The essays Charles Lamb wrote for London Magazine in the early 1820’s, which were collected in the Essays of Elia and Last Essays of Elia, mark the acme of his literary achievement and are an enduring and loved contribution to English letters. Lamb had written familiar essays since 1802. After “The Londoner” appeared in the Morning Post (February 1, 1802), Thomas Manning wrote to him to express admiration for the piece, adding, “If you were to write a volume of essays in the same stile you might be sure of its succeeding.” Although Lamb did not immediately take Manning’s advice, he did over the next sixteen years produce other periodical essays, volumes of criticism, books for children, and a farce. In 1818, his collected works appeared in two volumes.
Then in 1820, John Scott, the editor of the newly established London Magazine, asked Lamb to contribute. Lamb’s “Recollections of the South Sea House” appeared in the August issue, the first of the essays written under the pseudonym “Elia.” Most of the fifty-three items collected in the two volumes of Elia essays were written for the London Magazine between 1820 and 1823, though the last piece in the second volume, “Popular Fallacies,” appeared in the New Monthly Magazine in 1826 (January-June, September).
In the introduction to the Last Essays of Elia, ostensibly written by “a Friend of the Late Elia,” Lamb accuses the essays of being “pranked in an affected array of antique models and phrases.” The same accusation had been raised by Mary Lamb, the writer’s sister and sometime coauthor of children’s books, who criticized his fondness for outdated words. Lamb replied, “Damn the ages! I will write for antiquity!” This love for the past, which was, as Elia’s “friend” conceded, natural to the author, surfaces in a variety of ways, particularly in literary debts, allusions, and subject matter. In “Oxford in the Vacation,” the second essay, Lamb observes that the reader of his previous piece might have taken the author for a clerk. Lamb adds, “I do agnize something of the sort.” The word agnize, acknowledge, probably came to Lamb from William Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor of Venice (pr. 1604, pb. 1622); by 1820, it was no longer a common word. Lamb claims that the libraries of Oxford “most arride and solace” him; arride, to please, is an Elizabethan word that Lamb probably took from Ben Jonson’s Every Man out of His Humour (1599). Similarly, his use of “perigesis” for journey is likely a borrowing from Jonson’s Underwoods (1640) and is the first recorded use of the word in the Oxford English Dictionary since Jonson’s nearly two hundred years earlier. “Visnomy” for physiognomy (in “The Two Races of Men”), “pretermitted” instead of overlooked and “reluct” for rebel against (in “New Year’s Eve”), and “keck” for reject (in “Imperfect Sympathies”) all derive from seventeenth century authors. In at least two instances—“obolary” (having little money) in “The Two Races of Men” and “raucid” for raucous in “To the Shade of Elliston”—Lamb imitated these earlier writers by inventing words; the Oxford English Dictionary credits Lamb as the origin of both.
Lamb knew many of the leading authors of the age, including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, William Hazlitt, Thomas De Quincey, and William Godwin. However his shelves and mind admitted almost no modern literature. His 1808 Specimens of English Dramatic Poets, Who Lived About the Time of Shakespeare with Notes called attention to Elizabethan and Jacobean authors whom Lamb admired and whose influence is evident in his Elia essays. Although Lamb’s formal education ended at the age of fourteen, he read extensively, as is evident from the more than 130 authors he quotes in his work. For example, the epigraph for “A Quaker Meeting” comes from a 1653 poem by Richard Fleckno; that of “Imperfect Sympathies” is taken from Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici (1642). “Christ’s Hospital Five-and-Thirty Years Ago” presents the “wit-combats” between Coleridge and a fellow student in the same way that Thomas Fuller in his History of the Worthies of England (1662) describes the rivalry between Shakespeare and Jonson. The very term “wit-combats” comes from Fuller, whom Lamb called “the dear, fine, silly, old angel.” “Popular Fallacies” is modeled on Browne’s seventeenth century exploration of “vulgar errors.” In “Detached Thoughts on Reading,” Lamb lists some of his favorite authors, among them Christopher Marlowe, Michael Drayton, William Drummond, and Abraham Cowley; the youngest of them, Cowley, died in 1667.
This love for the past is evident in the very titles of the essays: “Christ’s Hospital Five-and-Thirty Years Ago,” “The Old Benchers...
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Summary of the Essay THE SOUTH-SEA HOUSE by Charles Lamb [ from ESSAYS OF ELIA]
The South-Sea House stands on the north side of Thread Needle Street, not far away from the Bank of England, and is a melancholy-looking, handsome, brick and stone edifice. It has magnificent portals revealing a grave courtyard, with cloisters and pillars. It was once a house of trade. Merchants used to assemble here and business was transacted. Now importance is gone, and it is no more than a magnificent relic. The South-Sea House is of interest to Lamb because it is so rich in past associations, now fallen into neglect, though situated as it is in the very centre of business life. Its coolness, its silence and repose, and its indolence are now welcome to Lamb. Lamb was a clerk here for a short time before he went to India House, and remembers things of past, in which all his interest lies. Lamb is speaking of the South Sea House forty years back.
The cashier was one Evans, a Welshman. He wore his hair powdered and frizzed out, the fashion known as Maccaronies. His melancholy face bent over the cash, he ever fumbled with it, fearing that everyone about him was a defaulter including himself. His face seemed to brighten when he sat over his roast veal at Anderton’s at two. It was not till evening that he really came into life. Just on the stroke of six he would tap at the door. Over a muffin he would melt into talk, ranging over old and new London, and he seemed to have such a lot of information.
Thomas Tame was his deputy. He had the air and stoop of a gentleman. He seemed to look down condescendingly on anyone to whom he talked, and the latter felt, as soon as his talk ended, what a shallow intellect the man had. Thomas Tame had, however, no riches to support his pretensions. His wife traced her relationship obliquely to an illustrious but unfortunate house of Darwentwaten. It cheered the couples as the bright solitary star of their lives.
The accountant, John Tip, was of a different sort. He had no high pretensions. He had a hobby of his own. It was his fiddle. He had a fine suit of rooms in Thread Needle Street, which resounded every fortnight to the notes of a concert of “sweet breasts”. Tip presided over it. But at desk he appeared quite a prosaic and unromantic man, attending exclusively to the business of writing off dividend warrants and striking the annual balance which was a very serious affair, occupying days and nights a month before it was due. He was a stickler for form. He was the best executer in the world, taking very seriously the duty of protecting the rights of orphans. He was well endowed with the principle of self-preservation, and never took any risk in life.
Lamb recalls Henry Man, the wit, the polished man of letters, the author. He was best known for his gibes and jokes, some of which are recorded in his volumes which Lamb had the good fortune to procure from a stall in Barbican. His wit might have grown little stale in these days of ‘new-born gauds’, but it was highly relished in his life time, and radiates from his chronicles upon Chatham and Shebume, and Rockigham, and Howe, Burgoyne and Clinton.
Maynard could sing exquisitely, and sang the song sung by Amiens to the banished Duke. His father was unapproachable churchwarden of Bishopsgate. Lamb laments the tragic death of Maynard. Lamb could have called up other shadowy figures from the past, but they are now no more than shadows and the living have little interest in them.