Charles Lamb Essays
Charles Lamb and Spaces Separate from Rationality
Contemporary reviewers who referred to Charles Lamb as imitating or affiliated with the ‘Lake School’ mocked what they perceived to be a taste for simplicity or childishness; his 1802 play John Woodvil, for example, was mockingly called ‘the first of those lost links which connect the improvements of Eschylus with the commencement of the art’ in the Edinburgh Review. Lamb himself identified with city sensibilities rather than ‘Lake’ landscapes at times: his first essay in The London Magazine, for example, was signed ‘The Londoner’, although he would later adopt the pseudonym ‘Elia’ when more truthfully recording his isolated lifestyle caring for his sister. The way Lamb uses physical spaces in his essays demonstrates a core trait of his infamously ‘lovable’ writing persona: irrational admiration and susceptibility to influence from his environment are held up as the correct way to appreciate your surroundings, especially in nostalgic spaces. The physical environments described in his essays reflect the literary environment he found himself in, and the ways in which he sought a space without serious moral lesson or rationality. This is probably why he lingers on dreams and childhood, both states of being that evoke strong feelings without rational evaluation.
In ‘Oxford in the Vacation’, he connected reading and learning with ineffable pastoral admiration of his surroundings: ‘What a place to be in is an old library! It seems as though all the souls of all the writers, that have bequeathed their labours to these Bodleians, were reposing here, as in some dormitory, or middle state. I do not want to handle, to profane the leaves, their winding-sheets. I could as soon dislodge a shade. I seem to inhale learning, walking amid their foliage; and the odour of their old moth-scented coverings is fragrant as the first bloom of those sciential apples which grew amid the happy orchard.’ The atmosphere of learning and of the books’ pages appears preferable to actually reading or trying to understand the books’ contents. The mention of ‘foliage’ is a pun on the books’ pages being ‘leaves’, but also heightens the comparison to a garden, a space which exists for the sake of its beauty. The reference to ‘sciential apples’ in particular evokes the idea of Eden, and the fruit of knowledge: here, however, the fruit is not picked or consumed, but enjoyed on the bough. Distance seems to be required, in case of corruption. He appears to conduct himself with caution and a keen awareness of how he might influence his surroundings, as he shies away from handling the books because he might ‘profane the leaves’, but inhales ‘learning’ instead, preferring an education of incoherent absorption. As Jacobus observes, the narrator persona of this text may affect how sincerely we accept this pastoral ideal of reading: ‘Lamb’s surrogate or alter ego in ‘The Genteel Style in Writing’ is Sir William Temple, a retired statesman whose ‘plain natural chit-chat’ and garden retreat give writing its gentility, naturalize the language of books, and restore Elian duplicity to original innocence.’ Lamb appropriates Temple’s manner of ‘sweet garden essay’ here to ensure his message is taken with sincerity, ‘as much to pastoralize learning as to make horticulture erudite.’
Lamb’s seriousness of purpose in endorsing books in this purely environmental way can be debated, as he was a comedic writer and as Lamb himself observed, the name Elia itself is an anagram of ‘a lie’: the straightforward meaning of his words is debatably not to be trusted. He qualifies his own writing in the Preface, however, saying of Elia that ‘Few understood him; and I am not at all certain that at all times he quite understood himself.’ The lack of comprehension that he humorously assumes about his own work demonstrates that the ineffable qualities he admires in many essays may be sincerely preferable, in Lamb’s eyes, to the analysis and doubt of his contemporary philosophers. It is no wonder that he is such a ‘sympathetic reader of the deluded and the delirious’ if he prioritizes ineffable emotion and the ‘odour of their old moth-scented coverings’ above the serious content or worthiness of literature: his kindred spirits are characters like Don Quixote and Malvolio perhaps because they avoid straightforward morality being taken from their words.
The imagery of surroundings in ‘Dream-children: A Reverie’ conjures personal, vivid memories that are refracted through the fictional construct of Elia and the imagined children. In describing the imagined children’s great-grandmother’s house in Norfolk, Lamb approaches the subject of knowledge or learning through the nostalgically remembered environment: ‘Certain it is that the whole story of the children and their cruel uncle was to be seen fairly carved out in wood upon the chimney-piece of the great hall, the whole story down to the Robin Redbreasts, till a foolish rich person pulled it down to set up a marble one of modern invention in its stead, with no story upon it.’ Rather than the story being written or told to him directly, he absorbs the story from gazing at his surroundings, imbuing the chimney-piece with irrational sentimental value that is shown through disdain for the marble modern one with no history. ‘Old marble’ seems to be preferable, as in the following passage: ‘Then I told how good she was to all her grand-children, having us to the great house in the holidays, where I in particular used to spend many hours by myself, in gazing upon the old busts of the Twelve Cæsars, that had been Emperors of Rome, till the old marble heads would seem to live again, or I to be turned into marble with them; how I never could be tired with roaming about that huge mansion, with its vast empty rooms, with their worn-out hangings, fluttering tapestry, and carved oaken panels, with the gilding almost rubbed out—sometimes in the spacious old-fashioned gardens, which I had almost to myself, unless when now and then a solitary gardening man would cross me – ’
The isolation and solitude of the speaker as a child is again contrasted against the richness of history implied by the ‘worn-out hangings, fluttering tapestry and carved oaken panels, with the gilding almost rubbed out’: the age here is a threat to the integrity of his surroundings, with the detail ‘almost rubbed out’ evoking a sense of impending loss and tension that Lamb may be retroactively emphasizing due to his current nostalgia. Rather than learning about the Twelve Caesars, Lamb uses a childish irrational imagination to gaze ‘till the old marble heads would seem to live again, or I to be turned into marble with them’: he yearns for days of understanding through irrational feelings of assimilation with marble, perhaps wishing his imagination was still as strong as a child’s in order for him to truly bring the addressed ‘Dream-children’ to life. The sheer size of this house is emphasized through tautological reminders: ‘huge mansion’, ‘vast empty rooms’, ‘spacious old-fashioned gardens’. This description also emphasizes the young speaker’s isolation within this great house, possibly to explain the scope for reverent imagination: as Lamb observes in ‘Blakemoor’, ‘the solitude of childhood is not so much the mother of thought, as it is the feeder of love, and silence, and admiration.’ Without the accompaniment of adults to teach him how to rationally react to his surroundings, he follows an irrational feeling of admiration.
As if trying to impart a lesson about interacting with your surroundings to the imagined children, he encloses a description of the gardens at the beginning and end by emphasizing that he did not eat the nectarines and peaches: ‘[…] because I had more pleasure in strolling about among the old melancholy-looking yew trees, or the firs, and picking up the red berries, and the fir apples, which were good for nothing but to look at—or in lying about upon the fresh grass, with all the fine garden smells around me—or basking in the orangery, till I could almost fancy myself ripening, too, along with the oranges and the limes in that grateful warmth—or in watching the dace that darted to and fro in the fish pond, at the bottom of the garden, with here and there a great sulky pike hanging midway down the water in silent state, as if it mocked at their impertinent friskings,—I had more pleasure in these busy-idle diversions than in all the sweet flavors of peaches, nectarines, oranges, and such like common baits of children.’ The description of ‘busy-idle diversions’ perhaps best illustrates the passive learning and experience he prefers to complete rational understanding. The berries and apples ‘were good for nothing but to look at’ compared to the peaches and nectarines, so again the fruit of knowledge in this particular Eden is appreciated but not consumed. Understanding in this context is analogous to consuming or destroying. He assimilates to his surroundings through imagination, ‘till I could almost fancy myself ripening too’, because he is basking in the same ‘grateful warmth’ as the fruit in the same environment: the feeling in isolation connects him to the fruit rather than any poetic device, because his unquestioning childhood self is so permeable.
There does seem to be a limit as to the amount of space within his dreams themselves: in ‘Witches, and Other Night Fears’ he appears to regret that he does not have the capacity for imagining landscapes of terror in the same way that children experience ‘night-fancies’. He declares ‘the poverty of my dreams mortifies me’ when comparing himself to Coleridge and Barry Cornwall. Instead, he tends to dream of the worldliness he cannot truly obtain in real life: ‘They are never romantic, seldom even rural. They are of architecture and of buildings — cities abroad, which I have never seen, and hardly have hope to see. I have traversed, for the seeming length of a natural day, Rome, Amsterdam, Paris, Lisbon — their churches, palaces, squares, market-places, shops, suburbs, ruins, with an inexpressible sense of delight — a map-like distinctness of trace — and a day-light vividness of vision, that was all but being awake.’ Although he was a part of London literary circles through his periodically published ‘Elia’ essays, in the everyday sense he was trapped in a job as an East India company clerk. He finds an ‘inexpressible sense of delight’ in foreign architecture in these dreams because these are unknowable locations to him. The ‘day-light vividness of vision’ also demonstrates him interacting with these dreams as if with a real physical place, and his exploration appears to take him back to a childhood state of inspired isolation. Places he has already visited in childhood inspire the imagination because they represent a past that will be lost and unknowable, as soon as the chimney-piece is replaced, while places he has never visited and will never be able to hold his interest through being unknowable themselves.
This sense of looking backwards and forwards at once could echo Denise Gigante’s comparison of Lamb to both ‘the nostalgic tone of the 1780s’ and the heightened consciousness of those previous essayists, like Johnston, about their relation to English literary tradition, and Victorian fiction’s later taste for serialized characters whose lives are followed periodically by their readers, in works like Dicken’s Pickwick Papers from 1836-7. ‘Elia’ develops with age over time, and dies before the publication of ‘The Last Essays of Elia’ (1833), allowing a personal narrative of love and loss that not many essayists had captured in their very public and usually satirical form. Lamb’s purposefully irrational persona in writing, whether that be Elia or a heightened version of himself, prefers personal, isolated spaces away from rationality: dreams, childhood, the ineffable atmosphere of a library. He is able to apply that, however, to the public sphere of literature to advise readers how best to unquestioningly engage with his work.