Charles Lamb, the romantic essayist of the 19th century, under the pseudonym Elia wrote informal, lyrical and personal essays – witty, humorous, funny – he wrote so that his heart won’t explode – and left the essays open-ended, putting the reader quietly in quandary, asking them to look for a definite answer, to construct the story circle complete and finish what he so melodiously had started.
And to finish this wistful melody the reader has to stay with Lamb’s thoughts for a while. What a victory for a writer!
Born in the year 1775, Charles Lamb’s ‘thinking heart’ wrote about his desires and imaginations, resentments and failures, the world he observed and the quaint world he read about, the sweet past and sweet melancholy, the civilised unsatisfied industrialised society, the forgetful lots and the few compassionate souls.
His evocative language interacted with the readers, urging them to participate and respond, digressing from the topic so often just like friends do while sharing an anecdote.
A friend to all, sharing his secrets honestly – for he thinks himself to be the only object he knows intimately – Lamb lived a lonely, troublesome life. He took care of his sister Marry Lamb – with whom he co-authored The Tales of Shakespeare (1807) for children – who suffered from mental illness and in a fit of madness had even killed their mother.
Standing by her side all his life, Charles Lamb continued to write.
His unrequited love story featured in many of his essays; Charles Lamb never stopped loving Ann Simmons. In his essay, Dream Children – A reverie, his two children sit next to him, eager to listen to stories of their ancestors, great uncles and aunts, people whom they will never meet and yet they would know so dearly via their tales.
He shares with them the stories of their great grandmother Mrs Field, the grand house where she lived as a caretaker, about their uncle John Lamb, his childhood days and the “idle diversions” (like watching little fish darting to and fro in the pond on a sunny winter day), and gently brings in the topic of death – how his brother passed away and how much he misses him, suddenly sad, the children ask him to tell them about their late mother (a reflection of Ann Simmons) – and just before he could look at his children a bit more, they fade away.
Awoke, Lamb finds himself sitting in his armchair, too far from the sweet-bitter-warm dream.
In a dream-like style, the essay catches that vague emotion of joy/loss/regret/fulfilment/affection/ loneliness all in one, that sweet emotion that colours the cheeks red, that makes one teary-eyed, that leads to a sigh, that reminds one of life…
Though Greek and Roman philosophers like Theophrastus and Plutarch, Cicero and Seneca wrote essays (when this genre was not yet coined), it was in the early 16th century that the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne popularised the essay as a literary genre.
Charles Lamb chose to follow Montaigne’s lead instead of following the well-known English essayists who predated Lamb like Francis Bacon, Addison, Steele, and Samuel Johnson.
Lamb’s essays, though personal in tone, never hesitated to critique the apathetic side of the society; not serious and didactic as Bacon, Lamb paid attention to creating an authentic picture of life.
In his essay, The Praise of Chimney Sweepers Lamb talks about the little kids who were made to work as chimney sweepers across London – snatching their childhood so brazenly.
He shares anecdotes that paint the harsh reality in a straightforward manner – a tale within a tale – like how a soot-covered boy had laughed when Lamb tumbled down on a street one day, seeing his twinkling eyes made him smile too, how he describes the tea-like beverage that the chimney sweepers found appetizing, a cheap beverage that was made from the sweet wood of the sassafras tree, how his late friend James White used to throw a feast for the chimney sweepers at a local fair, offering them food and entertainment…
Without attacking the privileged class directly Charles Lamb presents an image that cannot be brushed off as easily as sometimes moral talks are brushed.
These imaginative, conversational style essays may not guide the reader like a classical essayist’s essays, it may not teach us the form, but what it does is nothing short of brilliance, it balms and befriends our aching heart and tells us frankly that it is alright, we are all in the same boat…