The immortal dinner, 1817
The risks of meeting your heroes…
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Lamb 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…
Before plague, a house move and Christmas intervened, I had written here of the now fairly obscure 19th century artist Benjamin Haydon (see here and here). Although Haydon’s artistic career never reached the heights he thought it deserved to (he was rather convinced of his own genius), he certainly enjoyed being connected to many artistic and literary luminaries of his day. One particular incident – between Christmas and New Year 1817, when Haydon was 31 – that he recounted in his diary, and then tidied up in his autobiography (published posthumously), epitomises this, and he tells of the quirky events of what he called the Immortal Dinner with relish. Before we dive into his account directly, here are the dramatis personae:
William Wordsworth – aged 47, then living in Ambleside in the Lake District, and with his poetic career now a little past its peak (though with many years still ahead of him). Wordsworth and Haydon had become warm friends since they had met in May 1815. In 1842 Haydon painted what became Wordsworth’s favourite portrait of himself. (Relevant to the evening’s events is that he was working as Distributor of Stamps for Westmorland to earn extra money.)
Charles Lamb – aged 42, and known at this point for his poetry, the Tales from Shakespeare (telling the bard’s stories for a young audience) and some indifferent plays. Lamb had been at school with his close friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge (who by this point had fallen out with Wordsworth). Lamb was known for his good humour, all the more impressive since back in 1796 he had endured his sister Mary’s murder of their mother. Lamb’s day job was as a clerk at the East India company.
John Keats – aged 22, the youngest guest, and already well connected in literary circles. His first volume of poetry (in 1816) had not been successful but he was by now showing signs of greater promise, and had recently abandoned his medical career for the literary life. He would die only three years and three months after the Immortal Dinner, but with his literary fame secured.
Tom Monkhouse – aged 34, this London merchant was a cousin of Wordsworth’s wife Mary, sometimes one of the poet’s walking companions, and a friend of Keats and Lamb. Like Haydon, he enjoyed moving in literary circles.
Other guests who joined later in the evening were:
Joseph Ritchie – aged around 29, Ritchie was from Yorkshire and by the time of the dinner his success as a London surgeon had connected him to scientific and literary circles. He became involved in an exploration of Africa to follow the River Niger, but a disastrous voyage across the Sahara in 1818 ultimately led to his death the following year.
John Landseer – aged 48, a notable English landscape engraver, he was at this time in his career also exploring archaeology. In 1815 he had sent his sons Charles and Edwin (both later known as artists) to Haydon’s own art school.
John Kingston (‘Comptroller of the Stamp Office’) – aged 44 (possibly born in Ireland), he was the odd man out at this gathering. As Haydon explains, they had only met earlier that day; Kingston had met Keats recently beforehand and was eager to be introduced to Wordsworth. Bizarrely, he was in fact Wordsworth’s superior at the Stamp Office, although they had never met there. He was a friend of the poet and novelist Horace Smith.
Here is Haydon’s account1 of the evening…
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.
I wrote to Lamb, and told him the address was “22, Lisson Grove, North, at Rossi’s, half way up, right hand corner.” I received his characteristic reply.
My dear Haydon, I will come with pleasure to 22. Lisson Grove, North, at Rossi’s, half way up, right hand side, if I can find it. Yours, C. Lamb. 20. Russel Court, Covent Garden East, half way up, next the corner, left hand side.
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, amongst 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 chaunted —
“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,”
chaunted 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.”
Keats made Ritchie promise he would carry his Endymion to the great desert of Sahara and fling it in the midst.
Poor Ritchie went to Africa, and died, as Lamb foresaw, in 1819. Keats died in 1821, at Rome. C. Lamb is gone, joking to the last. Monkhouse is dead, and Wordsworth and I are the only two now living (1841) of that glorious party.
At last came the last day of the current year. In the usual review in my Journal I say I have more to thank God for than in any previous twelve months.
I resolved to acquire the fundamental principles of perspective, of which I did not know enough. I earnestly prayed that I might conceive and execute such a head of Christ as would impress the Christian world; — that my life might be spared till the public mind was moved to the commemoration of Art, and the art advancing steadily and gloriously.
Alas Haydon’s art never advanced as gloriously as he had hoped, and the debts I have mentioned before (which led to brief periods of imprisonment) dominated much of his life. The cheery account above was written in the 1840s, when he was in his fifties, but failure soon took over, and in June 1846 he took his own life, not long after a poorly attended exhibition of his work. (Even his suicide did not proceed successfully to start with – he tried to cut his own throat, but ended up having to shoot himself.) A sad end, but his writing is well worth remembering.2
A far more detailed exploration of the evening, its guests and the wider social and literary context can be found in Penelope Hughes-Hallett’s The Immortal Dinner (Viking, 2000).