Thursday, April 04, 2013

`I Could Only Apprehend My Felicity'

Friday ought to be observed as a minor holiday on the calendar of all writers who are neither independently wealthy nor accustomed to the largesse of patrons public or private. On April 5, 1792, Charles Lamb went to work in the Accountant’s Office of the British East India Company, where he remained for thirty-three years, retiring in 1825 with a pension of £450. 

At age fourteen, Lamb had dropped out of Christ’s Hospital, the charity boarding school where he befriended Coleridge and Leigh Hunt, and went to work as a clerk for Joseph Paice, a merchant in London. Lamb later wrote of Paice: “He took me under his shelter at an early age, and bestowed some pains upon me. I owe to his precepts and example whatever there is of the man of business (and that is not much) in my composition. It is not his fault I did not profit more.” After a year with Paice, Lamb moved on to a position in the Examiner’s Office in the South Sea House, where his brother John was already employed. Lamb was sixteen years old. He wrote of the place in the first of his Elia essays, “The South-Sea House” (1823). 

After five months, Lamb moved to the British East India Company where, for the first two years, he received an annual “gratuity” of £30 in lieu of a salary. In his letters, Lamb refers to his employment as “irksome confinement,” “captivity” and “daylight servitude,” but the complaints sound less than anguished, at least until his later years. Lamb was no proto-proletarian, no Bartleby. If he preferred not to, he mostly kept it to himself except to laugh about it in letters to friends. Sundays were his only days off, and Christmas and Easter were the only holidays (a customary schedule at the time). He closes a letter to Wordsworth in 1815 with this serio-comic rant:  

“Confusion blast all mercantile transactions, all traffick, exchange of commodities, intercourse between nations, all the consequent civilization and wealth and amity and link of society, and getting rid of prejudices, and knowlege of the face of the globe—and rot the very firs of the forest that look so romantic alive, and die into desks. Vale.” 

Lamb submitted his letter of resignation on Feb. 7, 1825, and the Board of Directors took more than seven weeks to reply. All the while, Lamb agonized over the size of his pension. In a letter to his friend Bernard Barton written just days before the board responded, he says: 

“I am sick of hope deferred. The grand wheel is in agitation that is to turn up my fortune; but round it rolls, and will turn up nothing. I have a glimpse of freedom, of becoming a gentleman at large; but I am put off from day to day. I have offered my resignation, and it is neither accepted nor rejected.” 

On March 29, the board accepted Lamb’s resignation and granted him a pension. On April 6, he wrote to Wordsworth: “Here am I then, after thirty-three years' slavery, sitting in my own room at eleven o'clock this finest of all April mornings, a freed man, with £450 a year for the remainder of my life, live I as long as John Dennis, who outlived his annuity and starved at ninety.” He’s just warming up: 

“I came home FOREVER on Tuesday in last week. The incomprehensibleness of my condition overwhelmed me; it was like passing from life into eternity. Every year to be as long as three, i.e., to have three times as much real time--time that is my own--in it! I wandered about thinking I was happy, but feeling I was not. But that tumultuousness is passing off, and I begin to understand the nature of the gift.” 

In retirement, Lamb used his new-found “gift” to write the funniest, most feeling essays in the language. In “The Superannuated Man,” he describes how the jubilation of retirement turns into uneasiness, which leads to a profound meditation on the human experience of time: 

“For the first day or two I felt stunned, overwhelmed. I could only apprehend my felicity; I was too confused to taste it sincerely. I wandered about, thinking I was happy, and knowing that I was not. I was in the condition of a prisoner in the old Bastile, suddenly let loose after a forty years' confinement. I could scarce trust myself with myself. It was like passing out of Time into Eternity -- for it is a sort of Eternity for a man to have his Time all to himself.” 

If you’re a writer with a non-literary day job, think of Lamb before complaining of your misfortunes. At least you get Saturdays off, and Independence Day.

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