The Conflict Between the Pleasures of Youth and the Pleasures of Poverty-- an analysis of Charles Lamb's essay, Old China

 Old China by Charles Lamb is not about Ancient China nor is it about delicate China- tea cups, vases, and dishes. Old China, 1823 - March included in Last Essays of Elia is rather contemplation upon the nature of youthful pleasures irrespective of physical and economic situations. Read More Romantic Period The major part of the essay comprises of Bridget’s harangue upon Elia’s human deterioration with increasing wealth and in an explication of the pleasures that were attendant upon them during their days of severe economic constraints. Contrasted to this idea stands Elia’s counterpoint that the past was indeed pleasurable not because of poverty, but because of the dilatoriness of youth that lightens even the heaviest burden of misery.

            Old China begins with Elia’s statement of his admiration of the grotesque images painted on China cups and his predilection for Chinese pottery. As Elia is deliberating upon the beauties of China tea cups in general, he suddenly discerns a shade of displeasure on the face of his cousin, Bridget. On inquiry, Bridget tells Elia that she feels that the earlier days when they faced far more economic hardship and when they could hardly afford cheap luxuries, they were far happier. Read More Romantic Period Now that they have money enough, to buy whatever they wish to, they do not find any special pleasure in a purchase. In older days when to afford for a cheap luxury they had to think hard about budgetary provisions, which were meager, when they had to think and plan for the source of money and to debate whether at all to buy a coveted thing or not, a thing really appeared worth while and there was a great pleasure when finally the thing was bought. “A purchase is but a purchase now”, says Bridget but “formerly it used to be a triumph”.

For example, Bridget remember the great joy when Elia bought the Folio Edition of the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher and presented it to her after many days of eying the book displayed in the stall and after many thoughts about how the money spent on the book could be managed by curtailing some of the provisions of their life. That was a time when there was a pleasure in being poor. She remembers Elia’s buying a cheap print of Leonardo de Vinci and how he was apologetic for having spent a meager twenty shillings, and how they looked at the purchase and thought of the money over and over again. Yet, Bridget, feels, there was a great pleasure even in such small purchases. She also remembers their frugal meals, their visits to the theaters in one shilling gallery and yet how greatly they enjoyed all in spite of the physical discomfort involved.

            In short, Bridget’s basic argument is that in the past, under momentary constraints and physical discomforts, they were far happier than the present because at that time the value of money was pressingly felt. Even a cheap purchase or a minor purchase was deemed to be a grand and pleasurable luxury. Now that they can afford to pay for coveted objects and entertainments as far as possible, they do not find the earlier pleasures any more.

            Ultimately Elia tries to point out to Bridget that though her observation on their earlier happiness is true, it is also equally true that now that they are again a minimum comfort and economic stability are indispensable for their existence. Elia points out that the spirited vitality of youth; the strength of mind physical stamina has deserted them with age. Read More Romantic Period Elia implores Bridget to be realistic in her attitude to life and accept the fact that the earlier hardship would not have been welcome and endurable had they existed even now. Actually Bridget was confusing between the pleasures of youth and the pleasures of poverty. Elia suggests in Old China that in reality poverty is not a desired state in life and that poverty has no ability to make life worth enjoyment. What is true is that in youth the dark clouds of poverty cannot make life shadowy, because youth it has its own light that can dispense with all forms of external darkness.

Farther reading:  



  1. Charles Lamb’s Old China, Hogarth, and Perspective Painting
Joseph E. Riehl
  1. University Lectures, Oxford University, Summer 2006

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