All of Lamb's major trademarks as an essayist are to be found in this work: overall, a relaxed and colloquial voice and a genteel sensibility incorporating elements of humour, whimsy, strong personal recollection and touches of pathos. All these mark him out as one of the great exponents of the familiar essay in English in the nineteenth century, along with Thomas de Quincey and William Hazlitt. This was a type of writing characterized by a strong personal element and an informal tone, on almost any subject of interest to the writer. Although he also tried his hand at many other literary forms, it is fair to say that Lamb really found his distinctive and most enduring voice in his essays, which he first contributed to the London Magazine under the pseudonym of 'Elia'.
As already stated, 'Dream Children: A Reverie' exhibits all Lamb's strengths as an essayist. It is short but effective in encompassing a range of moods. It starts out on a convivial and realistic note with the picture of a cosy domestic setting in which the writer regales his two children with stories of the family past; yet by the end this picture has dissolved into nothingness, is revealed to be a mere dream, or ‘reverie’ on part of the writer. It is, in fact, the picture of the family that Lamb longed for but never actually had, as he never married, instead devoting a lifetime to caring for his sister Mary (who appears as Bridget in his essays) who was afflicted with periodical insanity.
The real achievement of this piece lies in the compact evocation both of the solid realism of family life and nostalgia for a family past, incorporating the memory of a lost love, Alice, and also of Lamb’s older brother, before merging into the air of dream. Lamb manages the transition from one mood to another seamlessly, conveying an ultimate sense of loss without descending to sentimentalilty. More, he also skilfully conjures a genuine sense of eeriness when the two children reveal themselves to be mere dream, the products of wishful thinking, before the dreamer wakes up:
...while I stood gazing, both the children gradually grew fainter to my view, receding, and still receding till nothing at last but two mournful features were seen in the uttermost distance, which, without speech, strangely impressed upon me the effects of speech: “We are not of Alice, nor of thee, nor are we children at all …. We are nothing; less than nothing, and dreams. We are only what might have been ….
The realistic and intimate picture thus dissolves, recedes, giving way to ghosts. The style is entirely suited to the subject-matter at this point, slow-paced, languorous, and markedly different from the earlier parts of the essay. This dissolution of realism into dream is a stylistic trick more effective than any self- indulgent musings on the past and its lost possibilities could have been.
This essay exhibits two major concerns of the Romantic age: a fascination with the past and also with the supernatural. Lamb was certainly keenly interested in the past, but although not generally given to dreams or visions – unlike, for instance, his fellow-essayist de Quincey – he mingles realism, memory and dream in a memorable and concise manner in this essay.
The genteel style in writing
It is an ordinary criticism, that my Lord Shaftesbury, and Sir William Temple, are models of the genteel style in writing. We should prefer saying—of the lordly, and the gentlemanly. Nothing can be more unlike, than the inflated finical rhapsodies of Shaftesbury and the plain natural chit-chat of Temple. The man of rank is discernible in both writers; but in the one it is only insinuated gracefully, in the other it stands out offensively. The peer seems to have written with his coronet on, and his Earl’s mantle before him; the commoner in his elbow-chair and undress.—What can be more pleasant than the way in which the retired statesman peeps out in his essays, penned by the latter in his delightful retreat at Shene? They scent of Nimeguen and the Hague. Scarce an authority is quoted under an ambassador. Don Francisco de Melo, a “Portugal Envoy in England,” tells him it was frequent in his country for men, spent with age and other decays, so as they could not hope for above a year or two of life, to ship themselves away in a Brazil fleet, and after their arrival there to go on a great length, sometimes of twenty or thirty years, or more, by the force of that vigour they recovered with that remove. “Whether such an effect ( Temple beautifully adds) might grow from the air, or the fruits of that climate, or by approaching nearer the sun, which is the fountain of light and heat, when their natural heat was so far decayed: or whether the piecing out of an old man’s life were worth the pains; I cannot tell: perhaps the play is not worth the candle.” Monsieur Pompone, “French Ambassador in his (Sir William’s) time at the Hague,” certifies him, that in his life he had never heard of any man in France that arrived at a hundred years of age; a limitation of life which the old gentleman imputes to the excellence of their climate, giving them such a liveliness of temper and humour, as disposes them to more pleasures of all kinds than in other countries; and moralises upon the matter very sensibly. The “late Robert Earl of Leicester” furnishes him with a story of a Countess of Desmond, married out of England in Edward the Fourth’s time, and who lived far in King James’s reign. The “same noble person” gives him an account, how such a year, in the same reign, there went about the country a set of morrice-dancers, composed of ten men who danced, a Maid Marian, and a tabor and pipe; and how these twelve, one with another, made up twelve hundred years. “It was not so much (says Temple) that so many in one small county (Hertfordshire) should live to that age, as that they should be in vigour and in humour to travel and to dance.” Monsieur Zulichem, one of his “colleagues at the Hague,” informs him of a cure for the gout; which is confirmed by another “Envoy,” Monsieur Serinchamps, in that town, who had tried it.—Old Prince Maurice of Nassau recommends to him the use of hammocks in that complaint; having been allured to sleep, while suffering under it himself, by the “constant motion or swinging of those airy beds.” Count Egmont, and the Rhinegrave who “was killed last summer before Maestricht,” impart to him their experiences.
But the rank of the writer is never more innocently disclosed, than where he takes for granted the compliments paid by foreigners to his fruit-trees. For the taste and perfection of what we esteem the best, he can truly say, that the French, who have eaten his peaches and grapes at Shene in no very ill year, have generally concluded that the last are as good as any they have eaten in France on this side Fontainebleau; and the first as good as any they have eat in Gascony. Italians have agreed his white figs to be as good as any of that sort in Italy, which is the earlier kind of white fig there; for in the later kind and the blue, we cannot come near the warm climates, no more than in the Frontignac or Muscat grape. His orange-trees, too, are as large as any he saw when he was young in France, except those of Fontainebleau; or what he has seen since in the Low Countries, except some very old ones of the Prince of Orange’s. Of grapes he had the honour of bringing over four sorts into England, which he enumerates, and supposes that they are all by this time pretty common among some gardeners in his neighbourhood, as well as several persons of quality; for he ever thought all things of this kind “the commoner they are made the better.” The garden pedantry with which he asserts that ‘tis to little purpose to plant any of the best fruits, as peaches or grapes, hardly, he doubts, beyond Northamptonshire at the furthest northwards; and praises the “Bishop of Munster at Cosevelt,” for attempting nothing beyond cherries in that cold climate; is equally pleasant and in character. “I may perhaps” (he thus ends his sweet Garden Essay with a passage worthy of Cowley) “be allowed to know something of this trade, since I have so long allowed myself to be good for nothing else, which few men will do, or enjoy their gardens, without often looking abroad to see how other matters play, what motions in the state, and what invitations they may hope for into other scenes. For my own part, as the country life, and this part of it more particularly, were the inclination of my youth itself, so they are the pleasure of my age; and I can truly say that, among many great employments that have fallen to my share, I have never asked or sought for any of them, but have often endeavoured to escape from them, into the ease and freedom of a private scene, where a man may go his own way and his own pace, in the common paths and circles of life. The measure of choosing well is whether a man likes what he has chosen, which, I thank God, has befallen me; and though among the follies of my life, building and planting have not been the least, and have cost me more than I have the confidence to own; yet they have been fully recompensed by the sweetness and satisfaction of this retreat, where, since my resolution taken of never entering again into any public employments, I have passed five years without ever once going to town, though I am almost in sight of it, and have a house there always ready to receive me. Nor has this been any sort of affectation, as some have thought it, but a mere want of desire or humour to make so small a remove; for when I am in this corner, I can truly say with Horace, Me quoties reficit, etc.”
Me, when the cold Digentian stream revives, What does my friend believe I think or ask? Let me yet less possess, so I may live, Whate’er of life remains, unto myself. May I have books enough; and one year’s store, Not to depend upon each doubtful hour: This is enough of mighty Jove to pray, Who, as he pleases, gives and takes away.
The writings of Temple are, in general, after this easy copy. On one occasion, indeed, his wit, which was mostly subordinate to nature and tenderness, has seduced him into a string of felicitous antitheses; which, it is obvious to remark, have been a model to Addison and succeeding essayists. “Who would not be covetous, and with reason,” he says, “if health could be purchased with gold? who not ambitious, if it were at the command of power, or restored by honour? but, alas! a white staff will not help gouty feet to walk better than a common cane; nor a blue riband bind up a wound so well as a fillet. The glitter of gold, or of diamonds, will but hurt sore eyes instead of curing them; and an aching head will be no more eased by wearing a crown than a common nightcap.” In a far better style, and more accordant with his own humour of plainness, are the concluding sentences of his “Discourse upon Poetry.”
Temple took a part in the controversy about the ancient and the modern learning; and, with that partiality so natural and so graceful in an old man, whose state engagements had left him little leisure to look into modern productions, while his retirement gave him occasion to look back upon the classic studies of his youth—decided in favour of the latter. “Certain it is,” he says, “that, whether the fierceness of the Gothic humours, or noise of their perpetual wars, frighted it away, or that the unequal mixture of the modern languages would not bear it—the great heights and excellency both of poetry and music fell with the Roman learning and empire, and have never since recovered the admiration and applauses that before attended them. Yet, such as they are amongst us, they must be confessed to be the softest and the sweetest, the most general and most innocent amusements of common time and life. They still find room in the courts of princes, and the cottages of shepherds. They serve to revive and animate the dead calm of poor and idle lives, and to allay or divert the violent passions and perturbations of the greatest and the busiest men. And both these effects are of equal use to human life; for the mind of man is like the sea, which is neither agreeable to the beholder nor the voyager, in a calm or in a storm, but is so to both when a little agitated by gentle gales; and so the mind, when moved by soft and easy passions or affections. I know very well that many who pretend to be wise by the forms of being grave, are apt to despise both poetry and music, as toys and trifles too light for the use or entertainment of serious men. But whoever find themselves wholly insensible to their charms, would, I think, do well to keep their own counsel, for fear of reproaching their own temper, and bringing the goodness of their natures, if not of their understandings, into question. While this world lasts, I doubt not but the pleasure and request of these two entertainments will do so too; and happy those that content themselves with these, or any other so easy and so innocent, and do not trouble the world or other men, because they cannot be quiet themselves, though nobody hurts them.” “When all is done (he concludes), human life is at the greatest and the best but like a froward child, that must be played with, and humoured a little, to keep it quiet, till it falls asleep, and then the care is over.”
Lamb, Charles. “The genteel style in writing.” 1833. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 25 Feb 2007. 10 Mar 2018 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/lamb/genteel_style_in_writing/>.