Saturday, November 17, 2012

`I Gather Myself Up for the Old Things'

“Their importance is from the past.”

That’s the concluding sentence from the first of Charles Lamb’s Essays of Elia (1823), “The South-Sea House,” published in London Magazine in August 1820. Not yet fifteen years old, Lamb had dropped out of school and gone to work as a clerk for Joseph Paice, a London merchant. A year later he took a similar position with the South Sea House and in six months joined the Accountant’s Department at the East India Company, where he remained for thirty-three years. On retiring in 1825, Lamb was earning £730 a year.

In that first Elia essay, written when he was only forty-five, Lamb’s gaze is already instinctively retrospective. He writes less about the sweep of his career as a clerk (neither Lamb nor Elia is Bartleby) than about the South Sea House forty years earlier, in the distant wake of the “South Sea Bubble.” His subject, typically, is an undistinguished period in the history of a company long past its prime. Consider, too, his strategy in starting the essay. He addresses the reader directly like an old friend, speaking familiarly of London geography, and launches into a long, ornately serpentine sentence that concludes, to our surprise, with a question:

“READER, in thy passage from the Bank - where thou hast been receiving thy half-yearly dividends (supposing thou art a lean annuitant like myself) to the Flower Pot, to secure a place for Dalston, or Shacklewell, or some other thy suburban retreat northerly, -- didst thou never observe a melancholy looking handsome, brick and stone edifice, to the left -- where Threadneedle- street abuts upon Bishopsgate?”

Two sentences later, he sets another pleasant trap, crafting a sentence that begins “Here are still to be seen stately porticos…” and concludes almost two hundred words later with “…that famous BUBBLE.” Lamb has cunningly ushered us into a time machine of prose. Readers in 1820 recognized the mustiness of the sentences, their self-conscious antiquity, the homages to Burton and Browne, and the refusal to be up-to-date. And that was their charm. Lamb was no revolutionary. He habitually looked to the past for what was good and interesting, while simultaneously making fun of himself for doing so, just as he poked fun at his oh-so-earnest friend Hazlitt for lionizing Napoleon and dabbling in radical chic. In another Elia essay, “Oxford in the Vacation,” he writes:

 “Antiquity! thou wondrous charm, what art thou? that being nothing art everything? When thou wert, thou wert not antiquity - then thou wert nothing, but hadst a remoter antiquity, as thou calledst it, to look back to with blind veneration; thou thyself being to thyself 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 an editor rejects one of his sonnets, Lamb declares to Bryan Waller Procter in an 1829 letter: “Damn the age; I will write for Antiquity!” Twenty years earlier, long before the birth of Elia, in a letter to his childhood friend Coleridge, Lamb had said: “I am out of the world of readers. I hate all that do read, for they read nothing but reviews and new books. I gather myself up unto the old things.” 

With age, one’s sympathy for Lamb/Elia grows. Sometimes, one feels nostalgia for times and places that never existed.

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