Monday, December 31, 2012

Dec 31: Patrick Madden on Charles Lamb’s “New Year’s Eve”

On or about New Year’s Eve every year I reread Charles Lamb’s “New Year’s Eve,” a perfect essay, which in a spill of language and punctuation turns an occasion into a meditation, in this case on mortality, that inexhaustible topic and perennial favorite of writers from all ages. I love it for how it hooks not just my gut but my mind, not with drama or story but with idea, and because at nearly 200 years old, it still speaks to a universal feeling sparked by the arbitrary turning of the calendar leaf. Also because it reminds me, as any memento mori should, that I will die.

I don’t like the idea of my death, and I believe it to be a long ways off, but I like to rage with Lamb against it and to think that each December 31st as I read, I am resurrecting the melancholy, impertinent writer, who pleads once more to arrest time——
I begin to count the probabilities of my duration, and to grudge at the expenditure of moments and shortest periods, like miser’s farthings. In proportion as the years both lessen and shorten, I set more count upon their periods, and would fain lay my ineffectual finger upon the spoke of the great wheel. I am not content to pass away “like a weaver’s shuttle.” Those metaphors solace me not, nor sweeten the unpalatable draught of mortality. I care not to be carried with the tide, that smoothly bears human life to eternity; and reluct at the inevitable course of destiny. 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. They do not willingly seek Lavinian shores. A new state of being staggers me. Sun, and sky, and breeze, and solitary walks, and summer holidays, and the greenness of fields, and the delicious juices of meats and fishes, and society, and the cheerful glass, and candle-light, and fire-side conversations, and innocent vanities, and jests, and irony itself—do these things go out with life?
——that by my reading I am bringing about his wish to stand still at the age of 45, on the eve of 1821, reviewing the events of the past twelvemonth, revisiting the graveyard to taunt the buried-under-stones: “I am alive. I move about. I am worth twenty of thee. Know thy betters!”

It is helpful to know that Lamb wrote his essays in persona, as an Italian clerk named Elia, who shared some of Lamb’s biography but not all of it, yet he sometimes, as in this essay, slips away from his character in order to comment upon it. Thus his delightful passage of self-ridicule:
No one whose mind is introspective—and mine is painfully so—can have a less respect for his present identity, than I have for the man Elia. I know him to be light, and vain, and humorsome; a notorious * * *; addicted to * * * * : averse from counsel, neither taking it nor offering it;— * * * besides; a stammering buffoon; what you will; lay it on, and spare not; I subscribe to it all, and much more.
This is, I think, a worthy lesson to essayists today, or to humans today, to make light of ourselves and puncture our propensity for pomposity. When I read “New Year’s Eve” in the atmosphere of promises to lose weight, read more, work less, do better, I think that there is no better resolution than to be humble, which Lamb also achieves in signing off with what I take to be a salute to those who’ll outlive or come after him, undermining his prior glee at outliving the earlier dead. “And now another cup of the generous,” he offers, “and a merry New Year, and many of them, to you all, my masters!” He seems to be winking right at me, who am worth twenty of him, because I am alive.

For no reason other than the childlike joy of it, I want to end by mentioning a wonderful coincidence I once discovered thanks to “New Year’s Eve.” I love Lamb’s opening thesis-like sentence, that “Every man hath two birth-days: two days, at least, in every year, which set him upon revolving the lapse of time, as it affects his mortal duration,” an eloquent phrasing of a kind of existential situation familiar to many of us, yet, as I found out, not quite as universal as he and I were wont to believe. One early January day, after I’d assigned my students to memorize a passage of Lamb’s prose and I’d happily recited the first paragraph to them, a student spoke up to argue with the premise. Not everyone, she said, has two birthdays. She had just the one, January first. In chorus, two other students spoke up. They, too, were born on New Year’s Day. Of the twenty-two students signed up for History and Theory of the Essay, three of them gave the lie to Lamb’s notion. As I’ve written elsewhere, the odds of shared birthdays in relatively small groups are remarkably, unexpectedly good. Given the 23 people in the classroom, we had a better than 50% chance that two of us would share a birthday. That three would share a birthday (any birthday) was about 15% probable. But three people all born on the essayistically (and calendrically) important first day of the year: the answer to this problem slips away from my grasp of mathematics in a way that suggests the unknowing open-endedness surrounding all great essays and leaves just enough mystery as to seem miraculous.


Patrick Madden is a stammering buffoon, a notorious * * *, light, and vain, and humorsome, and terribly unoriginal at titles, naming both his book and his website/anthology Quotidiana, which you practically have to look up in the dictionary just to understand it!


  1. I love this Lambish buffoonery. And why do you have so many students born on New Year's? I don't even think I've met anyone with a New Year's birthday. Well, happy birthday to them twice and the rest of us once.

  2. Among some far-flung Mormon colonies, the tradition is for all children to be told that their birthday is January 1st, for ease of memory and record-keeping. No, I'm kidding. But I wonder if, with the rise of inductions, parents might request to have their babies on New Year's Day...

  3. Terrific piece, and as usual Patrick is both entertaining and informative. Also no man in Amwerica has done more in recent years to celebrate the great unread essayists like Lamb, who ought to be ranked among the very best -- far better than, for example, Montaigne. (Shrieks and bubbling howls from the hustings.)

    1. Maybe I realized this before? But I must have forgotten if so, because returning to this piece just today and finding this comment here, I'm struck by the surety that it was written by our beloved friend Brian Doyle. I mean, it must have been. 100%. And anyway, I'm on a Doyle kick (a permanent one) and have been thinking about how recognizable he was in just his writing. Here I found a test. I'm sure it was him.