Charles Lamb (1775-1834)
From 18th Century Literary Anecdotes

Coleridge was one evening running before the wind. He had talked about everything, from Moses downwards. At last he came to his own doings at Shrewsbury, and was swinging on, nineteen knots to the hour. `At this place, at Shrewsbury (which is not only remarkable for its celebrated cakes, and for having been the point of rendezvous for Falstaff's regiment of foot, but also, if I may presume to speak of it, for the first development of the imaginative faculty in myself, by which faculty I would be understood to mean, etc. etc. ) —at Shrewsbury I was accustomed to preach.—I believe, Charles Lamb, that you have heard me preach?' pursued he, turning round to his fatigued friend, who rapidly retorted—`I—I—never heard you do anything else.'

Leigh Hunt's London journal, 17 October 1835 (Edmund Blunden, Charles Lamb: His Life Recorded by his Contemporaries (1934), p. 246).

In December Wordsworth was in town, and as Keats wished to know him I made up a party to dinner of Charles Lamb, Wordsworth, Keats, and Monkhouse, his friend; and a very pleasant party we had....

On December 28th the immortal dinner came off in my painting-room, with Jerusalem towering up behind us as a background. Wordsworth was in fine cue, and we had a glorious set-to—on Homer, Shakespeare, Milton, and Virgil. Lamb got exceedingly merry and exquisitely witty; and his fun in the midst of Wordsworth's solemn intonations of oratory was like the sarcasm and wit of the fool in the intervals of Lear's passion. He made a speech and voted me absent, and made them drink my health. `Now,' said Lamb, `you old Lake poet, you rascally poet, why do you call Voltaire dull?' We all defended Wordsworth, and affirmed there was a state of mind when Voltaire would be dull. `Well,' said Lamb, `here's Voltaire—the Messiah of the French nation, and a very proper one too.'

He then, in a strain of humour beyond description, abused me for putting Newton's head into my picture; `a fellow', said he, `who believed nothing unless it was as clear as the three sides of a triangle.' And then he and Keats agreed he had destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to the prismatic colours. It was impossible to resist him, and we all drank `Newton's health and confusion to mathematics'. It was delightful to see the good humour of Wordsworth in giving in to all our frolics without affectation and laughing as heartily as the best of us.

By this time other friends joined, among them poor Ritchie, who was going to penetrate by Fezzan to Timbuctoo. I introduced him to all as `a gentleman going to Africa'. Lamb seemed to take no notice; but all of a sudden he roared out: `Which is the gentleman we are going to lose?' We then drank the victim's health, in which Ritchie joined.

In the morning of this delightful day, a gentleman, a perfect stranger, had called on me. He said he knew my friends, had an enthusiasm for Wordsworth, and begged I would procure him the happiness of an introduction. He told me he was a comptroller of stamps, and often had correspondence with the poet. I thought it a liberty; but still, as he seemed a gentleman, I told him he might come.

When we retired to tea we found the comptroller. In introducing him to Wordsworth I forgot to say who he was. After a little time the comptroller looked down, looked up, and said to Wordsworth: `Don't you think, sir, Milton was a great genius?' Keats looked at me, Wordsworth looked at the comptroller. Lamb who was dozing by the fire turned round and said: `Pray, sir, did you say Milton was a great genius?' `No, Sir: I asked Mr. Wordsworth if he were not.' `Oh,' said Lamb, `then you are a silly fellow.' `Charles! my dear Charles!' said Wordsworth; but Lamb, perfectly innocent of the confusion he had created, was off again by the fire.

After an awful pause the comptroller said: `Don't you think Newton a great genius? I could not stand it any longer. Keats put his head into my books. Ritchie squeezed in a laugh. Wordsworth seemed asking himself: `Who is this? Lamb got up, and taking a candle said: `Sir, will you allow me to look at your phrenological development?' He then turned his back on the poor man, and at every question of the comptroller he chanted:

Diddle, diddle dumpling, my son John
Went to bed with his breeches on.

The man in office, finding Wordsworth did not know who he was, said in a spasmodic and half-chuckling anticipation of assured victory: `I have had the honour of some correspondence with you, Mr. Wordsworth.' `With me, sir?' said Wordsworth, `not that I remember.' `Don't you, sir? I am a comptroller of stamps! There was a dead silence, the comptroller evidently thinking that was enough. While we were waiting for Wordsworth's reply, Lamb sung out:

Hey diddle diddle,
The cat and the fiddle.

`My dear Charles!' said Wordsworth. 'Diddle, diddle dumpling, my son John' chanted Lamb, and then rising, exclaimed: `Do let me have another look at that gentleman's organs.' Keats and I hurried Lamb into the painting-room, shut the door, and gave way to inextinguishable laughter. Monkhouse followed and tried to get Lamb away. We went back, but the comptroller was irreconcilable. We soothed and smiled, and asked him to supper. He stayed, though his dignity was sorely affected. However, being a good-natured man, we parted all in good humour, and no ill effects followed.

All the while, until Monkhouse succeeded, we could hear Lamb struggling in the painting-room, and calling at intervals: `Who is that fellow? Allow me to see his organs once more.'

It was indeed an immortal evening. Wordsworth's fine intonation as he quoted Milton and Virgil, Keats' eager inspired look, Lamb's quaint sparkle of lambent humour, so speeded the stream of conversation, that in my life I never passed a more delightful time. All our fun was within bounds. Not a word passed that an apostle might not have listened to. It was a night worthy of the Elizabethan age, and my solemn Jerusalem flashing up by the flame of the fire, with Christ hanging over us like a vision, all made up a picture which will long glow upon

that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude.

239. Haydon, Autobiography, i. 269-271.

JUST before the Lambs quitted the metropolis for the voluntary banishment of Enfield Chase, they came to spend a day with me at Fulham, and brought with them a companion, who, `dumb animal' though it was, had for some time past been in the habit of giving play to one of Charles Lamb's most amiable characteristics —that of sacrificing his own feelings and inclinations to those of others. This was a large and very handsome dog, of a rather curious and singularly sagacious breed, which had belonged to Thomas Hood, and at the time I speak of, and to oblige both dog and master, had been transferred to the Lambs—who made a great pet of him, to the entire disturbance and discomfiture, as it appeared, of all Lamb's habits of life, but especially of that most favourite and salutary of all, his long and heretofore solitary suburban walks: for Dash (that was the dog's name) would never allow Lamb to quit the house without him, and, when out, would never go anywhere but precisely where it pleased himself. The consequence was, that Lamb made himself a perfect slave to this dog—who was always half-a-mile off from his companion, either before or behind, scouring the fields and roads in all directions, up and down `all manner of streets', and keeping his attendant in a perfect fever of anxiety and irritation, from his fear of losing him on the one hand, and his reluctance to put the needful restraint upon him on the other. Dash perfectly well knew his host's amiable weakness in this respect, and took a due dog like advantage of it. In the Regent's Park in particular Dash had his quasi-master completely at his mercy; for the moment they got within the Ring, he used to squeeze himself through the railing, and disappear for half-an-hour together in the enclosed and thickly planted greensward, knowing perfectly well that Lamb did not dare to move from the spot where he (Dash) had disappeared till he thought proper to show himself again. And they used to take this walk oftener than any other, precisely because Dash liked it and Lamb did not.

The performance of the Pig-driver that Leigh Hunt describes so capitally in the `Companion' must have been an easy and straightforward thing compared with this enterprise of the dear couple in conducting Dash from Islington to Fulham. It appeared, however, that they had not undertaken it this time purely for Dash's gratification; but (as I had often admired the dog) to ask me if I would accept him—`if only out of charity, said Miss Lamb, `for if we keep him much longer, he'll be the death of Charles.'

I readily took charge of the unruly favourite, and soon found, as I suspected, that his wild and wilful ways were a pure imposition upon the easy temper of Lamb; for as soon as he found himself in the keeping of one who knew what dog-decorum was, he subsided into the best-bred and best-behaved of his species.

A few weeks after I had taken charge of Dash, I received the following letter from Lamb, who had now removed to Enfield Chase....

Dear Patmore—Excuse my anxiety—but how is Dash? (I should have asked if Mrs. Patmore kept her rules and was improving—but Dash came uppermost. The order of our thoughts should be the order of our writing.) Goes he muzzled, or aperto ore? Are his intellects sound, or does he wander a little in his conversation? You cannot be too careful to watch the first symptoms of incoherence. The first illogical snarl he makes, to St. Luke's with him. All the dogs here are going mad, if you believe the overseers; but I protest they seem to me very rational and collected. But nothing is so deceitful as mad people to those who are not used to them. Try him with hot water. If he won't lick it up, it is a sign he does not like it. Does his tail wag horizontally or perpendicularly? That has decided the fate of many dogs at Enfield. Is his general deportment cheerful? I mean when he is pleased—for otherwise there is no judging. You can't be too careful. Has he bit any of the children yet? If, he has, have them shot, and keep him for curiosity, to see if it was the hydrophobia.... If the slightest suspicion arises in your breast that all is not right with him (Dash), muzzle him, and lead him in a string (common packthread will do; he don't care for twist) to Hood's, his quondam master, and he'll take him in at any time. You may mention your suspicions or not, as you like, or as you may think it will wound or not Mr. H's feelings. Hood, I know, will wink at a few follies in Dash, in consideration of his former sense. Besides, Hood is deaf, and if you hinted anything, ten to one he would not hear you. Besides, you will have discharged your conscience, and laid the child at the right door, as they say. . , .

Patmore replies to this in the same facetious spirit: Dash is `very mad indeed', and has bitten one of the kittens. His letter concludes with the dog's latest escapade.

He was out at near dusk, down the lane, a few nights ago, with his mistress, . . , when Dash attacked a carpenter, armed with a large saw—not Dash, but the carpenter—and a `wise saw' it turned out, for its teeth protected him from Dash's, and a battle royal ensued, worthy the Surrey Theatre. Mrs. Patmore says that it was really frightful to see the saw, and the way in which it and Dash gnashed their teeth at each other....

P. G. Patmore, My Friends and Acquaintances (1854), i. 29-40.

FROM Colebrooke Lamb removed to Enfield Chase—a painful operation at all times, for as he feelingly misapplied Wordsworth, `the moving accident was not his trade'. . . . There were not pastoral yearnings concerned in this Enfield removal. There is no doubt which of Captain Morris's `Town and Country Songs' would have been most to Lamb's taste. `The sweet shady side of Pall Mall' would have carried it hollow. In courtesy to a friend, he would select a green lane for a ramble, but left to himself, he took the turnpike road as often as otherwise. `Scott,' says Cunningham, `was a stout walker: Lamb was a porter one. He calculated distances, not by long measure, but by ale and beer measure. `Now I have walked a pint.' Many a time I have accompanied him in these matches against Meux, not without sharing in the stake, and then, what cheerful and profitable talk! For instance, he once delivered to me orally the substance of the `Essay on the Defect of Imagination in Modern Artists', subsequently printed in the Athenaeum. But besides the criticism, there were snatches of old poems, golden lines, and sentences culled from old books, and anecdotes of men of note. Marry, it was like going a ramble with gentle Izaak Walton, minus the fishing.

241. Thomas Hood, Hood's Own (1827) (Edmund Blunden, Charles Lamb: His Life Recorded by his Contemporaries (1934), p. 164).

ACCORDING to his promise, Mr. Lamb honoured us with a visit, accompanied by his sister, Mr. and Mrs. Hood, and a few others hastily gathered together for the occasion. On entering the room, Mr. Lamb seemed to have forgotten that any previous introduction had taken place. `Allow me, madam,' said he, `to introduce to you my sister Mary; she's a very good woman, but she drinks!' `Charles, Charles,' said Miss Lamb imploringly (her face at the same time covered with blushes), `how can you say such a thing?' `Why,' rejoined he, `you know it's a fact; look at the redness of your face. Did I not see you in your cups at nine o'clock this morning?' `For shame, Charles,' returned his sister; `what will our friends think?' `Don't mind him, my dear Miss Lamb,' said Mrs. Hood soothingly, `I will answer that the cups were only breakfast-cups full of coffee.'

Seeming much delighted with the mischief he had made, he turned away, and began talking quite comfortably on indifferent topics to someone else. For my own part I could not help telling Mrs. Hood I longed to shake `Charles'. `Oh,' replied she smiling, `Miss Lamb is so used to his unaccountable ways that she would be miserable without them: Once, indeed, as Mr. Lamb told Hood, `having really gone a little too far', and seeing her, as he thought, quite hurt and offended, he determined to amend his manners, `behave politely, and leave off joking altogether'. For a few days he acted up to this resolution, behaving, as he assured Hood, `admirably, and what do you think I got for my pains?' `I have no doubt,' `said Hood, `you got sincere thanks.' `Bless you, no!' rejoined Lamb; `why, Mary did nothing but keep bursting into tears every time she looked at me, and when I asked her what she was crying for, when I was doing all I could to please her, she blubbered out: "You're changed, Charles, you're changed; what have I done that you should treat me in this cruel manner?" "Treat you! I thought you did not like my jokes, and therefore tried to please you by strangling them down." "Oh, oh," cried she, sobbing as if her heart would break; "joke again, Charles—I don't know you in this manner. I am sure I should die if you behave as you have done for the last few days." So you see I joke for her good'; adding, with a most elfish expression, `it saved her life then, anyhow.'

Mary Balmanno, Pen and Pencil (1858) (Edmund Blunden, Charles Lamb: His Life Recorded by his Contemporaries (1934), pp. 158-159).

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