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Sparknotes On Essays Of Elia By Lamb

The 19th century was a great century for writers.  If I could only bring one century of writing with me to a desert island, I would choose the nineteenth without hesitation.  Not only for the literature but for the essays: the essayists of the 19th century were wide-ranging in their interests and witty, smart, and wildly and passionately involved with the world they wrote about.  They immersed themselves in all sorts of activities, writing being only one their passions, and arguing — discussion and disputation — being the foremost.  They ranged from deeply pessimistic (Thomas Carlyle) to profoundly positive (Ralph Waldo Emerson), and they wrote about everything from law and society (Oliver Wendell Holmes) to travels abroad and at home (Washington Irving), to art and politics (John Ruskin) to self-knowledge and civil responsibility (Henry David Thoreau).

My two favorite essayists of the 19th century (or any century, for that matter) are William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb.  They wrote about everything and anything, and they wrote well, with passion and with discipline, and with complexity of argument, acuity of observation, and deliverance of truth.  Yesterday I read a 1913 collection of Charles Lamb’s essays, entitled Last Essays of Elia.  His first Essays of Elia was published in 1823 and his Last Essays of Elia was first published in 1833.  In his absolutely marvelous essays, Lamb writes about life in all its humble and daily, as well as unique and grandiloquent, occasions.  No matter that he wrote from two centuries past: so many of his observations of human nature, predilections, and pastimes are still true today.  Those comments of his that are dated are still fun to read, as when he decries the “modern” art of John Martin and his 1821 painting “Belshazzar’s Feast”.  Lamb was right-on his criticisms, the painting is histrionic, and I would love to read what Lamb would write about the lacerations of Pollock or the cubes of Picasso or the shark of Damien Hirst.

Lamb’s detailed but straightforward descriptions of interiors and of landscapes (as in “Blakesmoor in H–Shire”) are evocative time capsules of England in the nineteenth century and a must-read for any lover of the English literature of the time, as he gives a perfect backdrop of information — what everyone reading at the time already knew — that helps with the atmosphere from the Brontes to Austen.  His essays on other occasions and situations of his 19th century life also provide escape into that world with picture-perfect visual observations as well as  commentary on the social mores of the time, as in “A Wedding”, “The Old Margate Hoy”, “Poor Relations”, and “Captain Jackson”.

Many of his observations are still topical, as well as relevant, as in the “The Tombs in the Abbey”  in which he censures the charging of admissions fees into Westminster Abbey, at a cost of two shillings a head.  Today’s burdensome fee of fifteen pounds falls as heavily and with as little reason.  Lamb argues, “Did you ever see or hear, of a mob in the Abbey, while it was free to all?  Do the rabble come there….It is all you can do to drive them into your churches; they do not voluntarily offer themselves.  They have, alas! no passion for antiquities, for tomb of king or prelate, sage or poet.  If they had, they would no longer be rabble.

Lamb is a very clever and witty writer, as demonstrated by the above logic turning rabble into worthy abbey-visitors, and in such inventive and pleasurable essays as the must-read “Rejoicings Upon the New Year’s Coming of Age” in which all the days of the year gather at an end of year party.  The jesting April Fool places Ash Wednesday next to Christmas Day who proceeds to make that sour puss Lent drink from “the wassail-bowl, till he roared, and hiccup’d“, and began to have a really good time; the poor 29th day of February has a seat off to the side and not enough to eat, and Valentine’s Day plays court to pretty May “slipping amorous billets-doux under the table, till the Dog-days (who are naturally of a warm constitution) began to be jealous, and to bark and rage accordingly.”

Another must-read essay that is both relevant, hysterically funny, and acute in its observations is “Popular Fallacies” wherein Lamb attempts to lay to rest such well-known quips of false wisdom as “Ill-Gotten Gains Never Prosper“, “Handsome is as Handsome Does” (“Those who use this phrase have never seen Mrs. Conrady“), and “Love me, love my dog” ( still so relevant, as a recent house guest proved to me).

I particularly liked his demolition of the saying “Enough is Good as a Feast“.  He argues that no one “really believes this saying. The inventor did not believe it himself….It is a vile cold-scrag-of-mutton sophism; a lie palmed upon the palate, which knows better things.”  He rightly lumps this saying in with the “class of proverbs which have a tendency to make us undervalue money” and seek to make us see gold as “mere muck.”  Lamb argues that “legs and shoulders of mutton, exhilarating cordials, books, pictures, the opportunities of seeing foreign countries, independence, heart’s ease, a man’s own time to himself, are not muck.

Lamb himself was a man not born to money; he worked for years as a clerk, took on the care of his ill sister, and in his spare time, wrote and read and enjoyed life.  He understood money and what its true worth was, as he understood so many things in life.  He was able to articulate in his essays all that he observed and thought about, to lay aside the mundane and accepted ideals and to instead develop and present original, exciting, and enlivening ways of thinking about the ordinary happenings and the exceptional, the minor occurrences and the major ones.  Lamb was thorough in his examination of life, and in his enjoyment, and he was sought to share that understanding and enjoyment to others through his wide-ranging, free-wheeling, and yet wholly disciplined —  and completely gratifying — Essays of Elia.

Charles LambEssays of EliaLast Essays of Elianineteenth centuryWilliam Hazlitt




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Summary of the essay DREAM CHILDREN by Charles Lamb [ from ESSAYS OF ELIA]

Children like to hear about their elders when they were children.  So, our author’s children sat around him to listen to the stories of childhood of their great grand-mother Field.  She lived in a great house in Norfolk.  The most interesting fact about this house was that the whole story of ‘the Children in the Wood’ was carved in wood upon the chimney-piece of the great hall.  But later this was replaced by a marble chimney piece by a rich person.  Great grandmother Field was not the real owner of the house but due to her behaviour, manners and her great religious devotions she was respected by everyone.  She, however, used the house as if it were her own.  But later, the ornaments were taken off from the house to the real owner’s home, which was in the adjoining country.  When Mrs. Field died, her funeral was attended by both the poor and the rich.  Men from many miles around came to show their respect for memory.  She was indeed a very gentle-hearted and pious person.  She knew the Psalms by heart and also a great part of the Testament.
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Lamb then began telling them about their great grandmother’s youth; when she was regarded as the best dancer in the country.  But she was attacked by cancer, and that desisted her from dancing any further.  Her good spirits, however, could not be broken, and she continued to be religious and kind hearted.  She used to sleep by herself in a desolate chamber of that great house.  She thought that she saw two apparitions of infants at midnight, but she was sure that were good creatures and would not hurt her.  She was also very kind to her grandchildren, who went to her during holidays.  Lamb himself used to spend hours in gazing upon old busts of the Emperors of Rome.  He used to roam around the large silent rooms of that huge house and looked through the worn-out hangings, fluttering tapestry, and carved oaken panels.  He also used to hang about the garden, gazing at the trees and flowers.  He was satisfied thus roaming about, and preferred this to the sweet flavours of peaches, nectarines, and such common habits of children.


Though great grand-mother Field loved all her grand-children, she had a special favour for their uncle John Lamb, because he was a handsome and a spirited lad.  He was dashing sort of fellow.  While others would have preferred a secluded corner, he used to mount on horses and ride around the country and join the hunters. 

Their uncle John Lamb was really a brave man.  He won the admiration of everyone as he grew up to be a man.   When our author was a lame footed boy, John, who was a few years senior to him used to carry him on his back for many miles.  In after-life John, however, became lame-footed.  Lamb now fears that he had not been considerate enough to bear the impatient pains of John, or to remember his childhood when he was carried by John.  But when John died Lamb missed him so much.  Lamb remembered his kindness and his crossness, and wished him to be alive again.      


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The children then demanded that Lamb should say about their dead mother.  Then Lamb began telling them how for seven long years he patiently courted the fair Alice Winterton.  As he was relating these experiences of his, he suddenly felt that the eyes of that old Alice were gazing from the face of the little Alice sitting before him.  As Lamb continued to look it seemed that the children, John and Alice were receding from him.  At last just two mournful features were left out of them, and they told him that they were neither of Alice nor of Lamb, that they were not children at all.  For the children of Alice have Bartram, their father.  So they were merely dreams.  At this point Lamb woke up and found himself sitting in his bachelor arm-chair, where he had fallen asleep with the faithful Bridget by his side.  
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