Reader's Encyclopedia

Lamb, Charles (pen name Elia, 1775 - 1834)

English essayist of the romantic period, a schoolmate of Coleridge, and friend of other figures of English romanticism. Lamb attempted work in the fields of drama and poetry, but was most successful in the personal essay. His writings in this form are known for their humor, whimsy, and faint overtones of pathos. He was also a perceptive critic with a special sympathy for the work of Elizabethan and early 17th - century writers; a sympathy that is reflected in his own vivacious, idiosyncratic style.

His essays are contained in the two series entitled Essays of Elia, which appeared in the London Magazine from 1820 to 1823 and from 1824 to 1825, being collected and published in 1823 and 1833, respectively. Outstanding single essays are: A Dissertation on Roast Pig; "A Chapter on Ears" ; "Mrs. Battle's Opinions on Whist" ; Dream Children, and " The Supernatural Man. " His most famous other works are Tales from Shakespeare (1807), adaptations for children written in collaboration with his sister, Mary Lamb, and Specimens of English Dramatic Poets Contemporary with Shakespeare (1808), his best - known critical work. Because he was most comfortable with short forms and took great pleasure in communicating with his friends, some of his best writing is in his letters, particularly those to Coleridge, which contain sharp, discriminating criticism of the work the poet had sent to him. An 1848 collection of letters was re - edited by E. V. Lucas (3 vols) in 1905. The Letters of Charles and Mary Lamb (2 vols, edited E. W. Marrs) appeared in 1975 - 76.

Though he was much loved for his sweetness and humor, Lamb's life was marked by frustration and tragedy. A stammer kept him from qualifying for a university position, so he went to work as a clerk for the East India Company, where he remained until 1825. There was a strain of insanity in the family, and Mary Lamb, in a fit of madness, killed their mother. Lamb, who had himself spent time in a madhouse and who suffered from alcoholism, took lifelong care of his sister.