LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism

Recollections of Writers
Chapter III.

Chapter I.
Chapter II.
‣ Chapter III.
Chapter IV.
Chapter V.
Chapter VI.
Chapter VII.
Chapter VIII.
Chapter IX
John Keats
Charles Lamb
Mary Lamb
Leigh Hunt
Douglas Jerrold
Charles Dickens
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Samuel Taylor Coleridge—Jefferson Hogg—Henry Crabbe Robinson—Bryan Waller Procter (“Barry Cornwall”)—Godwin—Mrs. Shelley—Mrs. Williams—Francis Novello—Henry Robertson—Edward Holmes—Mary Lamb—The honourable Mrs. Norton—Countess of Blessington.

It was in the summer of 1821 that I first beheld Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It was on the East Cliff at Ramsgate. He was contemplating the sea under its most attractive aspect: in a dazzling sun, with sailing clouds that drew their purple shadows over its bright green floor, and a merry breeze of sufficient prevalence to emboss each wave with a silvery foam. He might possibly have composed upon the occasion one of the most philosophical, and at the same time most enchanting, of his fugitive reflections, which he has entitled “Youth and Age;” for in it he speaks of “airy cliffs and glittering sands,” and—
Of those trim skiffs, unknown of yore,
On winding lakes and rivers wide,
That ask no aid of sail or oar,
That fear no spite of wind or tide.
As he had no companion, I desired to pay my respects to one of the most extraordinary—and, indeed in his department of genius, the most extraordinary man of his age. And being possessed of a talisman for securing
his consideration, I introduced myself as a friend and admirer of
Charles Lamb. This pass-word was sufficient, and I found him immediately talking to me in the bland and frank tones of a standing acquaintance. A poor girl had that morning thrown herself from the pier-head in a pang of despair, from having been betrayed by a villain. He alluded to the event, and went on to denounce the morality of the age that will hound from the community the reputed weaker subject, and continue to receive him who has wronged her. He agreed with me that that question never will be adjusted but by the women themselves. Justice will continue in abeyance so long as they visit with severity the errors of their own sex and tolerate those of ours. He then diverged to the great mysteries of life and death, and branched away to the sublimer question—the immortality of the soul. Here he spread the sail-broad vans of his wonderful imagination, and soared away with an eagle-flight, and with an eagle-eye too, compassing the effulgence of his great argument, ever and anon stooping within my own sparrow’s range, and then glancing away again, and careering through the trackless fields of etherial metaphysics. And thus he continued for an hour and a half, never pausing for an instant except to catch his breath (which, in the heat of his teeming mind, he did like a schoolboy repeating by rote his task), and gave utterance to some of the grandest thoughts I ever heard from the mouth of man. His ideas, embodied in words of purest eloquence, flew about my ears like drifts of snow. He was like a cataract filling and rushing over my penny-phial capacity. I could only gasp and bow my head in acknowledgment. He required from me nothing more than the simple recognition of his discourse; and so he went on like a
steam-engine—I keeping the machine oiled with my looks of pleasure, while he supplied the fuel: and that, upon the same theme too, would have lasted till now. What would I have given for a short-hand report of that speech! And such was the habit of this wonderful man. Like the old peripatetic philosophers, he walked about, prodigally scattering wisdom, and leaving it to the winds of chance to waft the seeds into a genial soil.

My first suspicion of his being at Ramsgate had arisen from my mother observing that she had heard an elderly gentleman in the public library, who looked like a Dissenting minister, talking as she never heard man talk. Like his own “Ancient Mariner,” when he had once fixed your eye he held you spell-bound, and you were constrained to listen to his tale; you must have been more powerful than he to have broken the charm; and I know no man worthy to do that. He did indeed answer to my conception of a man of genius, for his mind flowed on “like to the Pontick sea,” that “ne’er feels retiring ebb.” It was always ready for action; like the hare, it slept with its eyes open. He would at any given moment range from the subtlest and most abstruse question in metaphysics to the architectural beauty in contrivance of a flower of the field; and the gorgeousness of his imagery would increase and dilate and flash forth such coruscations of similies and startling theories that one was in a perpetual aurora borealis of fancy. As Hazlitt once said of him, “He would talk on for ever, and you wished him to talk on for ever. His thoughts never seemed to come with labour or effort, but as if borne on the gust of Genius, and as if the wings of his imagination lifted him off his feet.” This is as truly as poetically described. He would not only illustrate a theory or an
argument with a sustained and superb figure, but in pursuing the current of his thought he would bubble up with a sparkle of fancy so fleet and brilliant that the attention, though startled and arrested, was not broken. He would throw these into the stream of his argument, as waifs and strays. Notwithstanding his wealth of language and prodigious power in amplification, no one, I think (unless it were
Shakespeare or Bacon), possessed with himself equal power of condensation. He would frequently comprise the elements of a noble theorem in two or three words; and, like the genuine offspring of a poet’s brain, it always came forth in a golden halo. I remember once, in discoursing upon the architecture of the Middle Ages, he reduced the Gothic structure into a magnificent abstraction—and in two words. “A Gothic cathedral,” he said, “is like a petrified religion.”

In his prose, as well as in his poetry, Coleridge’s comparisons are almost uniformly short and unostentatious; and not on that account the less forcible: they are scriptural in character; indeed it would be difficult to find one more apt to the purpose than that which he has used; and yet it always appears to be unpremeditated. Here is a random example of what I mean: it is an unimportant one, but it serves for a casual illustration ot his force in comparison. It is the last line in that strange and impressive fragment in prose, “The Wanderings of Cain:”—“And they three passed over the white sands, and between the rocks, silent as their shadows.” It will be difficult, I think, to find a stronger image than that, to convey the idea of the utter negation of sound, with motion.

Like all men of genius, and with the gift of eloquence, Coleridge had a power and subtlety in interpretation that
would persuade an ordinary listener against the conviction of his senses. It has been said of him that he could persuade a Christian he was a Platonist, a Deist that he was a Christian, and an Atheist that he believed in a God. The Preface to his Ode of “
Fire, Famine, and Slaughter,” wherein he labours to show that Pitt the Prime Minister was not the object of his invective at the time of his composing that famous war-eclogue, is at once a triumphant specimen of his talent for special pleading and ingenuity in sophistication.

In a lecture upon Shakespeare’s “TempestColeridge kept his audience in a roar of laughter by drawing a ludicrous comparison between the monster Caliban and a modern Radical. It was infinitely droll and clever; but like a true sophist, there was one point of the argument which he failed to illustrate—and, indeed, never alluded to—viz. that Caliban, the Radical, was inheritor of the soil by birth-right; and Prospero, the aristocrat, was the aggressor and self-constituted legislator. The tables thus easily turned upon Mr. Coleridge, would have involved him in an edifying dilemma. The fact is, that Coleridge had been a Jacobin, and was one of the marked men in the early period of the French Revolution. It was at this period of his life that he served as a private in a regiment, and used to preach Liberalism to his brethren; and I believe he quickly had his discharge. He had also been a professor of Unitarianism, and delivered sermons. He once asked Charles Lamb if he had ever heard him preach; who replied that he “never heard him do anything else.” All these opinions he afterwards ostensibly abjured; and doubtless he had good reason for making manifest his conversion from what he conceived to have been error. Like the chameleon, he would
frequently adopt and reflect the hue of his conversed prejudices, where neither opinions (religious or political) were positively offensive to him; and thus, from a tranquillity—perhaps I might say, an indolence—of disposition, he would fashion his discourse and frame his arguments, for the time being, to suit the known predilections of his companion. It is therefore idle to represent him as a partisan at all, unless it be for kindness and freedom of thought; and I know no other party principle worth a button.

The upper part of Coleridge’s face was excessively fine. His eyes were large, light grey, prominent, and of liquid brilliancy, which some eyes of fine character may be observed to possess, as though the orb itself retreated to the innermost recesses of the brain. The lower part of his face was somewhat dragged, indicating the presence of habitual pain; but his forehead was prodigious, and like a smooth slab of alabaster. A grander head than his has not been seen in the grove at Highgate since his neighbour Lord Bacon lived there. From his physical conformation Coleridge ought to have attained an extreme old age, and he probably would have done so but for the fatal habit he had encouraged of resorting to the stimulus of opium. Not many months before his death, when alluding to his general health, he told me that he never in his life knew the sensation of head-ache; adding, in his own peculiarly vivid manner of illustration, that he had no more internal consciousness of possessing a head than he had of having an eye.

My married sister having gone to reside with her husband and their young family in the West of England, my mother and my unmarried sister went to live near them; while I returned to London and to delightful friendships
already formed there. In renewing my old pleasant relations with men previously named I had the good fortune to come into contact with others of literary reputation and social attraction.
Jefferson Hogg, author of “A Hundred and Nine Days on the Continent,” with his dry humour, caustic sarcasm, and peculiar views of men and things, I met at Lamb’s house; who, one night when Jefferson Hogg sat opposite to him, fastened his eyes on his throat and suddenly asked, “Did you put on your own cravat this morning?” and receiving an answer in the affirmative, rejoined, “Ay, I thought it was a hog-stye!” There I also met Henry Crabbe Robinson; that agreeable diarist and universal keeper-up of acquaintance. I suppose never man had a larger circle of friends whom he constantly visited and constantly received than he had, or one who was more generally welcome as a diner-out, and better liked as a giver of snug dinners, than himself. Now too, I saw Bryan Waller Procter, whom I had known and admired in his poetry, in his “Dramatic Scenes,” and “Sicilian Story,” published under his pen-name of “Barry Cornwall,” and subsequently knew in his poetically beautiful tragedy of “Mirandola” and his collection of lovely “Songs.” He had a modest—nay, shy—manner in company; heightened by a singular nervous affection, a kind of sudden twitch or contraction, that spasmodically flitted athwart his face as he conversed upon any lofty theme, or argued on some high-thoughted topic. I again also occasionally met Godwin. His bald head, singularly wanting in the organ of veneration (for the spot where phrenologists state that “bump” to be, was on Godwin’s head an indentation instead of a protuberance), betokened of itself a remarkable man and individual thinker; and his laugh—with
its abrupt, short, monosound—more like a sharp gasp or snort than a laugh—seemed alone sufficient to proclaim the cynical, satirical, hard-judging, deep-sighted, yet strongly-feeling and strangely-imaginative author of “
Political Justice,” “Caleb Williams,” “St. Leon,” and “Fleetwood.” His snarling tone of voice exacerbated the effect of his sneering speeches and cutting retorts. On one occasion, meeting Leigh Hunt, who complained of the shortness of his sight and generally wore attached to a black ribbon a small single eye-glass to aid him in descrying objects, Godwin answered his complaints by saying sharply, “You should wear spectacles.” Leigh Hunt playfully admitted that he hardly liked yet to take to so old-gentlemanly-looking and disfiguring an apparatus; when Godwin retorted, with his snapping laugh, “Ha! What a coxcomb you must be!”

The Novellos, after leaving Oxford Street, and residing for a few years at 8, Percy Street, had taken a large, old-fashioned house and garden on Shacklewell Green; and it was here that they made welcome Mrs. Shelley and Mrs. Williams on their return from Italy, two young and beautiful widows, wooing them by gentle degrees into peacefuller and hopefuller mood of mind after their storm of bereavement abroad. By quiet meetings for home-music; by calmly cheerful and gradually sprightlier converse; by affectionate familiarity and reception into their own family circle of children and friends, Vincent and Mary Sabilia Novello sought to draw these-two fair women into reconcilement with life and its still surviving blessings. Very, very fair, both ladies were: Mary Wolstonecraft Godwin Shelley, with her well-shaped, golden-haired head, almost always a little bent and drooping; her marble-white shoulders and arms statuesquely visible in the per-
fectly plain black velvet dress, which the customs of that time allowed to be cut low, and which her own taste adopted (for neither she nor her sister-in-sorrow ever wore the conventional “widow’s weeds” and “widow’s cap”); her thoughtful, earnest eyes; her short upper lip and intellectually curved mouth, with a certain close-compressed and decisive expression while she listened, and a relaxation into fuller redness and mobility when speaking; her exquisitely-formed, white, dimpled, small hands, with rosy palms, and plumply commencing fingers, that tapered into tips as slender and delicate as those in a
Vandyk portrait—all remain palpably present to memory. Another peculiarity in Mrs. Shelley’s hand was its singular flexibility, which permitted her bending the fingers back so as almost to approach the portion of her arm above her wrist. She once did this smilingly and repeatedly, to amuse the girl who was noting its whiteness and pliancy, and who now, as an old woman, records its remarkable beauty. Very sweet and very encouraging was Mary Shelley to her young namesake, Mary Victoria, making her proud and happy by giving her a presentation copy of her wonderful book “Frankenstein” (still in treasured preservation, with its autograph gift-words), and pleasing her girlish fancy by the gift of a string of cut-coral, graduated beads from Italy. On such pleasant terms of kindly intimacy was Mrs. Shelley at this period with the Novellos that she and Mrs. Novello interchanged with one another their sweet familiar name of “Mary;” and she gave the Italianized form of his name to Mr. Novello, calling him “Vincenzo” in her most caressing tones, when she wished to win him into indulging her with some of her especially favourite strains of music. Even his brother, Mr. Francis Novello, she would address
as “Francesco,” as loving to speak the soft Italian syllables. Her mode of uttering the word “Lerici” dwells upon our memory with peculiarly subdued and lingering intonation, associated as it was with all that was most mournful in connexion with that picturesque spot where she learned she had lost her beloved “
Shelley” for ever from this fair earth. She was never tired of asking “Francesco” to sing, in his rich, mellow bass voice, Mozart’s “Qui sdegno,” “Possenti Numi,” “Mentre ti lascio,” “Tuba mirum,” “La Vendetta,” “Non piu andrai,” or “Madamina;” so fond was she of his singing her favourite composer. Greatly she grew to enjoy the “concerted pieces” from “Cosi fan tutte,” that used to be got up “round the piano.” Henry Robertson’s dramatic spirit and vivacity and his capacity and readiness in taking anything, tenor or counter-tenor—nay, soprano if need were—that might chance to be most required, more than made up for the smallness of his voice. His fame for singing Fernando’s part in the opening trio, “La mia Dorabella,” with the true chivalrous zest and fire of his phrase, “fuore la spada!” accompanied by appropriate action, lasted through a long course of years. Henry Robertson was one of the very best amateur singers conceivable: indefatigable, yet never anxious to sing if better tenors than himself chanced to be present; an almost faultless “reader at sight,” always in tune, invariably in good temper, and never failingly “in the humour for music,” qualities that will at once be appreciated by those who know what the majority of amateur singers generally are. Edward Holmes was among the enthusiastic party of enjoyers so often assembling at Shacklewell in those days. His rapturous love of music, his promptly kindled admiration of feminine beauty,
caused him to be in a perpetual ecstasy with the Mozart evenings and the charming young-lady widows. He used to be unmercifully rallied about his enamoured fantasies with regard to both; and he took to rallying his old school-mate, “
Charles Clarke,” in sheer self-defence, on the same score. But the latter was comparatively heart-whole, while “Ned Holmes” was riddled through and through by “the blind bow-boy’s butt-shaft.” Charles Clarke admired, Ned Holmes adored; Charles Clarke fluttered like a moth round the brilliant attractions, while Ned Holmes plunged madly into the scorching flames and recked not possible destruction. We used often and through a long train of years to laugh at Edward Holmes for his susceptible heart, lost a dozen times in a dozen months to some fair “Cynthia of the minute,” some prima-donna who sang entrancingly, some sparkler who laughed bewitchingly, or some tragedy beauty who wept with truth and passion. He confided these ephemeral captivations with amusing candour to the first hearer among his favourite associates, often choosing for his confidante the eldest daughter of his friend and master-in-music, Vincent Novello, when he shared his opera ticket or his playhouse order with her (in turn with one of her brothers or sisters) by her parents’ leave.

By the time I (C. C. C.) renewed my visits to her father and mother’s house, when Mrs. Shelley and Mrs. Williams were first welcomed there, this “eldest daughter” was growing into young girlhood, and I (M. C. C.) had changed from the “little girl” allowed to “sit up to supper as a great treat”—when Leigh Hunt, “the Lambs,” and other distinguished friends met at 240, Oxford Street, in the times of the Parmesan there, or of the “ripe Stilton” at the Vale of Health, or of the “old
crumbly Cheshire” at the Lambs’ lodgings—into a damsel approaching towards the age of “sweet sixteen,” privileged to consider herself one of the grown-up people. Whereas formerly I had been “one of the children,” I now spoke of my younger brothers and sisters as “the children;” and whereas at the Vale of Health I used to join the Hunt children in their games of play on the Heath, I now knew of the family being in Italy, and was permitted to hear the charming letters received from there; and whereas it was not so very long ago when I had been sent with
Emma Isola by Mary Lamb into her own room at Great Russell Street, Covent Garden, to have a girlish chat together by ourselves unrestrained by the presence of the graver and cleverer talkers, I was now wont to sit by preference with my elders and enjoy their music and their conversation, their mutual banter, their mutual and several predilections among each other. Always somewhat observant as a child, I had now become a greater observer than ever; and large and varied was the pleasure I derived from my observation of the interesting men and women around me at this time of my life. Certainly Mary Wolstonecraft Godwin Shelley was the central figure of attraction then to my young-girl sight; and I looked upon her with ceaseless admiration—for her personal graces, as well as for her literary distinction. The daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wolstonecraft Godwin, the wife of Shelley, the authoress of “Frankenstein,” had for me a concentration of charm and interest that perpetually excited and engrossed me while she continued a visitor at my parents’ house. My father held her in especial regard; and she evinced equally affectionate esteem for him. A note of hers, dated a few years after the Shacklewell days, sending him the
priceless treasure of a lock of her illustrious mother’s hair, and written in the melodious tongue so dear to both writer and receiver, shall be here transcribed, for the reader to share the pleasure of its perusal with her who has both note and hair carefully enshrined beneath a crystal covering:—

“Tempo fà, mio caro Vincenzo, vi promisi questa treccia dei capelli della mia Madre—non mi son scordata della mia promessa e voi non vi siete scordato di me—sono sicurissima. Il regalo presente adunque vi fara rammentare piacevolmente lei chi ama per sempre i suoi amici—fra di quali credera di sempre trovarvi quantunque le circonstanze ci dividono.

“State felice—e conservatemi almeno la vostra stima, vi

prega la vostra amica vera,
Mary Shelley.
“11 March, 1828.”

To my thinking, two other women only, among those I have seen who were distinguished for personal beauty as well as for literary eminence, ever equalled in these respects Mary Shelley; one of them was the Honourable Mrs. Norton, the other the Countess of Blessington; but these two latter-named stars I never beheld in a familiar sphere, I merely beheld them in their box at the Opera, or at the Theatre. Mrs. Norton was the realization of what one might imagine a Muse of Poesy would look like,—dark-haired, dark-eyed, classic-browed, and delicate-featured in the extreme, with a bearing of mingled feminine grace and regal graciousness. Lady Blessington, fair, florid-complexioned, with sparkling eyes and white, high forehead, above which her bright brown hair was smoothly braided beneath a light and simple blonde cap, in which were a few touches of sky-blue satin ribbon that singularly well became her, setting off her buxom face and its vivid colouring.