What is the central idea of Charles Lamb's poem "The Old Familiar Faces"?

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The central idea of the poem is that, despite our best efforts, life is often full of contradictions and regrets. Even though we may strive to hold on to our intimate connections, it is impossible to keep them forever.

In the poem, the poet laments that some of his companions have left him, some have died, and some have been taken from him. He is helpless to turn back time or to change the past; he is equally saddened that he can no longer return to his "joyful school-days." The poet has lost touch with his "bosom cronies"  and even the woman he once loved has closed her doors to him. He says that he "must not see her." Perhaps, she has chosen to be with someone else. Either way, he feels a deep regret for how things have turned out.

Despite his grief at everything he has lost, the poet is most disturbed by his disloyalty to a man who was a "kinder friend" than anyone ever had. The poet maintains that, "like an ingrate," he left his friend "abruptly" so that he could "muse on the old familiar faces." However, he never found what he was looking for. When he returned to the old haunts, they resembled deserts he "was bound to traverse" alone. We get the sense that his personal journey to recapture his past happiness have yielded him little in terms of emotional satisfaction.

Indeed, he laments that he cannot share his ruminations of the past with his kind friend. Even though they are bosom friends and closer than brothers, they never shared the same intimate connections with "old familiar faces." The poet knows that he will never see his "departed" friends again, and no amount of hoping can bring them back to him. So, the poem definitely focuses on the transience of happiness and the regrets of life.

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Throughout the first several stanzas of poem "The Old Familiar Faces," the speaker recalls his childhood pals, his drinking buddies from later in life, a woman whom he loved, and a very kind friend.

He muses on all of these "familiar faces" and sadly says that they're all gone now, and he's left wandering around, hoping that he'll somehow find those familiar faces.

We don't know why the childhood friends or the drinking buddies are gone now, though we might guess that they simply drifted apart as the speaker got older, and we infer that the woman he loved broke up with him  ("Closed are her doors to me"). We do know for certain that the speaker himself abandoned his close friend.

Now the speaker starts to focus on that one kind friend, sadly wondering why they couldn't have been brothers.

The poem ends as the speaker summarizes his depressing situation:

"How some they have died, and some they have left me,

And some are taken from me; all are departed;

All, all are gone, the old familiar faces."

The central idea of the poem, then, is that the people whom the speaker knew and loved and connected with are all gone now. Phrased differently, you could say that the central idea is an intensely felt loneliness and loss of companionship, or a lament for the loss of the people whom the speaker loved.

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