Sunday, August 05, 2018

'Venting His Melancholy in a Sort of Mirth'

Lamb and Coleridge were friends from their schoolboy days at Christ’s Hospital in Newgate Street. The mutual devotion of two testy personalities weathered madness, literary rivalry, alcoholism and opium addiction. After his friend’s death on July 25, 1834, Lamb wrote: “He was fifty years my old friend without a dissention.” Lamb’s notion of friendship included generosity, indulgence and a hair-trigger sense of humor. He once wrote to Southey: “I was at Hazlitt’s marriage, and had like to have been turned out several times during the ceremony. Anything awful makes me laugh. I misbehaved once at a funeral.” Coleridge’s death left him shaken and mute. On this date, Aug. 5, in 1834, Lamb wrote to James Gillman, the Highgate physician who had invited Coleridge into his home in 1816 and helped the poet moderate his laudanum consumption for the remainder of his life. Gillman, who later wrote a biography of Coleridge, is one of literature’s unbeatified saints:    

“The sad week being over, I must write to you to say, that I was glad of being spared from attending; I have no words to express my feeling with you all. I can only say that when you think a short visit from me would be acceptable, when your father and mother shall be able to see me with comfort, I will come to the bereaved house. Express to them my tenderest regards and hopes that they will continue our friends still. We [Lamb and his sister Mary] both love and respect them as much as a human being can, and finally thank them with our hearts for what they have been to the poor departed.”

A short time later, Lamb visited Gillman and his family at Highgate. Lamb asked to meet the nurse who had attended to his friend in his final days. Lamb thanked her and gave her five guineas. In 1835, John Forster, future biographer of Dickens and Landor, published a brief memoir, “Charles Lamb: His Last Words on Coleridge,” in New Monthly Magazine:

“He had a habit of venting his melancholy in a sort of mirth. He would, with nothing graver than a pun, ‘cleanse his bosom of the perilous stuff that weighed’ upon it. In a jest, or a few light phrases, he would lay open the last recesses of his heart. So in respect of the death of Coleridge. Some old friends of his saw him two or three weeks ago, and remarked the constant turning and reference of his mind. He interrupted himself and them almost every instant with some play of affected wonder, or astonishment, or humorous melancholy, on the words, ‘Coleridge is dead.’ Nothing could divert him from that, for the thought of it never left him.”

Coleridge’s will included this clause: “And further, as a relief to my own feelings by the opportunity of mentioning their names, that I request of my executor, that a small plain gold mourning ring, with my hair, may be presented to the following persons, namely: 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 died five months later, on Dec. 27, 1834. Wordsworth said his death was hastened by Coleridge’s.

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