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In all the old familiar places

Charles Lamb’s poem the Old Familiar Faces was written in the late 18th century. It is an exceptionally nostalgic piece that deals with the loss of innocence and the rejection of a ‘home’ that we have to leave in order to discover. Lamb uses a number of literary devices to emphasize his intention and enhance the nostalgic and defeatist feel of the poem. In particular he uses repetition and position, word choice and imagery to bring us to this understanding. Lamb’s use of repetition throughout the piece adds to the poem’s nostalgia and emphasizes the great sense of loss the author feels.

He ends stanzas 1, 2, 3 and 7 with the line “All, all are gone, the old familiar faces”. His repetition on the word ‘all’ within each sentence in particular gives the impression that there really is no one left, potentially including himself in that ‘all’. His repetition of the entire line revisits this sense of loss with every description of remembrance. His choice to place the line at the end of each stanza, rather than in the middle or at the beginning, was to leave us with that lingering feeling.

Where he excludes the “all, all are gone” is in the stanzas relating to his friend and his leaving ‘home’ as he understood it. The sense of loss is different when happened by choice and realization; his choice to leave his friend, his choice to live in the shadows of his childhood, his realization that his friend was ‘home’ all along. Lamb uses word choice to illustrate his living in the past, a past in which he doesn’t belong. His use of the word ‘old’ to describe the ‘familiar faces’ reinforces that passing of time. In stanza 5, he also describes his revisiting the ‘haunts’ of his childhood as being ‘ghost-like’.

His reference to it being like a ghost is telling the reader that he doesn’t belong in the past. Ghosts are not living in the moment and they are not quite alive either. His use of the word ‘ghost’ also parallels the idea of ‘all’ really being gone, including himself. Most important to illustrating his meaning is his use of imagery in the poem. In stanza 1, he describes his school days as being ‘joyful’ and references his friends as ‘playmates’ the combination of those descriptions gives the feeling of the innocence and freedom he once felt.

In the following stanza he creates the impression of a fun-loving time, ‘laughing’, ‘carousing’, ‘drinking’ and staying out ‘late’. Through his imagery the reader feels the same sense of freedom and youthful exuberance. In the 3rd stanza he describes his love as having ‘closed her doors’ on him and follows it with ‘I must not see her’. This is a very physical description – the visual of the doors closing you imagine actually not being able to see her. Where that image lies in the poem also acts as a divider for the separation of thinking and loss of innocence in his life.

When the doors close the stanzas following deal with his choice to leave in search of a ‘home’ that he later discovers was there all along, only now all is ‘gone’. The imagery in stanza 5 is also interesting as he describes the Earth as a desert. The desert being a barren place and him feeling like a ‘ghost’ within it, emphasizes the idea that he wont find what he is looking for there and that he left in order to wander aimlessly where he doesn’t belong. Lamb’s poem is powerful in its message and was likely influenced by familial events.

The initial version of his poem opened with the lines, I had a mother, but she died, and left me, Died prematurely in a day of horrors – All, all are gone, the old familiar faces The poem was written after the death of his mother and it is likely that his immense sense of loss translated into his poem. There is a strong correlation between stanza topics and his life events as well. It is likely that the loss of his love could relate to his long courtship of Ann Simmons which ended unsuccessfully and which he had described as his “great disappointment” (Roberts, 2002).

The poem evokes a strong sense of nostalgia, disenchantment with learning that what was sought was there all along and disappointment and grief in that realization that we can all relate to. In many ways it feels as if Lamb is both expressing his grief and forewarning us not to make the same mistake. Works Cited Lamb, Charles. “The Old Familiar Faces”. BOOK TITLE. PUBLISHER. CITY, YEAR. PAGE. Roberts, Andrew and Hitchcock, Susan. “Mary and Charles Lamb – A page of mental and geographical connections”. 2002, Middlesex University. 30 May 2009 <http://www. mdx. ac. uk/www/study/ylamb. htm>

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