XIV. ON THE FRINGE

Charles Lamb (1775–1834) was one of several keen spirits whose principal publications place them after 1815, but who in our period entered intimately into the lives of the Lake Poets. Lamb was the closest of Coleridge’s London friends. They had known each other as schoolboys at Christ’s Hospital. There Lamb’s incurable stammering kept him from scholastic honors. He left school at fourteen to support himself; at seventeen he became an accountant in the East India House; and he remained there until he was retired on a pension at the age of fifty.

There was a strain of insanity in his heritage; he himself spent six weeks in an asylum (1795–96); and in 1796 his sister Mary Ann (1764–1847), in an insane mania, killed their mother. For several periods Mary had been confined, but for the most part Lamb, renouncing marriage, had her live with him till his death. She recovered sufficiently to collaborate with him in writing Tales from Shakespeare (1807). His own unique product was the Essays of Elia (1820–25), whose genial style, modesty, and art revealed one of the most lovable characters in that not too gracious age.

In June, 1797, still shaken by the tragedy of the previous year, he accepted an invitation from Coleridge to visit him at Nether Stowey. As a stammerer he hardly dared talk when he found himself before two poets—Wordsworth and Coleridge—in rival volubility. Five years later he and his sister visited the Coleridge family in Greta Hall. “He received us with all the hospitality in the world.”106 Though he himself remained a skeptic to the end, Lamb never allowed Coleridge’s theological diversions to interfere with an affection and an admiration that withstood every discouragement.

The National Portrait Gallery contains a tender portrait of Lamb by his friend William Hazlitt (1778–1830), the liveliest and sharpest literary critic of the time. Hazlitt visited Coleridge in 1798, and again, at Greta Hall, in 1803. On the second occasion Wordsworth joined them, and the three set about determining whether God existed. William Paley, as we have seen, had recently defended the affirmative with the argument from design; Hazlitt countered it; Wordsworth took a middle ground, affirming God not as external to the universe and guiding it from without, but as inherent in it as its life and mind. On that visit Hazlitt incurred the wrath of the neighbors by seducing a schoolgirl. Fearing arrest or worse, he fled to Grasmere, where Wordsworth gave him a night’s lodging and, the next morning, advanced him funds to pay coach fare to London.

When Coleridge and Wordsworth turned against the Revolution, and denounced Napoleon in fervent verse, Hazlitt set them down as turncoats, and wrote a four-volume Life of Napoleon Buonaparte (1828–30) from Napoleon’s point of view. Meanwhile he had made his mark as a critic with his lectures (1820) on the Elizabethan drama, and his contemporary portraits in The Spirit of the Age (1825); Wordsworth did not enjoy its satirical attack on the “peasant school” in literature.107

The aging poet liked better Thomas De Quincey (1785–1859), who offered him a continuo of admiration. Thomas was a genius in his own right, who was to alarm Britain in 1821 with Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Beginning as a prodigy, speaking classic Greek readily at fifteen, running away from school and Oxford as too slow for his pace, he must have surprised himself by his delight with the unpretentious simplicity of the Lyrical Ballads. In May, 1803, he wrote to Wordsworth such a letter as might have turned the solitary poet’s head:

I have no other motive in soliciting your friendship than what (I should think) every man who has read and felt the “Lyrical Ballads” must have in common with me. The whole aggregate of pleasure I have received from eight or nine other poets that I have been able to find since the world began falls infinitely short of what these two enchanting volumes have singly afforded me;—that your name is with me forever linked to the lovely scenes of nature…. What claim can I urge to a fellowship with such a society as yours, beaming (as it does) with genius so wild and so magnificent?

He added that Wordsworth would never find anyone “more ready… to sacrifice even his life whenever it would have a chance of promoting your interest and happiness.”

Wordsworth’s reply was a model of kindly instruction. “My friendship,” he wrote, “is not in my power to give; this is a gift which no man can make…. A sound and healthy friendship is the growth of time and circumstance; it will spring up like a wildflower when these favour, and when they do not it is in vain to look for it.” He tried to deter the youth from seeking a regular correspondence: “I am the most lazy and impotent letter writer in the world.” But he added: “I shall indeed be very happy to see you at Grasmere.”108

Despite his ardor, De Quincey let three years pass before accepting the invitation. Then, reaching sight of Wordsworth’s cottage, he lost courage, and, like the fabled pilgrim nearing Rome, turned back as unworthy. But late in 1807, at Bristol, Coleridge accepted his offer to escort Mrs. Coleridge and her children to Keswick. On the way she stopped with him at Dove Cottage, and now, at last, De Quincey saw Wordsworth “plain,” as Browning was soon to see Shelley. “Like a flash of lightning I saw the figure emerge of a tallish man, who held out his hand and saluted me with most cordial expressions of welcome.”109

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