An accountant in India House in London for more than 30 years and caregiver for his sister Mary (who, in a fit of mania, had stabbed their mother to death), Charles Lamb was one of the great masters of the English essay.
The most intimate of the early-19th-century essayists, Lamb relied on stylistic artifice ("whim-whams," as he referred to his antique diction and far-fetched comparisons) and a contrived persona known as "Elia." As George L. Barnett has observed, "Lamb's egoism suggests more than Lamb's person: it awakens in the reader reflections of kindred feelings and affections" (Charles Lamb: The Evolution of Elia, 1964).
In the essay "New Year's Eve," which first appeared in the January 1821 issue of The London Magazine, Lamb reflects wistfully on the passage of time. You may find it interesting to compare Lamb's essay with two others in our collection:
New Year's Eve
by Charles Lamb
1 Every man hath two birth-days: two days, at least, in every year, which set him upon revolving the lapse of time, as it affects his mortal duration. The one is that which in an especial manner he termeth his. In the gradual desuetude of old observances, this custom of solemnizing our proper birth-day hath nearly passed away, or is left to children, who reflect nothing at all about the matter, nor understand any thing in it beyond cake and orange. But the birth of a New Year is of an interest too wide to be pretermitted by king or cobbler. No one ever regarded the First of January with indifference. It is that from which all date their time, and count upon what is left. It is the nativity of our common Adam.
2 Of all sounds of all bells--(bells, the music nighest bordering upon heaven)--most solemn and touching is the peal which rings out the
Old Year. I never hear it without a gathering-up of my mind to a
concentration of all the images that have been diffused over the past
twelvemonth; all I have done or suffered, performed or neglected--in
that regretted time. I begin to know its worth, as when a person
dies. It takes a personal colour; nor was it a poetical flight in a
contemporary, when he exclaimed
I saw the skirts of the departing Year.It is no more than what in sober sadness every one of us seems to be conscious of, in that awful leave-taking. I am sure I felt it, and all felt it with me, last night; though some of my companions affected rather to manifest an exhilaration at the birth of the coming year, than any very tender regrets for the decease of its predecessor. But I am none of those who--
Welcome the coming, speed the parting guest.I am naturally, beforehand, shy of novelties; new books, new faces, new years, from some mental twist which makes it difficult in me to face the prospective. I have almost ceased to hope; and am sanguine only in the prospects of other (former) years. I plunge into foregone visions and conclusions. I encounter pell-mell with past disappointments. I am armour-proof against old discouragements. I forgive, or overcome in fancy, old adversaries. I play over again for love, as the gamesters phrase it, games, for which I once paid so dear. I would scarce now have any of those untoward accidents and events of my life reversed. I would no more alter them than the incidents of some well-contrived novel. Methinks, it is better that I should have pined away seven of my goldenest years, when I was thrall to the fair hair, and fairer eyes, of Alice W----n, than that so passionate a love-adventure should be lost. It was better that our family should have missed that legacy, which old Dorrell cheated us of, than that I should have at this moment two thousand pounds in banco, and be without the idea of that specious old rogue.
3 In a degree beneath manhood, it is my infirmity to look back upon those early days. Do I advance a paradox, when I say, that, skipping over the intervention of forty years, a man may have leave to love himself, without the imputation of self-love?
4 If I know aught of myself, no one whose mind is introspective--and mine is painfully so--can have a less respect for his present identity, than I have for the man Elia. I know him to be light, and vain, and humorsome; a notorious ***; addicted to ****: averse from counsel, neither taking it, nor offering it;--*** besides; a stammering buffoon; what you will; lay it on, and spare not; I subscribe to it all, and much more, than thou canst be willing to lay at his door--but for the child Elia--that "other me," there, in the back-ground--I must take leave to cherish the remembrance of that young master--with as little reference, I protest, to this stupid changeling of five-and-forty, as if it had been a child of some other house, and not of my parents. I can cry over its patient small-pox at five, and rougher medicaments. I can lay its poor fevered head upon the sick pillow at Christ's, and wake with it in surprise at the gentle posture of maternal tenderness hanging over it, that unknown had watched its sleep. I know how it shrank from any the least colour of falsehood. God help thee, Elia, how art thou changed! Thou art sophisticated. I know how honest, how courageous (for a weakling) it was--how religious, how imaginative, how hopeful! From what have I not fallen, if the child I remember was indeed myself, and not some dissembling guardian, presenting a false identity, to give the rule to my unpractised steps, and regulate the tone of my moral being!
5 That I am fond of indulging, beyond a hope of sympathy, in such retrospection, may be the symptom of some sickly idiosyncrasy. Or is it owing to another cause; simply, that being without wife or family, I have not learned to project myself enough out of myself; and having no offspring of my own to dally with, I turn back upon memory and adopt my own early idea, as my heir and favourite? If these speculations seem fantastical to thee, reader (a busy man, perchance), if I tread out of the way of thy sympathy, and am singularly-conceited only, I retire, impenetrable to ridicule, under the phantom cloud of Elia.
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