Essay Mondays: Lamb


(Each week I read four essays from Philip Lopate's anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, and write about the one I find the most compelling.)

I tend to have a hard time with the poets of the era, so I was delighted to discover that I like Romantic essayist Charles Lamb quite a lot. From my brief introduction at the hands of Lopate, it seems like the personal essay form provides a quotidian counterpoint to the Romantic Sturm und Drang, and the inclusion of personal experience adds believability to the sentimentality I find so cloying in pieces like Wordsworth's "The Ruined Cottage." Maybe, in the essay, I've finally found a form in which I can enjoy Romanticism!

Lamb writes in a deliberately anachronistic style, and at first I found his "thee"s and "thou"s a bit affected. In remarkably short order, though, I stopped being bothered by his quirks, and started noticing the richness and satisfying texture of his prose. It's a style that lends itself to reading aloud, and I can understand why so many 19th and early 20th century writers reported circling the family around the roaring fire of an evening and reading from Lamb's collected works.

Then I told what a tall, upright, graceful person their great-grandmother Field once was; and how in her youth she was esteemed the best dancer—here Alice's little right foot played an involuntary movement, till upon my looking grave, it desisted—the best dancer, I was saying, in the country, till a cruel disease, called a cancer, came, and bowed her down with pain; but it could never bend her good spirits, or make them stoop, but they were still upright, because she was so good and religious. Then I told how she was used to sleep by herself in a lone chamber of the great lone house; and how she believed that an apparition of two infants was to be seen at midnight gliding up and down the great staircase near where she slept, but she said "those innocents would do her no harm;" and how frightened I used to be, though in those days I had my maid to sleep with me, because I was never half so good or religious as she—and yet I never saw the infants. Here John expanded all his eye-brows and tried to look courageous.

The above passage is from Lamb's "Dream Children: A Reverie," which is the only Lamb essay I'd read before, and such a striking and poignant piece. I would almost call it more of a "story" than an "essay," because of a certain narrative trick toward the end and the dramatic irony that creates throughout the whole essay, but whatever it is, I loved it. Lamb captures the rhythm of the fond yet melancholy father reminiscing to his eager children, and the vivid, everyday quality of their little gestures—the tapping foot, the attempt at a brave face—as they listen to his tale. His repetition of long sentences beginning with "Then I told..." create a rhythm that's almost like an incantation, mirroring the trance that good storytelling can create.

Reading these essays on the heels of so much Virginia Woolf, I'm reminded that Woolf was a big fan of Lamb's, and indeed I can see his influence even in this short selection. In particular, the long, astute sentences, carefully controlled with dashes and semicolons, look forward to her style. And the structure of "Dream Children: A Reverie" anticipates the Modernists' experimentation with point-of-view and the psychological novel. Lamb's remembered reactions to the death of a beloved uncle actually remind me a lot of Proust: how the emotions after a death never come when and how one expects them, but ambush one in odd and devastating ways.

...and how when he died, though he had not been dead an hour, it seemed as if he had died a great while ago, such a distance there is betwixt life and death; and how I bore his death as I thought pretty well at first, but afterwards it haunted and haunted me; and though I did not cry or take it to heart as some do, and I think he would have done if I had died, yet I missed him all day long, and knew not till then how much I had loved him.

I'm glad to have finally sampled the work of an essayist about whom I've heard so much, and I might just seek out a fuller picture of Lamb in the future.

Up next week: we're rocketing toward the Victorian Age, with two essays by William Hazlitt and two by Robert Louis Stevenson.


Badge photo courtesy of Liz West:


  • I'm really enjoying this series that you have going. :) I checked out this same essay anthology from the library last year, but ending up just staring at it, feeling intimidated (it was larger than I expected) until I had to return it. Now I rather want to get it again and read along with you. :)

  • Ditto what Eva said! I loved reading essays in grad school and while teaching... but I haven't read them much since.

    Everything I know about Charles Lamb I learned from The Guernsey Literary (Etc.) Society in which he featured as a favorite author. Now I'm sure I'd like to read something of his.

  • Oh, I've got to get around to reading Lamb. I know he is a favorite of many authors and I've heard his essays raved about. This essay sounds really good. Your comments about the Romantics made me laugh. They do go a bit overboard, don't they? :)

  • Eva: Aw, I'm glad you're liking the series. A little company would be a blast if you ever get around to it! :-) It is a huge tome, isn't it - but possible to sample at your leisure, which is nice.

    Marieke: I haven't read "that Guernsey book," as Dorothy refers to it, but I had run across SO many references to Lamb before finally reading a few of his things in Lopate. He seems to have quite the enduring popularity; now I can see why.

  • Stefanie: Yes, he seems to be sort of a writer's writer, doesn't he? And good grief, the Romantic poets. When I took a Romantics course in college I was so relieved to reach Byron's irony that I may literally have jumped for joy. :-)

  • My parents have been telling me for years to read Lamb's essays, but I've been keeping him on the shelf.

    >Maybe, in the essay, I've finally found a form in which I can enjoy Romanticism!

    Interesting thought.

    I really enjoyed this post--well done.

  • I have the Essays of Elia on my shelves, and I'm looking forward to getting to them (although it will take a while). I didn't like the romantic poets when I was in college, but I came around to liking them later. It was the romantic essay and the romantic novel that did it for me, because thinking about the poetry in relation to all the other stuff made it much more interesting. Percy Shelley is much more interesting next to Mary, William Wordsworth much more interesting next to Dorothy, etc. Keats's letters, Coleridge's nonfiction -- all that stuff is great. And DeQuincey -- if you think you might want to read more romantic essayists, don't forget him -- he's so interesting!

  • Jane: Hey, thanks! I think your parents may be onto something, at least as far as this essay went.

    Dorothy: Interesting point about context making the Romantics more palatable. I do tend to enjoy the novels from that period MUCH more than the poetry, and I have yet to really dive into diaries, essays, and other nonfiction. I will take this under advisement for the future! :-)

  • Funny, I don't think of Lamb as Romantic, which is not right (meaning, you're right). It's just that the continuity with the 17th century prose writers is so strong. Lamb is not much like Johnson or Addison, but he is very much like Browne and Burton.

    "Dream Children" is, I think, Lamb's best. But anyone who enjoys his voice will be happy anywhere in the Essays of Elia.

    Hazlitt is so much more modern, even though he is an exact contemporary of Lamb's - your anthology actally seems to be skipping almost all of the Victorian period.

    Did you read any John Clare in that class? English Romantic poetry is so - what do I mean - so big.

  • Amateur Reader: Yes, Clare was weird and visceral enough that I liked him better than the Big Six. I remember "Mouse's Nest," in particular, being a welcome change from Aeolian harps, Grecian shepherds and pining maidens. But his stuff didn't quite make my heart sing.

    I must say there is SOME Romantic poetry I hold dear. The opening lines of "Tintern Abbey" are some of my favorites anywhere. By and large it's a bit overblown for my taste, though.

    And yes, my anthology skips almost completely over Victorian England! Although it does include a few 19th century essayists from elsewhere (Turgenev, Thoreau).

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography