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.