Seamus Perry

Eat, Drink & Be Merry

The Immortal Evening: A Legendary Dinner with Keats, Wordsworth, and Lamb


W W Norton 368pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

A few days after Christmas in 1817, the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon threw a dinner party for William Wordsworth, who was a great catch, and asked their common friend Charles Lamb to join them. He also invited his young admirer John Keats and Keats’s engaging associate Thomas Monkhouse. Part of the plan was to get Wordsworth and Keats together, and part was to celebrate the unfolding triumph of Haydon’s work in progress, Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, which loomed above the diners’ heads. A bit like Haydon’s dinner, the picture strives towards some momentous event, but its overall effect is rather dotty. Christ sits absently on a donkey, surrounded by a huge and immobile crowd in which you can spot disguised portraits of Wordsworth, head bent in reverence, and Keats, red-faced with shouting about something, Christ possibly. There are other celebrities among the mob, not all contemporary. Next to Wordsworth is Sir Isaac Newton, who gazes at the son of God with steady regard. Behind him stands Voltaire, wearing the horrid sneer that one should no doubt expect of any French atheist.

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