Sunday, November 04, 2012

Essays of Elia/The Last Essays of Elia (1820-1825)

Together these two collections of essays by Charles Lamb, written over a five-year period for The London Magazine, amount to a little over 300 pages. They are not all that Lamb's reputation is staked on—his collaboration with his sister Mary on the children's book Tales From Shakespeare is at least as famous and may be even more beloved. But certainly his reputation as one of England's great essayists rests on these two slender volumes—slender even when they are combined into one. After Montaigne, Lamb remains one of the greatest writers of so-called "personal essays," exercises that at their best can be as rambling as they are engaging, and here it is basically on display at its very best. Lamb obviously dwelt happily upon his responsibilities as a magazine columnist, applying himself with zeal and diligence to topics such as New Year's Eve, Valentine's Day, roast pork, memories of schooldays, odd people he has met, and adventures at the theater. Lamb first came to my attention for the essay "Dream-Children: A Reverie," which is lovely and bittersweet, a unique view of a man who made his career as an author of children's books but never had any children himself, dipping into dreams of what might have been, and somehow, in artful fashion, finding an extraordinary way to take us there with him. It's beautiful, and to be honest, I did not find it bettered by anything else here. But if you don't know "Dream-Children" I envy you the opportunity to encounter it for the first time, along with some 40 or 50 other pieces by Lamb, all of them worth the time at least once. He's a genuine eccentric, often elliptical and clipped in strange ways, further obfuscated by the dense elocutions of the first half of the 19th century. It takes some getting used to, and some patience. What I like best is the sense of liberation, the idea that the essay writer can do and write anything. That all started with Montaigne, of course, who is undeniable. Somehow there's something more personable for me in Lamb, all packed away neatly and helter skelter in the little Elia books.

In case it's not at the library. (Project Gutenberg)

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