Mary Lamb (Gilchrist 1883)/Chapter 6

Mary Lamb  (1883)  by Anne Gilchrist
Chapter VI.

CHAPTER VI.

Visit to Coleridge at Greta Hall.—Wordsworth and his Sister in London.—Letters to Miss Stoddart.—Coleridge goes to Malta.—Letter to Dorothy Wordsworth on the Death of her Brother John.

1802-1805.—Æt. 38-41.

In the summer of 1802, when holiday time came round Charles was seized with 'a strong desire of visiting remote regions;' and after some whimsical deliberations his final resolve was to go with Mary to see Coleridge at the Lakes.

"I set out with Mary to Keswick," he tells Manning, "without giving any notice to Coleridge [who was now living at Greta Hall, soon to become Southey's home for the rest of his life] for my time being precious did not admit of it. We got in in the evening, travelling in a post-chaise from Penrith, in the midst of a gorgeous sunset which transmuted the mountains into all colours, purple, &c. We thought we had got into fairy-land; but that went off (and it never came again while we stayed we had no more fine sunsets) and we entered Coleridge's comfortable study just in the dusk when the mountains were all dark with clouds upon their heads. Such an impression I never received from objects of sight before nor do I suppose I ever can again. Glorious creatures, fine old fellows, Skiddaw, &c., I shall never forget ye, how ye lay about that night like an intrenchment; gone to bed, as it seemed, for the night but promising that ye were to be seen in the morning. Coleridge had got a blazing fire in his study which is a large antique, ill-shaped room with an old-fashioned organ, never played upon, big enough for a church; shelves of scattered folios, an Æolian harp and an old sofa half-bed, &c. And ail looking out upon the last fading view of Skiddaw and his broad-breasted brethren. What a night!"

The Poet had now a second son, or rather a third (for the second had died in infancy), Derwent, a fine bright, fair, broad-chested little fellow not quite two years old, with whom Charles and Mary were delighted. A merry sprite he was, in a yellow frock which obtained for him the nick-name of Stumpy Canary, who loved to race from kitchen to parlour and from parlour to kitchen just putting in his head at the door with roguish smile to catch notice, then off" again, shaking his little sides with laughter. He fairly won their hearts and long after figures in their letters as Pi-pos Pot-pos, his own way of pronouncing striped opossum and spotted opossum, which he would point out triumphantly in his picture book. Hartley, now six, was a prematurely grave and thoughtful child who had already, as a curious anecdote told by Crabb Robinson shows, begun to take surprising plunges into "the metaphysic well without a bottom"; for once when asked something about himself and called by name he said, "Which Hartley?" "Why, is there more than one Hartley?"

"Yes, there's a deal of Hartleys; there's Picture Hartley [Hazlitt had painted his portrait] and Shadow Hartley and there's Echo Hartley and there's Catch-me-fast Hartley," seizing his own arm with the other hand; thereby showing, said his father, that "he had begun to reflect on what Kant calls the great and inexplicable mystery that man should be both his own subject and object and that these should yet be one!"

Three delightful weeks they stayed. "So we have seen," continues Lamb to Manning, "Keswick, Grasmere, Ambleside, Ulswater (where the Clarksons live), and a place at the other end of Ulswater; I forget the name [Patterdale] to which we travelled on a very sultry day, over the middle of Helvellyn. We have clambered up to the top of Skiddaw and I have waded up the bed of Lodore. Mary was excessively tired when she got about half-way up Skiddaw but we came to a cold rill (than which nothing can be imagined more cold, running over cold stones) and, with the reinforcement of a draught of cold water, she surmounted it most manfully. Oh its fine black head! and the bleak air atop of it with the prospect of mountains all about and about making you giddy; and then Scotland afar off and the border countries so famous in song and ballad! It was a day that will stand out like a mountain, I am sure, in my life."

Wordsworth was away at Calais but the Lambs stayed a day or so in his cottage with the Clarksons (he of slavery abolition fame and she "one of the friendliest, comfortablest women we know who made the little stay one of the pleasantest times we ever passed"); saw Lloyd again but remained distrustful of him on account of the seeds of bitterness he had once sown between the friends, and finally got home very pleasantly: Mary a good deal fatigued, finding the difference between going to a place and coming from it, but not otherwise the worse. "Lloyd has written me a fine letter of friendship" says Lamb, soon after his return, "all about himself and Sophia and love and cant which I have not answered. I have not given up the idea of writing to him but it will be done very plainly and sincerely, without acrimony."

They found the Wordsworths (the poet and his sister, that is, for he was not yet married though just about to be) lodging near their own quarters, saw much of them, pioneered them through Bartlemy Fair; and now, on Mary's part, was formed that intimacy with Dorothy which led to her being their constant visitor and sometimes their house-guest when she was in London.

As great a contrast in most respects, to Dorothy Wordsworth as the whole range of womankind could have furnished was Mary's other friend and correspondent, Sarah Stoddart, afterwards Mrs. Hazlitt. Sarah was the only daughter of a retired lieutenant in the navy, a Scotchman who had settled down on a little property at Winterslow near Salisbury which she ultimately inherited. She was a young lady with a business-like determination to marry and with many suitors; but, far from following the old injunction to be off with the old love before being on with the new, she always cautiously kept the old love dangling till she was quite sure the new was the more eligible. Mary's letters to her have happily been preserved and published by Miss Stoddart's grandson, Mr. W. Carew Hazlitt, in his Mary and Charles Lamb. The first, dated September 21, 1803, was written after Miss Stoddart had been staying with the Lambs and when a decision had been arrived at that she should accompany her only brother, Dr. Stoddart, to Malta where he had just been appointed King's Advocate. Mary's spelling and here and there even a little slip in the matter of grammar have been retained as seeming part of the individuality of the letters:—

"I returned from my visit yesterday and was very much pleased to find your letter; for I have been very anxious to hear how you are going on. I could hardly help expecting to see you when I came in; yet though I should have rejoiced to have seen your merry face again, I believe it was better as it was, upon the whole; and all things considered, it is certainly better you should go to Malta. The terms you are upon with your lover [a Mr. Turner to whom she was engaged] does (as you say it will) appear wondrous strange to me; however, as I cannot enter into your feelings I certainly can have nothing to say to it, only that I sincerely wish you happy in your own way however odd that way may appear to me to be. I would begin now to advise you to drop all correspondence with William [not William Hazlitt but an earlier admirer]; but, as I said before, as I cannot enter into your feelings and views of things, your ways not being my ways, why should I tell you what I would do in your situation? So, child, take thy own ways and God prosper thee in them!

"One thing my advising spirit must say; use as little secresy as possible, make a friend of your sister-in-law; you know I was not struck with her at first sight but, upon your account, I have watched and marked her very attentively and while she was eating a bit of cold mutton in our kitchen we had a serious conversation. From the frankness of her manner I am convinced she is a person I could make a friend of; why should not you? We talked freely about you: she seems to have a just notion of your character and will be fond of you if you will let her."

After instancing the misunderstandings between her own mother and aunt already quoted, Mary continues:—

"My aunt and my mother were wholly unlike you and your sister yet, in some degree, theirs is the secret history, I believe, of all sisters-in-law and you will smile when I tell you I think myself the only woman in the world who could live with a brother's wife and make a real friend of her, partly from early observation of the unhappy example I have just given you and partly from a knack I know I have of looking into people's real characters and never expecting them to act out of it—never expecting another to do as I would in the same case. When you leave your mother and say if you never see her again you shall feel no remorse and when you make a jewish bargain with your lover, all this gives me no offence because it is your nature and your temper and I do not expect or want you to be otherwise than you are. I love you for the good that is in you and look for no change.

"But certainly you ought to struggle with the evil that does most easily beset you—a total want of politeness in behaviour, I would say modesty of behaviour but that I should not convey to you my idea of the word modesty; for I certainly do not mean that you want real modesty and what is usually called false or mock modesty I certainly do not wish you to possess; yet I trust you know what I mean well enough. Secresy, tjiough you appear all frankness, is certainly a grand failing of yours; it is likewise your brother's and, therefore, a family failing. By secresy I mean you both want the habit of telling each other, at the moment, everything that happens, where you go and what you do—that free communication of letters and opinions just as they arrive as Charles and I do—and which is, after all, the only ground-work of friendship. Your brother, I will answer for it, will never tell his wife or his sister all that is in his mind; he will receive letters and not [mention it]. This is a fault Mrs. Stoddart can never [tell him of] but she can and will feel it though on the whole and in every other respect she is happy with him. Begin, for God's sake, at the first and tell her everything that passes. At first she may hear you with indifference, but in time this will gain her affection and confidence; show her all your letters (no matter if she does not show hers). It is a pleasant thing for a friend to put into one's hand a letter just fresh from the post. I would even say, begin with showing her this but that it is freely written and loosely and some apology ought to be made for it which I know not how to make, for I must write freely or not at all.

"If you do this she will tell your brother, you will say; and what then, quotha? It will beget a freer communication amongst you which is a thing devoutly to be wished.

"God bless you and grant you may preserve your integrity and remain unmarried and penniless, and make William a good and a happy wife."

No wonder Mary's friendships were so stable and so various with this knack of hers of looking into another's real character and never expecting him or her to act out of it or to do as she would in the same case; taking no offence, looking for no change and asking for no other explanation than that it was her friend's nature. It is an epitome of social wisdom and of generous sentiment.

Coleridge had long been in bad health and worse spirits; and what he had first ignorantly used as a remedy was now become his tyrant—opium; for a time the curse of his life and the blight of his splendid powers. Sometimes—

Adown Lethean streams his spirit drifted;

sometimes he was stranded "in a howling wilderness of ghastly dreams" waking and sleeping, followed by deadly languors which opium caused and cured and caused again, driving him round in an accursed circle. He came up to London at the beginning of 1804, was much with thte Lambs if not actually their guest, and finally decided to try change and join his friend Dr. Stoddart in Malta where he landed April 18th. Mary, full of earnest and affectionate solicitude, sent a letter by him to Sarah Stoddart who had already arrived, bespeaking a warm and indulgent welcome for her suffering friend:—

"I will just write a few hasty lines to say Coleridge is setting off sooner than we expected and I every moment expect him to call in one of his great hurrys for this. We rejoiced with exceeding great joy to hear of your safe arrival. I hope your brother will return home in a few years a very rich man. Seventy pounds in one fortnight is a pretty beginning.

"I envy your brother the pleasure of seeing Coleridge drop in unexpectedly upon him; we talk—but it is but wild and idle talk—of following him. He is to get my brother some snug little place of a thousand a year and we are to leave all and come and live among ye. What a pretty dream.

"Coleridge is very ill. I dread the thoughts of his long voyage. Write as soon as he arrives whether he does or not, and tell me how he is. . . .

"He has got letters of recommendation to Governor Ball and God knows who; and he will talk and talk and be universally admired. But I wish to write for him a letter of recommendation to Mrs. Stoddart and to yourself to take upon ye, on his first arrival, to be kind affectionate nurses; and mind, now, that you perform this duty faithfully and write me a good account of yourself. Behave to him as you would to me or to Charles if we came sick and unhappy to you.

"I have no news to send you; Coleridge will tell you how we are going on. Charles has lost the newspaper [an engagement on the Morning Post, which Coleridge had procured for him] but what we dreaded as an evil has proved a great blessing, for we have both strangely recovered our health and spirits since this has happened; and I hope, when I write next, I shall be able to tell you Charles has begun something which will produce a little money for it is not well to be very poor which we certainly are at this present writing.

"I sit writing here and thinking almost you will see it to-morrow; and what a long, long time it will be ere you receive this. When I saw your letter I fancy'd you were even just then in the first bustle of a new reception, every moment seeing new faces and staring at new objects when, at that time, everything had become familiar to you; and the strangers, your new dancing partners, had perhaps become gossiping fireside friends. You tell me of your gay, splendid doings; tell me, likewise, what manner of home-life you lead. Is a quiet evening in a Maltese drawing-room as pleasant as those we have passed in Mitre Court and Bell Yard? Tell me all about it, everything pleasant and everything unpleasant that befalls you.

"I want you to say a great deal about yourself. Are you happy? and do you not repent going out? I wish I could see you for one hour only.

"Remember me affectionately to your sister and brother, and tell me when you write if Mrs. Stoddart likes Malta and how the climate agrees with her and with thee.

"We heard you were taken prisoners, and for several days believed the tale.

"How did the pearls and the fine court finery bear the fatigues of the voyage and how often have they been worn and admired?

"Rickman wants to know if you are going to be married yet. Satisfy him in that little particular when you write.

"The Fenwicks send their love and Mrs. Reynolds her love and the little old lady her best respects.

"Mrs. Jeffries, who I see now and then, talks of you with tears in her eyes and when she heard you was taken prisoner, Lord! how frightened she was. She has heard, she tells me, that Mr. Stoddart is to have a pension of two thousand a year whenever he chooses to return to England.

"God bless you and send you all manner of comforts and happinesses."

Mrs. Reynolds was another 'little old lady,' a familiar figure at the Lambs' table. She had once been Charles's schoolmistress; had made an unfortunate marriage and would have gone under in the social stream but for his kindly hand. Out of their slender means he allowed her thirty pounds a year. She tickled Hood's fancy when he too became a frequent guest there; and he has described her as formal, fair and flaxen-wigged like an elderly wax doll, speaking as if by an artificial apparatus, through some defect in the palate and with a slight limp and a twist occasioned by running too precipitately down Greenwich hill in her youth! She remembered Goldsmith who had once lent her his Deserted Village.

In those days of universal warfare and privateering it was an anxious matter to have a friend tossing in the Bay of Biscay, gales and storms apart; so that tidings from Sarah had been eagerly watched for:—

"Your letter," writes Mary, "which contained the news of Coleridge's arrival was a most welcome one; for we had begun to entertain very unpleasant apprehensions for his safety; and your kind reception of the forlorn wanderer gave me the greatest pleasure and I thank you for it in my own and my brother's name. I shall depend upon you for hearing of his welfare for he does not write himself; but as long as we know he is safe and in such kind friends' hands we do not mind. Your letters, my dear Sarah, are to me very, very precious ones. They are the kindest, best, most natural ones I ever received. The one containing the news of the arrival of Coleridge is, perhaps, the best I ever saw; and your old friend Charles is of my opinion. We sent it off to Mrs. Coleridge and the Wordsworths—as well because we thought it our duty to give them the first notice we had of our dear friend's safety as that we were proud of showing our Sarah's pretty letter.

"The letters we received a few days after from you and your brother were far less welcome ones. I rejoiced to hear your sister is well but I grieved for the loss of the dear baby and I am sorry to find your brother is not so successful as he expected to be; and yet I am almost tempted to wish his ill-fortune may send him over to us again. He has a friend, I understand, who is now at the head of the Admiralty; why may he not return and make a fortune here?

"I cannot condole with you very sincerely upon your little failure in the fortune-making way. If you regret it, so do I. But I hope to see you a comfortable English wife; and the forsaken, forgotten William, of English-partridge memory I have still a hankering after. However, I thank you for your frank communication and I beg you will continue it in future; and if I do not agree with a good grace to your having a Maltese husband, I will wish you happy, provided you make it a part of your marriage articles that your husband shall allow you to come over sea and make me one visit; else may neglect and overlookedness be your portion while you stay there.

"I would condole with you when the misfortune has befallen your poor leg; but such is the blessed distance we are at from each other that I hope, before you receive this, you have forgot it ever happened.

"Our compliments to the high ton at the Maltese court. Your brother is so profuse of them to me that, being, as you know, so unused to them, they perplex me sadly; in future I beg they may be discontinued. They always remind me of the free, and I believe very improper letter I wrote to you while you were at the Isle of Wight [that already given advising frankness]. The more kindly you and your brother and sister took the impertinent advice contained in it the more certain I feel that it was unnecessary and, therefore, highly improper. Do not let your brother compliment me into the memory of it again.

"My brother has had a letter from your mother which has distressed him sadly—about the postage of some letters being paid by my brother. Your silly brother, it seems, has informed your mother (I did not think your brother could have been so silly) that Charles had grumbled at paying the said postage. The fact was just at that time we were very poor having lost the Morning Post and we were beginning to practise a strict economy. My brother, who never makes up his mind whether he will be a miser or a spendthrift, is at all times a strange mixture of both" [rigid in those small economies which enabled him to be not only just but generous on small means]. "Of this failing the even economy of your correct brother's temper makes him an ill judge. The miserly part of Charles, at that time smarting under his recent loss, then happened to reign triumphant; and he would not write or let me write so often as he wished because the postage cost two and fourpence. Then came two or three of your poor mother's letters nearly together; and the two and fourpences he wished but grudged to pay for his own he was forced to pay for hers. In this dismal distress he applied to Fenwick to get his friend Motley to send them free from Portsmouth. This Mr. Fenwick could have done for half a word's speaking; but this he did not do! Then Charles foolishly and unthinkingly complained to your brother in a half-serious, half-joking way; and your brother has wickedly and with malice aforethought told your mother. O fye upon him! what will your mother think of us?

"I, too, feel my share of blame in this vexatious business; for I saw the unlucky paragraph in my brother's letter; and I had a kind of foreboding that it would come to your mother's ears—although I had a higher idea of your brother's good sense than I find he deserved. By entreaties and prayer I might have prevailed on my brother to say nothing about it. But I make a point of conscience never to interfere or cross my brother in the humour he happens to be in. It always appears to me to be a vexatious kind of tyranny that women have no business to exercise over men, which, merely because they having a better judgment, they have power to do. Let men alone and at last we find they come round to the right way which we, by a kind of intuition, perceive at once. But better, far better that we should let them often do wrong than that they should have the torment of a monitor always at their elbows.

"Charles is sadly fretted now, I know, at what to say to your mother. I have made this long preamble about it to induce you, if possible, to re-instate us in your mother's good graces. Say to her it was a jest misunderstood; tell her Charles Lamb is not the shabby fellow she and her son took him for but that he is, now and then, a trifle whimsical or so. I do not ask your brother to do this for I am offended with him for the mischief he has made.

"I feel that I have too lightly passed over the interesting account you sent me of your late disappointment. It was not because I did not feel and completely enter into the affair with you. You surprise and please me with the frank and generous way in which you deal with your lovers, taking a refusal from their so prudential hearts with a better grace and more good humour than other women accept a suitor's service. Continue this open artless conduct and I trust you will at last find some man who has sense enough to know you are well worth risking a peaceable life of poverty for. I shall yet live to see you a poor but happy English wife.

"Remember me most affectionately to Coleridge, and I thank you again and again for all your kindness to him. To dear Mrs. Stoddart and your brother I beg my best love; and to you all I wish health and happiness and a soon return to old England.

"I have sent to Mr. Barrel's for your kind present, but unfortunately he is not in town. I am impatient to see my fine silk handkerchiefs and I thank you for them not as a present, for I do not love presents, but as a remembrance of your old friend. Farewell.

"I am, my best Sarah,
"Your most affectionate Friend,

"Mary Lamb."

"Good wishes and all proper remembrances from old nurse, Mrs. Jeffries, Mrs. Reynolds, Mrs. Rickman, &c. Long live Queen Hoop-oop-oop-oo and all the old merry phantoms."

Sarah Stoddart returned to England before the year was out. Coleridge remained in Malta, filling temporarily, at the request of Sir Alexander Ball, governor of the island, the post of public secretary till the end of September, 1805 when his friends lost track of him altogether for nearly a year; during which he visited Paris, wandered through Italy, Sicily, Cairo, and saw Vesuvius in December when "the air was so consolidated with a massy cloud-curtain that it appeared like a mountain in basso-relievo in an interminable wall of some pantheon"; and after narrowly escaping imprisonment at the hands of Napoleon, suddenly reappeared amongst his friends in the autumn of 1806.

To the Wordsworths, brother and sister and young wife, for the three were one in heart, this year of 1805 had been one of overwhelming sorrow. Their brother John, the brave and able ship's captain who yet loved "all quiet things" as dearly as William "although he loved more silently," and was wont to carry that beloved brother's poems to sea and con them to the music of the winds and waves; whose cherished scheme, so near fulfilment, it was to realise enough to settle in a cottage at Grasmere and devote his earnings to the poet's use so that he might pursue his way unharassed by a thought of money,—this brother was shipwrecked on the Bill of Portland just as he was starting, and whilst the ship was yet in the pilot's hands, on what was to have been, in how different a sense, his last voyage.

Six weeks beneath the moving sea
He lay in slumber quietly;
Unforced by wind or wave
To quit the ship for which he died
(All claims of duty satisfied);
And there they found him at her side,
And bore him to the grave.

After waiting awhile in silence before a grief of such magnitude Mary wrote to Dorothy Wordsworth. She speaks as one acquainted with a life-long sorrow yet who has learned to find its companionship not bitter:—

"I thank you, my kind friend, for your most comfortable letter; till I saw your own handwriting I could not persuade myself that I should do well to write to you though I have often attempted it; but I always left off dissatisfied with what I had written, and feeling that I was doing an improper thing to intrude upon your sorrow. I wished to tell you that you would one day feel the kind of peaceful state of mind and sweet memory of the dead which you so happily describe as now almost begun; but I felt that it was improper and most grating to the feelings of the afflicted to say to them that the memory of their affliction would in time become a constant part, not only of their dream, but of their most wakeful sense of happiness. That you would see every object with and through your lost brother and that that would at last become a real and everlasting source of comfort to you I felt and well knew from my own experience in sorrow; but till you yourself began to feel this I didn't dare tell you so; but I send you some poor lines which I wrote under this conviction of mind and before I heard Coleridge was returning home. I will transcribe them now, before I finish my letter, lest a false shame prevent me then for I know they are much worse than they ought to be, written as they were with strong feeling and on such a subject; every line seems to me to be borrowed: but I had no better way of expressing my thoughts and I never have the power of altering or amending anything I have once laid aside with dissatisfaction:—

Why is he wandering on the sea?
Coleridge should now with Wordsworth be.
By slow degrees he'd steal away
Their woe and gently bring a ray
(So happily he'd time relief)
Of comfort from their very grief.
He'd tell them that their brother dead,
When years have passed o'er their head,
Will be remembered with such holy,
True, and perfect melancholy,
That ever this lost brother John
Will be their heart's companion.
His voice they'll always hear,
His face they'll always see:
There's nought in life so sweet
As such a memory.

Thus for a moment are we permitted to see that, next to love for her brother, the memory of her dead mother and friendship for Coleridge were the deep and sacred influences of Mary's life.