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Charles Lamb as the Janus of Romanticism in "New Year's Eve".

Lamb's "New Year's Eve" has a three-part structure, each movement marked by an allusion to New Year's bells: Elia's looking back nostalgically to childhood; looking forward with aversion to death; and, finally, reemploying Charles Cotton's mythological personification of the two-faced Janus as an emblem of Romantic synthesis. Unlike Janus, Elia initially has hot been able to look upon the "New-born year" with confidence. His protective retreat into childhood innocence, like his indulgence in "Dream Children" of paternal fantasies from the realm of what-might-have-been, is thwarted by painful present reality. In "Dream Children," the faithful Bridget, whose name is taken from the Celtic goddess of fertility and poetry, becomes Elia's social inspiration within the present. In "New Year's Eve," literary conviviality redeems the present. Initially Elia had condemned his wine-quaffing self; but as he warms with the delight of old poetry and the companionship of friends, he is able to welcome the New Year with new-found self-esteem.


Charles Lamb's "New Year's Eve" (dated "1st Jan. 1821" by "Elia") discloses its subject in the first line--Lamb-Elia's thoughts on "the lapse of time, as it affects his mortal duration." The first of January "is that from which all date their time, and count upon what is left. It is the nativity of our common Adam." (1) A less baroque prose writer might have curtailed this oxymoron by commenting simply that the beginning of the new year symbolizes out common mortality. But Lamb preferred what he called "a self-pleasing quaintness" and facetiously described his essays as "crude ... unlicked, incondite things--villainously pranked in an affected array of antique modes and phrases." (2) Ever since Lamb characterized this quaintness as "natural" to himself, this has been the standard justification of his stylistic mannerisms. According to his most scholarly editor, E.V. Lucas, Lamb
 had an extreme and almost exclusive partiality for earlier prose
 writers, particularly for Fuller, Browne and Burton, as well as for
 the dramatists of Shakespeare's time; and the tare with which he
 studied them is apparent in all he ever wrote. It shines out
 conspicuously in his style, which has an antique air and is
 redolent of the peculiarities of the seventeenth century. Its
 quaintness has subjected the author to the charge of affectation,
 but there is nothing really affected in his writings. His style is
 not so much an imitation as a reflexion of the older writers; for
 in spirit he made himself their contemporary. A confirmed habit of
 studying them in preference to modern literature had made something
 of their style natural to him; and long experience had rendered it
 hot only easy and familiar but habitual. It was not a masquerade
 dress he wore, but the costume which showed the man to most
 advantage. (3)

But by denying that Lamb's prose is an "imitation" or a "masquerade," Lucas betrays uneasiness; his defense sounds plausible but lacks backbone and verges on apology. One may better say that what is inherent in Lamb's style is a constant remodeling of his acquired materials--the quaint vocabulary and its conceits--in radically new romantic ways that play off his present against the past. Thus the seventeenth-century turn of phrase in "our common Adam," with its echo of I Corinthians 15:22, 45-58 and its Miltonic evocation of man's Fall and salvation, prepares the way in Lamb's essay for the Romantic perception of a lost ideal and its recovery through imagination.

To complement this remodeling of an older style, Lamb quotes in its entirety Charles Cotton's poem "The New Year." As a cavalier lyrist, Cotton is presumably more passe than even Elia's departed year 1820. But Lamb introduces this seventeenth-century poet not from a mere antiquarian impulse but because Cotton's rustication among hills and rivers, his disarming lack of affectation, and his ruminative cast of mind fit newer romantic models. Lamb praised Cotton to 1821 readers precisely because, as a sort of precursor of Robert Burns' poetry of rural life or of Coleridge's "conversation" poems, Lamb appreciated his latent currency. As portrayed in Alexander Chambers' "Life of Charles Cotton" (1810), the poet seems to have anticipated the typical romantic withdrawal from society into nature to ponder his personal feelings and to cheer his solitary self with poetic reverie: "One of his favourite recreations was angling, which led to an intimacy between him and honest Isaac Walton, whom he called his father." (4) Cotton had contributed a supplement to Walton's Complete Angler; and in a letter (18 September 1827) to Thomas Hood, Lamb quotes with relish Cotton's "stanzes irreguliers" to Walton. (5) In such poems as "The New Year," Cotton's iambics (the most common pattern in speech as in poetry) banish lyricism and embrace conversational plainness (though Lamb did bowdlerize Cotton's vulgar "Pox on't!" to the more genteelly infectious "Plague on't!"). Indeed, Cotton's description of Janus' epiphany is so colloquial as to strike most readers as poetically mediocre:
 He looks too from a place so high,
 The Year lies open to his eye;
 And all the moments open are
 To the exact discoverer.
 Yet more and more he smiles upon
 The happy revolution.

And a line such as, "Be superexcellently good," pursues informality to the brink of being militantly maladroit. Cotton's octosyllabic couplets here or in "The Retirement" or "Ode to Winter" seem almost Quaker-plain (except for his bibulous motif), particularly if compared with, say, Marvell's "Had we but world enough, and rime, / This coyness, lady, were no crime."

When Lamb describes Cotton's poem as "the purging sunlight of clear poetry" one hears his early advice: "Cultivate simplicity, Coleridge, or rather, I should say, banish elaborateness; for simplicity springs spontaneous from the heart, and carries into daylight its own modest buds and genuine, sweet, and clear flowers of expression. I allow no hot-beds in the gardens of Parnassus" (8 November 1796). In a chapter on Wordsworth's poetic theory, Coleridge in the Biographia Literaria observes of Cotton's Poems on Several Occasions (1689) that
 If I had happened to have had by me the Poems of Cotton,
 more but far less deservedly celebrated as the author of the
 "Virgil Travestie," I should have indulged myself, and I think
 have gratified many who are not acquainted with his serious
 works, by selecting some admirable specimens of this style.
 There are not a few poems in that volume replete with every
 excellence of thought, image and passion which we expect or
 desire in the poetry of the milder muse; and yet so worded,
 that the reader sees no reason either in the selection or the
 order of the words, why he might not have said the very same
 in an appropriate conversation, and cannot conceive how indeed
 he could have expressed such thoughts otherwise, without
 loss or injury to his meaning. (6)

Wordsworth's extended commentary at the end of his 1815 Preface to Lyrical Ballads stressed Cotton's nature imagery and his "profusion of fanciful comparisons." This creative quality of fancy, "whether in prose or verse," is illustrated by ten or eleven stanzas (mainly on the conviviality of wine, so evident in "New Year's Eve" also) quoted from Cotton's "Ode upon Winter, an admirable composition ... for a general illustration of the characteristics of Fancy." Wordsworth, in his "Letter to a friend of Robert Burns" (1816), says of Cotton that this "highly-gifted man ... in versatility of genius, bore no unobvious resemblance to the Scottish bard," a comparison that led Lamb to write Wordsworth: "The parallel of Cotton with Burns I heartily approve" (26 April 1816). Cotton typically makes use of classical personifications, but the appearance of Janus in "New Year's Eve" hardly contravenes the Romantic ideal of "a selection of language really used by men." Though aristocratic, Cotton used the direct language of "humble and rustic life" celebrated by Wordsworth in the 1802 Preface, "because in that condition the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature."

Literary critics long have recognized that Romantic writers, despite their devotion to "common life," are threatened by its dark and painful interludes. 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." The Romantic author characteristically desires to break free from baneful daily reality in order to attain a more intense consciousness of what Coleridge in "The Eolian Harp" called "the one Life within us and abroad." When theorizing, Romantic writers sometimes appear to define their images as unproblematic avenues of transcendence promising an escape from painful self-confrontation. Among the nineteenth-century definitions of the Romantic symbol's capacity to enfranchise the self are those of Coleridge in The Statesman's Manual (1815)--"A symbol is characterized by ... the translucence of the Eternal through and in the Temporal"--and of Thomas Carlyle in the chapter of Sartor Resartus (1836) entitled "Symbols": "In the Symbol ... the Infinite is made to blend itself with the Finite, to stand visible, and as it were, attainable there." These definitions are consistent with one of British literature's most explicitly mystical passages in which Wordsworth defines symbolic vision in "Tintern Abbey" (1798) as:
 ... that blessed mood,
 In which the affections gently lead us on,--
 Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
 And even the motion of our human blood
 Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
 In body, and become a living soul:
 While with an eye made quiet by the power
 Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
 We see into the life of things....

Because the Romantic's symbols blend the eternal with the temporal, the infinite with the finite, they enable the self to see the external world as no longer foreign but as that in which its own higher identity consists. Human life then engages Coleridge's "one Life" or what Wordsworth in "Tintern Abbey" called
 A motion and a spirit, that impels
 All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
 And rolls through all things.

The evolving practice of the century admits - even celebrates - the fact that ideal Truth is not transcendent to temporal beauty, nor is sensory reality independent of Truth: their unity "is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know," says Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" (1820).

This reconciliation of timeless Truth with temporal Beauty is often described imperfectly by critics, perhaps because in Romantic theorizing, as illustrated in the Biographia Literaria (Chapter 12), ambiguity is possible. As much as Coleridge's phrase "the reconciliation of opposites" seems to suggest a conflation of subject-object, spirit-sense in an unproblematic unity, his centripetal-centrifugal figure from planetary science strongly contradicts this possibility. Opposites are held in unassimilated tension, as differentiated but interconnected modes, each force underlying the other. Opposition underpins, is part of the very definition of, Romantic synthesis. Although the Romantics speak of the symbol's "translucence" or define it as "transparent," promising access to some ideal truth or metaphysical plenitude, this is qualified by the fact that their dream-fantasies often waver, dissolve, and turn the seeker back upon a darker double. In "Resolution and Independence" (1807) Wordsworth laments:
 By our own spirits are we deified:
 We Poets in our youth begin in gladness;
 But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.

In "Elegiac Stanzas" (1805) Wordsworth is even more autobiographical about discordant reality underlying harmonious vision: the "Poet's dream" of a castle "sleeping on a glassy sea" (symbol of a "heaven" that "lies about" not just the infant, according to the "Intimations Ode" (1807), but on occasion even the adult) is found upon the death of his brother John to be a "fond illusion." Even a reality permeated with spirit is vulnerable to catastrophe; and the poet is as likely to "surfer and mourn" as to "hope." This is why in "New Year's Eve" Elia mordantly quips, "I have almost ceased to hope; and am sanguine only in the prospects of other (former) years." Though Romantic symbols may appear to be "charm'd magic casements," to use a figure from the "Ode to a Nightingale" (1819), Keats too perceives that they bequeath not an unclouded transcendental plenitude within "the life of things" but the shadows of loss and destruction--"opening on the foam / Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlom." Typically, the poet is stranded between the brightness of vision and a darkened wakefulness: "Was it a vision, or a waking dream? / Fled is that music:--Do I wake or sleep?" Likewise for this reason Wordsworth struggles to explain why a harmony of self and nature is not guaranteed by the spirit that "rolls through all things." Indeed, after his mystical assertion in "Tintern Abbey" that the dreaming self sees "into the life of things," Wordsworth immediately undercuts his claim by suggesting that if attaining to the metaphysical thing-in-itself "be but a vain belief," at least the illusion has beneficial psychic effects!

This irresolute synthesis also is very much Lamb's definition of the blending of dreams with life: for example, each of the clerks in his first Elia essay, "The South Sea House" (August 1820), entertains a delusion that Elia objectively knows to be false; yet those fantasies are what prop up or nourish their daily lives. Elia too needs illusions to live in the real world successfully, even while knowing that those illusions are not true. Or rather, as in "Distant Correspondents" (March 1822), Elia declares that truth, subject to rime and distance, can turn into a lie or a lie into truth. If the true and false are so prone (comically so, in this essay) to confusion in daily life, then Elia's way of looking at reality, his imaginative vision, will be less a sentimental cliche than a powerfully transforming tool of cognition. This is given a wonderfully droll articulation in Lamb's second Elia essay, "Oxford in the Vacation" (October 1820), in which Elia's India House work sends him home with "increased appetite" to his books, so that the "outside sheets, and waste wrappers of foolscap, do receive into them, most kindly and naturally, the impression of sonnets, epigrams, essays - so that the very parings of a counting-house are, in some sort, the settings up of an author." Cast-off scraps of paper or the shavings-down of the quill, these "parings" of the countinghouse are reemployed. Undergoing a transvaluation of their market uses, they redefine the East India "clerk" as scholar, a sort of Chaucerian "clerk of Oxenford": "The enfranchised quill, that has plodded all the morning among the cart-rucks of figures and ciphers, frisks and curvets so at its ease over the flowery carpet-ground of a midnight dissertation." Perhaps the most heartfelt tribute to Lamb's clerkship, illustrative of Romantic imaginative transformation, is the explicit analogue in Coleridge's "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison" (1798) to Lamb's "strange calamity" of familial insanity and his quotidian imprisonment in the East India House. There Coleridge turns the distress of lost companionship and the pain of his scalded foot back upon themselves to find harmony within discord, transforming his imprisonment--a less serious parallel in the poem to the constraints of "gentle-hearted Charles," personal and professional - into an imaginative discovery of beauty and harmony.

In "New Year's Eve," the recuperation both for the present and for the future of that which is outmoded or vanished turns on Elia's authorial practice and vision. Given that "New Year's Eve" stylistically employs older writers for current purposes, this essay may be said to enact or suggest in its very language the idea or subject it addresses: old forms imaginatively endowed with new functions. Lamb's "New Year's Eve" has a three-part structure, with the commencement of each movement marked by comment on the ringing of church bells: the first two sections comprise Elia's contrasting retrospective and prospective views, his looking back to childhood and then looking forward to his mortal end; the third section introduces Janus, from Cotton' s poem, as the presiding mythological figure who will harmonize the retrospective and prospective views. The etymologically linked conditions of the diabolic (dia + ballein, to throw apart) and symbolic (sym + ballein, to throw together) succinctly interpret Lamb's Janus as the mythological personification of this equivocal past-in-future, harmony-in-fragmentation. (7) What gives the Janus-symbol its problematic status is that like Milton's fallen angles "in wandering mazes lost" (Paradise Lost 2:561), it can never quite extricate itself from diabolic discord.

After his mock-heroie "proposition" that New Year's is the annual renewal of mortal thoughts, Elia begins his retrospective movement by contrasting bells, the music of the spheres, with his mortality:
 Of all sound of all bells--(bells, the music most 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.

Traditionally, in the hour before midnight on the 31st of December, the Old Year dies to the doleful tolling of bells, as if lamenting a departed soul; and exactly at midnight the New Year is welcomed with an exhilarating peal, in which rive, seven or more bells ring joyfully in a dizzying, continuously changing progression. (8) Two years after "New Year's Eve," having just collected his essays in volume form, Lamb again alludes to ringing out the Old Year when, in the guise of Phil-Elia (i.e., Elia's friend), he announced Elia's death in the January 1823 issue of the London Magazine:
 Exactly at twelve last night his queer spirit departed, and the
 bells of Saint Bride's rang him out with the old year. The mournful
 vibrations were caught in the dining room of his friends T. and H.;
 and the company, assembled there to welcome in another First of
 January, checked their carousals in mid-mirth, and were silent.
 Janus wept. (9)

The death of Lamb's pseudonymous self was a joke within the London Magazine circle for some weeks; Janus Weathercock (T.E. Wainewright, whose "given" pseudonym probably is irrelevant except as the New Year's pun above) and others lamented him in comic prose until the Match 1823 number announced: "Elia is not dead .... We never saw a man so extremely alive, as he was, to the injury done him."

In "New Year's Eve" Elia extends retrospection, first from the previous night's celebration of the passage of the old year (also at the magazine dinner of Taylor and Hessey, publishers of The London) to the year in its entirety, and then from that "past twelvemonth" to his alter ego of forty years ago, "the child Elia--that 'other me,' there in the back-ground." The admitted bachelor Elia, "having no off-spring of my own to dally with," looks back and adopts "my own early idea, as my heir and favorite." Elia is using the word "idea" here in the Platonic sense of a transcendental pattern over against its imperfect matured embodiment. Comparing this innocent child to his adult self, Elia observes: "God help thee, Elia, how art thou changed! Thou art sophisticated." E.V. Lucas footnotes this passage to A Midsummer Night's Dream (3.1.121-22): "Bless thee, Bottom! Bless thee! Thou art translated." That is, Elia's adult self displays his drastic alteration. On the other hand, the allusion also may be to King Lear (3.4.109-110): "Here's three on 's are sophisticated. Thou art the thing itself." That is, Elia's fall parallels that from Edgar's natural state, his lack of artificial covering, to Lear's, Kent's, and the Fool's raiment of silk, fur, and wool, spuriously theirs. This likely is one of Lamb' s typical fused quotations that subliminally draws on both passages to suggest a Shakespearean (or allegorical) fall from divine order--Elia's alienation from his true self in a universe corrupted away from perfection.

Lamb' s motif of self-adoption in "New Year' s Eve" prompted Horace Smith's reply in the London Magazine, "Death - Posthumous Memorials--Children" (March 1822). (10) Smith praises "the quaint lugubrious pleasantry, the social yet deep philosophy," of Elia's "New Year's Eve"; indeed, he has "learnt his essay by heart." But Smith claims the "horrors at the thought of death" are not as effectively offset by Elia's consolations of old poetry as by paternity. Smith comments:
 Elia declares himself to be a bachelor; - I mention it not in
 disparagement; for it appears to have been his misfortune, rather
 than his fault. Had it been otherwise, he might, perhaps, have had
 children, and would have discovered that they alone can perform the
 seemingly inconsistent office of sweetening both life and death;
 throwing a charm over existence, and making "the foul ugly phantom"
 approach, like the destroyer of Hipparchus, with triumphant
 garlands around his weapon .... Ah! Elia! hadst thou possessed
 "offspring of thine own to dally with," thou wouldst never have
 made the melancholy avowal that thou hast "almost ceased to hope!"

He introduces his children, Alfred and Rosalind, as more satisfactory than Elia's adopted child-self, describing them as guarantors of the parent's almost physical immortality:
 In fact, he hardly dies; the living transcripts of his face and
 figure are still moving upon the earth; his name survives, embodied
 in another self; his blood is still flowing through human veins,
 and may continue its crimson current till the great wheel shall
 stand still. What posthumous memorial so vital as this?

Smith's admonitions prompted a response from Lamb that came on the anniversary of "New Year's Eve." The essay, one of Lamb's most famous, was "Dream Children: A Reverie" (January 1822). Because John Lamb's death in October 1821 was such an obvious catalyst for the elegiac "Dream Children," the relevance of "New Year's Eve" and of Smith's rejoinder has been slighted. Lamb had remarked in "New Year's Eve" on the ringing out of the past year that "I begin to know its worth, as when a person dies." Just so, not until John has died does Elia in "Dream Children" discover "how much I had loved him." But, more importantly, just as Elia's adopting "my own early idea" in "New Year's Eve" paved the way for Smith's comments on Elia's bachelor status, so Smith's extended description of his domestic life - of scolding Alfred and Rosalind and of their affectionate reconciliation - prepares the way for Elia's fantasy of the mischievous Alice and John.

In "Dream Children," Elia's imagination grafts a hypothetical present --what might have been, his children Alice and John - onto a covertly biographical past. The "Alice W--n" (in Lamb's life, Ann Simmons) of "New Year's Eve," for whom Elia "pined away seven of my goldenest years," reappears in "Dream Children" as the deceased wife and mother of Elia's children. As Elia's dream-vision attains an ontological equality with the past, reality reasserts itself:
 suddenly, turning to Alice, the soul of the first Alice looked out
 at her eyes with such a reality of re-presentment, 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.

The reflection of Alice W--n's features in Elia's dream-daughter marks the moment when Elia recognizes the painful truth that Alice and John call Bartram, not him, father. This abrupt rupturing of illusion, the sudden turning back to daily life, which is a keynote of Lamb's fantasies, is a moment familiar in many of his Romantic contemporaries also. As Keats warned in "Nightingale," "the fancy cannot cheat so well / As she is famed to do, deceiving elf'; and in "Lamia" (1820), "Do not all charms fly / At the touch of cold philosophy?"; and in "Fancy" (1820), "At a touch sweet Pleasure melteth / Like to bubbles when rain pelteth"; and in "La Belle Dame" (1820), "I awoke and found me here, / On the cold hill's side."

Smith's essay, also, had ended with the melancholy recollection of a lost child, a literal one:
 But there is one pang, and an agonizing one it is, from which
 bachelors are happily exempt. Heaven sometimes reclaims the most
 beautiful of our angels for itself. When our children have just
 fastened themselves to our hearts by a thousand ties, death, then,
 indeed, "a foul ugly phantom," will stretch forth his bony hand to
 wrench them from us, and almost tear up our hearts by the roots in
 the struggle!

The epilogue to Smith's essay was an elegiac poem written by his wife on "the beauty we have lost," concluding: "And when we mourn the blessing of which we are bereft, / Let us think with grateful hearts of the many that are left." One presumes she is thinking, above all, of her two living children, Rosalind and Alfred; but, fatally for her poetry, she prefers the generality in place of the concrete (though overall the authenticity of her grief strangely redeems the poem's poetic limitations). It seems impossible not to find in her final didactic couplet the identical sort of subrogation that Elia recognizes in his cousin Bridget. But in the place of La Smith's platitudes of gratitude, Lamb's essay presents a subtly disquieting scene: "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." Elia's description of himself as a "bachelor" in "New Year' s Eve" had been highlighted by Smith in his reply; and the word now reappears to carry here the full weight of beauty lost. Dropping at this moment his mask of pseudonym and its protective distancing from his emotional life, Lamb confesses in propria persona that not only past reality (his brother's life) but also possibilities for what might have been (children of his own) are "gone for ever." "Dream Children" demonstrates that Elia is not "happily exempt" from pangs of broken ties; circumstance has erased emotional possibilities nearly as real for him as those annihilated by death for Smith.

Some critical debate is possible as to whether there is any repressed resentment implicit in Elia's final image of prosaic daily reality--the "faithful" aspect of Bridget, as the persona for Lamb's unstable sister Mary, perhaps ironically implying burdensomeness. Lamb had proposed marriage to the actress Fanny Kelly in 1819; and her letter of explanation to her sister why she rejected Lamb's proposal still exists: "I could not give my assent to a proposal which would bring me into that atmosphere of sad mental uncertainty which surrounds his domestic life." (11) But Lamb may not have imputed his loss of Alice and John to Bridget, whose name, taken from the Celtic goddess of fertility and poetry, suggests her role in Elia's revitalizing inspiration. Bridget is, rather, a blessing for the precise reason Wordsworth suggests in the "Intimations Ode":
 Though nothing can bring back the hour
 Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
 We will grieve not, rather find
 Strength in what remains behind;
 In the primal sympathy
 Which having been must ever be;
 In the soothing thoughts that spring
 Out of human suffering;
 In the faith that looks through death,
 In years that bring the philosophic mind.

So also Elia-Lamb employs life's tragedies against themselves to look "through death" to attain "the philosophic mind." Bridget-Mary is here a Wordsworthian figure of "human suffering" - both in her own right and as a reflection of her cousin-brother too - prompting by her devotion the recuperation of suffering by hope for the present and the future. Elia's Janus-vision lies in that delicate perspective between imagination and misfortune, in the perpetual turning back of the dia + ballein upon the sym + ballein, that makes hope an outgrowth of suffering and indebted to imperfection for its expression in the present. Elia's imagination trumps the misfortune of the past: "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." The past is shaped like fictional reality because the imagination has put its disquieting facts into a satisfying perspective.

As the retrospective movement in "New Year's Eve" is arrested at the return of the bells, "those midnight chimes" ringing out the Old Year, it is replaced by a prospective movement of equal length dominated not yet at this point by hope but by thoughts of impending death implicit in the essay's initial oxymoron of "the nativity of our common Adam." Thinking perhaps of Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale," recently published, Elia says: "Some have wooed death--but out upon thee, I say, thou foul ugly phantom!" Elia's grip upon the present is intensified by his resistance to a future that seems to offer more loss than gain. The traditional metaphors of consolation for death are mockingly rejected. Lamb echoes Wordsworth's "Therefore am I still / A lover of ... this green earth" ("Tintern Abbey"):
 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; 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 and discomposes me. My household gods plant
 a terrible fixed foot, and are not rooted up without blood.

Lamb's use here of the word "tabernacle" is less an allusion to any nineteenth-century edifice for evangelical services than to the tent of the wandering Israelites, first erected on their new year: "And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, On the first day of the first month shalt thou set up the tabernacle of the tent of the congregation.... And Moses was not able to enter into the tent of the congregation, because the cloud abode thereon, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle" (Exodus 40:1-2, 35). In contrast to this moveable sanctuary, Lamb's "tabernacle" is not intended to be rooted up in favor of a more-permanent edifice in the Promised Land, nor is it filled with the unapproachable holiness of the Deity as it had been for Moses. The Promised Land for Lamb is not in the future, but here and now. Indeed, his "household gods" suggest not a Mosaic monotheism but the old Roman Lares and Penates, a religion, as has been said, attached to very definite things and places.

Lamb's devotion to his terrestrial circumstances led Southey to remark ungenerously that the volume of Elia's collected essays was "a book which wants only a sounder religious feeling, to be as delightful as it is original." (12) Lamb felt Southey "might have spared an old friend such a construction of a few careless flights, that meant no harm to religion" (Letter of 10 July 1823); and he published a sharp rejoinder to Southey, defending his "New Year's Eve" and other essays. In his rejoinder, Lamb-Elia suggests that his doubt or fear concerning the future, apart from any sense of the blameworthiness of his own conduct, is not a matter of volition but a psychological predisposition:
 If men would honestly confess their misgivings (which few
 men will) there are times when the strongest Christians of us,
 I believe, have reeled under questionings of such staggering
 obscurity.... The contemplation of a Spiritual World,--which,
 without the addition of a misgiving conscience, is enough to
 shake some natures to their foundation--is smoothly got over
 by others, who shall float over the black billows, in their little
 boat of No-Distrust, as unconcernedly as over a summer sea.
 The difference is chiefly constitutional, ... an effect of the
 nerves purely.... The impediments and the facilitations to a
 sound belief are various and inscrutable as the heart of man. (13)

In his "Confessions of a Drunkard," Lamb also had invoked a "constitutional tendency," in this instance an addiction to which the Drunkard is linked "beyond the power of revocation." (14) The reprinting of this essay in August, 1822, preceded Elia's famous confession of gluttony in "Roast Pig" (September 1822), his constitutional tendency towards gluttony being a parallel there to that of the Drunkard. As a parodic inversion of Shelley's vegetarian, Elia's glutton reveals that, unlike Shelley, Lamb does not believe in any panacea that will annul man' s fallenness; indeed, though some like Shelley may for reasons "chiefly constitutional" pursue such utopian fantasies, Lamb feels only too keenly the taint of sinful proclivities. Yet far from confessing a tendency to disbelief, Lamb only admits his imperfect knowledge of "a Spiritual World" and insists that redemption begins with an acceptance of the temporal and historical--that is, with those "black billows" of perplexity and guilt. In "Tintern Abbey" Wordsworth also explicitly recognized that meaning is not conferred by the ecstasies of a timeless eternity but by ordinary human experience:
 ... Therefore am I still
 A lover of the meadows and the woods,
 And mountains; and of all that we behold
 From this green earth; of all the mighty world
 Of eye, and car,--both what they half create,
 And what perceive; well pleased to recognize
 In nature and the language of the sense,
 The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
 The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
 Of all my moral being....

Thus paradoxically for Elia and the Romantics the opaque and shadowed itself must imperfectly mirror the transparent and luminous. Within a NeoPlatonic or Christian framework, Elia's dreams of beauty and happiness, even his "own early idea," are not lost; but given the "staggering obscurity" of the Spiritual, they ultimately may resemble or differ from their original earthly forms as much as Elia's redeemed self will resemble or differ from his present fallen self.

In "New Year's Eve" Lamb dramatizes the reclamation of temporal reality by symbolic vision--the Blakean seeing of eternity in a grain of sand--so that his "puling fears of death" are dissipated in "the purging sunlight of clear poetry." The final coda of "New Year's Eve" is ushered in by Cotton's Janus, the two-faced god of January 1 who appears at the arrival of the New Year. Lamb's foregoing retrospective and prospective moods are epitomized in this Janus-face looking diverse ways. Horace Smith's reply to Lamb's essay had picked up on this analogue:
 Ha! I exclaimed, thou art the very Janus who hast always delighted
 in antithetical presentments; who lovest to exhibit thy tragic face
 in its most doleful gloom, that thou mayst incontinently turn upon
 us the sunshine of thy comic smile.

Though Smith is correct in his identification of "antithetical presentments," Elia's conclusion is not an unrestrained "comic smile" but the ambiguity of his double vision, that of an innocence lost to time yet with the consolation that misfortunes are imaginatively, and perchance abundantly, recompensed. The Janus-vision does not seek to look beyond the mutations and oppositions of life, but to create relationships of imagination that will be a reflection of lost innocence and a pattern for its recuperation. Janus initially seems to predict "iii sights," but as the dawn's light grows, Cotton revises his first impression:
 His revers'd face may show distaste,
 And frown upon the ills are past;
 But that which this way looks is clear,
 And smiles upon the New-bore year.

Like Janus, Lamb too is between past memories and future events; but unlike Janus he initially has not been able to look upon the "New-bore year" with confidence. Though he may have come to terms imaginatively with "past disappointments," he embraces only his lost innocence, not his fallen adult self.

In "Oxford in Vacation," Lamb-Elia had meditated on the mysterious strength of the past on his imagination in comparison with the present or future; and he alluded to Browne's figure in Christian Morals (Part 3, Sec. 22) of "Januses of one Face": whereas Elia relishes antiquity, his present is "flat, jejune, modern! What mystery lurks in this retroversion? or what half Januses are we, that cannot look forward with the same idolatry with which we for ever revert! The mighty future is as nothing, being everything! the past is everything, being nothing!" When Elia confesses in "New Year's Eve" that "it is my infirmity to look back upon those early days," he is expressing precisely this alienation from the present; only his past, whatever its failings, has the depth and distinction of imaginative appeal. In "Old China" (1823), Elia's cousin Bridget is similarly one of those "half Januses." She recollects their annual reconciling of accounts on New Year's Eve, how with

"the hope that youth brings, and laughing spirits (in which you were never poor till now, we pocketed up our loss, and in conclusion, with 'lusty brimmers' (as you used to quote it out of 'hearty cheerful Mr. Cotton,' as you called him), we used to welcome in 'the coming guest.' Now we have no reckoning at all at the end of the old year--no flattering promises about the new year doing better for us."

Bridget wants a return to youth, desirable but impossible. Elia says time has brought a loss of youth and an increase of wealth, a poor trade but the best for which one may hope. Youthfulness is enduring only for the painted figures on the teacup who have always existed "before perspective." But for Elia their exemption from physical perspective discloses a lack of human emotional perspective. Elia's and Bridget's human suffering provides an emotional perspective that beneficially connects their present to their past, very much as the loss of Elia's dream children is replaced by an awakening to his and Bridget's ties of mutual devotion. This "perspective" the youthful figures on the china teacups do not have--and, admittedly, do not need. When Elia's imagination connects the present and future to the past, his half-Janus finds its matching complement; and past, present and future together have the unity of a "well-contrived novel"--or a London Magazine essay.

By symbolizing a reclamation of innocence within the temporal despite its catastrophic nature, Janus is similar in function to the angel Nadir in Lamb's little-read "The Child Angel: a Dream." (15) Elia there recasts Milton's Satan as Nadir, the fallen angel who liberates his child from passion's shadowy taint and transports him to a more-ideal world, yet one that is altogether human and social. Nadir's rescue allegorizes the escape of Charles and his sister Mary from the hell of insanity and parricide; and Nadir's equivocal status, transgressive yet redemptive, represents the symbol's pursuit of innocence that, regardless, remains darkened at its source by earthly guilt. Elia's dream of Nadir's ascent contrasts with his nightmare of the prophet Samuel conjured up by the Witch of Endor, described in "Witches and Other Night-fears" (October 1821). As the diabolic old man under the mantle, the corpse of Samuel personifies the condition of the half-Janus or dia + ballein, Lamb's burden of hereditary madness or irrational passion. In place of a witchcraft that terrifyingly conjures the diabolic alone, Janus, Nadir, and the Elia-pseudonym itself invoke a paradoxical yet beneficial symbolism, personifying a blend of imagination and reality--of reason and passion, truth and falsehood, hope and misfortune, innocence and guilt, heaven and earth. Put rather grandiloquently, one may say these master tropes of Romantic symbol-making, of "eye, and ear,--both what they half create, / And what perceive" ("Tintern Abbey"), epitomize imagination healing the diabolic fragmentation of temporal existence, transforming its discords into symbols instinct and inspired by the ordinances of the "one Life."

One of Lamb's most characteristic presentations of reality's imaginative transformation occurs in "My First Play" when the misconceptions of the innocently wondering child are corrected by the adult's perspective on the players: "retrospection soon yielded to the present attraction of the scene; and the theatre became to me, upon a new stock, the most delightful of recreations." Elia's word "stock" implies the new shoots of adult reason grafted onto the original roots of childhood imagination and also suggests the troop of performers itself, among whom the child "knew not players" but afterwards as an adult recognizes that "the actors were men and women painted." To show this fertile duality of the imaginary and real, Elia in his penultimate sentence obtrusively singles out Sara Siddons by name to show that although her role as Isabella is an illusion, this pretense does not destroy Elia's pleasure but actually invests his adult experience with the deeper resonance of "recreation"--to re-create reality with the help of the imagination or to revitalize the illusion with a mature perspective.

In "New Year's Eve," Elia's rehabilitation of life's misfortunes is expressed in terms of a literarily inspired conviviality: "and while that turn-coat bell, that just now mournfully chanted the obsequies of 1820 departed, with changed notes lustily rings in a successor, let us attune to its peal the song made on alike occasion by hearty cheerful Mr. Cotton." Cotton's "lusty brimmers" inspire Elia also to call for "another cup of the generous," i.e., of the full-flavored wine. Imperceptibly the "fiat, jejune" present becomes a convivial, reassuring social reality expressive of an almost Dionysian inspiration. This association of poetry and wine was in evidence a few years later the evening Lamb "dined in Parnassus" with Wordsworth, Coleridge, Thomas Moore and others. He admitted the next day to "an aking head, for we did not quaff Hippocrene last night. Marry, it was Hippocras rather" (Letter of 5 April 1823). When "New Year's Eve" commenced, Elia condemned his wine-quaffing self, making yet another drunkard's confession: I know him to be light, and vain, and humoursome; a notorious ***; addicted to ****." Whether or not these asterisks specifically indicate the omission of such three- and four-letter words as "sot" and "wine" (the compositor likely is sovereign here), Elia rejected that present self with abhorrence in favor of adopting "the child Elia." But as he warms with the delight of old poetry and the companionship of friends, he hails his social self with its formerly unnameable imperfections just as cheerfully as Cotton greets Janus at the New Year. And as the muffled tolling is transposed into a concert of joyously ringing bells, Elia raises his wine-cup to toast new-found symbols of hope.

University of Arizona


(1) Lamb, "New Year's Eve," The London Magazine 3 (January 1821): 5-8. References to subsequent familiar and universally accessible essays and poems will be cited parenthetically by title and date. The Julian calendar dedicated January and the entrance of the year to Janus. Though New Year's Day was popularly reckoned always as January 1st, the commencement of the legal year in England was changed from the 25th of March to the 1st of January only in 1752 (in 1600 for Scotland).

(2) Lamb, "A Character of the Late Elia, By a Friend," The London Magazine 7 (January 1823): 19.

(3) E.V. Lucas, Life of Charles Lamb (New York: Putnam's Sons, 1907), vol. 2, 235. In citing Lamb's models, Lucas may have had T.G. Wainewright's mock eulogy to Elia in mind: "Sir Thomas Brown was a 'bosom cronie' of his--so was Burton, and old Fuller. In his amorous vein he dallied with that peerless Duchess of many-folio odour;--and with the hey-day comedies of Beaumont and Fletcher he induced light dreams." London Magazine 7 (January 1823): 91 [51]. Lucas' defense certainly anticipates the complaint of Edmund Blunden in Charles Lamb and His Contemporaries (Cambridge UP, 1933): 169, that Lamb's old-fashioned, poetic verbs and pronouns "clog the attention."

(4) "The Life of Charles Cotton" in The Works of the English Poets, ed. Alexander Chalmers (London: J. Johnson, 1810), vol. 6, 700. In "The Old Benchers" (September 1821), Lamb described his own father as "a brother of the angle ... and just such a free, hearty, honest companion as Mr. Izaak Walton would have chosen to go a-fishing with."

(5) "The Retirement." See also Lamb's Letter of 5 March 1803 to William Wordsworth announcing his discovery of Cotton's "scarce" Poems, introducing Wordsworth to Cotton with a lengthy quotation from "Winter" and another poem, and pronouncing Cotton "a first rate."

(6) Biographia Literaria, ed. J. Shawcross (Oxford UP, 1939), 2:71. The "milder muse" would be Polyhynmia in contrast to Erato. Lamb in a letter to his publisher

(7 December 1822) described his own essays as "an after-dinner conversation" and "all Preface, ... nothing but a talk with the reader."

(7) Probably the oldest use of the word symbol is "traceable to Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (circa 250), who applies L. symbolum to the baptismal creed" (Oxford English Dictionary, "Symbol") as a "mark" or "sign" separating the Christian from the pagan. As a sacrament signifying purification and spiritual rebirth, baptism as the original use of symbol is highly significant, insofar as it is a response to the fall, a reintegration of that unity lost by division--in this case the division between the self and God. Interestingly, the late Latin symbolum derives from the Greek symballein, sym/n- ("with," "together," "similarly," "alike") + ballein ("to throw"). To speak figuratively, the symbol appeared when Satan fell from heaven and is a "throwing together" of that which the devil earlier threw apart. Devil, according to such standard etymologies as the OED, is a specific derivation from the Greek diabolos, the radical of which is ballein and the prefix of which derives from the Greek root dyo ("two")--dyo being an alteration of the Indo-European dis- meaning "apart," "asunder," "twice," "in different directions." Thus devil in its most literal, basal sense means "to throw apart, to divide."

(8) "Ringing on New Year's Eve is rather secular than religious," and English ringing customs vary widely and wildly. "One method of ringing is to toll one bell only until the clock strikes twelve; in other cases the bells are rung muffled up to midnight, when the muffles"--leather collars around the clappers--"are removed and a merry 'open' peal bursts forth.... Sometimes, where there is no striking clock, twelve strokes are tolled at midnight, the peal being interrupted for the purpose." H.B. Walters, Church Bells of England (London: Henry Frowde, 1912), 141.

(9) "A Character of the Late Elia," London Magazine 7 (January 1823): 19. Destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666, St. Bride's in Fleet Street was rebuilt by Wren; its interior (1680) and beautiful steeple (1701), damaged by lightning but repaired, are considered among the best of Wren's achievements; burnt again in 1940. Bride is a corruption of Bridget (or Brigid), a sixth-century patron saint of Ireland. As a pre-Christian Irish fertility goddess, Bridget according to the ancient Bishop Cormac's glossary was "the goddess whom poets adored because her protecting care over them was very great and very famous." In the Christian era, as Queen of Heaven, she was identified with the Mother of Jesus, and was known in Ireland as "Mary of the Gaels." Elia's cousin Bridget (Lamb's Mary) clearly derives her name from these associations. As Charles is symbolized by his ironym of the prophetic Elia (Elijah), so Mary is identified by her characternym of Bridget.

(10) Smith, "Death ... Children," 250-55.

(11) Lucas, Letters, 2:256.

(12) "The Progress of Infidelity," Quarterly Review (January 1823), quoted in Notes to Lucas, Letters, 2:393.

(13) "Letter of Elia to Robert Southey," London Magazine 8 (October 1823): 400-401; 404. Lucas, Life quotes Coleridge that Lamb, though agnostic perhaps, was "not a sceptic" and Crabb Robinson that "Lamb was a man of 'natural piety' and his supposed anti-religious language was in fact directed solely against the dogmatism of systematic theology" 2:73-74n.

(14) The Works of Charles and mary Lamb, ed. E.V. Lucas (London: Methuen, 1903),vol. 1,133, 136.

(15) See Monsman, "Charles Lamb's Elia and the Fallen Angel," Studies in Romanticism 38:1 (Spring 1999), 51-62. I analyze this paradoxical condition of the symbol and argue that in both "The Child Angel: a Dream" and "Witches and Other Night-fears," Charles Lamb's ironym, Elia, disavows the divine afflatus of Milton, criticizes the perilous opium visions of Coleridge, and parodies Wordsworth's faith in recollections of immortality. Shunning prophetic revelation and visionary excess, Elia rises to an ironic truth in disguise. Through the concealed or contradicted meanings of irony, Elia reasserts Lamb's inspiration, authority, and sanity.
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Author:Monsman, Gerald
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Date:Sep 22, 2001
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