1837 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Godwin

Thomas Noon Talfourd, in Letters of Charles Lamb (1837) 1:121-23.



The first meeting between Lamb and Godwin did not wear a promising aspect. Lamb grew warm as the conviviality of the evening advanced, and indulged in some freaks of humour which had not been dreamed of in Godwin's philosophy; and the philosopher, forgetting the equanimity with which he usually looked on the vicissitudes of the world or the whist-table, broke into an allusion to Gilray's caricature, and asked, "Mr. Lamb, are you both 'toad' and 'frog'?" Coleridge was apprehensive of a rupture; but calling the next morning on Lamb, he found Godwin seated at breakfast with him; and an interchange of civilities and card-parties was established, which lasted through the life of Lamb, whom Godwin only survived a few months. Indifferent altogether to the politics of the age, Lamb could not help being struck with productions of its new-born energies, so remarkable as the works and the character of Godwin. He seemed to realize in himself what Wordsworth long afterward described, "the central calm at the heart of all agitation." Through the medium of his mind the stormy convulsions of society were seen "silent as in a picture." Paradoxes the most daring wore the air of deliberate wisdom as he pronounced them. He foretold the future happiness of mankind, not with the inspiration of the poet, but with the grave and passionless voice of the oracle. There was nothing better calculated at once to feed and to make steady the enthusiasm of youthful patriots than the high speculations in which he taught them to engage on the nature of social evils and the great destiny of his species. No one would have suspected the author of those wild theories which startled the wise and shocked the prudent, in the calm, gentlemanly person who rarely said any thing above the most gentle common-lace, and took interest in little beyond the whist-table. His peculiar opinions were entirely subservient to his love of letters. He thought any man who had written a book had attained a superiority over his fellows which placed him in another class, and could scarcely understand other distinctions. Of all his works Lamb liked his Essay on Sepulchres the best — a short development of a scheme for preserving in one place the memory of all great writers deceased, and assigning to each his proper station, — quite chimerical in itself, but accompanied with solemn and touching musings on life and death and fame, embodied in a style of singular refinement and beauty.