- "Amicus Redivivus"
- "Some Sonnets of Sir Philip Sidney"
- "Newspapers Thirty-Five Years Ago"
- "Barrenness of the Imaginative Faculty in the Productions of Modern Art"
- "The Wedding"
- "Rejoicings upon the New Year's Coming of Age"
- "Old China"
- "The Child Angel; a Dream"
- "Confessions of a Drunkard"
- "Popular Fallacies".
Among the individual essays, "Dream-Children" and "Old China" are perhaps the most highly and generally admired. A short musical work by Elgar was inspired by "Dream-Children". Lamb's fondness for stage drama provided the subjects of a number of the essays: "My First Play," "Stage Illusion," Ellistoniana," etc. "Blakesmoor in H——shire" was actually written about Blakesware in Hertfordshire, the great house where Lamb's maternal grandmother was housekeeper for many years.
- ^William Vaughan Moody and Charles Morss Lovett, A History of English Literature, New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1918; p. 330.
- ^Will D. Howe, Charles Lamb and His Friends, New York, Bobbs-Merrill, 1944; p. 269.
- ^Moody and Lovett, p. 331.
- ^Charles Lamb, The Essays of Elia and Eliana, Barry Cornwall, ed., London, George Bell & Sons, 1890.
- ^Howe, p. 291.
- ^Howe, p. 279.