Charles Lamb and the chains of work

Today, we look at Charles Lamb (1775-1834), who many consider to be one of the greatest English essayists of all time. A contemporary and friend of key minds and writers of the time, including Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Hazlitt, Lamb is not read as widely as he should be. This, I believe, is a pity not only because Lamb’s essays present to readers a truly lovable man (read, for example, the essay ‘A Chapter on Ears’ in which he talks about how tone deaf he is) or for the elegance and facility of style in his writing, but also because of those moments in which, like in the well-known essay ‘The Superannuated Man’, his writing, while ostensibly, as usual, about himself, speaks of our relation to the world in truly insightful ways.

‘The Superannuated Man’, or the man who has lived a long life, is an account of Lamb’s experience of his transition from the world of work to retirement. Having worked for ‘six-and-thirty years’ in a counting house (accounting firm) in the somewhat appropriately named street, Mincing Lane, in London, Lamb lets it slip to his employer that he’s tired. He fears the worst, but surprisingly, a week later he is offered a generous pension and he happily accepts it.

What follows brings to light the paradox of work which we, two hundred years later have perhaps fallen even more deeply in. We cannot stand having to go to work when we do not feel like it, and yet we miss it (even though we won’t admit it) when we leave it. We cannot wait for Sunday to take a well-deserved rest, and yet Sundays bring a ‘gloom’ onto a city (London, in Lamb’s case) that is difficult to shed in order to recreate ourselves fully. Holidays too are a mixed bag:

But besides Sundays I had a day at Easter, and a day at Christmas, with a full week in the summer to go and air myself in my native fields of Hertfordshire. This last was a great indulgence; and the prospect of its recurrence, I believe, alone kept me up through the year, and made my durance tolerable. But when the week came round, did the glittering phantom of the distance keep touch with me? or rather was it not a series of seven uneasy days, spent in restless pursuit of pleasure, and a wearisome anxiety to find out how to make the most of them? Where was the quiet, where the promised rest? Before I had a taste of it, it was vanished. I was at the desk again, counting upon the fifty-one tedious weeks that must intervene before such another snatch would come. Still the prospect of its coming threw something of an illumination upon the darker side of my captivity. Without it, as I have said, I could scarcely have sustained my thraldom.

On a level that goes beyond the personal, Lamb’s essay, though generally light-hearted, may be read as exposing some of the conditions of work in an industrial society growing into capitalism that Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy, among many others, would depict so well. Note his lines on the hollowness of the faces in London:

Nothing to be seen but unhappy countenances — or half-happy at best — of emancipated ‘prentices and little trades-folks, with here and there a servant maid that has got leave to go out, who, slaving all the week, with the habit has lost almost the capacity of enjoying a free hour; and livelily expressing the hollowness of a day’s pleasuring. The very strollers in the fields on that day look anything but comfortable.

We hear William Blake’s ‘London’ in them, but also T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’. People work hard every day, look for pleasure, but find nothing except for work-related anxiety:

I had perpetually a dread of some crisis, to which I should be found unequal. Besides my daylight servitude, I served over again all night in my sleep, and would awake with terrors of imaginary false entries, errors in my accounts, and the like. I was fifty years of age, and no prospect of emancipation presented itself. I had grown to my desk, as it were; and the wood had entered into my soul.

Retirement brings relief, but it also sets Lamb thinking. He now has time for himself, and this makes him realise that although he has lived fifty years, he is very young in terms of the amount of time he has devoted to himself:

I have indeed lived nominally fifty years, but deduct out of them the hours which I have lived to other people, and not to myself, and you will find me still a young fellow. For that is the only true Time, which a man can properly call his own, that which he has all to himself; the rest, though in some sense he may be said to live it, is other people’s time, not his. 

Lamb feels like he can look forward to his retired future with confidence. At first he is lost as he ‘missed [his] old chains, forsooth, as if they had been some necessary part of my apparel’, but he grows to appreciate the way in which ‘Time stands still’ as he has no weekly commitments. He loses track of time in a way that may seem disconcerting, but he arrives to a conclusion that suits him well:

 A man can never have too much Time to himself, nor too little to do. Had I a little son, I would christen him NOTHING-TO-DO; he should do nothing. Man, I verily believe, is out of his element as long as he is operative. I am altogether for the life contemplative.


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