If your inbox looks anything like mine this first week of January, it’s flooded with advertisements for gym memberships, discounted vitamins, and fancy planners that “guarantee” you reach your goals. I started wondering when the idea of a New Year resolution became such a widespread cultural phenomenon. The Romantic period seemed like a likely point of origin, given the increasing emphasis on individual experience.
“New Year’s Eve,” one of Charles Lamb’s Elia essays published in the London Magazine in January 1821, does not prove my hypothesis. But it does express an interesting attitude toward the New Year.
Elia begins by humorously likening the New Year to a birthday then transitions to a more pensive and lugubrious line of thought:
“Of all sound of all bells—(bells, the music nighest bordering upon heaven)—most solemn and touching is the peal which rings out the Old Year. I never heard it without a gathering-up of my mind to a concentration of all the images that have been diffused over the past twelve-month; all I have done or suffered, performed or neglected—in that regretted time. I begin to know its worth, as when a person dies.”1
Elia’s tone here is exactly what he attributes to the midnight bells—solemn and touching—as he leads us into a trap. By beginning with the heavenly, almost exultant, bells, we expect to experience the New Year with exhilaration. And indeed, we seem to in the “concentration of all the images” in that powerful parallelism of “all I have done or suffered, performed or neglected.” That dash is a kicker though. The energy of the remembrances are syntactically stultified, then dulled to a painful melancholy “in that regretted time.” Likening the Old Year to a recently deceased person sends us plummeting into still deeper dejection.
(Yes, this was the accompanying sketch in the 1905 edition I found)
Rather than feeling “exhilaration at the birth of the coming year,”2 Elia solemnly understands the New Year as a sign of aging, another step closer to death. This is all beginning to sound very morbid. But really, I don’t think Lamb’s essay is about indulging melancholy or even nostalgia for the old year. Rather, he confronts “this intolerable disinclination to dying”3 that haunts him on New Year’s Eve, and paragraph by paragraph transforms his melancholy and nostalgia into a rapturous celebration of his present life: “I am content to stand still at the age to which I am arrived; I am my friends: to be no younger, no richer no handsomer… 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?”4 The length of the zestful list with its relishing repetition of “and” overwhelms the concluding meditation on the afterlife with vivacity.
Building on the momentum of this delineation, Elia chastises the tombstones that exhort him to think of death and mocks the dead man’s “odious truism, that ‘such as he now is, I must shortly be.”5 Apostrophizing the deceased, Elia exclaims: “Not so shortly, friend, perhaps as thou imaginest. In the meantime I am alive. I move about. I am worth twenty of thee. Know thy betters! Thy New Year’s Days are past. I survive, a jolly candidate for 1821. Another cup of wine–…”6
What Lamb is ultimately criticizing is the typical attitude of looking to the future at the start of a new year. At first, he counters this anticipatory orientation by reflecting on the past. But this too proves unsatisfying. Rejecting both backward and forward-looking melancholy, Elia declares, “I am alive. I move about.” It is in this statement (not exclamation) that Elia finds tempered delight in the present and can therefore embrace the New Year with playful irony.
So really, it seems like Lamb is anti-New Year resolutions. All that prospection just brings you closer to death. Move about in your present moment, and have another cup of wine, good ol’ Lamb entreats us.
I suppose I should have looked at those earnest Victorians for the origin of New Year resolutions… Maybe there’s a chapter on it in Self-Help…
 Charles Lamb, The Essays of Elia (J. M. Dent & Co., 1905), 54.
 Lamb, 55.
 Lamb, 59.
 Lamb, 58.
 Lamb, 60.
 Lamb, 60.
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.
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!