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Immortal Meals #1: Keats, Wordsworth, Haydon, Lamb, Monkhouse, Ritchie and the Comptroller March 14, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

Beachcombing spent yesterday looking for modern food-tasters and, in so doing, found himself inspired by another question. What meal  in history would he most want to have eaten at?

Now, of course, there are two ways that the best meal might be judged: either in terms of the food eaten or in terms of the company. Beachcombing would not be averse to sitting down with the most delicious nosh ever made (especially if gluten free), but for today’s purposes he is more interested in the host who managed to drag, around a small table, the most interesting guests.

First, some obvious ground rules. Large meals are fine as long as there is some intimate conversation. You might imagine, for example, that soup with Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin at Yalta would have been illuminating: but their entourages were so big that there was probably relatively little chatting among the ‘big three’ before the cigars. Attlee and Molotov constantly getting in the way…

After much thought Beachcombing settled on an obscure nineteenth-century meal. 28 December 1817 the painter and writer Benjamin Haydon invited to a small but delightful soiree perhaps the two greatest - with apologies to Browning and Whitman - nineteenth-century English-speaking poets: John Keats and William Wordsworth.  Wordsworth and Keats accepted as did the explosive playwright Charles Lamb, most famous today for his tales from Shakespeare. Then along with these luminaries came Thomas Monkhouse (a city gentleman, cousin of Wordsworth) and Joseph Ritchie an explorer who would die a year later on his way to Timbuktu.

It is one thing to get such an extraordinary group together, it is another thing for the evening to be a success: yet somehow Haydon pulled it off. The key seems to have been the unusual combination of Lamb and Wordsworth: Lamb punctured Wordsworth’s sage-like reserve. Then over them hung Haydon’s most recent work (pictured above) Christ Entering Jerusalem with cameos of Keats, Newton (!) and others.

On 28 December 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.

Wordsworth rarely laughed…

The evening was then truly immortalised by the arrival of the Comptroller of Stamps, one of the great idiots of literary history, as impressive, in his way, as the ‘person from Porlock’.

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. 1  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…

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  (316-320)

Haydon finishes his description with a melancholy consideration… When he published his account in 1853 only Wordsworth and himself were still alive. Ritchie had croaked in Africa in 1819, Keats – his name ‘writ on water’ – in Rome in 1821 and Lamb in 1834 just short of 60. Haydon and Wordsworth would soon totter off the mortal coil as well. The only witness of that fabulous evening is now Christ Enters Jerusalem lost in a private collection somewhere in the States.

Any other immortal meals? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com