It has well been said that the essay took a wrong turn in the hands of Bacon. For two centuries after Bacon the essay in England went on gravitating towards the original conception held by Montaigne, but it was only in the hands of the romantic essayists of the early nineteenth century that it became wholly personal, light, and lyrical in nature. From then onwards it has seen no essential change. The position of Lamb among these romantic essayists is the most eminent. In fact, he has often been called the prince of all the essayists England has so far produced. Hugh Walker calls him the essayist par excellence who should be taken as a model. It is from the essays of Lamb that we often derive our very definition of the essay, and it is with reference to his essays as a criterion of excellence that we evaluate the achievement and merit of a given essayist. Familiarity with Lamb as a man enhances for a reader the charm of his essays. And he is certainly the most charming of all English essay. We may not find in him the massive genius of Bacon, or the ethereal flights (O altitude) of Thomas Browne, or the brilliant lucidity of Addison, or the ponderous energy of Dr. Johnson, but none excels him in the ability to charm the reader or to catch him in the plexus of his own personality.
Montaigne, a French writer, was the father of the essay, and it was Francis Bacon who naturalised the new form in English. However, there is much difference between his essays and the essays of his model. Montaigne’s essays are marked by his tendency towards self-revelation, a light-hearted sense of humour, and tolerance. But Bacon in his essay is more an adviser than a companion: he is serious, objective, and didactic.
What strikes one particularly about Lamb as an essayist is his persistent readiness to reveal his everything to the reader. The evolution of the essay from Bacon to Lamb lies primarily in its shift from
(i) objectivity to subjectivity, and
(ii) (ii) from formality to familiarity.
Of all the essayists it is perhaps Lamb who is the most autobiographic. His own life is for him “such stuff as essays are made on.” He could easily say what Montaigne had said before him-“I myself am the subject of my book.” The change from objectivity to subjectivity in the English essay was, by and large, initiated by Abraham Cowley who wrote such essays as the one entitled. “Of Myself.” Lamb with other romantic essayists completed this change. Walter Pater observes in Appreciations; “With him, as with Montaigne, the desire of self-portraiture is below all mere superficial tendencies, the real motive in ‘writing at all, desire closely connected with intimacy, that modern subjectivity which may be called the Montaignesque element in literature. In his each and every essay we feel the vein of his subjectivity.” His essays are, as it were, so many bits of autobiography by piecing which together we can arrive at a pretty authentic picture of his life, both external and internal. It is really impossible to think of an essayist who is more personal than Lamb. His essays reveal him fully-in all his whims, prejudices, past associations, and experiences. “Night Fears” shows us Lamb as a timid, superstitious boy. “Christ’s Hospital” reveals his unpalatable experiences as a schoolboy. We are introduced to the various members of his family in numerous essays like “My Relations’ “The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple,” and “Poor Relations.” We read of the days of his adolescence in “Mackery End in Hertfordshire.” His tenderness towards his sister Mary is revealed by “Mrs. Battle’s Opinions on Whist.” His professional life is recalled in “The South-Sea House” and “The, Superannuated Man.” His sentimental memories full of pathos find expression in “Dream Children.” His prejudices come to the fore in “Imperfect Sympathies” and “The Confessions of a Drunkard.” His gourmandise finds a humours utterence in “A Dissertation upon Roast Pig,” “Grace before Meat,” and elsewhere. What else is left then? Very little, except an indulgence in self-pity at the stark tragedy of his life. Nowhere does he seem to be shedding tears at the fits of madness to which his siter Mary Bridget of the essays) was often subject and in one of which she knifed his mother to death. The frustration of his erotic career (Lamb remained in a state of lifelong bachelorhood imposed by himself.to enable him to nurse his demented sister), however, is touched upon here and there. In “Dream Children,” for instance, his unfruitful attachment with Ann Simmons is referred to. She got married and her children had to “call Bartrum father.” Lamb is engaged in a reverie about “his children” who would have possibly been born had he been married to Alice W-n (Ann Simmons). When the reverie is gone this is what he finds: “…and immediately awaking, I found myself quietly seated in my bachelor arm-chair where I had fallen asleep, with the faithful Bridget [his sister Mary] unchanged by my side…but John L (his brother John Lamb) was gone for ever.” How touching!
Lamb’s excessive occupation with himself may lead one to assume that he is too selfish or. egocentric, or that he is vulgar or inartistic. Far from that, Egotism with Lamb sheds its usual offensive accoutrements. The following specific points may be noted in this connexion:
(i) His egotism is free from vulgarity. Well does Compton-Rickett observe: “There is no touch of vulgarity in these intimacies; for all their frank unreserve we feel the delicate refinement of the man’s spiritual nature. Lamb omits no essential, he does not sentimentalise, and does not brutalise his memories. He poetises them, preserving them for us in art that can differentiate between genuine reality and crude realism.”
(ii) His artistic sense of discrimination-selection and rejection-has also to be taken into account.David Daiches maintains: “The writer’s own character is always there, flaunted before the reader, but it is carefully prepared and controlled before it is exhibited.”
(iii) Though Lamb is an egotist yet he is not self-assertive. He talks about himself not because he thinks himself to be important but because he thinks himself to be the only object he knows intimately. Thus his egotism is born of a sense of humility rather than hauteur. Samuel C. Chew observes: “Like all the romantics he is self-revelatory, but there is nothing in him of the ‘egotistical-sublime.’ Experience had made him too clear-sighted to take any individual, least of all himself, too seriously. The admissions of his own weaknesses, follies, and prejudices are so many humorous warnings to his readers.”
The Note of Familiarity:
Lamb’s contribution to the English essay also lies in his changing the general tone from formality to familiarity. This change was to be accepted by all the essayists to follow. “Never”, says Compton-Rickett, “was any man more intimate in print than he. He has made of chatter a fine art.” Lamb disarms the reader at once with his buttonholding familiarity. He plays with him in a puckish manner, no doubt, but he is always ready to take him into confidence and to exchange heart-beats with him. In the essays of the writers before him we are aware of a well-marked distance between the writer and ourselves. Bacon and Addison perch themselves, as it were, on a pedestal, and cast pearls before the readers standing below. In Cowley, the distance between the reader and writer narrows down-but it is there still. It was left for Lamb to abolish this distance altogether. He often addresses the reader (“dear reader”) as if he were addressing a bosom friend. He makes nonsense of the proverbial English insularity and “talks” to the readers as “a friend and man” (as Thackeray said he did in his novels). This note of intimacy is quite pleasing, for Lamb is the best of friends.
He is a friend, and not a teacher. Lamb shed once and for all the didactic approach which characterises the work of most essayists before him. Bacon called his essays “counsels civil and moral.” His didacticism is too palpable to need a comment. Cowley was somewhat less didactic, but early in the eighteenth century Steele and Addison-the founders of the periodical essay-set in their papers the moralistic, mentor-like tone for all the periodical essayists to come. Even such “a rake among scholars and a scholar among rakes” as Steele arrogated to himself the air of a teacher and reformer. This didactic tendency reached almost its culmination in Dr. Johnson who in the Idler and Rambler papers gave ponderous sermons rather than what may be called essays. Lamb is too modest to pretend to proffer moral counsels. He never argues, dictates, or coerces. We do not find any “philosophy of life” in his essays, though there are some personal views and opinions flung about here and there not for examination and adoption, but just to serve as so many ventilators to let us have a peep into his mind. “Lamb”, says Cazamian, “is not a moralist nor a psychologist, his object is not research, analysis, or confession; he is, above all, an artist. He has no aim save the reader’s pleasure, and his own.” But though Lamb is not a downright pedagogue, he is yet full of sound wisdom which he hides under a cloak of frivolity and tolerant good nature. He sometimes looks like the Fool in King Lear whose weird and funny words are impregnated with a hard core of surprising sanity. As a critic avers, “though Lamb frequently donned the cap and bells, he was more than ajester; even his jokes had kernels of wisdom.” In his “Character of the Late Elia” in which he himself gives a character-sketch of the supposedly dead Elia, he truly observes : “He would interrupt the gravest discussion with some light jest; and yet, perhaps not quite irrelevant in ears that could understand it.”
The Rambling Nature of His Essays and His Lightness of Touch:
The rambling nature of his essays and his lightness of touch are some other distinguishing features of Lamb as an essayist. He never bothers about keeping to the point. Too often do we find him flying off at a tangent and ending at a point which we could never have foreseen. Every road with him seems to lead to the world’s end. We often reproach Bacon for the “dispersed” nature of his “meditations”, but Lamb beats everybody in his monstrous discursiveness. To consider some examples, first take up his essay “The Old and the New School-master.” In this essay which apparently is written for comparing the old and new schoolmaster, the first two pages or thereabouts contain a very humorous and exaggerated description of the author’s own ignorance. Now, we may ask, what has Lamb’s ignorance to do with the subject in hand? Then, the greater part of the essay “Oxford in the Vacation” is devoted to the description of his friend Dyer. Lamb’s essays are seldom artistic, well-patterned wholes. They have no beginning, middle and end. Lamb himself described his essays as “a sort of unlicked incondite things.” However, what these essays lose in artistic design they gain in the touch of spontaneity. This is what lends them what is called “the lyrical quality.”
Lamb’s Humour, Pathos, and Humanity:
Lamb’s humour, humanity, and the sense of pathos are all his own; and it is mainly these qualities which differentiate his essays from those of his contemporaries. His essays are rich alike in wit, humour, and fun. Hallward and Hill observe in the Introduction to their edition of the Essavs of Elia : “The terms Wit. Humour and Fun are often confused but they are really different in meaning. The first is based on intellect, the second on insight and sympathy, the third on vigour and freshness of mind and body. Lamb’s writings show all the three qualities, but what most distinguishes him is Humour, for his sympathy is ever strong and active.” Humour in Lamb’s essays constitutes very like an atmosphere “with linked sweetness long drawn out.” Its Protean shapes range from frivolous puns, impish attempts at mystification, grotesque buffoonery, and Rabelaisian verbosity (see, for example, the description of a “poor relation”) to the subtlest ironical stroke which pierces down to the very heart of life. J. B. Priestley observes in English Humour: “English humour at its deepest and tenderest seems in him [Lamb] incarnate. He did not merely create it, he lived in it. His humour is not an idle thing, but the white flower, plucked from a most dangerous nettle.” What particularly distinguishes Lamb’s humour is its close alliance with pathos. While laughing he is always aware of the tragedy of life-not only his life, but life in general. That is why he often laughs through his tears. Witness his treatment of the hard life of chimney sweepers and Christ’s Hospital boys. The descriptions are touching enough, but Lamb’s treatment provides us with a humorous medium of perception rich in prismatic effects, which bathes the tragedy of actual life in the iridescence of mellow comedy. The total effect is very complex, and strikes our sensibility in a bizarre way, puzzling us as to what is comic and what is tragic.
A word, lastly, about Lamb’s peculiar style which is all his own and yet not his, as he is a tremendous borrower. He was extremely influenced by some “old-world” writers like Fuller and Sir Thomas Browne. It is natural, then, that his style is archaic. His sentences are long and rambling, after the seventeenth-century fashion. He uses words many of which are obsolescent, if not obsolete. But though he “struts in borrowed plumes”, these “borrowed plumes” seem to be all his own. Well does a critic say: “The blossoms are culled from other men’s gardens, but their blending is all Lamb’s own.” Passing through Lamb’s imagination they become something fresh and individual. His style is a mixture certainly of many styles, but a chemical not a mechanical mixture.” His inspiration from old writers gives his style a romantic colouring which is certainly intensified by his vigorous imagination. Very like Wordsworth he throws a fanciful veil on the common objects of life and converts them into interesting and “romantic” shapes. His peculiar style is thus an asset in the process of “romanticising” everyday affairs and objects which otherwise would strike one with a strong feeling of ennui. He is certainly a romantic essayist. What is more, he is a poet.