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Essays Of Elia By Charles Lamb Summary

Dream Children a reverie

Introduction

The essay is one of the ‘Essays of Elia’. The essay expresses the feelings of loss and regret faced by the narrator. It is based on the description of a place, the relationships and the feelings that have been part of the narrator’s past.

Summary

Just like all children do, Lamb’s children also wanted to hear their parents’ childhood stories. One day, he was telling them about ‘their great-grandmother Field, who lived in a great house in Norfolk’.  The house she lived was ‘a hundred times bigger’ than the house they lived in presently. The children had also heard (‘from the ballad of the Children in the Wood ‘) about the tragic incidents that had supposedly taken place at that house.  The tragic story of the children and their cruel uncle had been carved out in wood upon a chimney piece. However, a rich man replaced the wooden one with a marble one and the story was lost. Lamb mentions that Alice displayed her displeasure when she heard that.

Lamb tells the children that Grandmother Field had been given the charge of the house since the owner liked to live in a more fashionable mansion. He tells that she was religious and very good lady, and was respected by everyone. She took care of the house very carefully. After her, the old ornaments of the house were stripped and set up in the owner’s house. When Lamb mentioned that the old ornaments could not fit decently in new mansion, John smiled to express his agreement that it was a foolish act.

She was such ‘a good and religious woman’ that huge number of people attended her funeral. That ‘she knew all Psaltery by heart’ and also ‘a great part of the Testament’ also suggest that she was a good and religious woman.

She also used to be considered the best dancer till a disease called cancer forced her to stoop. However, her spirits still remained upright. Lamb mentions that she slept ‘in a lone chamber of the great lone house’ on her own despite that the ghosts of two infants glided up and down the stairs near which she slept. During those days, Lamb himself would sleep with the maid being afraid. He mentions that he was far less religious but he never noticed the ghosts. John was trying to look courageous at this moment.

Lamb also mentions that she was very good to her grand children. When he would visit ‘the great house’ in the holidays, he liked gazing upon ‘busts of Twelve Cæsars’. Lamb also mentions various things that used to attract him while being at the mansion. He enjoyed spending time among various things there, even more than ‘sweet flavors of peaches, nectarines, oranges, and such like common baits of children’. Both children showed the influence of his description by ignoring the bunch of grapes they had otherwise wanted to have.

Lamb tells that the children’s uncle John L—— was liked particularly by grandmother Field from amongst all her grandchildren. He was more handsome and spirited than the rest. He was so spirited that when the rest would spend time at the mansion, he would ride a horse for long distance and would even join hunters. Lamb mentions how he had missed their uncle when he died, although he did not show it that much. He missed the uncle’s kindness as well as crossness. Lamb also mentions the uncle’s lameness repeatedly which shows that he had been very concerned for him. The children felt uncomfortable with the description of the uncle and urged Lamb to tell about ‘their pretty, dead mother’.

Then, Lamb told that he courted their mother ‘the fair Alice W——n’ for seven years. He also tried to clarify to the children how he faced problems due to her ‘coyness’ and ‘denial’. At this point, he noticed the strong similarity between the appearance of his wife and that of Alice. He feels as if his wife was communicating with him through Alice. Finally, he woke up and found himself in his armchair where he had fallen asleep. He states that James Elia was no more there and everything that has been mentioned in the essay so far was being described by Elia.

Analysis

The response of children makes the essay dramatic and explains the effect of the essay on their mind. On the one hand their actions make their characteristic features clear. For instance, Alice seemed to feel discomfort when the grandmother’s ability to learn things by heart was mentioned. This shows that she was a typical child who won’t like the mention of qualities of others that she found lacking in herself. When Lamb told them that he preferred to see things at mansion rather than eating fruits, John put the grapes back. This shows his innocence as well as his ability to control his senses.

These actions on the part of children also show that the children were feeling constantly influenced by their father’s description.

The essay does not end before an unexpected turn is given to the events. The way it is mentioned that all the description through the essay was based merely on a dream adds to a suspense element to the essay and also makes it open ended. The ending makes the essay even more psychological than the mention of the narrator’s feelings and the response of the children had made it.

The surprise ending also points towards the inability of Lamb to get his love responded positively by Alice. The children that have been so close to him in his dream represent the ‘dream’ or aspirations that he had had while trying to woo his beloved.

The relationships of the narrator with the grandmother and his brother have been described very clearly. This description has served to clarify his characteristic features; develop the theme of family relationships as well as the theme of loss; and, to make the essay dramatic.

Further reading

Dream Children a reverie in Wiki

Dream Children in Bartly

The 19th century was a great century for writers.  If I could only bring one century of writing with me to a desert island, I would choose the nineteenth without hesitation.  Not only for the literature but for the essays: the essayists of the 19th century were wide-ranging in their interests and witty, smart, and wildly and passionately involved with the world they wrote about.  They immersed themselves in all sorts of activities, writing being only one their passions, and arguing — discussion and disputation — being the foremost.  They ranged from deeply pessimistic (Thomas Carlyle) to profoundly positive (Ralph Waldo Emerson), and they wrote about everything from law and society (Oliver Wendell Holmes) to travels abroad and at home (Washington Irving), to art and politics (John Ruskin) to self-knowledge and civil responsibility (Henry David Thoreau).

My two favorite essayists of the 19th century (or any century, for that matter) are William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb.  They wrote about everything and anything, and they wrote well, with passion and with discipline, and with complexity of argument, acuity of observation, and deliverance of truth.  Yesterday I read a 1913 collection of Charles Lamb’s essays, entitled Last Essays of Elia.  His first Essays of Elia was published in 1823 and his Last Essays of Elia was first published in 1833.  In his absolutely marvelous essays, Lamb writes about life in all its humble and daily, as well as unique and grandiloquent, occasions.  No matter that he wrote from two centuries past: so many of his observations of human nature, predilections, and pastimes are still true today.  Those comments of his that are dated are still fun to read, as when he decries the “modern” art of John Martin and his 1821 painting “Belshazzar’s Feast”.  Lamb was right-on his criticisms, the painting is histrionic, and I would love to read what Lamb would write about the lacerations of Pollock or the cubes of Picasso or the shark of Damien Hirst.

Lamb’s detailed but straightforward descriptions of interiors and of landscapes (as in “Blakesmoor in H–Shire”) are evocative time capsules of England in the nineteenth century and a must-read for any lover of the English literature of the time, as he gives a perfect backdrop of information — what everyone reading at the time already knew — that helps with the atmosphere from the Brontes to Austen.  His essays on other occasions and situations of his 19th century life also provide escape into that world with picture-perfect visual observations as well as  commentary on the social mores of the time, as in “A Wedding”, “The Old Margate Hoy”, “Poor Relations”, and “Captain Jackson”.

Many of his observations are still topical, as well as relevant, as in the “The Tombs in the Abbey”  in which he censures the charging of admissions fees into Westminster Abbey, at a cost of two shillings a head.  Today’s burdensome fee of fifteen pounds falls as heavily and with as little reason.  Lamb argues, “Did you ever see or hear, of a mob in the Abbey, while it was free to all?  Do the rabble come there….It is all you can do to drive them into your churches; they do not voluntarily offer themselves.  They have, alas! no passion for antiquities, for tomb of king or prelate, sage or poet.  If they had, they would no longer be rabble.

Lamb is a very clever and witty writer, as demonstrated by the above logic turning rabble into worthy abbey-visitors, and in such inventive and pleasurable essays as the must-read “Rejoicings Upon the New Year’s Coming of Age” in which all the days of the year gather at an end of year party.  The jesting April Fool places Ash Wednesday next to Christmas Day who proceeds to make that sour puss Lent drink from “the wassail-bowl, till he roared, and hiccup’d“, and began to have a really good time; the poor 29th day of February has a seat off to the side and not enough to eat, and Valentine’s Day plays court to pretty May “slipping amorous billets-doux under the table, till the Dog-days (who are naturally of a warm constitution) began to be jealous, and to bark and rage accordingly.”

Another must-read essay that is both relevant, hysterically funny, and acute in its observations is “Popular Fallacies” wherein Lamb attempts to lay to rest such well-known quips of false wisdom as “Ill-Gotten Gains Never Prosper“, “Handsome is as Handsome Does” (“Those who use this phrase have never seen Mrs. Conrady“), and “Love me, love my dog” ( still so relevant, as a recent house guest proved to me).

I particularly liked his demolition of the saying “Enough is Good as a Feast“.  He argues that no one “really believes this saying. The inventor did not believe it himself….It is a vile cold-scrag-of-mutton sophism; a lie palmed upon the palate, which knows better things.”  He rightly lumps this saying in with the “class of proverbs which have a tendency to make us undervalue money” and seek to make us see gold as “mere muck.”  Lamb argues that “legs and shoulders of mutton, exhilarating cordials, books, pictures, the opportunities of seeing foreign countries, independence, heart’s ease, a man’s own time to himself, are not muck.

Lamb himself was a man not born to money; he worked for years as a clerk, took on the care of his ill sister, and in his spare time, wrote and read and enjoyed life.  He understood money and what its true worth was, as he understood so many things in life.  He was able to articulate in his essays all that he observed and thought about, to lay aside the mundane and accepted ideals and to instead develop and present original, exciting, and enlivening ways of thinking about the ordinary happenings and the exceptional, the minor occurrences and the major ones.  Lamb was thorough in his examination of life, and in his enjoyment, and he was sought to share that understanding and enjoyment to others through his wide-ranging, free-wheeling, and yet wholly disciplined —  and completely gratifying — Essays of Elia.

Charles LambEssays of EliaLast Essays of Elianineteenth centuryWilliam Hazlitt

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