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Reference group
Immortal diners (act. 1817) formed a party of seven men who gathered on Sunday 28 December 1817 at 22 Lisson Grove, London, which was then home to the artist and diarist Benjamin Robert Haydon. Haydon's purpose for hosting the dinner was to bring together his old friend William Wordsworth and John Keats, whom Haydon had probably met several months earlier through their shared acquaintance Leigh Hunt, and whom he had introduced to Wordsworth earlier in December. Having recently moved to Lisson Grove, Haydon also intended the evening as an opportunity to show his guests his new painting room where the party would dine. The room was then dominated by Haydon's current work—a huge painting, Christ's Entry into Jerusalem, which, as well as the central figure, included portraits of Wordsworth, Keats, William Hazlitt, Voltaire, and Isaac Newton. The initial dinner party was completed by the essayist Charles Lamb and Wordsworth's cousin the merchant Thomas Monkhouse (1783–1825). They were subsequently joined by Joseph Ritchie (1788?–1819), a young doctor who was shortly to depart as leader of a government-sponsored search for the source of the River Niger, and later still by John Kingston (1779/80–1839), then deputy comptroller at the Stamp Office. The evening's events were written up by Haydon in his diary and he later drew on this account for a second telling as part of his autobiography (written from 1839 and published posthumously in 1853). In this second account Haydon described the proceedings as ‘the immortal dinner’, the name by which this celebrated get-together is now known (Autobiography, 1.269).

Dinner that Sunday was at three o'clock, slightly earlier than the current fashion. The guests arrived carrying lanterns, necessary for their return journeys. The weather was fine, but Keats, walking down from his Hampstead lodgings, would probably have worn a greatcoat well buttoned for protection; he was already suffering from frequent sore throats, a sinister portent of the disease that was to kill him three years later. Wordsworth walked with his cousin Thomas Monkhouse from the latter's lodgings off Cavendish Square, while Charles Lamb came from Russell Court, Covent Garden. Under their greatcoats the men would mostly have worn trousers—knee breeches by then were only for more formal occasions—high white neckcloths, and waisted jackets, and would have carried their tall hats.

The guests were received by Corporal Sammons of the Life Guards, Haydon's favourite model and general factotum. As they settled at the dinner table they made a disparate-looking group. The host wore his hair in the fashion of his hero Raphael, parting it and letting it fall towards his shoulders, although not very far: portraits of him at the time show his hair already wispy and receding. He liked to wear his shirt collar open, with a velvet cap, in imitation of the master, perched on top of his head. Wordsworth, at forty-seven the oldest and also tallest of the group, was the most impressive figure present. His most characteristic attitude was to sit with one hand thrust into his waistcoat. Charles Lamb's large and noble head was perched disconcertingly on a tiny body ending in little legs and tiny feet. He always kept to long clerical-like gaiters, knee breeches, and coat—all of an outmoded design. Keats, the youngest of the group, stood barely five feet tall with exceptionally broad shoulders. Friends remarked on his expressive eyes, which Haydon compared to ‘a Delphian priestess who saw visions’.

The dinner, coming three days after Christmas, would probably have included turkey leftovers, possibly a goose (a traditional Boxing day dish), and a plum pudding. The party would also have partaken of mince pies made with meat as well as sweet ingredients. There would have been two kinds of wine and, later in the evening, what the host called ‘my excellent port’. Haydon's diary entry shows that the conversation over dinner was lively and entertaining: ‘Wordsworth was in fine and powerful cue. We had a glorious set to on Homer, Shakespeare, Milton & Virgil. Lamb got excessively merry and witty, and his fun in the intervals of Wordsworth's deep & solemn intonations of oratory was the fun & wit of the Fool in the intervals of Lear's passion’. The tone for the evening was set as Lamb grew increasingly ‘tipsey’, chiding Wordsworth—‘you rascally Lake Poet’—for calling Voltaire ‘a dull fellow’, and leading a toast to ‘Newton's health, and confusion to all mathematics!’ It was, reflected Haydon, ‘delightful to see the good Humour of Wordsworth in giving in to all our frolics without affectation and laughing as heartily as the best of us’ (Haydon, Diary, 2.173).

With the formal part of dinner at an end, two more visitors arrived. The first was Joseph Ritchie, for whom—having arrived in London with no helpful introductions—the invitation surpassed the summit of his youthful aspirations. The host introduced him to the company and the conversation ‘got into a new train’ (Haydon, Diary, 2.173). As the party broke for tea they were joined by John Kingston. He had called on Haydon that morning, a perfect stranger, and begged to be introduced to Wordsworth. ‘I thought it a liberty’, recorded Haydon, ‘but still, as he seemed a gentleman, I told him he might come’ (Autobiography, 1.270). Kingston's connection with Wordsworth was that the poet had earlier accepted a minor civil service appointment procured for him by his neighbour Lord Lonsdale, as distributor of stamps for Westmorland and part of Cumberland. As a result Kingston, whom Haydon dubbed the Comptroller, was Wordsworth's immediate superior at the Stamp Office. Haydon noted that Kingston immediately let Wordsworth know who he was, and that the newcomer had a visible effect on the poet. ‘I felt pain’, said Haydon, ‘at the slavery of office’ (Haydon, Diary, 2.174).

‘The Comptroller’, he continued:
was a very mild & nice fellow but rather weak & very fond of talking … and just after he had been putting forth some of his silly stuff, Lamb, who had been dozing as usual, suddenly opened his mouth and said, ‘What did you say, Sir?’ ‘Why, Sir,’ said the Comptroller, in his milk & water insipidity, ‘I was saying &c., &c., &c.’ ‘Do you say so, Sir?’ ‘Yes, Sir,’ was the reply. ‘Why then Sir, I say, hiccup, you are—you are a silly fellow.’ This operated like thunder! The Comptroller knew nothing of his previous tipsiness & looked at him like a man bewildered. (Haydon, Diary, 2.174)
As Kingston continued to pontificate, his remarks were met by Lamb roaring out
Diddle, iddle don,
My son John
Went to bed with his breeches on,
One stocking off & one stocking on,
My son John
and by Lamb's request that he might study the Comptroller's ‘phrenological development’. Wordsworth's attempt to mediate prompted Lamb to rise from his chair and exclaim: ‘Do let me have another look at that gentleman's organs’, at which point Keats and Haydon were able to remove Lamb into the adjoining painting room (Autobiography, 1.270).

Writing immediately after the party, Haydon found that there was ‘no describing this scene adequately’. He chose to cast it as an initial gathering of friends which, lacking both the ‘restraint of refined company’ and the ‘vulgar freedom of low’, had been characterized by ‘a frank, natural license … every man expressing his natural emotions without fear’. Into this company had come Kingston—‘frilled, dressed, & official … His astonishment at finding where he was come cannot be conceived, and in the midst of his namby pamby opinions, Lamb's address deadened his views’ (Haydon, Diary, 2.175). While Wordsworth made vain attempts to soothe Kingston's feelings, and Haydon begged him to stay to supper, Lamb's protests continued at intervals from the other room until Monkhouse escorted him back to his lodgings. The remaining guests left soon after.

In his diary entry for 28 December Haydon wrote that
I never passed a more delightful day, & I am convinced that nothing in Boswell is equal to what came out from these Poets. Indeed there were no such Poets in his time. It was an evening worthy of the Elizabethan age, and will long flash upon ‘that inward eye which is the bliss of solitude’. (Diary, 2.176)
A little more than twenty years on, he recalled that the gathering of December 1817 ‘was indeed an immortal evening’, though he also noted that of the ‘glorious party’ only he and Wordsworth were for certain still alive, Ritchie having died in Africa in 1819, Keats in 1821, Monkhouse in 1825, and Lamb in 1834: ‘If the Comptroller lives I know not’ (Haydon, Autobiography, 1.271).

Penelope Hughes-Hallett

Sources  

P. Hughes-Hallett, The immortal dinner: a famous evening of genius and laughter in literary London, 1817 (2000) · The diary of Benjamin Robert Haydon, ed. W. B. Pope, 5 vols. (1960–63) · T. Taylor, ed., The autobiography and memoirs of Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786–1846), new edn, 2 vols. (1926)