Blend of Humour and Pathos in Lamb’s Essays

Humour may be described as an extreme sensitiveness to the true proportion of things and pathos that appeals to our feelings of compassion and evokes sympathy. Charles Lamb is a great artist in showing humour and pathos in a single row. He had as keen a perception of the funny side of life as he had of the tragic. And we find a curious mingling of these two (humour and pathos) ingredients in his works. Laughter is followed by tears of sympathy in many of his essays. In some essays, we have Pathos and Humour alternating each other. In others, we have the two elements coexisting in such a manner that we see pathos and humour as two aspects of the same passion.

In the essay "Christ's Hospital Five and Thirty Years Ago" we find the touch of humour and pathos at the same time. We feel sympathetic towards the boy who got inadequate and ill-cooked food in Christ's hospital. Although Lamb describes it humorously, our heart shakes when Lamb says, "There was love for the bringer; shame for the thing brought, and the manner of its bringing…”. We feel sorry for the psychology of the child who speaks of the home seekness. Here Lamb says in the guise of Coleridge, "I was a poor friendless boy." Again he says, " O the cruelty of separating a poor lad from his early homestead !” However, humour is not far off - the account of Hodges' pet ass, which he kept in the dormitory, is funny. It is hilarious to read about how the ass betrayed itself and its patron by braying loudly.

There was also fun and games which relieved the darkness and gloom because of the comic characterization of these two masters. The Upper Master and the Lower Master presented a remarkable contrast. Field, The Lower Master, was a mild and lenient man who did not enforce discipline. Hue Upper Master Boyer, was very strict and heavy handed with his beatings and students feared him. He had two wigs which gave a clue to the mood he was in for the day. One wig denoted that he was in a good mood and would not beat anyone that day; the other denoted a bad mood and that day the boys would be in for a terrible time.

Lamb wrote in different moods in different essays and these moods were matched with appropriate styles. There is a harmony between matter and manner, mood and expression. The essay “New Year’s Eve” begins in a pensive mood and reflective mood, the style suitably echoing the brooding music of Browne. Because the fall of Adam brought sin and death into the world, Elia in "New Year's Eve" understands his daily existence as defined by those "untoward accidents"--the unlucky, intractable, and unpropitious--that combine together for ill: "Whatsoever thwarts, or puts me out of my way, brings death into my mind. All partial evils, like humours, run into that capital plague-sore."  In essence, Lamb is observing, as Job did, that life is fleeting and full of suffering. However, the promise of spiritual rewards does not sooth Elia’s dread over his own mortality—he is “in love” with being alive, even with all the hardship and pain that comprises living.  The tone changes to commanding when Lamb expresses his hatred towards death. As the essay ends, the tone has changed to conversational and light as he says “…and a Merry new year…”.

His essay “Imperfect Sympathies” starts in a direct style which changes to conversational as the essay progresses. As Lamb delves within the mindscape of Caledonians, the tone changes to satiric. He uses iteration to describe the anti-Caledonian’s minds and thoughts. A number of phrases are given in strings, all of which convey the same meaning-“the owners of the sort of faculties I allude to…. Is the utmost they pretend to…”. While speaking of Quakers, his tone assumes a serious tone.

“Christ’s Hospital” is dominated by light and conversational style as he describes his childhood experiences. However, at the end, as his nostalgia for his friends reaches its zenith, the writing at once is manifested by pathos. There is a charm and beauty in Lamb’s essays which makes the essays so fascinating. With his easy informality, he takes his reader’s into confidence and charmingly shares his foibles and experiences with them. In Charles Lamb's essays humour and pathos are inseparable and for these things his essays become rich and stylistic.

Last modified: Tuesday, 15 August 2017, 2:38 AM