Charles Lamb Essay Dream Children Charles

Children love to listen to stories about their elders, when they were children; to stretch their imagination to the conception of a traditionary great-uncle, or grandame, whom they never saw. It was in this spirit that my little ones crept about me the other evening to hear about their great-grandmother Field, who lived in a great house in Norfolk (a hundred times bigger than that in which they and papa lived) which had been the scene — so at least it was generally believed in that part of the country — of the tragic incidents which they had lately become familiar with from the ballad of the Children in the Wood. Certain it is that the whole story of the children and their cruel uncle was to be seen fairly carved out in wood upon the chimney-piece of the great hall, the whole story down to the Robin Redbreasts, till a foolish rich person pulled it down to set up a marble one of modern invention in its stead, with no story upon it. Here Alice put out one of her dear mother’s looks, too tender to be called upbraiding. Then I went on to say, how religious and how good their great-grandmother Field was, how beloved and respected by every body, though she was not indeed the mistress of this great house, but had only the charge of it (and yet in some respects she might be said to be the mistress of it too) committed to her by the owner, who preferred living in a newer and more fashionable mansion which he had purchased somewhere in the adjoining county; but still she lived in it in a manner as if it had been her own, and kept up the dignity of the great house in a sort while she lived, which afterwards came to decay, and was nearly pulled down, and all its old ornaments stripped and carried away to the owner’s other house, where they were set up, and looked as awkward as if some one were to carry away the old tombs they had seen lately at the Abbey, and stick them up in Lady C.‘s tawdry gilt drawing-room. Here John smiled, as much as to say, “that would be foolish indeed.” And then I told how, when she came to die, her funeral was attended by a concourse of all the poor, and some of the gentry too, of the neighbourhood for many miles round, to show their respect for her memory, because she had been such a good and religious woman; so good indeed that she knew all the Psaltery by heart, ay, and a great part of the Testament besides. Here little Alice spread her hands. Then I told what a tall, upright, graceful person their great-grandmother Field once was; and how in her youth she was esteemed the best dancer — here Alice’s little right foot played an involuntary movement, till, upon my looking grave, it desisted — the best dancer, I was saying, in the county, till a cruel disease, called a cancer, came, and bowed her down with pain; but it could never bend her good spirits, or make them stoop, but they were still upright, because she was so good and religious. Then I told how she was used to sleep by herself in a lone chamber of the great lone house; and how she believed that an apparition of two infants was to be seen at midnight gliding up and down the great staircase near where she slept, but she said, “those innocents would do her no harm;” and how frightened I used to be, though in those days I had my maid to sleep with me, because I was never half so good or religious as she — and yet I never saw the infants. Here John expanded all his eye-brows and tried to look courageous. Then I told how good she was to all her grand-children, having us to the great-house in the holydays, where I in particular used to spend many hours by myself, in gazing upon the old busts of the Twelve Cæsars, that had been Emperors of Rome, till the old marble heads would seem to live again, or I to be turned into marble with them; how I never could be tired with roaming about that huge mansion, with its vast empty rooms, with their worn-out hangings, fluttering tapestry, and carved oaken pannels, with the gilding almost rubbed out — sometimes in the spacious old-fashioned gardens, which I had almost to myself, unless when now and then a solitary gardening man would cross me — and how the nectarines and peaches hung upon the walls, without my ever offering to pluck them, because they were forbidden fruit, unless now and then — and because I had more pleasure in strolling about among the old melancholy-looking yew trees, or the firs, and picking up the red berries, and the fir apples, which were good for nothing but to look at — or in lying about upon the fresh grass, with all the fine garden smells around me — or basking in the orangery, till I could almost fancy myself ripening too along with the oranges and the limes in that grateful warmth — or in watching the dace that darted to and fro in the fish-pond, at the bottom of the garden, with here and there a great sulky pike hanging midway down the water in silent state, as if it mocked at their impertinent friskings — I had more pleasure in these busy-idle diversions than in all the sweet flavours of peaches, nectarines, oranges, and such like common baits of children. Here John slyly deposited back upon the plate a bunch of grapes, which, not unobserved by Alice, he had meditated dividing with her, and both seemed willing to relinquish them for the present as irrelevant. Then in somewhat a more heightened tone, I told how, though their great-grandmother Field loved all her grand-children, yet in an especial manner she might be said to love their uncle, John L— — because he was so handsome and spirited a youth, and a king to the rest of us; and, instead of moping about in solitary corners, like some of us, he would mount the most mettlesome horse he could get, when but an imp no bigger than themselves, and make it carry him half over the county in a morning, and join the hunters when there were any out — and yet he loved the old great house and gardens too, but had too much spirit to be always pent up within their boundaries — and how their uncle grew up to man’s estate as brave as he was handsome, to the admiration of every body, but of their great-grandmother Field most especially; and how he used to carry me upon his back when I was a lame-footed boy — for he was a good bit older than me — many a mile when I could not walk for pain; — and how in after life he became lame-footed too, and I did not always (I fear) make allowances enough for him when he was impatient, and in pain, nor remember sufficiently how considerate he had been to me when I was lame-footed; and how when he died, though he had not been dead an hour, it seemed as if he had died a great while ago, such a distance there is betwixt life and death; and how I bore his death as I thought pretty well at first, but afterwards it haunted and haunted me; and though I did not cry or take it to heart as some do, and as I think he would have done if I had died, yet I missed him all day long, and knew not till then how much I had loved him. I missed his kindness, and I missed his crossness, and wished him to be alive again, to be quarrelling with him (for we quarreled sometimes), rather than not have him again, and was as uneasy without him, as he their poor uncle must have been when the doctor took off his limb. Here the children fell a crying, and asked if their little mourning which they had on was not for uncle John, and they looked up, and prayed me not to go on about their uncle, but to tell them some stories about their pretty dead mother. Then I told how for seven long years, in hope sometimes, sometimes in despair, yet persisting ever, I courted the fair Alice W— n; and, as much as children could understand, I explained to them what coyness, and difficulty, and denial meant in maidens — when suddenly, turning to Alice, the soul of the first Alice looked out at her eyes with such a reality of representment, that I became in doubt which of them stood there before me, or whose that bright hair was; and 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. The children of Alice called Bartrum father. 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”— and immediately awaking, I found myself quietly seated in my bachelor arm-chair, where I had fallen asleep, with the faithful Bridget unchanged by my side — but John L. (or James Elia) was gone for ever.

Dream Children, Op 43 is a musical work for small orchestra by Sir Edward Elgar. There are two movements:

1. Andante in G minor
2. Allegretto piacevole in G major


These two pieces were written in 1902, when Elgar was approaching the peak of his fame and popularity. Unusually for Elgar they were not written to any commission. Michael Kennedy suggests that they may have been retrieved from the unused material for a symphony celebrating General Gordon which Elgar had been working on since 1898.[1] They are not complete symphonic movements (the first movement takes a little over three minutes to perform and the second a little over four minutes) but it was Elgar's practice to work in small sections and then put them together into a whole.

The orchestral score and parts were originally published by Joseph Williams Ltd. (London) in 1902, then in 1911 by Schott & Co. with the title "Enfants d'un Rêve" and the translation below this "(Dream-Children)". As with his earlier piece Salut d'Amour, Elgar agreed with the same publisher that the French title would sell better.

The first performance was at the Queen's Hall on 4 September 1902, conducted by Arthur W Payne.[2]

Charles Lamb's essay[edit]

The pieces are inspired by ‘Dream-Children ; A Reverie’, one of the Essays of Elia by Charles Lamb published in 1822,[3] and Elgar inscribed on the score the following excerpt from the essay. The essay is in one paragraph of over four pages: the writer imagines telling his 'little ones',[4] called Alice and John, some tales of their great-grandmother Field[5] and her house, and of his own courtship, in hope and eventual despair, for another Alice[6] before, at the end of the essay, mysteriously

* * * And while I stood gazing, both the children gradually grew fainter
to my view, receding, and still receding till nothing at last but two mourn-
ful 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,[7] nor are we children at all. * * * * [8] We are nothing; less than
nothing, and dreams. We are only what might have been."[9] * * *

The most striking thing shown in the essay is that Lamb, though a lifelong bachelor, longed for family life which he was incapable of attaining. In a strange fit of passion he imagined all this in a dream-like state.

The name 'Alice' was important in Elgar's life: not only was his great friend Alice Stuart-Wortley his muse, but his wife was also Alice. ‘What might have been’ reflects a constant nostalgia throughout Elgar’s music, and is the predominating mood of both the Dream Children pieces, particularly the wistful No 1. No 2 is more smiling in tone, but reverts to nostalgia at the end, where it quotes the theme which began No. 1.


2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in B♭ and A, 2 bassoons, 4 horns in F, 3 timpani, harp and strings.


  • Kennedy, Michael (1987). Portrait of Elgar (Third ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-816365-7. 
  • Lamb, Charles, Prose and Poetry, with an Introduction by George Gordon and Notes by A. M. D. Hughes, 1921, Clarendon Press (Oxford)
  • Orchestral score: Enfants d'un Rêve (Dream-Children), Schott & Co. (Mainz) 1911


Edward Elgar

Incidental music and ballet
Vocal/Choral Orchestral
  • "The Language of Flowers" (1872)
  • "The Self Banished" (1875)
  • "A War Song" (1884)
  • Seven Lieder of Edward Elgar – "Like to the Damask Rose" (1892), "Queen Mary's Song" (1889), "A Song of Autumn" (1892), "The Poet's Life" (1892), "Through the Long Days" (1885), "Rondel" (1894), "The Shepherd's Song" (1892),
  • "Is she not passing fair?" (1886)
  • "As I laye a-thynkynge" (1888)
  • "The Wind at Dawn" (1888)
  • "The Shepherd's Song" (1892)
  • "After" (1900)
  • "A Song of Flight" (1900)
  • Sea Pictures – "Sea Slumber Song", "In Haven", "Sabbath Morning at Sea", "Where Corals Lie" and "The Swimmer" (1897–99)
  • "Dry those fair, those crystal eyes" (1899)
  • "Always and Everywhere" (1901)
  • "Come, Gentle Night!" (1901)
  • "In the Dawn" (1901)
  • "Speak, Music!" (1901)
  • "There are seven that pull the thread" (1901)
  • "In Moonlight" ((1904)
  • "Follow the Colours" (1907)
  • "Pleading" (1908)
  • "A Child Asleep" (1909)
  • "Oh, soft was the song" (1910)
  • "Was it some Golden Star?" (1910)
  • "Twilight" (1910)
  • "The Chariots of the Lord" (1914)
  • "Fight for Right" (1916)
  • "Inside the Bar" (1917)
  • "The Blue Mountains" (1924)
  • "The Immortal Legions" (1924)
  • Pageant of Empire (1924)
  • "XTC" (1930)
Named for Elgar
Cultural depictions
Related articles
  1. ^Kennedy, p. 213
  2. ^Kennedy, p. 346
  3. ^First published in The London Magazine, January 1822
  4. ^Lamb had no children, though he and his sister Mary adopted an orphan called Emma Isola
  5. ^Lamb's maternal grandmother
  6. ^The other Alice was the personification of Ann Simmons whom Lamb said he unsuccessfully courted for seven years (exaggerated) before she married a pawnbroker named Bartrum. The dream-children are the imaginary children of Lamb and Ann Simmons - that 'might have been'
  7. ^In other words "We are neither Alice's children nor yours"
  8. ^Here the * * * * conceals Lamb's sentence "The children of Alice called Bartrum father", revealing Lamb's anguished fantasy that the children might have been his own, not Bartrum's
  9. ^The italics are correctly quoted by Elgar from Lamb's essay


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