Sunday 2 February 2014


2014-05 Charles Lamb: Hail, Candle Light!

Charles Lamb [1775-1834]
Hail, Candle Light!

Charles Lamb or Elia as he called himself, was one of the great essayists, poets and critics of the early 19th century. Alone or with his sister Mary, he wrote such works as Tales from ShakespeareThe Adventures of UlyssesPoems and PlaysThe Essays of Elia and The Last Essays of Elia

"He delighted in the vigour and quaintness of seventeenth-century English. And his mastery lay in using it to record homely, intimate experience. He acquired from the old writers whom he loved, a lofty and fanciful way of treating trivial things. His work is more full of exquisitely apt literary phrases than that of perhaps any other prose writer."

Who else but Charles Lamb can write thus:  The Praise of Chimney-Sweepers

"I like to meet a sweep -- one of those tender novices, blooming through their first nigritude, the maternal washings not quite effaced from the cheek -- such as come forth with the dawn, or somewhat earlier, with their little professional notes sounding like the peep peep of a young sparrow; or liker to the matin lark should I pronounce them, in their aerial ascents not seldom anticipating the sun-rise?

I have a kindly yearning towards these dim specks -- poor blots -- innocent blacknesses -- I reverence these young Africans of our own growth -- these almost clergy imps, who sport their cloth without assumption; and from their little pulpits (the tops of chimneys), in the nipping air of a December morning, preach a lesson of patience to mankind."

Sir Desmond MacCarthy writes in "Elia after a Hundred Years" thus:

"Lamb is a classic, but he is a little classic; and it is little classics who are, as a rule, most subject to fluctuations of appreciation.  Yet in spite of four generations having come and gone, how high the Essays of Elia stand!...

Lamb always writes as one to whom words are a delight in themselves, and though no one cared more genuinely for the things he wrote about, joy lay for him in the manner of describing them.  He is distinctly an art-for-art's sake writer....

His sentiment is that of one who loves to share the little arts of happiness, to whom past things are peculiarly endeared because they are no more, who is content with the 'most kindly and natural species of love', as he calls it, in the place of passion....

The Essays of Elia are largely autobiographical. Much of their substance is fetched from Lamb's boyhood, having lain many years in his memory unused. Those essays are in essence poems: Yes, passages in them are 'poems in prose'.

Facts, recalled in them, have turned into visions; visions in which the essence of the past resides. True wisdom lies in the contemplation of Essences; certainly they are the stuff from which good literature is made.  Hence, too, the charm of charity which pervades Lamb's work. 

Lamb had a superb gift for appreciation. That he was poet himself is the secret of his greatness as a critic.  Of course, he had his limitations.  He was more sensitive to things old than new...He wrote for 'antiquity'.

I should like to end with Lamb's words on my lips.  He is among the lesser luminaries of English literature, but --

'Hail, candle-light! without disparagement to the sun or moon, the kindliest luminary of the three--if we may not rather style thee their radiant deputy, mild viceroy of the moon! --We love to read, talk, sit silent, eat, drink, sleep, by candle-light.  They are everybody's sun and moon. This is our particular and household planet.'  And so is Lamb."

YouTube Video: Charles Lamb --Top 10 Quotes [3 min] [Click here]

Charles Lamb's Essays of Elia and the Last Essays of Elia [Click here]

Charles & Mary Lamb: Tales from Shakespeare Illustrated Preview [Click here]

Charles & Mary Lamb: Tales from Shakespeare Full [Click here]


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