Romanticism and the Uncharitable Quip

With their epic poems and philosophical themes, Romantic writers are hardly associated with the lighter side of life. However, ahead of a forthcoming conference on Humour and Satire in British Romanticism that suggests that humour should be put back on the menu, Daniel Norman serves up a joke from an auspicious dinner party.

It’s often said that a change took place in the way writers used humour during the Romantic Period. For much of the preceding eighteenth century, the biting personal satire of Alexander Pope in particular had been a model for humorous and satirical writing. His satire on dullness, the Dunciad, spawned many imaginatively titled imitators, like the Mobiad, Rolliad, Lousiad. But by the 1790s, writers like Coleridge had begun to define themselves against this trend, explicitly rejecting the influence of Pope and his followers. The Romantic Period may be characterised in terms of a broad shift from biting wit to a more whimsical lightheartedness.

In no one is this latter quality more evident than Charles Lamb, the standard-bearer for what John Dodds calls ‘quaint geniality’. To him no one is deserving of truly damning critique – except dreaded borrowers, especially

your borrowers of books— those mutilators of collections, spoilers of the symmetry of shelves, and creators of odd volumes.

And yet whilst it may perhaps be true that the period was in general moving towards this Lambian ‘geniality’, contemporary anecdotes suggest that mean-spirited jokes at the expense of others did not altogether die with it. Even (or perhaps especially) Lamb could succumb to the pleasures of an uncharitable quip.

One such anecdote comes from the Immortal Dinner of 1817, hosted by the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon and featuring Wordsworth, Keats, and Lamb among others. The story, related by newspaper editor Leigh Hunt, captures something of this side of Lamb. ‘In the morning of this delightful day’, Hunt begins,

a gentleman, a perfect stranger, had called on me. He said he knew my friends, had an enthusiasm for Wordsworth, and begged I would procure him the happiness of an introduction. He told me he was a comptroller of stamps, and often had correspondence with the poet. I thought it a liberty; but still, as he seemed a gentleman, I told him he might come. When we retired to tea we found the comptroller. In introducing him to Wordsworth I forgot to say who he was. After a little time the comptroller looked down, looked up, and said to Wordsworth:

‘Don’t you think, sir, Milton was a great genius?’

Keats looked at me, Wordsworth looked at the comptroller. Lamb who was dozing by the fire turned round and said:

‘Pray, sir, did you say Milton was a great genius?’

‘No, Sir: I asked Mr. Wordsworth if he were not’

‘Oh’, said Lamb, ‘then you are a silly fellow.’

‘Charles! my dear Charles!’ said Wordsworth; but Lamb, perfectly innocent of the confusion he had created, was off again by the fire. After an awful pause the comptroller said:

‘Don’t you think Newton a great genius?’

I could not stand it any longer. Keats put his head into my books. Ritchie squeezed in a laugh. Wordsworth seemed asking himself: ‘Who is this?’ Lamb got up, and taking a candle said:

‘Sir, will you allow me to look at your phrenological development?’”

Wordsworth was frequently pestered in this way, and so Lamb’s response perhaps has its origins in residual annoyance from previous such instances. Jokes are also of course all the funnier when one is not allowed to laugh, and as a skillful (and in this case probably drunk) humourist Lamb sees his chance and exploits it. Eventually, having removed him from the room, Hunt and the others make amends, and, we are told, no lasting damage is done: ‘We soothed and smiled and asked [the comptroller] to supper. He stayed though his dignity was sorely affected. However, being a good-natured man, we parted all in good humour, and no ill effects followed’.

The anecdote captures some of the sense of humour that has a tendency to be overlooked in studies of Romanticism. There are many more texts, anecdotes and jokes to be drawn from the period, something we will explore in our conference Humour and Satire in British Romanticism.

The conference will take place in Hatfield College, Durham, on 13-14 September. Papers are sought on any related subject (including influences and legacies) until 20 May. If you are interested in attending or giving a paper, please send all inquiries and abstracts to romantichumourandsatire@gmail.com.

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