It is beyond the scope of an eNote answer to explicate an essay of this length line by line, but I will provide an overview, and please feel free to ask more questions.
As the title of the essay indicates, the subject is poor relations, by which Charles Lamb means relatives with very little money. They were common in early 19th century England because society favored the accumulation of wealth into a few hands. For example, the laws of primogeniture ensured that great estates were inherited in their entirety by the eldest son, rather than divided among the children. This kept the estates intact and maintained the family prestige. Custom, as Samuel Richardson had outlined a half century earlier in Sir Charles Grandison, also tended to favor leaving even discretionary income to one heir, something Richardson deplored as cruel to other relatives. Jane Austen's novels, close to Lamb's period, also dealt with the issue: the plots of both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice are put into motion by the real or threatened loss of an estate to a male heir.
What kept wealth concentrated in a few hands (the good fortune of eldest sons) tended to leave other relatives in more precarious situations that could lead to poverty, especially given the lack of a social safety net in that period. Then, as now, having the poor relation show up for dinner could be embarrassing (if you have seen the movie National Lampoon Vacation, you will remember the comic problems that arise when poor, uneducated relations show up), and this becomes the focus of the Lamb essay, though more poignantly than in National Lampoon: the poor relative who arrives at the house for a meal.
In the first paragraph, Lamb, in the guise of his narrator, Elia, lists some of the common thoughts or cliches about a poor relation, none of them flattering. A poor relation is "irrelevant" or unimportant, "impertinent" in writing to you, in other words, a person you don't want to hear from, a drain on your finances, an embarrassment, something that delights your enemies, inconvenient, annoying, a blot on your life. These are blunt words, and while there is a comic intent in this piling up of cliche upon cliche to the point of exaggeration, at the same time, Lamb/Elia doesn't fall into silly pieties or the hypocrisy of pretending a poor relation is wholly welcome.
In the second paragraph, Elia describes the arrival of the male poor relation, including the mutual embarrassment: you, the host, really don't want to see him and he is embarrassed by his poverty, but he needs a free meal. (We remember that the problem of food scarcity isn't really solved, even in rich countries, until after World War II, well beyond this time period.) The poor relation never seems to arrive on the days when you don't have other company. He, of course, shows up at dinnertime, then has to be persuaded to eat the food he is hungry for, even if there is none too much ("the turbot ... small"). Lamb lays out the whole embarrassing scene:
He declareth against fish, the turbot being small — yet suffereth himself to be importuned [persuaded] into [taking] a slice against his first resolution. He sticketh by the port — yet will be prevailed upon to empty the remainder glass of claret, if a stranger press it upon him.
His manners (how he acts) are also excruciating: he is both too "familiar," in other words, he acts too much like a close friend, and at the same time, he is too "diffident" or shy, too abject and humble. The servants don't know how to treat him and the other guests wonder about him, though his unfortunate knack of being both overly friendly and overly abject betray him as the poor relation. He brings up old family stories at the wrong moment (is "unseasonable") and his conversation and compliments irritate (they are a "trouble" and "perverse"): his presence, in a word, is awkward, and when he's gone, you whisk his chair into a corner and breathe a sigh of relief. He's that person who doesn't fit in but who you can't not have over.
Elia then moves to the female poor relation. He finds poor females worse than poor males because they have an even more difficult time hiding their status and can't be dismissed easily as simply eccentric:
But in the indications of female poverty there can be no disguise. No woman dresses below herself from caprice. The truth must out without shuffling.
Her clothes are between those of gentlewoman and a beggar, presumably meaning once well made, stylish clothes of good fabric now worn, outdated and patched. But even worse are her manners. She is too humble, too self-aware of being a poor relation, too abject, and people hold her in contempt: for instance, the governess, below her rank, corrects her when she calls the piano a harpsichord (a humbler, more old-fashioned instrument).
In the next paragraph, Lamb first mentions a Richard Amlet, a poor gamester (or gambler) in a play called "The Confederacy" by Sir John Vanburgh, then moves to a friend, who was the son of a house painter. This man went to Oxford and loved the scholarly life, but was pulled out of it to take up his father's trade, for financial reasons. The difference between "gown and town" or academics and life in a shop, was too great for this young man, who instead joined the army and was killed in Portugal.
Elia goes on to say in the next paragraph that while he started off his essay half comically, the subject of poor relations is also painful and tragic. He mentions his own childhood and a poor relation, an old gentleman, who would come to dinner every Saturday and one day was offended when Elia's aunt pushed a second helping of food on him saying, “Do take another slice, Mr. Billet, for you do not get pudding every day." He gets revenge later on her calling out his poverty by labeling her superannuated, which means obsolete or outdated. But Elia allows the poor relation to land on a note of dignity, for this elderly man dies poor, but with five pounds to his name: "enough to bury him." The very ending, however, is ambiguous, possibly ironic: he had "never been obliged to any man for a six-pence" (if you don't count the weekly meals).
Overall, the essay is notable for dealing honestly with an uncomfortable subject.
A poor relation — is the most irrelevant thing in nature — a piece of impertinent correspondency — an odious approximation — a haunting conscience — a preposterous shadow, lengthening in the noontide of your prosperity — an unwelcome remembrancer — a perpetually recurring mortification — a drain on your purse — a more intolerable dun upon your pride — a drawback upon success — a rebuke to your rising — a stain in your blood — a blot on your scutcheon — a rent in your garment — a death’s head at your banquet — Agathocles’ pot — a Mordecai in your gate — a Lazarus at your door — a lion in your path — a frog in your chamber — a fly in your ointment — a mote in your eye — a triumph to your enemy, an apology to your friends — the one thing not needful — the hail in harvest — the ounce of sour in a pound of sweet.
He is known by his knock. Your heart telleth you “That is Mr. ——.” A rap, between familiarity and respect; that demands, and, at the same time, seems to despair of, entertainment. He entereth smiling, and — embarrassed. He holdeth out his hand to you to shake, and — draweth it back again. He casually looketh in about dinner time — when the table is full. He offereth to go away, seeing you have company — but is induced to stay. He filleth a chair, and your visitor’s two children are accommodated at a side table. He never cometh upon open days, when your wife says with some complacency, “My dear, perhaps Mr. —— will drop in today.” He remembereth birth-days — and professeth he is fortunate to have stumbled upon one. He declareth against fish, the turbot being small — yet suffereth himself to be importuned into a slice against his first resolution. He sticketh by the port — yet will be prevailed upon to empty the remainder glass of claret, if a stranger press it upon him. He is a puzzle to the servants, who are fearful of being too obsequious, or not civil enough, to him. The guests think “they have seen him before.” Every one speculateth upon his condition; and the most part take him to be-a tide-waiter. He calleth you by your Christian name, to imply that his other is the same with your own. He is too familiar by half, yet you wish he had less diffidence. With half the familiarity he might pass for a casual dependent; with more boldness he would be in no danger of being taken for what he is. He is too humble for a friend, yet taketh on him more state than befits a client. He is a worse guest than a country tenant, inasmuch as he bringeth up no rent — yet ’tis odds, from his garb and demeanour, that your guests take him for one. He is asked to make one at the whist table; refuseth on the score of poverty, and — resents being left out. When the company break up, he proffereth to go for a coach — and lets the servant go. He recollects your grandfather; and will thrust in some mean, and quite unimportant anecdote of — the family. He knew it when it was not quite so flourishing as “he is blest in seeing it now.” He reviveth past situations, to institute what he calleth — favourable comparisons. With a reflecting sort of congratulation, he will inquire the price of your furniture; and insults you with a special commendation of your window-curtains. He is of opinion that the urn is the more elegant shape, but, after all, there was something more comfortable about the old tea-kettle — which you must remember. He dare say you must find a great convenience in having a carriage of your own, and appealeth to your lady if it is not so. Inquireth if you have had your arms done on vellum yet; and did not know till lately, that such-and-such had been the crest of the family. His memory is unseasonable; his compliments perverse; his talk a trouble; his stay pertinacious; and when he goeth away, you dismiss his chair into a corner, as precipitately as possible, and feel fairly rid of two nuisances.
There is a worse evil under the sun, and that is — a female Poor Relation. You may do something with the other; you may pass him off tolerably well; but your indigent she-relative is hopeless. “He is an old humourist,” you may say, “and affects to go threadbare. His circumstances are better than folks would take them to be. You are fond of having a Character at your table, and truly he is one.” But in the indications of female poverty there can be no disguise. No woman dresses below herself from caprice. The truth must out without shuffling. “She is plainly related to the L——s; or what does she at their house?” She is, in all probability, your wife’s cousin. Nine times out of ten, at least, this is the case. Her garb is something between a gentlewoman and a beggar, yet the former evidently predominates. She is most provokingly humble, and ostentatiously sensible to her inferiority. He may require to be repressed sometimes —aliquando sufflaminandus erat— but there is no raising her. You send her soup at dinner, and she begs to be helped — after the gentlemen. Mr. —— requests the honour of taking wine with her; she hesitates between Port and Madeira, and chooses the former — because he does. She calls the servant Sir; and insists on not troubling him to hold her plate. The housekeeper patronizes her. The children’s governess takes upon her to correct her, when she has mistaken the piano for a harpsichord.
Richard Amlet, Esq., in the play, is a notable instance of the disadvantages, to which this chimerical notion of affinity constituting a claim to acquaintance, may subject the spirit of a gentleman. A little foolish blood is all that is betwixt him and a lady of great estate. His stars are perpetually crossed by the malignant maternity of an old woman, who persists in calling him “her son Dick.” But she has wherewithal in the end to recompense his indignities, and float him again upon the brilliant surface, under which it had been her seeming business and pleasure all along to sink him. All men, besides, are not of Dick’s temperament. I knew an Amlet in real life, who, wanting Dick’s buoyancy, sank indeed. Poor W—— was of my own standing at Christ’s, a fine classic, and a youth of promise. If he had a blemish, it was too much pride; but its quality was inoffensive; it was not of that sort which hardens the heart, and serves to keep inferiors at a distance; it only sought to ward off derogation from itself. It was the principle of self-respect carried as far as it could go, without infringing upon that respect, which he would have every one else equally maintain for himself. He would have you to think alike with him on this topic. Many a quarrel have I had with him, when we were rather older boys, and our tallness made us more obnoxious to observation in the blue clothes, because I would not thread the alleys and blind ways of the town with him to elude notice, when we have been out together on a holiday in the streets of this sneering and prying metropolis. W—— went, sore with these notions, to Oxford, where the dignity and sweetness of a scholar’s life, meeting with the alloy of a humble introduction, wrought in him a passionate devotion to the place, with a profound aversion from the society. The servitor’s gown (worse than his school array) clung to him with Nessian venom. He thought himself ridiculous in a garb, under which Latimer must have walked erect; and in which Hooker, in his young days, possibly flaunted in a vein of no discommendable vanity. In the depth of college shades, or in his lonely chamber, the poor student shrunk from observation. He found shelter among books, which insult not; and studies, that ask no questions of a youth’s finances. He was lord of his library, and seldom cared for looking out beyond his domains. The healing influence of studious pursuits was upon him, to soothe and to abstract. He was almost a healthy man; when the waywardness of his fate broke out against him with a second and worse malignity. The father of W—— had hitherto exercised the humble profession of house-painter at N— — near Oxford. A supposed interest with some of the heads of the colleges had now induced him to take up his abode in that city, with the hope of being employed upon some public works which were talked of. From that moment I read in the countenance of the young man, the determination which at length tore him from academical pursuits for ever. To a person unacquainted with our Universities, the distance between the gownsmen and the townsmen, as they are called — the trading part of the latter especially — is carried to an excess that would appear harsh and incredible. The temperament of W——‘s father was diametrically the reverse of his own. Old W—— was a little, busy, cringing tradesman, who, with his son upon his arm, would stand bowing and scraping, cap in hand, to any-thing that wore the semblance of a gown — insensible to the winks and opener remonstrances of the young man, to whose chamber-fellow, or equal in standing, perhaps, he was thus obsequiously and gratuitously ducking. Such a state of things could not last. W—— must change the air of Oxford or be suffocated. He chose the former; and let the sturdy moralist, who strains the point of the filial duties as high as they can bear, censure the dereliction; he cannot estimate the struggle. I stood with W— — the last afternoon I ever saw him, under the eaves of his paternal dwelling. It was in the fine lane leading from the High-street to the back of ***** college, where W—— kept his rooms. He seemed thoughtful, and more reconciled. I ventured to rally him — finding him in a better mood — upon a representation of the Artist Evangelist, which the old man, whose affairs were beginning to flourish, had caused to be set up in a splendid sort of frame over his really handsome shop, either as a token of prosperity, or badge of gratitude to his saint. W—— looked up at the Luke, and, like Satan, “knew his mounted sign — and fled.” A letter on his father’s table the next morning, announced that he had accepted a commission in a regiment about to embark for Portugal. He was among the first who perished before the walls of St. Sebastian.
I do not know how, upon a subject which I began with treating half seriously, I should have fallen upon a recital so eminently painful; but this theme of poor relationship is replete with so much matter for tragic as well as comic associations, that it is difficult to keep the account distinct without blending. The earliest impressions which I received on this matter, are certainly not attended with anything painful, or very humiliating, in the recalling. At my father’s table (no very splendid one) was to be found, every Saturday, the mysterious figure of an aged gentleman, clothed in neat black, of a sad yet comely appearance. His deportment was of the essence of gravity; his words few or none; and I was not to make a noise in his presence. I had little inclination to have done so — for my cue was to admire in silence. A particular elbow chair was appropriated to him, which was in no case to be violated. A peculiar sort of sweet pudding, which appeared on no other occasion, distinguished the days of his coming. I used to think him a prodigiously rich man. All I could make out of him was, that he and my father had been schoolfellows a world ago at Lincoln, and that he came from the Mint. The Mint I knew to be a place where all the money was coined — and I thought he was the owner of all that money. Awful ideas of the Tower twined themselves about his presence. He seemed above human infirmities and passions. A sort of melancholy grandeur invested him. From some inexplicable doom I fancied him obliged to go about in an eternal suit of mourning; a captive — a stately being, let out of the Tower on Saturdays. Often have I wondered at the temerity of my father, who, in spite of an habitual general respect which we all in common manifested towards him, would venture now and then to stand up against him in some argument, touching their youthful days. The houses of the ancient city of Lincoln are divided (as most of my readers know) between the dwellers on the hill, and in the valley. This marked distinction formed an obvious division between the boys who lived above (however brought together in a common school) and the boys whose paternal residence was on the plain; a sufficient cause of hostility in the code of these young Grotiuses. My father had been a leading Mountaineer; and would still maintain the general superiority, in skill and hardihood, of the Above Boys (his own faction) over the Below Boys (so were they called), of which party his contemporary had been a chieftain. Many and hot were the skirmishes on this topic — the only one upon which the old gentleman was ever brought out — and bad blood bred; even sometimes almost to the recommencement (so I expected) of actual hostilities. But my father, who scorned to insist upon advantages, generally contrived to turn the conversation upon some adroit by-commendation of the old Minster; in the general preference of which, before all other cathedrals in the island, the dweller on the hill, and the plain-born, could meet on a conciliating level, and lay down their less important differences. Once only I saw the old gentleman really ruffled, and I remembered with anguish the thought that came over me: “Perhaps he will never come here again.” He had been pressed to take another plate of the viand, which I have already mentioned as the indispensable concomitant of his visits. He had refused, with a resistance amounting to rigour — when my aunt, an old Lincolnian, but who had something of this, in common with my cousin Bridget, that she would sometimes press civility out of season — uttered the following memorable application —“Do take another slice, Mr. Billet, for you do not get pudding every day.” The old gentleman said nothing at the time — but he took occasion in the course of the evening, when some argument had intervened between them, to utter with an emphasis which chilled the company, and which chills me now as I write it —“Woman, you are superannuated.” John Billet did not survive long, after the digesting of this affront; but he survived long enough to assure me that peace was actually restored! and, if I remember aright, another pudding was discreetly substituted in the place of that which had occasioned the offence. He died at the Mint (Anno 1781) where he had long held, what he accounted, a comfortable independence; and with five pounds, fourteen shillings, and a penny, which were found in his escrutoire after his decease, left the world, blessing God that he had enough to bury him, and that he had never been obliged to any man for a sixpence. This was — a Poor Relation.