Charles Lamb, writing as "Elia" in the 1820's, tells in his essay New Year's Eve of how everyone has two birthdays: an individual one, and a communal one in which we all celebrate the birth of a New Year. The latter returns him to times gone by, "... foregone visions ... past disappointments ... old adversaries ... untoward accidents ...", as well as tragic lost loves. And January 1 reminds Lamb most particularly of his own past self, "that 'other me,' there, in the background" who suffered small-pox at five. He thinks of the child he once was: "... how honest, how courageous ... how religious, how imaginative, how hopeful!"

Then Charles Lamb muses upon Death, and along the way sings a hymn of praise for Life:

... But now, shall I confess a truth? I feel these audits but too powerfully. I begin to count the probabilities of my duration, and to grudge at the expenditure of moments and shortest periods, like misers' farthings. In proportion as the years both lessen and shorten, I set more count upon their periods, and would fain lay my ineffectual finger upon the spoke of the great wheel. I am not content to pass away 'like a weavers's shuttle.' Those metaphors solace me not, nor sweeten the unpalatable draught of mortality. I care not to be carried with the tide, that smoothly bears human life to eternity; and reluct at the inevitable course of destiny. I am in love with this green earth; the face of town and country; the unspeakable rural solitudes, and the sweet security of streets. I would set up my tabernacle here. I am content to stand still at the age to which I am arrived at; I, and my friends: to be no younger, no richer, no handsomer. I do not want to be weaned by age; or drop, like mellow fruit, as they say, into the grave. Any alteration, on this earth of mine, in diet or in lodging, puzzles or decomposes me. My household gods plant a terrible fixed foot, and are not rooted up without blood. They do not willingly seek Lavinian shores. A new state of being staggers me.

Sun, and sky, and breeze, and solitary walks, and summer holidays, and the greenness of fields, and the delicious juices of meats, and fishes, and society, and the cheerful glass, and candle-light, and fireside conversations, and innocent vanities, and jests, and irony itself --- do these things go out with life?

Can a ghost laugh, or shake his gaunt sides, when you are pleasant with him?

And you, my midnight darlings, my Folios; must I part with the intense delight of having you (huge armfuls) in my embraces? Must knowledge come to me, if it come at all, by some awkward experiment of intuition, and no longer by this familiar process of reading?

Shall I enjoy friendships there, wanting the smiling infications which point me to them here --- the recognizable face --- the 'sweet assurance of a look'?

Lamb then turns his back on death, and closes his essay with a poem, then a final toast:

... And now another cup of the generous! and a merry New Year, and many of them to you all, my masters!

(see also CharlesLambiana, 24 Oct 2000)

TopicLiterature - 2002-02-07

(correlates: LoveAndMarriage, HelloSailor, Infelicitous Prose, ...)