Knowledge is the key to immortality
|CHARLES LAMB BIOGRAPHY AND ABOUT ESSAYS
|Prepared by Dr. Baburam Swami - Assistant Professor - English
Life. In the very heart of London there is a curious, old-fashioned place known as the Temple,--an enormous, rambling, apparently forgotten structure, dusty and still, in the midst of the endless roar of the city streets. Originally it was a chapter house of the Knights Templars, and so suggests to us the spirit of the Crusades and of the Middle Ages; but now the building is given over almost entirely to the offices and lodgings of London lawyers. It is this queer old place which, more than all others, is associated with the name of Charles Lamb. "I was born," he says, "and passed the first seven years of my life in the Temple. Its gardens, its halls, its fountain, its river... these are my oldest recollections." He was the son of a poor clerk, or rather servant, of one of the barristers, and was the youngest of seven children, only three of whom survived infancy. Of these three, John, the elder, was apparently a selfish creature, who took no part in the heroic struggle of his brother and sister. At seven years, Charles was sent to the famous "Bluecoat" charity school of Christ's Hospital. Here he remained seven years; and here he formed his lifelong friendship for another poor, neglected boy, whom the world remembers as Coleridge.
CHRIST'S HOSPITAL, LONDON
When only fourteen years old, Lamb left the charity school and was soon at work as a clerk in the South Sea House. Two years later he became a clerk in the famous India House, where he worked steadily for thirty-three years, with the exception of six weeks, in the winter of 1795-1796, spent within the walls of an asylum. In 1796 Lamb's sister Mary, who was as talented and remarkable as Lamb himself, went violently insane and killed her own mother. For a long time after this appalling tragedy she was in an asylum at Hoxton; then Lamb, in 1797, brought her to his own little house, and for the remainder of his life cared for her with a tenderness and devotion which furnishes one of the most beautiful pages in our literary history. At times the malady would return to Mary, giving sure warning of its terrible approach; and then brother and sister might be seen walking silently, hand in hand, to the gates of the asylum, their cheeks wet with tears. One must remember this, as well as Lamb's humble lodgings and the drudgery of his daily work in the-big commercial house, if he would appreciate the pathos of "The Old Familiar Faces," or the heroism which shines through the most human and the most delightful essays in our language.
When Lamb was fifty years of age the East India Company, led partly by his literary fame following his first Essays of Elia, and partly by his thirty-three years of faithful service, granted him a comfortable pension; and happy as a boy turned loose from school he left India House forever to give himself up to literary work. He wrote to Wordsworth, in April, 1825, "I came home forever on Tuesday of last week--it was like passing from life into eternity." Curiously enough Lamb seems to lose power after his release from drudgery, and his last essays, published in 1833, lack something of the grace and charm of his earlier work. He died at Edmonton in 1834; and his gifted sister Mary sank rapidly into the gulf from which his strength and gentleness had so long held her back. No literary man was ever more loved and honored by a rare circle of friends; and all who knew him bear witness to the simplicity and goodness which any reader may find for himself between the lines of his essays.
Works. The works of Lamb divide themselves naturally into three periods. First, there are his early literary efforts, including the poems signed "C. L." in Coleridge'sPoems on Various Subjects (1796); his romance Rosamund Gray (1798); his poetical drama John Woodvil (1802); and various other immature works in prose and poetry. This period comes to an end in 1803, when he gave up his newspaper work, especially the contribution of six jokes, puns, and squibs daily to the Morning Postat sixpence apiece. The second period was given largely to literary criticism; and the Tales from Shakespeare (1807)--written by Charles and Mary Lamb, the former reproducing the tragedies, and the latter the comedies--may be regarded as his first successful literary venture. The book was written primarily for children; but so thoroughly had brother and sister steeped themselves in the literature of the Elizabethan period that young and old alike were delighted with this new version of Shakespeare's stories, and the Tales are still regarded as the best of their kind in our literature. In 1808 appeared his Specimens of English Dramatic Poets Contemporary with Shakespeare. This carried out the splendid critical work of Coleridge, and was the most noticeable influence in developing the poetic qualities of Keats, as shown in his last volume.
Essays of EliaThe third period includes Lamb's criticisms of life, which are gathered together in his Essays of Elia (1823), and his Last Essays of Elia, which were published ten years later. These famous essays began in 1820 with the appearance of the new London Magazine and were continued for many years, such subjects as the "Dissertation on Roast Pig," "Old China," "Praise of Chimney Sweepers," "Imperfect Sympathies," "A Chapter on Ears," "Mrs. Battle's Opinions on Whist," "Mackery End," "Grace Before Meat," "Dream Children," and many others being chosen apparently at random, but all leading to a delightful interpretation of the life of London, as it appeared to a quiet little man who walked unnoticed through its crowded streets. In the first and last essays which we have mentioned, "Dissertation on Roast Pig" and "Dream Children," we have the extremes of Lamb's humor and pathos.
Lamb's styleThe style of all these essays is gentle, old-fashioned, irresistibly attractive. Lamb was especially fond of old writers and borrowed unconsciously from the style of Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy and from Browne's Religio Medici and from the early English dramatists. But this style had become a part of Lamb by long reading, and he was apparently unable to express his new thought without using their old quaint expressions. Though these essays are all criticisms or appreciations of the life of his age, they are all intensely personal. In other words, they are an excellent picture of Lamb and of humanity. Without a trace of vanity or self-assertion, Lamb begins with himself, with some purely personal mood or experience, and from this he leads the reader to see life and literature as he saw it. It is this wonderful combination of personal and universal interests, together with Lamb's rare old style and quaint humor, which make the essays remarkable. They continue the best tradition of Addison and Steele, our first great essayists; but their sympathies are broader and deeper, and their humor more delicious than any which preceded them.
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