Streets, Streets, Streets

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I’m deep in mountain territory, with a pot noodle and a stack of Post-its in front of me. It’s past midnight, and my final undergraduate exams are just around the corner. Feverishly, between forkfuls, I’m wandering on high over hill and vale; I’m crossing the Alps; I’m brooding on the Wordsworthian sublime. Every so often, I’ll note down an Important Thought on my pink Post-its. Nature! Morality! Mountains!

The Prelude is open in front of me, Wordsworth’s epic poem of natural inspiration, nourished by the Lakeland landscape of his childhood:

Ye Presences of Nature, in the sky
And on the earth! Ye Visions of the hills!

Alongside this, I’m reading Coleridge’s unsurpassed conversation poem ‘This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison’, addressed to his friend Charles Lamb, ‘of the India House, London’. Here the poet must rest at home, debarred by injury from accompanying his friends on a country walk. Those friends were William and Dorothy Wordsworth, and Charles Lamb, on a rare, brief visit from London. Lamb is depicted as ‘my gentle-hearted Charles’, ‘who has pined and hunger’d after Nature, many a year,/ In the great City pent,’ but who is now released to enjoy the true delights of the countryside.

Confined to the lime-tree bower, the poet enviously imagines the pleasures they are experiencing in the ‘wide landscape’. But gradually he comes to the realization that nature may be appreciated even in the smallest of spaces, focusing on the sun-dappled detail of a leaf and the ‘solitary humble-bee’ in the nearby bean flowers. And he hopes that Lamb, too, who has struggled with ‘evil, and pain/And strange calamity’, may find a healing power in nature.

My eye drifts down to the footnote, which gives some details of the ‘strange calamity’ that had befallen Charles Lamb the year before: the death of his mother at the hands of his sister, Mary, in a fit of mania. Charles, just 21 at t

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About the contributor

Felicity James has spent two decades in the company of Charles and Mary Lamb, and is now editing their work for children. As one of the chairs of the Charles Lamb Society, she is the proud current possessor of an actual chair said to have belonged to Charles Lamb – in which this piece was written.

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