"Antiquity! Thou Wondrous Charm": Lamb, Nostalgia and the Effable City

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Lamb's self-deprecatory reflex has made him his own worst enemy. (1) His very appeal of humility risks the impression of inconsequence. The subtle irony to which the author is equally prone, by which Lamb achieves an obverse mode of self-promotion, can easily be missed. In 'Witches, and Other Night-Fears' (London Magazine, October 1821), Elia slyly affects to lament the "poverty" of his dreams in comparison with the fantastic, poetic visions conjured by Coleridge and Lamb's fellow contributor to the London Magazine, Bryan Waller Procter, or "Barry Cornwall":

  For the credit of my imagination, I am almost ashamed to say how tame
  and prosaic my dreams are grown. They are never romantic, seldom even
  rural. They are of architecture and buildings--cities abroad, which I
  have never seen and hardly have hope to see. I have traversed, for
  the seeming length of a natural day, Rome. Amsterdam, Paris,
  Lisbon--their churches, palaces, squares, market-places, shops,
  suburbs, ruins, with an inexpressible sense of delight--a map-like
  distinctness of trace and a daylight vividness of vision, that was
  all bin being awake. I have formerly travelled among the Westmoreland
  fells--my highest Alps, but they are objects too mighty for the grasp
  of my dreaming recognition; and I have again and again awoke with
  ineffectual struggles of the inner eye, to make out a shape, in any
  way whatever of Helvellyn. Methought I was in that country, but the
  mountains were gone. The poverty of my dreams mortifies me (387).

Elia follows this with a comical anecdote about an anticlimactic dream of his own, which has served to convince him that his proper, apparently deferential place is in "prosaic" prose rather than poetry--the supposed medium of high, imaginative endeavour. Lamb here not only parodies the already famous conception of Kubla Khan as an archetypal moment of Romantic genius, but also satirises De Quincey's opium-eater. The first instalment of the opium-eater's "Confessions" appears in the same issue of the London Magazine as the "Night-Fears" essay, thus making the ultra-realistic, un-dreamlike dreams of cities that Elia describes all the more suggestive of parody.

As an ostensible self-representation of inadequacy which functions to empower the relatively humble periodical essayist, therefore, Lamb advertises an alternative notion of the city to that of his peers. De Quincey uses Wordsworth's vision of an ethereal city in Book II of The Excursion to buttress his urban versioning, and his habit impels the opium-eater into a prototypical act of flanerie, restlessly roaming an "enigmatical" and labyrinthine London on Saturday nights, seeking a spiritual bond with the poor which the opium habit ensures can only ever be of a fleeting, transient nature. De Quincey's city is like the phantasmagorical and ineffable city of Wordsworth's "Residence in London", in Book VII of the 1805 version of The Prelude, in which the admonitory figure of the blind beggar suggests to the poet the unknowableness of urban life, and the dehumanizing maelstrom of the fair represents "blank confusion! and a type not false/Of what the mighty city is itself" (11. 595-6: 292). Wordsworth's and De Quincey's are existentially troubling cities, where losing oneself (or indeed others, as with the opium-eater's failure to find again the prostitute Ann, who saves his life in Oxford Street) is a sublime rather than pleasurable experience.

If Lamb's prosaic prose can familiarise foreign and exotic dues, then his home city, London, for all the connotations of power and sublimity, is still less likely to appear mysterious. And so it proves. Enfeebled with age and tending toward hypochondria, hence typically enclosed in domestic spaces rather than rambling the streets without, Elia nevertheless knows a consequently knowable London. The sociability of the Elia essays adds to this effect, populated as they are by amicable and familial, often recurring characters such as the South-Sea clerks, the old benchers, a laughing sweep, a know-it-all schoolmaster, Bridget and John Elia, G. …