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Authors: Alan Wall

The Lightning Cage

BOOK: The Lightning Cage
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Title Page

Copyright Notice




Part One

Richard Pelham, Lunatic

The Mad-Doctor

The Dangerous World

Supply and Demand

Bottled Lightning

Chimera #1

Ditto or Double

The Price of Alice

His Sudden Fits

Chimera #2



The Pleasures of Delirium


Madmen's Epistles



Catalogues and Litanies

Heart's Hornbook, Memory's Bible


Part Two

Stamford Tewk

Resentment #1

The Combination


Descensus ad Inferos

Idle Fellowes

The River's Last Drink

Resentment #2

Also by Alan Wall




John A. Canning

historian and teacher


I would like to thank the following for their help: Philip Byrne, Gill Coleridge, Ann Denham, Marius Kociejowski, Duncan Macpherson, Geoff Mulligan, Nathaniel and Anthony Rudolf, David Rees and Monsignor George Tancred.

I am very grateful to Professor Roy Porter for generously agreeing to read this book in typescript, and for his comments on it.

I would like to thank the staff of the London Library for their assistance.


Therefore Lord Chilford, having given surety for the person of Mr Richard Pelham, Lunatic, the latter shall be transported to Chilford Villa, Twickenham, from out of this Chelsea Asylum.

It is noted that, as a member of the Royal Society, Lord Chilford has shown a particular interest in the genesis of madness, its diagnosis, and what emollients and expedients may diminish, if not its existence, then perhaps its more terrible effects.

The Chelsea Asylum

For the coffin and the cradle and the purse are all against a man.

Jubilate Agno

During the recent demolition work on Chilford Villa, human remains were discovered in the foundations. They showed evidence of medical experimentation. They appear to date from the time of Lord Chilford's occupancy in the eighteenth century. Police say the remains represent a mystery.

Richmond and Twickenham Times,

Part One

Richard Pelham, Lunatic

Mad: (1) Disordered in the mind; broken in the understanding; distracted; delirious without a fever.



I never had much time for Freud. Always in pursuit of devious normality, as it lurks and sniffs the wind inside its labyrinthine repressions. He didn't know what to do with madness; his talking cure was no help at all. And it is the madness of the poet Richard Pelham that has come finally to fascinate and hold me, for Pelham had demons. Real demons.

I first came across his work all those years ago in Leeds, when I needed a thesis to write. But perhaps I'm forgetting that the past has precedence over the present: before we can arrive here, we must first go there.

Richard Pelham lived in Grub Street when there was still a place in London bearing that name, before the specific location and its burden of humanity, the glory, jest and riddle of it all, were alchemised into a mere turn of phrase; before grass grew over the topography and turned it into metaphor. He lived amongst the pimps and whores of his day, accepting all that the glittering squalor of the times afforded, including debts, evictions and disease. His own devotion to gin was legendary, and most people remember him now, if at all, as the subject of that famous encounter with Dr Johnson, recorded by Boswell. Pelham had met the great lexicographer years before at St John's Gate when they were both writing for the
Gentleman's Magazine.
On the occasion of the later encounter, the poet had managed to tumble drunkenly down a whole flight of stairs, despite the fact that the proportions of the staircase at Gough Square were generous by Georgian standards and that it was still only ten o'clock in the morning. Johnson had given Pelham a kindly admonition about the danger of liquors taken in promiscuous quantities, but his words had no noticeable effect, and after he'd generously handed the poet the money he had come to solicit in the first place, it was only a matter of hours before it had all been spent in the taverns around Fleet Street. Many years later, Boswell had asked Johnson what he thought Pelham might have been capable of had he remained sober all his life. Johnson replied, with a shake of his massive head so vigorous that his ill-fitting wig became even more skew-whiff: ‘Why, for all we know, Sir, nothing at all. Perhaps intoxication was his only route to poetry, for his genius and his oddity do appear to have become increasingly inseparable.'

Richard Pelham. An accomplished poet in a certain Augustan manner, author of
Psalms of Solace
Silent Endearments,
both books highly praised in their day, though perhaps too resolutely coffined in convention to suit the temper of our own chaotic age. But the last part of the Clarendon
Collected Poems
of 1912 contained a substantial section entitled ‘Drafts and Fragments', and there could be found printed all that remained of what Pelham himself had undoubtedly thought his magnum opus,
The Instruments of the Passion.
These extracts show a mind far removed from the stately rhyming couplets of the earlier verses, a mind which has undergone the torments of madness, or perhaps something worse, and yet has still survived to bring back news from that bleak kingdom. His text seems almost as problematical now as it did at the beginning of the century. What did it mean, and where was it written? I set out to answer these questions once, at the beginning of my quest, which is now at long last drawing to a close.

*   *   *

Pelham and I have one thing in common at least: financial ineptitude. Though it's true that for a while back there I gave the impression of being shrewd enough. In fact, for a while I appeared positively successful, even to myself. I held up my money to the world and the world bowed graciously and took it.

Pelham's father had been bankrupted after an unwise speculation concerning the importation of exotic fruit and had ended his days in the debtors' prison – an image that haunted the poet for the rest of his life. Pelham went on to become a sizar at Cambridge, scraping grease from the plates of more wealthy (and more foolish) undergraduates. But he was awarded many prizes for his highly formalised religious verse, and by the time he left for London fine things were already predicted for him. Pelham's genius for writing, though, was matched only by his genius for dissolution. Undistinguished journeyman-work provided him with enough money to survive, but in the process denied him the leisure out of which he might have fashioned some work of real distinction. A brief and disastrous marriage was unofficially dissolved when his wife fled back to Dublin, taking their six-month-old son with her. From then on, Pelham became notorious, but for all the wrong reasons. One day, in the church of St Mary Woolnoth, he had started weeping inconsolably during a morning service. He had been led away at last by a kindly verger, who had called a physician to attend him. And so began the first unofficial diagnoses of the man's distress. Hypochondria. Melancholy. Then lunacy. Pelham began to convene public meetings on the highways of London, where he would denounce the rotten and corrupted seed of man's greedy spirit, and throw himself on the mercy of the Lord:

An Angel with a cittern crouches outside a city tavern and asks me, What time is it Now? Time for celebrating the infinite goodness of Almighty God, I cried, and fell down in prayer beside him. And so we did remain enraptured, until the publican violently moved us on. They say that my mind is a lyre with all the strings undone.

Bedlam was only a short walk from Grub Street, a fact that both Pope and Swift made much of when they ridiculed the paltry scribblers of their day. It was no subject of humour for Pelham, though. He had visited the place many times and had stood for hours watching the inmates, chained and bawling as the spectators gaped. In some of his most harrowing lines he had imagined himself dying there, as his father had died years before in the debtors' prison, ranting at fate and God, or perhaps even stripped down to mute incomprehension, like Tom Rakewell in Hogarth's painting. From a safe distance, his wife pleaded and cajoled on his behalf and raised enough money from well-disposed spirits such as Johnson himself to have Pelham sent to the Chelsea Asylum, a private institution under the care of Dr Parker. And there, with no gin to console or distract him, and only his beloved
for comfort, legend had it that he had begun to write
The Instruments of the Passion.

I started research on Pelham over twenty years ago at Leeds University. I had no particular interest in him. In fact, I had barely heard of him before, but my strongest area of study was the eighteenth century, and after taking my First in English, I had been asked if I wanted to stay on to do research for a thesis. The truth – I can admit it now, though I suppose I couldn't then – was that I didn't particularly want to read any more books at all for a while. I had spent the better part of three years in Rome at the English College, discovering that I wasn't cut out to be a priest, and then I had left and gone to Leeds, where I had just completed another three years. Books, books, books. Despite all the climbing I had done on the Yorkshire outcrops, I still felt as though my mind had been overfed, and my body undernourished. And as for my soul, I had spent far too much time on that already, to no purpose at all that I could see. There were lots of things I wanted to do, but none I could imagine ever making much of a living at. So academic life beckoned to me, if a little wearily. I scanned the indexes, periodicals and ancient catalogues in search of a subject untouched by twentieth-century academia. Then one day, I bought an old copy of Stamford Tewk's
Eighteenth-Century Bibliography,
and discovered this curious entry:

If Blake created our idea of the modern poet, in the wildness of his brilliance, it was Coleridge who undoubtedly invented the idea of the imagination. It was not a mechanistic faculty, like the fancy, but the power which makes new all that it touches. In this sense the work of Richard Pelham may be divided into two: the published books, which were verbal artefacts of classic eighteenth-century fancy, brilliant and glittering fancy, but fancy nonetheless; and what we have of
The Instruments of the Passion,
which is all imagination, however wayward and disjointed in some of its sudden transmutations. Like Christopher Smart's
Jubilate Agno,
or Blake's work fifty years later, this is what we have come to mean by poetry: reckless of decorum, finding a proper holiness at the heart of things rather than mere propriety, its language electric with longing and desire, its structure a syntax of hungry roots, not a symmetry of waving branches. Pelham paid his courtly dues in the measured couplets of
Psalms of Solace
Silent Endearments,
then he retired into a secrecy where his age was not invited to follow, where he was an agent of subversion, a prophet of the shadows enlightenment was casting about it even then. A correction: the age was briefly invited into this subterranean world where monsters were starting to yawn and stretch, in the person of Lord Chilford, Pelham's patron and keeper for some years, but the age quietly declined the invitation, and carried on about its scientific business. Pelham the man, uniquely, underwent the terrors of both star-machine and lightning cage. Pelham the poet at least managed to tell us something of the experience.

BOOK: The Lightning Cage
7.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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