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.
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...