Charles Lamb: Essays

Charles Lamb: Essays Quotes and Analysis

"A purchase is but a purchase, now that you have money enough and to spare. Formerly it used to be a triumph."

Cousin Bridget, "Old China"

Here, Cousin Bridget expresses something key that we see Lamb meditate on throughout his essays: the idea that the finer things in life are best enjoyed by the less privileged, who have less immediate access to them. Cousin Bridget's dialogue with Elia on their happiness in their poorer days grounds an essay that opens on a self-consciously frivolous note in a serious subject that would likely be familiar to readers in the modernizing, industrializing England of the time.

"We are nothing; less than nothing, and dreams. We are only what might have been, and must wait upon the tedious shores of Lethe millions of ages before we have existence, and a name."

Alice, "Dream-Children; A Reverie"

The big reveal in this essay comes when the disembodied voice of Alice utters these lines, as Elia realizes that he does not have children but is simply dreaming of his imaginary children. In Greek mythology, Lethe is a river in the underworld associated with oblivion, and by drawing this analogy, Lamb places these unreal children in a kind of purgatory of his imagination.

"Thus this custom of firing houses continued, till in process of time, says my manuscript, a sage arose, like our Locke, who made a discovery, that the flesh of swine, or indeed of any other animal, might be cooked (burnt, as they called it) without the necessity of consuming a whole house to dress it."

Elia, "A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig"

In one of his most comic moments, Elia offers an elaborate fiction about the origin of eating roast pig. The conclusion to that story, quoted here, is wrung for maximum absurdity, when he suggests that it took a thinker as important as John Locke to realize that pigs could be cooked without having to burn down entire houses. Here, we see Lamb's senses of whimsy and mischief commingle in a delightful way.

"I would not be domesticated all my days with a person of very superior capacity to my own—not, if I know myself at all, from any considerations of jealousy or self-comparison, for the occasional communion with such minds has constituted the fortune and felicity of my life—but the habit of too constant intercourse with spirits above you, instead of raising you, keeps you down. Too frequent doses of original thinking from others, restrain what lesser portion of that faculty you may possess of your own. You get entangled in another man's mind, even as you lose yourself in another man's grounds."

Elia, "The Old and the New Schoolmaster"

This excerpt provides an intriguing glance into Lamb's psychology. In observing how students react to a new teacher, Lamb realizes that he didn't like school as a boy because of the snobbish intelligence of his teacher. Even as an adult, he finds that spending too much time with someone who is much smarter than him seems to hamper his own ideas. Surrounding oneself with people who are so far ahead can prevent self-growth, substituting another's thinking for one's own.

"But it is time to close—night’s wheels are rattling fast over me—it is proper to have done with this solemn mockery."

Elia, "The South-Sea House"

The twist at the end of this essay comes with theses lines, as Elia reveals that he has fabricated all of the characters he has just recounted. Here, Lamb is making a sly joke out of the fact that the South-Sea House was the home of an infamous scam referred to as the "South Sea bubble." While it's not a lie that Lamb indeed worked at the South-Sea House, he chooses to play on the bank's infamous history to prank readers who are likely drawn to the essay for the title's allusion to that scam.

"Are you quite sure that it is not the man himself, whom you cannot, or will not see, under some adventitious trappings, which, nevertheless, sit not at all inconsistently upon him? What if it is the nature of some men to be highly artificial?"

Elia, "Ellistoniana"

When Elia is describing how Elliston's persona was the same on stage and off, it provokes this musing on the authenticity of people's characters. He undermines the idea that Elliston was always acting—since he truly was the same larger-than-life figure both on and off the stage—by pointing out that some people's totally conventional personalities are totally artificial.

"It would have posed old Erra Pater to have found out any given Day in the year, to erect a scheme upon—good Days, bad Days, were so shuffled together, to the confounding of all sober horoscopy."

Elia, "Rejoicings Upon the New Year’s Coming of Age"

Erra Pater is the name of a late medieval scholar who wrote an astrological almanac. Elia suggests that in this festival where all the days of the year have come together to celebrate the New Year, April Fool's Day has undone all of the work that Erra Pater did hundreds of years before by shuffling the days around and creating chaos as master of ceremonies.

"I do not care for a First Folio of Shakspeare. I rather prefer the common editions of Rowe and Tonson, without notes, and with plates, which, being so execrably bad, serve as maps, or modest remembrancers, to the text; and without pretending to any supposable emulation with it, are so much better than the Shakspeare gallery engravings, which did."

Elia, "Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading"

Here, Elia articulates his feeling that a worn-out, mass printed version of a Shakespeare play is preferable to him over a precious first edition, since the worn-out version shows that the book is well read, and the mass-printing shows how popular the author's writing is. In this essay, Elia suggests that books with easily accessible first editions or which are still in good shape are likely signs that the writer wasn't terribly important or the book not very worthwhile.

"I have observed this awkwardness felt, scarce consciously perhaps, by the good man who says the grace. I have seen it in clergymen and others—a sort of shame— a sense of the copresence of circumstances which unhallow the blessing. After a devotional tone put on for a few seconds, how rapidly the speaker will fall into his common voice, helping himself or his neighbour, as if to get rid of some uneasy sensation of hypocrisy."

Elia, "Grace Before Meat"

In this essay, Elia suggests that people who enjoy abundance and wealth value their everyday meals less, and therefore the grace they say is inauthentic. He knows exactly how to make this point impactful, talking about a clergyman who even himself said grace awkwardly and insincerely. This account fits with Elia's broader belief that someone's station in life doesn't imbue them with some inherent quality, meaning that not even a clergyman will necessarily be sincerely grateful to God for the meal in front of him.

"Doubtless this young nobleman (for such my mind misgives me that he must be) was allured by some memory, not amounting to full consciousness, of his condition in infancy, when he was used to be lapt by his mother, or his nurse, in just such sheets as he there found, into which he was now but creeping back as into his proper incunabula, and resting-place."

Elia, "The Praise of Chimney-Sweepers"

This quote brings together two of Elia's favorite subjects. It mentions memory as some portal to an alternate version of a person's life, and posits that the inherent nature of the chimney sweep is not defined by his social status, but by a nobility deep within himself. Elia rarely ties together his pet obsessions of memory and the true nature of people, but does so quite elegantly in this little anecdote of a chimney sweep dropping into an opulent bedroom and falling asleep in a nobleman's bed.