Mary Lamb (Gilchrist 1883)/Chapter 4

Mary Lamb  (1883)  by Anne Gilchrist
Chapter IV.

CHAPTER IV.

Death of the Father.—Mary comes Home to live.—A Removal.—First Verses.—A Literary Tea-Party.—Another Move.—Friends increase.

1799-1800.—Æt. 35-36.

The feeble flame of life in Lamb's father flickered on for two years and a half after his wife's death. He was laid to rest at last beside her and his sister Hetty in the churchyard of St. Andrew's, Holborn (now swept away in the building of the Holborn Viaduct), on the 13th of April 1799, and Mary came home once more. There is no mention of either fact in Lamb's letters; for Coleridge was away in Germany; and with Southey, who was almost the sole correspondent of this year, the tie was purely intellectual and never even in that kind a close one. A significant allusion to Mary there is, however, in a letter to him dated May 20: "Mary was never in better health or spirits than now." But neither the happiness of sharing Charles's home again nor anything else could save her from the constant recurrence of her malady; nor, in these early days, from the painful notoriety of what had befallen her; and they were soon regarded as unwelcome inmates in the Chapel Street lodgings. Early in 1800 he tells Coleridge: "Soon after I wrote to you last aii offer was made me by Gutch (you must remember him at Christ's) to come and lodge with him at his house in Southampton Buildings, Chancery Lane. This was a very comfortable offer to me, the rooms being at a reasonable rent and including the use of an old servant, besides being infinitely preferable to ordinary lodgings in our case as you must perceive. As Gutch knew all our story and the perpetual liability to a recurrence in my sister's disorder, probably to the end of her life, I certainly think the offer very generous and very friendly. I have got three rooms (including servant) under £34 a year. Here I soon found myself at home, and here, in six weeks after, Mary was well enough to join me. So we are once more settled. I am afraid we are not placed out of the reach of future interruptions; but I am determined to take what snatches of pleasure we can, between the acts of our distressful drama. I have passed two days at Oxford, on a visit, which I have long put off, to Gutch's family. The sight of the Bodleian Library and, above all, a fine bust of Bishop Taylor at All Souls' were particularly gratifying to me. Unluckily it was not a family where I could take Mary with me, and I am afraid there is something of dishonesty in any pleasure I take without her. She never goes any where." And to Manning: "It is a great object to me to live in town." [Pentonville then too much of a gossiping country suburb!] "We can be nowhere private except in the midst of London."

By the summer Mary was not only quite well but making a first essay in verse—the theme, a playful mockery of her brother's boyish love for a pictured beauty at Blakesware described in his essay,—"that Beauty with the cool blue pastoral drapery and a lamb, that hung next the great bay window, with the bright yellow H——shire hair, and eye of watchet hue—so like my Alice! I am persuaded she was a true Elia—Mildred Elia, I take it. From her and from my passion for her for I first learned love from a picture—Bridget took the hint of those pretty whimsical lines which thou mayest see if haply thou hast never seen them, reader, in the margin. But my Mildred grew not old like the imaginary Helen."

With brotherly pride he sends them to Coleridge: "How do you like this little epigram? It is not my writing, nor had I any finger in it. If you concur with me in thinking it very elegant and very original, I shall be tempted to name the author to you. I will just hint that it is almost or quite a first attempt:—

HELEN.

High-born Helen, round your dwelling
These twenty years I've paced in vain;
Haughty beauty, thy lover's duty
Hath been to glory in his pain.
High-born Helen, proudly telling
Stories of thy cold disdain;
I starve, I die, now you comply,
And I no longer can complain.
These twenty years I've lived on tears,
Dwelling forever on a frown;
On sighs I've fed, your scorn my bread;
I perish now you kind are grown.
Can I who loved my beloved,
But for the scorn "was in her eye";
Can I be moved for my beloved,
When she "returns me sigh for sigh"?
In stately pride, by my bed-side
High-born Helen's portrait's hung;
Deaf to my praise, my mournful lays
Are nightly to the portrait sung.
To that I weep, nor ever sleep,
Complaining all night long to her.
Helen grown old, no longer cold,
Said, "You to all men I prefer."

Lamb inserted this and another by Mary, a serious and tender little poem, the Dialogue between a Mother and Child beginning

O lady, lay your costly rohes aside,
No longer may you glory in your pride,

in the first collected edition of his works.

Mary now began also to go out with her brother, and the last record of this year in the Coleridge correspondence discloses them at a literary tea-party, not in the character of lions but only as friends of a lion—Coleridge—who had already become, in his frequent visits to town, the prey of some third-rate admiring literary ladies, notably of a certain Miss Wesley (niece of John Wesley) and of her friend Miss Benger, authoress of a Life of Tobin, &c.

"You blame us for giving your direction to Miss Wesley," says the letter; "the woman has been ten times after us about it and we gave it her at last, under the idea that no further harm would ensue, but that she would once write to you, and you would bite your lips and forget to answer it, and so it would end. You read us a dismal homily upon 'Realities.' We know quite as well as you do what are shadows and what are realities. You, for instance, when you are over your fourth or fifth jorum, chirping about old school occurrences, are the best of realities. Shadows are cold, thin things that have no warmth or grasp in them. Miss Wesley and her friend and a tribe of authoresses that come after you here daily and, in defect of you, hive and cluster upon us, are the shadows. You encouraged that mopsey Miss Wesley to dance after you in the hope of having her nonsense put into a nonsensical anthology. We have pretty well shaken her off by that simple expedient of referring her to you, but there are more burs in the wind. I came home t'other day from business, hungry as a hunter, to dinner, with nothing, I am sure, of the author but hunger about me; and whom found I closeted with Mary but a friend of this Miss Wesley, one Miss Benjay or Benje . . . I just came in time enough, I believe, luckily to prevent them from exchanging vows of eternal friendship. It seems she is one of your authoresses that you first foster and then upbraid us with. But I forgive you. 'The rogue has given me potions to make me love him.' Well, go she would not nor step a step over our threshold till we had promised to come to drink tea with her next night. I had never seen her before and could not tell who the devil it was that was so familiar. We went, however, not to be impolite. Her lodgings are up two pair of stairs in East Street. Tea and coffee and macaroons—a kind of cake—much love. We sat down. Presently Miss Benjay broke the silence by declaring herself quite of a different opinion from D'Israeli, who supposes the differences of human intellect to be the mere effect of organization. She begged to know my opinion. I attempted to carry it off with a pun upon organ, but that went off very flat. She immediately conceived a very low opinion of my metaphysics; and turning round to Mary, put some question to her in French, possibly having heard that neither Mary nor I understood French, The explanation that took place occasioned some embarrassment and much wondering. She then fell into an insulting conversation about the comparative genius and merits of all modern languages and concluded with asserting that the Saxon was esteemed the purest dialect in Germany. From thence she passed into the subject of poetry where I, who had hitherto sat mute and a hearer only, humbly hoped I might now put in a word to some advantage, seeing that it was my own trade in a manner. But I was stopped by a round assertion that no good poetry had appeared since Dr. Johnson's time. It seems the doctor has suppressed many hopeful geniuses that way, by the severity of his critical strictures in his Lives of the Poets. I here ventured to question the fact and was beginning to appeal to names but I was assured 'it was certainly the case.' Then we discussed Miss More's [Hannah] book on education, which I had never read. It seems Dr. Gregory, another of Miss Benjay's friends, had found fault with one of Miss More's metaphors. Miss More has been at some pains to vindicate herself, in the opinion of Miss Benjay not without success. It seems the Doctor is invariably against the use of broken or mixed metaphor which he reprobates, against the authority of Shakspeare himself. We next discussed the question whether Pope was a poet? I find Dr. Gregory is of opinion he was not, though Miss Seward does not at all concur with him in this. We then sat upon the comparative merits of the ten translations of Pizarro and Miss Benjay or Benje advised Mary to take two of them home (she thought it might afford her some pleasure to compare them verbatim), which we declined. It being now nine o'clock, wine and macaroons were again served round, and we parted with a promise to go again next week and meet the Miss Porters who, it seems, have heard much of Mr. Coleridge and wish to see us because we are his friends. I have been preparing for the occasion. I crowd cotton in my ears. I read all the reviews and magazines of the past month against the dreadful meeting, and I hope by these means to cut a tolerable second-rate figure.

". . . Take no thought about your proof-sheets; they shall be done as if Woodfall himself did them. Pray send us word of Mrs. Coleridge and little David Hartley, your little reality. Farewell, dear Substance. Take no umbrage at anything I have written.

"I am, and will be,
"Yours ever in sober sadness,

"Land of Shadows,

C. Lamb.Umbra.

"Shadow month 16th or 17th, 1800.

"Write your German as plain as sunshine, for that must correct itself. You know I am homo unius linguæ: in English—illiterate, a dunce, a ninny."

Mr. Gutch seems to have soon repented him of his friendly deed:—

"I am going to change my lodgings, having received a hint that it would be agreeable at Our Lady's next feast," writes Lamb to Manning. "I have partly fixed upon most delectable rooms which look out (when you stand a-tip-toe) over the Thames and Surrey hills. . . . My bed faces the river so as by perking up on my haunches and supporting my carcase with my elbows, without much wrying my neck I can see the white sails glide by the bottom of the King's Bench Walk as I lie in my bed. . . . casement windows with small panes to look more like a cottage. . . . There I shall have all the privacy of a house without the encumbrance and shall be able to lock my friends out as often as I desire to hold free converse with my immortal mind, for my present lodgings resemble a minister's levée, I have so increased my acquaintance (as they call 'em) since I have resided in town. Like the country mouse that had tasted a little of urbane manners, I long to be nibbling my own cheese by my dear self, without mouse-traps and time-traps."

These rooms were at No. 16, Mitre Court Buildings, and here Lamb and his sister lived for nine years. But far from "nibbling his own cheese" by himself, there for nine years he and Mary gathered round their hearth and homely, hospitable supper-table with its bread and cheese in these early days and by-and-by its round of beef or "winter hand of pork," an ever lengthening succession of friends, cronies and acquaintance. There came Manning with his "fine, sceptical, dogmatical face"; and George Dyer, with his head full of innutritious learning and his heart of the milk of kindness. And Godwin the man of strange contrasts, a bold thinker yet ignorant as a child of human nature and weakly vain; with such a "noisy fame," for a time, as if he were "Briareus Centimanus or a Tityus tall enough to pull Jupiter from his heavens," and then soon forgotten, or remembered only to be denounced; for a year the loving husband of one of the sweetest and noblest of women and after her death led captive by the coarse flatteries and vulgar pretensions of one of the commonest. "Is it possible that I behold the immortal Godwin?" said, from a neighbouring balcony, she who in a few months became his second wife and in a few more had alienated some of his oldest friends and earned the cordial dislike of all, even of Lamb. "I will be buried with this inscription over me, 'Here lies C. L., the woman-hater,' I mean that hated one woman; for the rest, God bless 'em," was his whimsical way of venting his feelings towards her; and Shelley experienced the like though he expressed them less pungently. Then there was Holcroft who had fought his way up from grimmest poverty, misery and ignorance to the position of an accomplished literary man; and fine old Captain Burney who had been taught his accidence by Eugene Aram and had sailed round the world with Captain Cook. And his son, 'noisy Martin' with the 'spotless soul,' for forty years boy and man, Mary's favourite; and Phillips of the Marines who was with Captain Cook at his death and shot the savage that killed him; and Rickman "the finest fellow to drop in a' nights," Southey's great friend, though he 'never read his poetry,' as Lamb tells; staunch Crabb Robinson; Fanny Kelly, with her "divine plain face" who died but the other day at the age of ninety odd; and Mr. Dawe, R.A., a figure of nature's own purest comedy. All these and many more frequented the home of Charles and Mary Lamb in these years and live in their letters.