Felicity James. Charles Lamb, Coleridge and Wordsworth: Reading Friendship in the 1790s

By Milnes, Tim | Studies in Romanticism, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Felicity James. Charles Lamb, Coleridge and Wordsworth: Reading Friendship in the 1790s


Milnes, Tim, Studies in Romanticism


Felicity James. Charles Lamb, Coleridge and Wordsworth: Reading Friendship in the 1790s. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Pp. 265. $75.00.

In the foreground of James Gillray's Anti-Jacobin cartoon "The New Morality," Charles Lamb and Charles Lloyd, caricatured as "Toad & Frog" and surrounded by Liberty Caps and Sansculottes, croak out passages from their 1797 collection Blank Verse. Contemporaries were puzzled by Lamb's appearance in this mock-triumph of the Jacobin tendency. Southey (who, like Coleridge, is depicted in the cartoon as a braying ass) commented: "I know not what poor Lamb has done to be croaking there." Many readers since, familiar with Lamb as a poet of mournful sensibility, and, in the guise of "Elia," as a "familiar" essayist of paradox and whimsicality, have echoed Southey's bewilderment. In her searching study of Lamb and his circle, however, Felicity James argues that Lamb's inclusion in the revolutionary throng is not as odd as it might appear, indeed, that "the suspicions of the Anti-Jacobin might not have been misplaced." Gillray, she suggests, chose his target wisely.

James's scholarly and accessible work situates Lamb's early writing in the context of the febrile revolutionary debates of the 1790s. Building on recent work on romantic collaborative networks and ideas of sociability, it traces Lamb's politics to the utopian ideas of community and sympathetic feeling fostered by meetings with Lloyd and Coleridge in the little smoky room in the "Salutation & Cat." James argues that for Lamb and his circle, friendship itself is maintained by the literary techniques of quotation, echo, and personal reference. Through the art of allusion, Lamb's writing translates the revolutionary debates of the era into the pragmatics of friendly conversation. The struggle to reposition the politics of sentiment and the "affections" in the wake of Burke and Godwin, however, leave the group's early utopian ideals of friendship and community based on "home-born Feeling" hovering uneasily between "conservative retreat and radical engagement." By the end of the decade, it is apparent that Lamb and Coleridge have quite different ideas about friendship and community. James explores the causes and the consequences of this disagreement in a way that combines detailed textual scrutiny with a sharp awareness of the personal and ideological tensions between the parties.

Among the many delights of this book is its ability to suggest particular times and locations; James is an evocative scene-setter. The first chapter recreates the atmosphere of the "Salutation & Cat," with the friends engaging in conversation amid the "steaming egg-nog, in a lug of Orinoco tobacco-smoke." James's carefully modulated reading of Lamb and Coleridge's work in the 1790s rightly stresses the inchoate nature of their political views, as well as influences such as the electrical fluid theories of Thelwall and Godwin and, more importantly, Unitarianism. Unitarian notions of friendship form the bedrock of Lamb and Coleridge's politics in the 1790s, and James vividly situates Coleridge's ideal of Pantisocracy, his attempt to bridge Godwin and Burke with the Unitarian idea of a "vast family of love," to the economic transformation of family life during the eighteenth century and to the theorization of affect by Hume, Smith and Rousseau. Consequently, for James, the smoky little room takes on a role comparable to Thomas Poole's bower at Nether Stowey, representing a Hartleyan "small spot which lies at the heart of a larger benevolence." Seen this way, the "Salutation & Cat" gatherings are both a performative rebuttal of Godwin and an anxious revision of Burke--an attempt to protect fraternal affections, dismissed by Godwin, from anti-Jacobin appropriation.

James's argument that allusion constitutes "a key factor in Lamb's development of a sympathetic mode of reading and writing" is amply supported by her readings of individual poems. …

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