Charles Lamb as the Janus of Romanticism in "New Year's Eve"
Monsman, Gerald, Nineteenth-Century Prose
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. …