The Friendship between Lamb and Coleridge
paper given at
(The Coleridge Bulletin New Series No 2 (Autumn 1993), pp 20-32)
I am afraid I have for you no new and exciting discovery. Perhaps I may excuse myself by saying that the search for novelty in criticism recently has tended to distance us so so much from the real creators, the prose writers and poets, that their voices altogether cease to be heard. So I shall tell only a simple and familiar story, of which perhaps it is good sometimes to remind ourselves.
Once upon a time there were two little boys called Sam and Charley and each had a fairy godmother. No, this is not really a fairytale and the elderly gentlemen who sponsored Coleridge and Lamb for Christ’s Hospital would have been very much surprised to find themselves cast in such a role. Yet they gave the boys not one but two inestimable gifts, of an admirable education and a lifelong friendship. Not that they entirely appreciated their good fortune at the time. As you know, the physical conditions at the school were Spartan and the terrifying figure of the master Boyer strides through his pupils’ memories like an ogre. Leigh Hunt, Lamb and Coleridge have all given evidence of his cruelties. Children develop their own superstitions - Coleridge tells, for example, of a Christ’s Hospital charm for cramp (Table Talk June 10 1832) - or strategies for reading the signs of good or bad fortune. It was firmly believed by members of my house at school that if we had the pudding called spotted dick for lunch before a match our house would certainly win. Perhaps there was more reason in Lamb’s account of Boyer’s wigs.
He had two wigs, both pedantic, but of different omen. The one serene, smiling, fresh powdered, betokening a mild day. The other, an old discoloured, unkempt, angry caxon, denoting frequent and bloody execution. Woe to the school, when he made his morning appearance in his passy, or passionate wig. No comet expounded surer. - J.B. had a heavy hand.
(Christ’s Hospital Five and Thirty Years Ago)
Coleridge told how he was flogged for claiming to be an infidel, “-wisely, as I think,- soundly as I know.” (Table Talk May 27,1830)
Yet, under Boyer, says Lamb, “were many good and sound scholars bred” and the details of Coleridge’s account of the master’s salutary warning against literary affectation in Biographia do ring true.
“Harp? Harp? Lyre? Pen and ink, boy, you mean! Muse, boy, muse? Your nurse’s daughter, you mean! Pierian spring? Oh, aye! the cloister-pump, I suppose!”
Lamb reports that Coleridge, on hearing of Boyer’s death, provided this epitaph:
Poor J.B.!- may all his faults be forgiven and may he be wafted to bliss by little cherub boys, all head and wings, with no bottoms to reproach his sublunary infirmities.
His pupils felt gratitude mixed with their nightmares of him. Edmund Blunden, writing of Leigh Hunt, says :” the school gave him an accurate, extensive and lasting control of Latin and Greek, which continued to supply dignity of image and graciousness of allusion to his style through his over-busy literary career. It is not common among journalists to have Appollonius Rhodius or Strabo at their elbow as he had.” (Leigh Hunt—A Biography-1930: Archon reprint 1970 p.14)
Coleridge praises Boyer for making “us read Shakespeare and Milton as lessons; and they. were the lessons, too, which required most time and trouble to bring up, so as to escape his censure”. Yet a heavy price was paid. Though Lamb’s home was nearby and he never lost contact with it, he feels himself most sensitively into the suffering of his exiled friend.
O the cruelty of separating a poor lad from his early homestead! The yearnings which I used to have towards it in those unfledged years!
It would be hard to find a better description of homesickness than that in Frost at Midnight. At the age of eight, in a class-room at the front of my own boarding school, on Sunday mornings, I would sit learning my Collect for the day and staring out at the drive, almost believing that by willing I could make my parents appear walking up it. A few years later, still at the same school, though I was enchanted by The Ancient Mariner, it was these lines that really made me Coleridge’s slave:
But O! how oft,
How oft, at school, with most believing mind,
Presageful, have I gazed upon the bars,
To watch that fluttering stranger! and as oft
With unclosed lids, already had I dreamt
Of my sweet birth-place....
And so I brooded all the following morn,
Awed by the stern preceptor’s face, mine eye
Fixed with mock study on my swimming book:
Save if the door half opened, and I snatched
A hasty glance, and still my heart leaped up,
For still I hoped to see the stranger’s face,
Townsman, or aunt, or sister more beloved,
My play-mate when we both were clothed alike.
The superstition about the film of soot was, alas! less efficacious than the divination by wig.
I do not want to indulge in facile psychologizing but the pain of having been abandoned by a parent as apparently unwanted - for so it seems to the child, though the parent’s intention may have been entirely laudable - and into a repressive and loveless regime too, can have a traumatic effect that is lifelong, as “of a little Child” that “now moans low in utter grief and fear-/And now screams loud, and hopes to make its Mother hear!” In Coleridge’s case, it may well have set the pattern of his later life: the need to compensate for a sense of worthlessness by showing off in his learned monologues and the longing for an ideal love, combined with the inability to achieve it in the real world.
I was particularly impressed by a notebook passage quoted by Graham Davidson in his book (Coleridge’s Career. Macmillan 1990.p.154):
O God... preserve me from the deadly Hensbane of self-contempt - the worst and most concentrated form of selfishness. For it is a sinking down into the mere Self, and abstraction from the redeeming God.
Unfortunately the sense of being unloved and unlovable often leads, in a vicious chain, to behaviour liable to alienate affection even further and so to lead to self-disgust. No wonder Coleridge found it hard to understand how Wordsworth could say he felt no need of a Redeemer.
Nevertheless Coleridge’s wrestling with the idea of love, temporal and spiritual, proved a fruitful exercise. Kathleen Coburn says,
It is, I believe, an overlooked nobility in Coleridge - his frailties are more obvious - that he was able so often to turn his personal loneliness to creative use. The poems, the literary criticism, the philosophy, all were wrenched out of a complex total experience.
Despite its harsh and painful concomitants, without the education they received at Christ’s Hospital neither Coleridge nor Lamb could have contemplated the achievements of their later life: There is some evidence that Coleridge, as he reached the top of the school, developed a relationship of trust with Boyer. John Beer quoted the testimony of Coleridge’s fag, Leapidge Smith, in which he remembers Coleridge sending him to the Headmaster’s house to present him with a lighted candle “particularly informing the doctor that Coleridge had lighted it”. Whereupon Boyer “laughed heartily and replied, ‘Tell Colly’ (he always called him so when pleased) ‘that he is a good fellow’.” John Beer goes on to elucidate but the point for us is that this was an in-joke shared between master and pupil. (Coleridge’s Variety . ed. J. Beer. Macmillan 1974. p.62)
After Coleridge’s Army escapade, Boyer helped him get back
The second great gift the school gave to Coleridge and Lamb was that their shared childhood experience laid the foundation for the lifelong friendship which was to mean so much to both of them. Lamb, the younger boy, never became a Grecian because of his stammer. After Coleridge’s death Lamb wrote, “ He was a Grecian (or in the first form) at Christ’s Hospital, where I was a deputy Grecian; and the same subordination and deference to him I have preserved through a life-long acquaintance”. At first there was a strong element of hero-worship in Lamb’s feelings for Coleridge and he never ceased to revere his genius but by the time he wrote his famous reminiscence of “ the inspired charity boy” who expounded lamblichus or Plotinus or quoted “Homer in his Greek, or Pindar” in the cloisters of Christ’s Hospital, Lamb had got the measure of his friend. Richard Holmes shrewdly finds that “the Neoplatonic mystics and gnostics have the air of being plucked out of a conjuror’s hat,” and detects “ a certain undercurrent of affectionate mockery”. (Coleridge: Early Visions. Hodder & Stoughton.1989. p.33)
Neverthless, John Beer points out that “in the time of Coleridge’s schooldays, these philosophers had an unusually topical interest, since Thomas Taylor had just begun his enthusiastic series of translations from the Neo-Platonist philosophers”, so Lamb may not have been so arbitrary in his choice after all. (Coleridge’s Variety. p.59)
The prognosis for Lamb’s unqualified
idolization of his friend is, though he does not at first recognize it, bad
from the beginning. In his first extant letter of May 27, 1796, Lamb begins
with the reassurance that he has paid the bill and redeemed the belongings that
were being held in lieu at the Salutation and Cat, where Coleridge had been
skulking eighteen months before in an attempt to evade his obligation to Sara
Fricker. Not that Lamb grudged the payment: “give yourself no further concern
about it. The money would be superfluous to me, if I had it.” (Letters, ed. Marrs.
No doubt he felt that Sara’s loss had been his gain, as he revelled in his friend’s evening company, “drinking egg-hot and smoking Oronooko” (Marrs 1.32) and talking - or, in Lamb’s case I suspect, listening. In 1818, looking back at this time, Lamb told Coleridge that it was then that “you first kindled in me, if not the power, yet the love of poetry, and beauty, and kindliness”. (Lucas, Life. 1.p.97. Quoting L.’s dedication to C in Works. 1818)
The gifts were reciprocal. If Boyer really had, as Coleridge asserted, instilled into him the maxim that “Whatever is translatable in other and simpler words, without loss of sense or dignity, is bad”,  he had managed to forget it. Dykes Campbell says,” the development of Lamb’s critical taste was years in advance of Coleridge’s - as may be seen by his letters to his friend in 1796, when Lamb was twenty-one and Coleridge twenty-four” (Lucas, Life. 1.p.67)
George Whalley’s seminal article, Coleridge’s Debt to Lamb,  drew attention to the importance of Lamb’s critical influence at this time, which a detailed study of the letters bears out. “Cultivate simplicity, Coleridge, or rather, I should say, banish elaborateness”. This was the message that helped to develop the two branches of Coleridge’s verse that Lamb and everyone after him, most admired, ,the Conversation Poems and the Supernatural.
Some of our present-day critical theorists could perhaps benefit from Lamb’s advice - or maybe they need the stronger medicine of Boyer. “This” says Coleridge “is worthy of ranking as a maxim (regula maxima) of criticism. Whatever is translatable in other and simpler words, without loss of sense or dignity, is bad.”
Meantime, in a throw-away passage well into that first
letter Lamb confides,” Coleridge, I know not what suffering scenes you have
gone through at
Charles did not have any recurrence - but there was worse to come. On September 27,1796, he writes to his “dearest friend” to tell him of what he later called “the day of horrors”. “My poor dear dearest sister in a fit of insanity has been the death of her own mother. I was at hand only time enough to snatch the knife out of her grasp.” Lamb dealt with the situation calmly and efficiently: “thank God I am very calm and composed and able to do the best that remains to do”. But his life had been shattered. For the moment he abandoned the idea of writing poetry. “With me’ the former things are passed away’, and I have something more to do than to feel”. He was only grateful that his own sanity had survived. “God has preserved to me my senses,- I eat and drink and sleep, and have my judgment I believe very sound.” He asks Coleridge to “Write, - as religious a letter as possible -” and it is a consolation, in contemplating Coleridge’s generally irresponsible life, that when his friend appealed to him in this terrible trouble he did not let him down. He wrote immediately by return of post and no one could possibly fault him for right feeling and genuine deep care for his friend.
Your letter... struck me with a mighty horror. It rushed upon me and stupified my feelings. You bid me write you a religious letter. I am not a man who would attempt to insult the greatness of your anguish by any
other consolation. Heaven knows that in the easiest fortunes there is much dissatisfaction and weariness of spirit; much that calls for the exercise of patience and resignation; but in storms like these, that shake the dwelling and make the heart tremble, there is no middle way between despair and the yielding up of the whole spirit to the guidance of faith...
...I look upon you as a man called by sorrow and anguish and a strange desolation of hopes into quietness, and a soul set apart and made peculiar to God...
...I wish above measure to have you a little while here; no visitants shall blow upon the nakedness of your feelings; you shall be quiet and your spirit shall be healed...
“I charge you, my dearest friend, not to dare to encourage gloom and despair. You are a temporary sharer in human miseries that you may be an eternal partaker of the Divine nature. I charge you, if by any means it be possible, come to me....
The visit was not immediately feasible but the
correspondence continued, Lamb confiding without reserve in the friend, whose
letter, he said, “was an inestimable treasure to me”, and, in his turn,
commiserating with Coleridge’s own ill-health and insecurity. “Tell me, dearest
of my friends, is your mind at peace, or has anything yet unknown to me,
happened to give you fresh disquiet, and steal from you all the pleasant dreams
of future rest?” (
written thus, and I shall never quarrel with you about
simplicity”. He also encouraged his friend to more ambitious ventures, such as “the
Origin of Evil as a most prolific subject for a long poem”, which eventually
emerged as The Ancient Mariner and Christabel, of which, despite minor
reservations, Lamb was an enthusiastic partisan. (
For his part, Coleridge was to write in 1800, “My poor Lamb!
- how cruelly afflictions crowd upon him! I am glad that you think of him as I
think - he has an affectionate heart, a mind sui generis, his taste acts so as
to appear like the unmechanic simplicity of an Instinct - in brief, he is worth
an hundred men of mere Talents.
Conversation with the latter tribe is like the use of leaden bells - one warms
by exercise - Lamb every now and then
eradiates, & the beam, tho’
single & fine as a hair, yet is rich with colours, & I both see &
feel it.” (
After the move to Nether Stowey Lamb asks,”Do, in your next
letter, & that right soon, give me some satisfaction respecting your
present situation at Stowey. Is it a farm you have got? & what does your
worship know about farming?” (
I had long felt great sympathy for Mrs. Coleridge, many
years before I read Molly Lefebure’s admirable book, ever since, in fact, I
first saw the
Worse than that, though, was Sara’s task in making meals for them all, cooking on an open fire. No wonder “dear Sara” spilt a skillet of milk on her husband’s foot, no doubt stretched out in the most inconvenient and
warmest place, as she tried to
thread the obstacle-race to reach heated food or drying washing. He would not
have had a diaper pinned to his knee, on a famous occasion, would he if he had
not been hogging the best of the fire? (
However, for Lamb it was a rare experience. On his return to
London he wrote, “l am scarcely yet so reconciled to the loss of you, or so
subsided into my wonted uniformity of feeling, as to sit calmly down to think
of you and write to you... The names of Tom Poole, of Wordsworth and his good
sister, with thine and Sara’s, are become ‘familiar in my mouth as household
“You will oblige me too by sending me my great-coat, which I have left behind in the oblivious state the mind is thrown into at parting - is it not ridiculous that I sometimes envy that great-coat lingering so cunningly behind?” That was written in July. Towards the end of September Lamb begs, “I wish you would send my great-coat. The snow and the rain season is at hand, and I have but a wretched old coat, once my father’s, to keep ‘em off, and that is transitory... Meet emblem wilt thou be, old Winter, of a friend’s neglect - cold, cold, cold!” Unfortunately Charles Lloyd was already making mischief, which was to lead, in 1798, to the only breach between Lamb and Coleridge in their whole lives. In publishing in November 1797 the Nehemiah Higginbottom sonnets, including one entitled To Simplicity, Coleridge was not being tactful, to say the least!
However let us take Lamb’s visit to Stowey as a milestone and consider what by this time the two friends had achieved with each other’s help. Before Lamb could continue writing and eventually find his appropriate form with the familiar essay, he had to learn to live with the terrible family disaster and its consequences, the limitation of his expectations, his responsibility for Mary, and her recurring illness. This never became easy and his loneliness and grief when she was away touch one deeply in reading the letters.
Nevertheless, with Coleridge’s support at the crucial time, he learnt to deal with them. His reaction to his own brief madness was characteristic.
There was no evasion of reality, no self-deception or covering up. Lamb looked the worst unflinchingly in the face. Those who still cling to a picture of a sentimental ninny who escaped into whimsy could not be more wrong. Yes, when he wrote, “ I am got somewhat rational now and don’t bite anyone”, he was using humour as a defensive weapon, and this continued to be one of his strategies, but only a fool fails to see through the comic surface to the abyss beneath. Even if we did not have the letters or know about Lamb’s life, sensitive and careful readers of the essays would be able to penetrate to the essential toughness underlying his nostalgia and informing his irony. The religious consolation, too, which at his request Coleridge had proffered him, did its part in setting Lamb on the path to a way of life whereby he could fulfil his obligations and also write. In his poem to Lamb before the catastrophe, Coleridge had promised, “Thou thy best friend shall cherish many a year”.
As to Coleridge, the literary influence of Bowles’ sonnets
and “the divine chit-chat of Cowper” (
retracting a previous severity on lines from Religious Musings, yet managing to make his point all the same.
“If there be anything in it approaching to tumidity (which I
meant not to infer in elaborate - I meant simply laboured) it is the Gigantic
hyperbole by which you describe the Evils of existing Society. Snakes Lions
hyenas and behemoths is carrying your resentment beyond bounds.” (
One could argue, perhaps, that the process approached its
consummation in the poem Coleridge addressed to Lamb during his stay at Stowey
in 1797, This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison.
Here are some of the lines Lamb refers to in Religious Musings about the whore of
Pure Faith! meek Piety! the abhorred Form
Whose scarlet robe was stiff with earthly pomp,
Who drank iniquity in cups of gold,
Whose names were many and all blasphemous,
Hath met the horrible judgment! Whence that cry?
The mighty army of foul Spirits shrieked
Disinherited of earth! For she hath fallen
On whose black front was written Mystery;
She that reeled heavily, whose wine was blood;
She that worked whoredom with the Daemon Power,
And from the dark embrace all evil things
Brought forth and nurtured: mitred Atheism!
And patient Folly who on bended knee
Gives back the steel that stabbed him; and pale Fear
Haunted by ghastlier shapings than surround
Moon-blasted Madness when he yells at midnight!
Return pure Faith! return meek Piety!”
Then turn to the opening of This Lime-tree Bower.
Well, they are gone, and here must I remain
This lime-tree bower my prison!
How well the contrast illustrates what George Whalley describes as Lamb’s task of “poet-making”, “refining Coleridge’s taste, forcing him to renounce rhetoric and the easy effect in favour of a hard clean line with energy self-contained”. Instead of• the bombast we have speech rhythms and vocabulary, simple in themselves yet used in sophisticated versification and containing sequences of thought and association which create a unified structure and a new poetic form. Whalley ends his article thus: “one thing is sure: that Coleridge was launched forth upon his marvellous year with vision clarified and energies redirected by his fruitful nine-months’ correspondence with Charles Lamb.”
At first Lamb’s pleasure in the manner of This Lime-tree Bower - acknowledged
later- was eclipsed by his dismay at part of its matter. We are used to being
highly entertained by his well-known comment.” For God’s sake (I never was more
serious), don’t make me ridiculous any more by terming me gentle-hearted in
print, or do it in better verses.” (
He protests that “ the meaning of gentle is equivocal at
best, and almost always means poor-spirited...” But in view of the subsequent
history of Lamb criticism he did have a point. Certainly his humane virtues do,
in Wordsworthian phrase “shine aloft-like stars” but he was very far from being
“poor-spirited” and there are times when his irony can be compared to Swift’s.
Even before the “day of horrors” Lamb administers to Coleridge what Whalley calls “bracing if bitter tonics” (p.75). Afterwards, Whalley says, “ a subtle but profound maturity had come to Lamb; a new sternness enters his voice”. It could be argued that Coleridge’s support in Lamb’s crisis had helped him to develop his already superior judgment into a new authoritativeness which Whalley believes marks “ a very important turning-point in their relations”. (p.77)
It remains to relate the end of the story, not, I am afraid, exactly with “ they lived happily ever after”, but certainly with their regard for one another unabated. Like a weather-house couple, one might go in as the other came out but they were permanently attached. On his death-bed Coleridge wrote in pencil in a copy of his Poetical Works against This
Lime-Tree Bower my Prison the words, “Charles and Mary Lamb -dear to my heart, yea, as it were my heart. S.T.C. Aet.63,1834. 1797-1834 - 37 years!” In his will he asked for a mourning ring containing his hair to be given “To my close friend and ever-beloved schoolfellow, Charles Lamb - and in the deep and almost life-long affection of which this is the slender record, his equally-beloved sister, Mary Lamb, will know herself to be included”.
Lamb wrote, “When I heard of the death of Coleridge, it was without grief. It seemed to me that he had long been on the confines of the next world, - that he had a hunger for eternity. I grieved then that I could not grieve. But since, I feel how great a part he was of me. His great and dear spirit haunts me. I cannot think a thought, I cannot make a criticism on men and books, without an ineffectual turning and reference to him. He was the proof and touchstone of all my cogitations”. Lamb only survived his friend by five months. Wordsworth wrote that Lamb’s death “was doubtless hastened by his sorrow for that of Coleridge”. (Lucas Life II. p.834)
I should like to end with the Latin quotation invented by Coleridge and provided with an equally spurious ascription for the title-page of Poems by S.T.Coleridge, Second Edition, To which are added Poems by Charles Lamb and Charles Lloyd. “Duplex nobis vinculum, et amicitiae et similium junctarumque Camoenarum; quod utinam neque mors solvat neque temporis longuinquitas!” Which can be freely translated,” Double is the bond between us, both of friendship and of a like attitude to poetry, so that I wish that neither death nor the passage of time had power to dissolve it”.
The fact that we are still talking of it suggests that in relation to Lamb Coleridge had his wish.
 A note put into Sara Coleridge’s 1847 edition of Biographia Literaria which, it is to be assumed, she took from an annotation by Coleridge in the copy she was working from - now presumably lost. The note was printed at the foot of the page describing Boyer’s comments which I quoted earlier and was in the old Everyman edition which I had at school.
 ‘Coleridge’s Debt to Charles Lamb’ by George Whalley published in Essays and Studies by members of the English Association, 1958.