Gossip in a Library
by Edmund Gosse
Previous Part     1  2  3  4     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

The great charm of Pompey the Little to contemporaries was, of course, the fact that it was supposed to be a roman a clef. The Countess of Bute hastened to send out a copy of it to her mother in Italy, and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu did not hesitate to discover the likenesses of various dear friends of hers. She found it impossible to go to bed till she had finished it. She was charmed, and she tells Lady Bute, what the curious may now read with great satisfaction, that it was "a real and exact representation of life, as it is now acted in London." What is odd is that Lady Mary identified, with absolute complacency, the portrait of herself, as Mrs. Qualmsick, that hysterical lady with whom "it was not unusual for her to fancy herself a Glass bottle, a Tea-pot, a Hay-rick, or a Field of Turnips." Instead of being angry, Lady Mary screamed with laughter at the satire of her own whimsies, of how "Red was too glaring for her eyes; Green put her in Mind of Willows, and made her melancholic; Blue remembered her of her dear Sister, who had died ten Years before in a blue Bed." In fact, all this fun seems, for the moment at least, to have cured the original Mrs. Qualmsick of her whimsies, and her remarks on Pompey the Little are so good-natured that we may well forgive her for the pleasure with which she recognised Lady Townshend in Lady Tempest and the Countess of Orford in the pedantic and deistical Lady Sophister, who rates the physicians for their theology, and will not be bled by any man who accepts the doctrine of the immortality of the soul.

Coventry's romance does not deserve the entire neglect into which it has fallen. It is sprightly and graceful from the first page to the last. Not written, indeed, by a man of genius, it is yet the work of a very refined observer, who had been modern enough to catch the tone of the new school of novelists. The writer owes much to Fielding, who yet does not escape without a flap from one of Pompey's silken ears. Coventry's manner may be best exemplified by one of his own bright passages of satire. This notion of a man of quality, that no place can be full that is not crowded with people of fashion, is not new, but it is deliciously expressed. Aurora has come back from Bath, and assures the Count that she has had a pleasant season there:

"'You amaze me," cries the Count; 'Impossible, Madam! How can it be, Ladies? I had Letters from Lord Monkeyman and Lady Betty Scornful assuring me that, except yourselves, there were not three human Creatures in the Place. Let me see, I have Lady Betty's Letter in my Pocket, I believe, at this Moment. Oh no, upon Recollection, I put it this morning into my Cabinet, where I preserve all my Letters of Quality.' Aurora, smothering a Laugh as well as she could, said she was extremely obliged to Lord Monkeyman and Lady Betty, for vouchsafing to rank her and her Sister in the Catalogue of human Beings. 'But, surely,' added she, 'they must have been asleep, both of them, when they wrote their Letters; for the Bath was extremely full,' 'Full!' cries the Count, interrupting her; "Oh, Madam, that is very possible, and yet there might be no Company—that is, none of us; Nobody that one knows. For as to all the Tramontanes that come by the cross Post, we never reckon them as anything but Monsters in human Shape, that serve to fill up the Stage of Life, like Cyphers in a play. For Instance, you often see an awkward Girl, who has sewed a Tail to a Gown, and pinned two Lappits to a Night-cap, come running headlong into the Rooms with a wild, frosty Face, as if she was just come from feeding Poultry in her Father's Chicken-Yard. Or you see a Booby Squire, with a Head resembling a Stone ball over a Gate-post. Now, it would be the most ridiculous Thing in Life to call such People Company. 'Tis the Want of Titles, and not the Want of Faces, that makes a Place empty.'"

There are indications, which I think have escaped the notice of Goldsmith's editors, that the author of the Citizen of the World condescended to take some of his ideas from Pompey the Little. In Count Tag, the impoverished little fop who fancies himself a man of quality, and who begs pardon of people who accost him in the Park—"but really, Lady Betty or Lady Mary is just entering the Mall,"—we have the direct prototype of Beau Tibbs; while Mr. Rhymer, the starving poet, whose furniture consists of "the first Act of a Comedy, a Pair of yellow Stays, two political Pamphlets, a plate of Bread-and-butter, three dirty Night-caps, and a Volume of Miscellany Poems," is a figure wonderfully like that of Goldsmith himself, as Dr. Percy found him eight years later, in that "wretched, dirty room," at the top of Breakneck Steps, Green Arbour Court. The whole conception of that Dickens-like scene, in which it is described how Lady Frippery had a drum in spite of all local difficulties, is much more in the humour of Goldsmith than in that of any of Coventry's immediate contemporaries.

Strangely enough, in spite of the great success of his one book, the author of Pompey the Little never tried to repeat it. He became perpetual curate of Edgware, and died in the neighbouring village of Stanmore Parva a few years after the publication of his solitary book; I have, however, searched the registers of that parish in vain for any record of the fact. Francis Coventry had gifts of wit and picturesqueness which deserved a better fate than to amuse a few dissipated women over their citron-waters, and then to be forgotten.


THE LIFE OF JOHN BUNCLE, ESQ., containing various observations and reflections made in several parts of the world; and many extraordinary relations. London: Printed for J. Noon, at the White Hart in Cheapside, near the Poultry, MDCCLVI.

[Vol. II. London: Printed for J. Johnson and B. Davenport, at the Globe, in Pater Noster Row, MDCCLXVI.]

In the year 1756, there resided in the Barbican, where the great John Milton had lived before him, a funny elderly personage called Mr. Thomas Amory, of whom not nearly so much is recorded as the lovers of literary anecdote would like to possess. He was sixty-five years of age; he was an Irish gentleman of means, and he was an ardent Unitarian. Some unkind people have suggested that he was out of his mind, and he had, it is certain, many peculiarities. One was, that he never left his house, or ventured into the streets, save "like a but, in the dusk of the evening." He was, in short, what is called a "crank," and he gloried in his eccentricity. He desired that it might be written on his tombstone, "Here lies an Odd Man." For sixty years he had made no effort to attract popular attention, but in 1755 he had published a sort of romance, called Memoirs of Several Ladies of Great Britain, and now he succeeded it by the truly extraordinary work, the name of which stands at the head of this article. Ten years later there would appear another volume of John Buncle, and then Amory disappeared again. All we know is, that he died in 1788, at the very respectable age of ninety-seven. So little is known about him, so successfully did he hide "like a but" through the dusk of nearly a century, that we may be glad to eke out the scanty information given above by a passage of autobiography from the preface of the book before us:

"I was born in London, and carried an infant to Ireland, where I learned the Irish language, and became intimately acquainted with its original inhabitants. I was not only a lover of books from the time I could spell them to this hour, but read with an extraordinary pleasure, before I was twenty, the works of several of the Fathers, and all the old romances; which tinged my ideas with a certain piety and extravagance that rendered my virtues as well as my imperfections particularly mine.... The dull, the formal, and the visionary, the hard-honest man, and the poor-liver, are a people I have had no connection with; but have always kept company with the polite, the generous, the lively, the rational, and the brightest freethinkers of this age. Besides all this, I was in the days of my youth, one of the most active men in the world at every exercise; and to a degree of rashness, often venturesome, when there was no necessity for running any hazards; in diebus illis, I have descended headforemost, from a high cliff into the ocean, to swim, when I could, and ought, to have gone off a rock not a yard from the surface of the deep. I have swam near a mile and a half out in the sea to a ship that lay off, gone on board, got clothes from the mate of the vessel, and proceeded with them to the next port; while my companion I left on the beach concluded me drowned, and related my sad fate in the town. I have taken a cool thrust over a bottle, without the least animosity on either side, but both of us depending on our skill in the small sword for preservation from mischief. Such things as these I now call wrong."

If this is not a person of whom we would like to know more, I know not what the romance of biography is. Thomas Amory's life must have been a streak of crimson on the grey surface of the eighteenth century. It is really a misfortune that the red is almost all washed off.

No odder book than John Buncle was published in England throughout the long life of Amory. Romances there were, like Gulliver's Travels and Peter Wilkins, in which the incidents were much more incredible, but there was no supposition that these would be treated as real history. The curious feature of John Buncle is that the story is told with the strictest attention to realism and detail, and yet is embroidered all over with the impossible. There can be no doubt that Amory, who belonged to an older school, was affected by the form of the new novels which were the fashion in 1756. He wished to be as particular as Mr. Richardson, as manly as Captain Fielding, as breezy and vigorous as Dr. Smollett, the three new writers who were all the talk of the town. But there was a twist in his brain which made his pictures of real life appear like scenes looked at through flawed glass.

The memoirs of John Buncle take the form of an autobiography, and there has been much discussion as to how much is, and how much is not, the personal history of Amory. I confess I cannot see why we should not suppose all of it to be invented, although it certainly is odd to relate anecdotes and impressions of Dr. Swift, a propos of nothing at all, unless they formed part of the author's experience. For one thing, the hero is represented as being born about thirteen years later than Amory was—if, indeed, we possess the true date of our worthy's birth. Buncle goes to college and becomes an earnest Unitarian. The incidents of his life are all intellectual, until one "glorious first of August," when he sallies forth from college with his gun and dog, and after four hours' walk discovers that he has lost his way. He is in the midst of splendid mountain scenery—which leads us to wonder at which English University he was studying—and descends through woody ravines and cliffs that overhang torrents, till he suddenly comes in sight of a "little harmonic building that had every charm and proportion architecture could give it." Finding one of the garden doors open, and being very hungry, the adventurous Buncle strolls in, and finds himself in "a grotto or shell-house, in which a politeness of fancy had produced and blended the greatest beauties of nature and decoration." (There are more grottoes in the pages of Amory than exist in the whole of the British Islands.) This shell-house opened into a library, and in the library a beauteous object was sitting and reading. She was studying a Hebrew Bible, and making philological notes on a small desk. She raised her eyes and approached the stranger, "to know who I wanted" (for Buncle's style, though picturesque, is not always grammatically irreproachable.)

Before he could answer, a venerable gentleman was at his side, to whom the young sportsman confessed that he was dying of hunger and had lost his way. Mr. Noel, a patriarchal widower of vast wealth, was inhabiting this mansion in the sole company of his only daughter, the lovely being just referred to. Mr. Buncle was immediately "stiffened by enchantment" at the beauty of Miss Harriot Noel, and could not be induced to leave when he had eaten his breakfast. This difficulty was removed by the old gentleman asking him to stay to dinner, until the time of which meal Miss Noel should entertain him. At about 10 A.M. Mr. Buncle offers his hand to the astonished Miss Noel, who, with great propriety, bids him recollect that he is an entire stranger to her. They then have a long conversation about the Chaldeans, and the "primaevity" of the Hebrew language, and the extraordinary longevity of the Antediluvians; at the close of which (circa 11.15 A.M.) Buncle proposes again. "You force me to smile (the illustrious Miss Noel replied), and oblige me to call you an odd compound of a man," and to distract his thoughts, she takes him round her famous grotto. The conversation, all repeated at length, turns on conchology and on the philosophy of Epictetus until it is time for dinner, when Mr. Noel and young Buncle drink a bottle of old Alicant, and discuss the gallery of Verres and the poetry of Catullus. Left alone at last, Buncle still does not go away, but at 5 P.M. proposes for the third time, "over a pot of tea." Miss Noel says that the conversation will have to take some other turn, or she must leave the room. They therefore immediately "consider the miracle at Babel," and the argument of Hutchinson on the Hebrew word Shephah, until, while Miss Noel is in the very act of explaining that "the Aramitish was the customary language of the line of Shem," young Buncle (circa 7.30) "could not help snatching this beauty to my arms, and without thinking what I did, impressed on her balmy mouth half a dozen kisses. This was wrong, and gave offence," but then papa returning, the trio sat down peacefully to cribbage and a little music. Of course Miss Noel is ultimately won, and this is a very fair specimen of the conduct of the book.

A fortnight before the marriage, however, "the small-pox steps in, and in seven days' time reduced the finest human frame in the universe to the most hideous and offensive block," and Miss Harriot Noel dies. If this dismal occurrence is rather abruptly introduced, it is because Buncle has to be betrothed, in succession, to six other lively and delicious young females, all of them beautiful, all of them learned, and all of them earnestly convinced Unitarians. If they did not rapidly die off, how could they be seven? Buncle mourns the decease of each, and then hastily forms an equally violent attachment to another. It must be admitted that he is a sad wife-waster. Azora is one of the most delightful of these deciduous loves. She "had an amazing collection of the most rational philosophical ideas, and she delivered them in the most pleasing dress." She resided in a grotto within a romantic dale in Yorkshire, in a "little female republic" of one hundred souls, all of them "straight, clean, handsome girls." In this glen there is only one man, and he a fossil. Miss Melmoth, who would discuss the paulo-post futurum of a Greek verb with the utmost care and politeness, and had studied "the Minerva of Sanctius and Hickes' Northern Thesaurus," was another nice young lady, though rather free in her manner with gentlemen. But they all die, sacrificed to the insatiable fate of Buncle.

Here the reader may like to enjoy a sample of Buncle as a philosopher. It is a characteristic passage:

"Such was the soliloquy I spoke, as I gazed on the skeleton of John Orton; and just as I had ended, the boys brought in the wild turkey, which they had very ingeniously roasted, and with some of Mrs. Burcot's fine ale and bread, I had an excellent supper. The bones of the penitent Orton I removed to a hole I had ordered my lad to dig for them; the skull excepted, which I kept, and still keep on my table for a memento mori; and that I may never forget the good lesson which the percipient who once resided in it had given. It is often the subject of my meditation. When I am alone of an evening, in my closet, which is often my case, I have the skull of John Orton before me, and as I smoke a philosophic pipe, with my eyes fastened on it, I learn more from the solemn object than I could from the most philosophical and laboured speculations. What a wild and hot head once—how cold and still now; poor skull, I say: and what was the end of all thy daring, frolics and gambols—thy licentiousness and impiety—a severe and bitter repentance. In piety and goodness John Orton found at last that happiness the world could not give him."

Hazlitt has said that "the soul of Rabelais passed into John Amory." His name was Thomas, not John, and there is very little that is Rabelaisian in his spirit. One sees what Hazlitt meant—the voluble and diffuse learning, the desultory thread of narration, the mixture of religion and animalism. But the resemblance is very superficial, and the parallel too complimentary to Amory. It is difficult to think of the soul of Rabelais in connection with a pedantic and uxorious Unitarian. To lovers of odd books, John Buncle will always have a genuine attraction. Its learning would have dazzled Dr. Primrose, and is put on in glittering spars and shells, like the ornaments of the many grottoes that it describes. It is diversified by descriptions of natural scenery, which are often exceedingly felicitous and original, and it is quickened by the human warmth and flush of the love passages, which, with all their quaintness, are extremely human. It is essentially a "healthy" book, as Charles Lamb, with such a startling result, assured the Scotchman. Amory was a fervid admirer of womankind, and he favoured a rare type, the learned lady who bears her learning lightly and can discuss "the quadrations of curvilinear spaces" without ceasing to be "a bouncing, dear, delightful girl," and adroit in the preparation of toast and chocolate. The style of the book is very careless and irregular, but rises in its best pages to an admirable picturesqueness.


THE LIFE OF RICHARD NASH, ESQ.; late Master of the Ceremonies at Bath. Extracted principally from his Original Papers. The Second Edition. London: J. Newbery. 1762.

There are cases, not known to every collector of books, where it is not the first which is the really desirable edition of a work, but the second. One of these rare examples of the exception which proves the rule is the second edition of Goldsmith's Life of Beau Nash. Disappointment awaits him who possesses only the first; it is in the second that the best things originally appeared. The story is rather to be divined than told as history, but we can see pretty plainly how the lines of it must have run. In the early part of 1762, Oliver Goldsmith, at that time still undistinguished, but in the very act of blossoming into fame, received a commission of fourteen guineas to write for Newbery a life of the strange old beau, Mr. Nash, who had died in 1761. On the same day, which was March 5th, he gave a receipt to the publisher for three other publications, written or to be written, so that very probably it was not expected that he should immediately supply all the matter sold. In the summer he seems to have gone down to Bath on a short visit, and to have made friends with the Beau's executor, Mr. George Scott. It has even been said that he cultivated the Mayor and Aldermen of Bath with such success that they presented him with yet another fifteen guineas. But of this, in itself highly improbable, instance of municipal benefaction, the archives of the city yield no proof. At least Mr. Scott gave him access to Nash's papers, and with these he seems to have betaken himself back to London.

It is a heart-rending delusion and a cruel snare to be paid for your work before you accomplish it. As soon as once your work is finished you ought to be promptly paid; but to receive your lucre one minute before it is due, is to tempt Providence to make a Micawber of you. Goldsmith, of course, without any temptation being needed, was the very ideal Micawber of letters, and the result of paying him beforehand was that he had, simply, to be popped into the mill by force, and the copy ground out of him. It is evident that in the case of the first edition of the Life of Beau Nash, the grinding process was too mercifully applied, and the book when it appeared was short measure. It has no dedication, no "advertisement," and very few notes, while it actually omits many of the best stories. The wise bibliophile, therefore, will eschew it, and will try to get the second edition issued a few weeks later in the same year, which Newbery evidently insisted that Goldsmith should send out to the public in proper order.

Goldsmith treats Nash with very much the same sort of indulgent and apologetic sympathy with which the late M. Barbey d'Aurevilly treats Brummell. He does not affect to think that the world calls for a full-length statue of such a fantastic hero; but he seems to claim leave to execute a statuette in terracotta for a cabinet of curiosities. From that point of view, as a queer object of vertu, as a specimen of the bric-a-brac of manners, both the one and the other, the King of Beaux and the Emperor of Dandies, are welcome to amateurs of the odd and the entertaining. At the head of Goldsmith's book stands a fine portrait of Nash, engraved by Anthony Walker, one of the best and rarest of early English line-engravers, after an oil-picture by William Hoare, presently to be one of the foundation-members of the Royal Academy, and now and throughout his long life the principal representative of the fine arts at Bath. Nash is here represented in his famous white hat—galero albo, as his epitaph has it; the ensign of his rule at Bath, the more than coronet of his social sway.

The breast of his handsome coat is copiously trimmed with rich lace, and his old, old eyes, with their wrinkles and their crow's feet, look demurely out from under an incredible wig, an umbrageous, deep-coloured ramilie of early youth. It is a wonderfully hard-featured, serious, fatuous face, and it lives for us under the delicate strokes of Anthony Walker's graver. The great Beau looks as he must have looked when the Duchess of Queensberry dared to appear at the Assembly House on a ball night with a white apron on. It is a pleasant story, and only told properly in our second edition. King Nash had issued an edict forbidding the wearing of aprons. The Duchess dared to disobey. Nash walked up to her and deftly snatched her apron from her, throwing it on to the back benches where the ladies' women sat. What a splendid moment! Imagine the excitement of all that fashionable company—the drawn battle between the Majesty of Etiquette and the Majesty of Beauty! The Beau remarked, with sublime calm, that "none but Abigails appeared in white aprons." The Duchess hesitated, felt that her ground had slipped from under her, gave way with the most admirable tact, and "with great good sense and humour, begged his Majesty's pardon,"

Aprons were not the only red rags to the bull of ceremony. He was quite as unflinching an enemy to top-boots. He had already banished swords from the assembly-room, because their clash frightened the ladies, and their scabbards tore people's dresses. But boots were not so easily banished. The country squires liked to ride into the city, and, leaving their horses at a stable, walk straight into the dignity of the minuet. Nash, who had a genius for propriety, saw how hateful this was, and determined to put a stop to it. He slew top-boots and aprons at the same time, and with the shaft of Apollo. He indited a poem on the occasion, and a very good example of satire by irony it is. It is short enough to quote entire:


Come, one and all, To Hoyden Hall, For there's th' Assembly to-night. None but prude fools Mind manners and rules, We Hoydens do decency slight. Come, Trollops and Slatterns, Cocked hats and white aprons, This best our modesty suits; For why should not we In dress be as free As Hogs-Norton squires in boots?

Why, indeed? But the Hogs-Norton squires, as is their wont, were not so easily pierced to the heart as the noble slatterns. Nash turned Aristophanes, and depicted on a little stage a play in which Mr. Punch, tinder very disgraceful circumstances, excused himself for wearing boots by quoting the practice of the pump-room beaux. This seems to have gone to the conscience of Hogs-Norton at last; but what really gave the death-blow to top-boots, as a part of evening dress, was the incident of Nash's going up to a gentleman, who had made his appearance in the ball-room in this unpardonable costume, and remarking, "bowing in an arch manner," that he appeared to have "forgotten his horse."

It had not been without labour and a long struggle that Nash had risen to this position of unquestioned authority at Bath. His majestic rule was the result of more than half a century of painstaking. He had been born far back in the seventeenth century, so far back that, incredible as it sounds, a love adventure of his early youth had supplied Vanbrugh, in 1695, with an episode for his comedy of Aesop. But after trying many forms of life, and weary of his own affluence, he came to Bath just at the moment when the fortunes of that ancient centre of social pleasure were at their lowest ebb. Queen Anne had been obliged to divert herself, in 1703, with a fiddle and a hautboy, and with country dances on the bowling-green. The lodgings were dingy and expensive, the pump-house had no director, the nobility had haughtily withdrawn from such vulgar entertainments as the city now alone afforded. The famous and choleric physician, Dr. Radcliffe, in revenge for some slight he had endured, had threatened to "throw a toad into King Bladud's Well," by writing a pamphlet against the medicinal efficacy of the waters.

The moment was critical; the greatness of Bath, which had been slowly declining since the days of Elizabeth, was threatened with extinction when Nash came to it, wealthy, idle, patient, with a genius for organisation, and in half a century he made it what he left it when he died in his eighty-ninth year, the most elegant and attractive of the smaller social resorts of Europe. Such a man, let us be certain, was not wholly ridiculous. There must have been something more in him than in a mere idol of the dandies, like Brummell, or a mere irresistible buck and lady-killer, like Lauzun. In these latter men the force is wholly destructive; they are animated by a feline vanity, a tiger-spirit of egotism. Against the story of Nash and the Duchess of Queensberry, so wholesome and humane, we put that frightful anecdote that Saint-Simon tells of Lauzun's getting the hand of another duchess under his high heel, and pirouetting on it to make the heel dig deeper into the flesh. In all the repertory of Nash's extravagances there is not one story of this kind, not one that reveals a wicked force. He was fatuous, but beneficent; silly, but neither cruel nor corrupt.

Goldsmith, in this second edition at least, has taken more pains with his life of Nash than he ever took again in a biography. His Parnell, his Bolingbroke, his Voltaire, are not worthy of his name and fame; not all the industry of annotators can ever make them more than they were at first—potboilers, turned out with no care or enthusiasm, and unconscientiously prepared. But this subtle figure of a Master of Ceremonial; this queer old presentment of a pump-room king, crowned with a white hat, waiting all day long in his best at the bow-window of the Smyrna Coffee-House to get a bow from that other, and alas! better accredited royalty, the Prince of Wales; this picture, of an old beau, with his toy-shop of gold snuff-boxes, his agate-rings, his senseless obelisk, his rattle of faded jokes and blunted stories—all this had something very attractive to Goldsmith both in its humour and its pathos; and he has left us, in his Life of Nash, a study which is far too little known, but which deserves to rank among the best-read productions of that infinitely sympathetic pen, which has bequeathed to posterity Mr. Tibbs and Moses Primrose and Tony Lumpkin.


THE NATURAL HISTORY AND ANTIQUITIES OF SELBORNE, IN THE COUNTY OF SOUTHAMPTON; with Engravings, and an Appendix. London: Printed by T. Bensley, for B. White and Son, at Horace's Head, Fleet Street. MDCCLXXXIX.

It is not always the most confidently conducted books, or those best preceded by blasts on the public trumpet, which are eventually received with highest honours into the palace of literature. No more curious incident of this fact is to be found than is presented by the personal history of that enchanting classic, White's Selborne. If ever an author hesitated and reflected, dipped his toe into the bath of publicity, and hastily withdrew it again, loitered on the brink and could not be induced to plunge, it was the Rev. Gilbert White. This man of singular genius was not to be persuaded that the town would tolerate his lucubrations. He was ready to make a present of them to any one who would father them, he allowed his life to slip by until his seventieth year was reached, before he would print them, and when they appeared, he could not find the courage to put his name on the title-page. Not one of his own titlarks or sedge-warblers could be more shy of public observation. Even the fact that his own brother was a publisher gave him no real confidence in printers' ink.

Gilbert White was already a middle-aged man when he was drawn into correspondence by Thomas Pennant, a naturalist younger than himself, who had undertaken to produce, in four volumes folio, a work on British Zoology for the production of which he was radically unfitted. It has been severely, but justly, pointed out that wherever Pennant rises superior, either in style or information, to his own dead level of pompous inexactitude, he is almost certainly quoting from a letter of Gilbert White's. Yet no acknowledgment of the Selborne parson is vouchsafed; "even in the account of the harvest-mouse," says Professor Bell, "there is no mention of its discoverer." Nevertheless, so rudimentary was scientific knowledge one hundred and thirty years ago, that Pennant's pretentious book was received with acclamation. The patient man at Selborne sat and smiled, even courteously joining with mild congratulations in the rounds of applause. Fortunately Pennant did not remain his only correspondent. The Hon. Daines Barrington was a man of another stamp, not profound, indeed, but enthusiastic, a genuine lover of research, and a gentleman at heart. He quoted Gilbert White in his writings, but never without full acknowledgment. Other friends followed, and the recluse of Selbourne became the correspondent of Sir Joseph Banks, of Dr. Chandler, and of many other great ones of that day now decently forgotten.

Meanwhile, he was growing old. Any sharp winter might have cut him off, as he trudged along through the deep lanes of his rustic parish. Early in 1770 Daines Barrington, tired of seeing his friend the mere valet to so many other pompous intellects, had proposed to him to "draw up an account of the animals of Selborne." Gilbert White put the fascinating notion from him. "It is no small undertaking," he replied, "for a man unsupported and alone to begin a natural history from his own autopsia." Pennant seems to have joined in the suggestion of Barrington, for White says (in a letter, dated July 19, 1771, which did not see the light for more than a century after it was written):

"As to any publication in this way of my own, I look upon it with great diffidence, finding that I ought to have begun it twenty years ago; but if I was to attempt anything, it should be something of a Nat: history of my native parish, an Annus historico-naturalis, comprising a journal of one whole year, and illustrated with large notes and observations. Such a beginning might induce more able naturalists to write the history of various districts, and might in time occasion the production of a work so much to be wished for, a full and compleat nat: history of these kingdoms."

Three years later he was still thinking of doing something, but putting off the hour of action. In 1776 he was suddenly spurred to decide by the circumstance that Barrington had written to propose a joint work on natural history. "If I publish at all," said Gilbert White to his nephew, "I shall come forth by myself." In 1780 he is still unready: "Were it not for want of a good amanuensis, I think I should make more progress." He was now sixty years of age. Eight years later he was preparing the Index, and at last, in the autumn of 1789, the volume positively made its appearance, in the maiden author's seventieth year. Few indeed, if any, among English writers of high distinction, have been content to delay so long before testing the popular estimate of their work. His book was warmly welcomed, but the delightful author survived its publication less than four years, dying in the parish which he was to make so famous. Gilbert White was, in a very peculiar sense, a man of one book.

Countless as have been the reprints of The Natural History of Selborne, its original form is no longer, perhaps, familiar to many readers. The first edition, which is now before me, is a very handsome quarto. Benjamin White, the publisher, who was the younger brother of Gilbert, issued most of the standard works on natural history which appeared in London during the second half of the century, and his experience enabled him to do adequate justice to The History of Selborne. The frontispiece is a large folding plate of the village from the Short Lythe, an ambitious summer landscape, representing the church, White's own house, and a few cottages against the broad sweep of the hangar. On a terrace in the foreground are portrait figures of three gentlemen standing, and a lady seated. Of the former, one is a clergyman, and it has often been stated that this is Gilbert White himself; erroneously, since no portrait of him was ever executed;[1] the figure is that of the Rev. Robert Yalden, vicar of Newton-Valence. The frontispiece is unsigned, and I find no record of the artist's name. It is not to be doubted, however, that the original was painted by Samuel Hieronymus Grimm, the Swiss water-colour draughtsman, who sketched so many topographical views in the South of England.

[Footnote 1: That discovered in 1913 has yet to prove that it represents Gilbert White in any way.]

The remaining illustrations to this first edition, are an oval landscape vignette on the title-page, engraved by Daniel Lerpiniere; a full-page plate of some fossil shells; an extra-sized plate of the himantopus that was shot at Frensham Pond, straddling with an immense excess of shank; and four engravings, now of remarkable interest, displaying the village as it then stood, from various points of view. They are engraved by Peter Mazell, after drawings of Grimm's, and give what is evidently a most accurate impression of what Selborne was a century ago. In these days of reproductions, it is rather strange that no publisher has issued facsimiles of these beautiful illustrations to the original edition of what has become one of the most popular English works. For the use of book-collectors, I may go on to say that any one who is offered a copy of the edition of The History of Selborne of 1789, should be careful to see that not merely the plates I have mentioned are in their places, but that the engraved sub-title, with a print of the seal of Selborne Priory, occurs opposite the blank leaf which answers to page 306.

It is impossible for a bibliographer who writes on Gilbert White to resist the pleasure of mentioning the name of his best editor and biographer. It was unfortunate that Thomas Bell, who was born eight months before the death of Gilbert White, and who, quite early in life began to entertain an enthusiastic reverence for that writer, did not find an opportunity of studying Selborne on the spot until the memories of White were becoming very vague and scattered there. I think it was not until about 1865 that, retiring from a professional career, he made Selborne—and the Wakes, the very house of Gilbert White—his residence. Here he lived, however, for fifteen years, and here it was his delight to follow up every vestige of the great naturalist's sojourn in the parish. White became the passion of Professor Bell's existence, and I well recollect him when he was eighty-five or eighty-six years of age, and no longer strong enough in body to quit his room with ease, sitting in his arm-chair at the bedroom window, and directing my attention to points of Whiteish interest, as I stood in the garden below. It was as difficult for Mr. Bell to conceive that his annotations of White were complete, as it had been for White himself to pluck up courage to publish; and it was not until 1877, when the author was eighty-five years of age, that his great and final edition in two thick volumes was issued. He lived, however, to be nearly ninety, and died in the Wakes at last, in the very room, and if I mistake not, the very spot in the room, where his idol had passed away in 1793.

As long as Professor Bell was alive the house preserved, in all essentials, the identical character which it had maintained under its famous tenant. Overgrown with creepers to the very chimneys, divided by the greenest and most velvety of lawns from a many-coloured furnace of flower-beds, scarcely parted by lush paddocks from the intense green wall of the coppiced hill, the Wakes has always retained for my memory an impression of rural fecundity and summer glow absolutely unequalled. The garden seemed to burn like a green sun, with crimson stars and orange meteors to relieve it. All, I believe, has since then been altered. Selborne, they tell me, has ceased to bear any resemblance to that rich nest in which Thomas Bell so piously guarded the idea of Gilbert White. If it be so, we must live content with

The memory of what has been, And never more may be.


EXTRACTS FROM THE DIARY OF A LOVER OF LITERATURE. Ipswich: Printed and sold by John Raw; sold also by Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, Paternoster Row, London. 1810.

It may be that, save by a few elderly people and certain lovers of old Gentleman's Magazines, the broad anonymous quarto known as The Diary of a Lover of Literature is no longer much admired or even recollected. But it deserves to be recalled to memory, if only in that it was, in some respects, the first, and in others, the last of a long series of publications. It was the first of those diaries of personal record of the intellectual life, which have become more and more the fashion and have culminated at length in the ultra-refinement of Amiel and the conscious self-analysis of Marie Bashkirtseff. It was less definitely, perhaps, the last, or one of the last, expressions of the eighteenth century sentiment, undiluted by any tincture of romance, any suspicion that fine literature existed before Dryden, or could take any form unknown to Burke.

It was under a strict incognito that The Diary of a Lover of Literature appeared, and it was attributed by conjecture to various famous people. The real author, however, was not a celebrated man. His name was Thomas Green, and he was the grandson of a wealthy Suffolk soap-boiler, who had made a fortune during the reign of Queen Anne. The Diarist's father had been an agreeable amateur in letters, a pamphleteer, and a champion of the Church of England against Dissent. Thomas Green, who was born in 1769, found himself at twenty-five in possession of the ample family estates, a library of good books, a vast amount of leisure, and a hereditary faculty for reading. His health was not very solid, and he was debarred by it from sharing the pleasures of his neighbour squires. He determined to make books and music the occupation of his life, and in 1796, on his twenty-seventh birthday, he began to record in a diary his impressions of what he read. He went on very quietly and luxuriantly, living among his books in his house at Ipswich, and occasionally rolling in his post-chaise to valetudinarian baths and "Spaws."

When he had kept his diary for fourteen years, it seemed to a pardonable vanity so amusing, that he persuaded himself to give part of it to the world. The experiment, no doubt, was a very dubious one. After much hesitation, and in an evil hour, perhaps, he wrote: "I am induced to submit to the indulgence of the public the idlest work, probably, that ever was composed; but, I could wish to hope, not absolutely the most unentertaining or unprofitable." The welcome his volume received must speedily have reassured him, but he had pledged himself to print no more, and he kept his promise, though he went on writing his Diary until he died in 1825. His MSS. passed into the hands of John Mitford, who amused the readers of The Gentleman's Magazine with fragments of them for several years. Green has had many admirers in the past, amongst whom Edward FitzGerald was not the least distinguished. But he was always something of a local worthy, author of one anonymous book, and of late he has been little mentioned outside the confines of Suffolk.

It would be difficult to find an example more striking than the Diary of a Lover of Literature of exclusive absorption in the world of books. It opens in a gloomy year for British politics, but there is found no allusion to current events. There is a victory off Cape St. Vincent in February, 1797, but Green is attacking Bentley's annotations on Horace. Bonaparte and his army are buried in the sands of Egypt; our Diarist takes occasion to be buried in Shaftesbury's Enquiry Concerning Virtue. Europe rings with Hohenlinden, but the news does not reach Mr. Thomas Green, nor disturb him in his perusal of Soame Jenyns' View of Christianity. The fragment of the Diary here preserved runs from September 1796 to June 1800. No one would guess, from any word between cover and cover, that these were not halcyon years, an epoch of complete European tranquillity. War upon war might wake the echoes, but the river ran softly by the Ipswich garden of this gentle enthusiast, and not a murmur reached him through his lilacs and laburnums.

I have said that this book is one of the latest expressions of unadulterated eighteenth-century sentiment. For form's sake, the Diarist mentions now and again, very superficially, Shakespeare, Bacon, and Milton; but in reality, the garden of his study is bounded by a thick hedge behind the statue of Dryden. The classics of Greece and Rome, and the limpid reasonable writers of England from the Restoration downwards, these are enough for him. Writing in 1800 he has no suspicion of a new age preparing. We read these stately pages, and we rub our eyes. Can it be that when all this was written, Wordsworth and Coleridge had issued Lyrical Ballads, and Keats himself was in the world? Almost the only touch which shows consciousness of a suspicion that romantic literature existed, is a reference to the rival translations of Burger's Lenore in 1797. Sir Walter Scott, as we know, was one of the anonymous translators; it was, however, in all probability not his, but Taylor's, that Green mentions with special approbation.

In one hundred years a mighty change has come over the tastes and fashions of literary life. When The Diary of a Lover of Literature was written, Dr. Hurd, the pompous and dictatorial Bishop of Worcester, was a dreaded martinet of letters, carrying on the tradition of his yet more formidable master Warburton. As people nowadays discuss Verlaine and Ibsen, so they argued in those days about Godwin and Horne Tooke, and shuddered over each fresh incarnation of Mrs. Radcliffe. Soame Jenyns was dead, indeed, in the flesh, but his influence stalked at nights under the lamps and where disputants were gathered together in country rectories. Dr. Parr affected the Olympian nod, and crowned or checkmated reputations. "A flattering message from Dr. P——" sends our Diarist into ecstasies so excessive that a reaction sets in, and the "predominant and final effect upon my mind has been depression rather than elevation." We think of

The yarns Jack Hall invented, and the songs Jem Roper sung. And where are now Jem Roper and Jack Hall?

Who cares now for Parr's praise or Soame Jenyns' censure? Yet in our Diarist's pages these take equal rank with names that time has spared, with Robertson and Gibbon, Burke and Reynolds.

Thomas Green was more ready for experiment in art than in literature. He was "particularly struck" at the Royal Academy of 1797 with a sea view by a painter called Turner:

"Fishing vessels coming in with a heavy swell in apprehension of a tempest, gathering in the distance, and casting as it advances a night of shade, while a parting glow is spread with fine effect upon the shore; the whole composition bold in design and masterly in execution. I am entirely unacquainted with the artist, but if he proceeds as he has begun, he cannot fail to become the first in his department."

A remarkable prophecy, and one of the earliest notices we possess of the effect which the youthful Turner, then but twenty-two years of age, made on his contemporaries.

As a rule, except when he is travelling, our Diarist almost entirely occupies himself with a discussion of the books he happens to be reading. His opinions are not always in concert with the current judgment of to-day; he admires Warburton much more than we do, and Fielding much less. But he never fails to be amusing, because so independent within the restricted bounds of his intellectual domain. He is shut up in his eighteenth century like a prisoner, but inside its wall his liberty of action is complete. Sometimes his judgments are sensibly in advance of his age. It was the fashion in 1798 to denounce the Letters of Lord Chesterfield as frivolous and immoral. Green takes a wider view, and in a thoughtful analysis points out their judicious merits and their genuine parental assiduity. When Green can for a moment lift his eyes from his books, he shows a sensitive quality of observation which might have been cultivated to general advantage. Here is a reflection which seems to be as novel as it is happy:

"Looked afterwards into the Roman Catholic Chapel in Duke Street. The thrilling tinkle of the little bell at the elevation of the Host is perhaps the finest example that can be given of the sublime by association—nothing so poor and trivial in itself, nothing so transcendently awful, as indicating the sudden change in the consecrated Elements, and the instant presence of the Redeemer."

Much of the latter part of the Diary, as we hold it, is occupied with the description of a tour in England and Wales. Here Green is lucid, graceful, and refined: producing one after another little vignettes in prose, which remind us of the simple drawings of the water-colour masters of the age, of Girtin or Cozens or Glover. The volume, which opened with some remarks on Sir William Temple, closes with a disquisition on Warton's criticism of the poets. The curtain rises for three years on a smooth stream of intellectual reflection, unruffled by outward incident, and then falls again before we are weary of the monotonous flow of undiluted criticism. The Diary of a Lover of Literature is at once the pleasing record of a cultivated mind, and a monument to a species of existence that is as obsolete as nankeen breeches or a tie-wig.

Isaac D'Israeli said that Green had humbled all modern authors to the dust, and that he earnestly wished for a dozen volumes of The Diary. At Green's death material for at least so many supplements were placed in the hands of John Mitford, who did not venture to produce them. From January 1834 to May 1843, however, Mitford was incessantly contributing to The Gentleman's Magazine unpublished extracts from this larger Diary. These have never been collected, but my friend, Mr. W. Aldis Wright, possesses a very interesting volume, into which the whole mass of them has been carefully and consecutively pasted, with copious illustrative matter, by the hand of Edward FitzGerald, whose interest in and curiosity about Thomas Green were unflagging.


PETER BELL: A Tale in Verse, by William Wordsworth. London: Printed by Strahan and Spottiswoode, Printers-Street: for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, Paternoster Row. 1819.

None of Wordsworth's productions are better known by name than Peter Bell, and yet few, probably, are less familiar, even to convinced Wordsworthians. The poet's biographers and critics have commonly shirked the responsibility of discussing this poem, and when the Primrose stanza has been quoted, and the Parlour stanza smiled at, there is usually no more said about Peter Bell. A puzzling obscurity hangs around its history. We have no positive knowledge why its publication was so long delayed; nor, having been delayed, why it was at length determined upon. Yet a knowledge of this poem is not merely an important, but, to a thoughtful critic, an essential element in the comprehension of Wordsworth's poetry. No one who examines that body of literature with sympathetic attention should be content to overlook the piece in which Wordsworth's theories are pushed to their furthest extremity.

When Peter Bell was published in April 1819, the author remarked that it had "nearly survived its minority; for it saw the light in the summer of 1798." It was therefore composed at Alfoxden, that plain stone house in West Somersetshire, which Dorothy and William Wordsworth rented for the sum of L23 for one year, the rent covering the use of "a large park, with seventy head of deer."

Thanks partly to its remoteness from a railway, and partly also to the peculiarities of its family history, Alfoxden remains singularly unaltered. The lover of Wordsworth who follows its deep umbrageous drive to the point where the house, the park around it, and the Quantocks above them suddenly break upon the view, sees to-day very much what Wordsworth's visitors saw when they trudged up from Stowey to commune with him in 1797. The barrier of ancient beech-trees running up into the moor, Kilve twinkling below, the stretch of fields and woods descending northward to the expanse of the yellow Severn Channel, the plain white facade of Alfoxden itself, with its easy right of way across the fantastic garden, the tumultuous pathway down to the glen, the poet's favourite parlour at the end of the house—all this presents an impression which is probably less transformed, remains more absolutely intact, than any other which can be identified with the early or even the middle life of the poet. That William and Dorothy, in their poverty, should have rented so noble a country property seems at first sight inexplicable, and the contrast between Alfoxden and Coleridge's squalid pot-house in Nether Stowey can never cease to be astonishing. But the sole object of the trustees in admitting Wordsworth to Alfoxden was, as Mrs. Sandford has discovered, "to keep the house inhabited during the minority of the owner;" it was let to the poet on the 14th of July 1797.

It was in this delicious place, under the shadow of "smooth Quantock's airy ridge," that Wordsworth's genius came of age. It was during the twelve months spent here that Wordsworth lost the final traces of the old traditional accent of poetry. It was here that the best of the Lyrical Ballads were written, and from this house the first volume of that epoch-making collection was forwarded to the press. Among the poems written at Alfoxden Peter Bell was prominent, but we hear little of it except from Hazlitt, who, taken over to the Wordsworths by Coleridge from Nether Stowey, was on a first visit permitted to read "the sibylline leaves," and on a second had the rare pleasure of hearing Wordsworth himself chant Peter Bell, in his "equable, sustained, and internal" manner of recitation, under the ash-trees of Alfoxden Park. I do not know whether it has been noted that the landscape of Peter Bell, although localised in Yorkshire by the banks of the River Swale, is yet pure Somerset in character. The poem was composed, without a doubt, as the poet tramped the grassy heights of the Quantock Hills, or descended at headlong pace, mouthing and murmuring as he went, into one sylvan combe after another. To give it its proper place among the writings of the school, we must remember that it belongs to the same group as Tintern Abbey and The Ancient Mariner.

Why, then, was it not issued to the world with these? Why was it locked up in the poet's desk for twenty-one years, and shown during that time, as we gather from its author's language to Southey, to few, even of his close friends? To these questions we find no reply vouchsafed, but perhaps it is not difficult to discover one. Every revolutionist in literature or art produces some composition in which he goes further than in any other in his defiance of recognised rules and conventions. It was Wordsworth's central theory that no subject can be too simple and no treatment too naked for poetic purposes. His poems written at Alfoxden are precisely those in which he is most audacious in carrying out his principle, and nothing, even of his, is quite so simple or quite so naked as Peter Bell.

Hazlitt, a very young man, strongly prejudiced in favour of the new ideas, has given us a notion of the amazement with which he listened to these pieces of Wordsworth, although he was "not critically nor sceptically inclined." Others, we know, were deeply scandalised. I have little doubt that Wordsworth himself considered that, in 1798, his own admirers were scarcely ripe for the publication of Peter Bell, while, even so late as June 1812, when Crabb Robinson borrowed the MS. and lent it to Charles Lamb, the latter "found nothing good in it." Robinson seems to have been the one admirer of Peter Bell at that time, and he was irritated at Lamb's indifference. Yet his own opinion became modified when the poem was published, and (May 3, 1819) he calls it "this unfortunate book."[1] In another place (June 12, 1820) Crabb Robinson says that he implored Wordsworth, before the book was printed, to omit "the party in a parlour," and also the banging of the ass's bones, but, of course, in vain.

[Footnote 1: The word unfortunate is omitted by the editor, Thomas Sadler, perhaps in deference to the feelings of Wordsworth's descendants.]

In 1819 much was changed. The poet was now in his fiftieth year. The epoch of his true productiveness was closed; all his best works, except The Prelude, were before the public, and although Wordsworth was by no means widely or generally recognised yet as a great poet, there was a considerable audience ready to receive with respect whatever so interesting a person should put forward. Moreover, a new generation had come to the front; Scott's series of verse-romances was closed; Byron was in mid-career; there were young men of extraordinary and somewhat disquieting talent—Shelley, Keats, and Leigh Hunt—all of whom were supposed to be, although characters of a very reprehensible and even alarming class, yet distinctly respectful in their attitude towards Mr. Wordsworth. It seemed safe to publish Peter Bell.

Accordingly, the thin octavo described at the head of this chapter duly appeared in April 1819. It was so tiny that it had to be eked out with the Sonnets written to W. Westall's Views, and it was adorned by an engraving of Bromley's, after a drawing specially made by Sir George Beaumont to illustrate the poem. A letter to Beaumont, unfortunately without a date, in which this frontispiece is discussed, seems to suggest that the engraving was a gift from the artist to the poet; Wordsworth, "in sorrow for the sickly taste of the public in verse," opining that he cannot afford the expense of such a frontispiece as Sir George Beaumont suggests. In accordance with these fears, no doubt, an edition of only 500 was published; but it achieved a success which Wordsworth had neither anticipated nor desired. There was a general guffaw of laughter, and all the copies were immediately sold; within a month a ribald public received a third edition, only to discover, with disappointment, that the funniest lines were omitted.

No one admired Peter Bell. The inner circle was silent. Baron Field wrote on the title-page of his copy, which now belongs to Mr. J. Dykes Campbell, "And his carcass was cast in the way, and the Ass stood by it." Sir Walter Scott openly lamented that Wordsworth should exhibit himself "crawling on all fours, when God has given him so noble a countenance to lift to heaven." Byron mocked aloud, and, worse than all, the young men from whom so much had been expected, les jeunes feroces, leaped on the poor uncomplaining Ass like so many hunting-leopards. The air was darkened by hurtling parodies, the arrangement of which is still a standing crux to the bibliographers.

It was Keats's friend, John Hamilton Reynolds, who opened the attack. His parody (Peter Bell: a Lyrical Ballad. London, Taylor and Hessey, 1819) was positively in the field before the original. It was said, at the time, that Wordsworth, feverishly awaiting a specimen copy of his own Peter Bell from town, seized a packet which the mail brought him, only to find that it was the spurious poem which had anticipated Simon Pure. The Times protested that the two poems must be from the same pen. Reynolds had probably glanced at proofs of the genuine poem; his preface is a close imitation of Wordsworth's introduction, and the stanzaic form in which the two pieces are written is identical. On the other hand, the main parody is made up of allusions to previous poems by Wordsworth, and shows no acquaintance with the story of Peter Bell. Reynolds's whole pamphlet—preface, text, and notes—is excessively clever, and touches up the bard at a score of tender points. It catches the sententious tone of Wordsworth deliciously, and it closes with this charming stanza:

He quits that moonlight yard of skulls, And still he feels right glad, and smiles With moral joy at that old tomb; Peter's cheek recalls its bloom, And as he creepeth by the tiles, He mutters ever—"W.W. Never more will trouble you, trouble you."

Peter Bell the Second, as it is convenient, though not strictly accurate, to call Reynold's "antenatal Peter," was more popular than the original. By May a third edition had been called for, and this contained fresh stanzas and additional notes.

Another parody, which ridiculed the affection for donkeys displayed both by Wordsworth and Coleridge, was called The Dead Asses: A Lyrical Ballad; and an elaborate production, the author of which I have not been able to discover, was published later on in the year, Benjamin the Waggoner (Baldwin, Craddock and Joy, 1819), which, although the title suggests The Waggoner of Wordsworth, is entirely taken up with making fun of Peter Bell. This parody—and it is certainly neither pointless nor unskilful—chiefly deals with the poet's fantastic prologue. Then, no less a person than Shelley, writing to Leigh Hunt from Florence in November of the same year, enclosed a Peter Bell the Third which he desired should be printed, yet in such a form as to conceal the name of the author. Perhaps Hunt thought it indiscreet to publish this not very amusing skit, and it did not see the light till long after Shelley's death. Finally, as though the very spirit of parody danced in the company of this strange poem, Wordsworth himself chronicled its ill-fate in a sonnet imitated from Milton's defence of "Tetrachordon," singing how, on the appearance of Peter Bell,

a harpy brood On Bard and Hero clamourously fell.

Of the poem which enjoyed so singular a fate, Lord Houghton has quietly remarked that it could not have been written by a man with a strong sense of humour. This is true of every part of it, of the stiff and self-sufficient preface, and of the grotesque prologue, both of which in all probability belong to 1819, no less than of the story itself, in its three cantos or parts, which bear the stamp of Alfoxden and 1798. The tale is not less improbable than uninteresting. In the first part, a very wicked potter or itinerant seller of pots, Peter Bell, being lost in the woodland, comes to the borders of a river, and thinks to steal an ass which he finds pensively hanging its head over the water; Peter Bell presently discovers that the dead body of the master of the ass is floating in the river just below. (The poet, as he has naively recorded, read this incident in a newspaper.) In the second part Peter drags the dead man to land, and starts on the ass's back to find the survivors. In the third part a vague spiritual chastisement falls on Peter Bell for his previous wickedness. Plot there is no more than this, and if proof were wanted of the inherent innocence of Wordsworth's mind, it is afforded by the artless struggles which he makes to paint a very wicked man. Peter Bell has had twelve wives, he is indifferent to primroses upon a river's brim, and he beats asses when they refuse to stir. This is really all the evidence brought against one who is described, vaguely, as combining all vices that "the cruel city breeds."

That which close students of the genius of Wordsworth will always turn to seek in Peter Bell is the sincere sentiment of nature and the studied simplicity of language which inspire its best stanzas. The narrative is clumsy in the extreme, and the attempts at wit and sarcasm ludicrous. Yet Peter Bell contains exquisite things. The Primrose stanza is known to every one; this is not so familiar:

The dragon's wing, the magic ring, I shall not covet for my dower. If I along that lowly way With sympathetic heart may stray And with a soul of power.

Nor this, with its excruciating simplicity, its descriptive accent of 1798:

_I see a blooming Wood-boy there, And, if I had the power to say How sorrowful the wanderer is, Your heart would be as sad as his Till you had kiss'd his tears away!

Holding a hawthorn branch in hand, All bright with berries ripe and red; Into the cavern's mouth he peeps— Thence back into the moonlight creeps; What seeks the boy?—the silent dead!_

It is when he wishes to describe how Peter Bell became aware of the dead body floating under the nose of the patient ass that Wordsworth loses himself in uncouth similes. Peter thinks it is the moon, then the reflection of a cloud, then a gallows, a coffin, a shroud, a stone idol, a ring of fairies, a fiend. Last of all the poet makes the Potter, who is gazing at the corpse, exclaim:

Is it a party in a parlour? Cramm'd just as they on earth were cramm'd— Some sipping punch, some sipping tea, But, as you by their faces see, All silent and all damned!

So deplorable is the waggishness of a person, however gifted, who has no sense of humour! This simile was too much for the gravity even of intimate friends like Southey and Lamb, and after the second edition it disappeared.


THE FANCY: A Selection from the Poetical Remains of the late Peter Corcoran, of Gray's Inn, student at law. With a brief Memoir of his life. London: printed for Taylor & Hessey, Fleet Street. 1820.

The themes of the poets run in a very narrow channel. Since the old heroic times when the Homers and the Gunnlaugs sang of battle with the sleet of lances hurtling around them, a great calm has settled down upon Parnassus. Generation after generation pipes the same tune of love and Nature, of the liberal arts and the illiberal philosophies; the same imagery, the same metres, meander within the same polite margins of conventional subject. Ever and anon some one attempts to break out of the groove. In the eighteenth century they made a valiant effort to sing of The Art of Preserving Health, and of The Fleece and of The Sugar-Cane, but the innovators lie stranded, like cumbrous whales, on the shore of the ocean of Poesy. Flaubert's friend, Louis Bouilhet, made a inartful attempt to tune the stubborn lyre to music of the birthday of the world, to battles of the ichthyosaurus and the plesiosaurus, to loves of the mammoth and the mastodon. But the public would have none of it, though ensphered in faultless verso, and the poets fled back to their flames and darts, and to the primrose at the river's brim. There is, however, something pathetic, and something that pleasantly reminds us of the elasticity of the human intellect in these failures; and the book before us is an amusing example of such eccentric efforts to enlarge the sphere of the poetic activity.

This little volume is called The Fancy, and it does not appear to me certain that the virtuous American conscience know what that means. If the young ladies from Wells or Wellesley inquire ingenuously, "Tell us where is Fancy bred?" we should have to reply, with a jingle, In the fists, not in the head. The poet himself, in a fit of unusual candour, says:

Fancy's a term for every blackguardism,

though this is much too severe. But rats, and they who catch them, badgers, and they who bait them, cocks, and they who fight them, and, above all, men with fists, who professionally box with them, come under the category of the Fancy. This, then, is the theme which the poet before us, living under the genial sway of the First Gentleman of Europe, undertook to place beneath the special patronage of Apollo. The attractions, however, of The Learned Ring, set all other pleasures in the shade, and the name, Peter Corcoran, which is a pseudonym, is, I suppose, chosen merely because the initials are those of the then famous Pugilistic Club. The poet is, in short, the laureate of the P.C., and his book stands in the same relation to Boxiana that Campbell's lyrics do to Nelson's despatches. To understand the poet's position, we ought to be dressed as he was; we ought

to wear a tough drab coat With large pearl buttons all afloat Upon the waves of plush; to tie A kerchief of the king-cup die (White-spotted with a small bird's eye) Around the neck,—and from the nape Let fall an easy> fan-like cape,

and, in fact, to belong to that incredible company of Corinthian Tom and Jerry Hawthorn over whom Thackeray let fall so delightfully the elegiac tear.

Anthologies are not edited in a truly catholic spirit, or they would contain this very remarkable sonnet:


"_None but himself can be his parallel."

With marble-coloured shoulders,—and keen eyes, Protected by a forehead broad and white— And hair cut close lest it impede the sight, And clenched hands, firm, and of punishing size,— Steadily held, or motion'd wary-wise To hit or stop,—and kerchief too drawn tight O'er the unyielding loins, to keep from flight The inconstant wind, that all too often flies,— The Nonpareil stands! Fame, whose bright eyes run o'er With joy to see a Chicken of her own. Dips her rich pen in_ claret_, <and writes down Under the letter R, first on the score, "Randall,—John,—Irish Parents,—age not known,— Good with both hands, and only ten stone four!_"

Be not too hard on this piece of barbarism, virtuous reader! Virtue is well revenged by the inevitable question! "Who was John Randall?" In 1820 it was said: "Of all the great men in this age, in poetry, philosophy, or pugilism, there is no one of such transcendent talent as Randall, no one who combines the finest natural powers with the most elegant and finished acquired ones." Now, if his memory be revived for a moment, this master of science, who doubled up an opponent as if he were plucking a flower, and whose presence turned Moulsey Hurst into an Olympia, is in danger of being confounded with the last couple of drunken Irishwomen who have torn out each other's hair in handfuls in some Whitechapel courtyard. The mighty have fallen, the stakes and ring are gone forever, and Virtue is avenged. The days of George IV. are so long, long gone past that a paradoxical creature may be forgiven for a sigh over the ashes of the glory of John Randall.

It is strange how much genuine poetry lingers in this odd collection of verses in praise of prizefighting. There are lines and phrases that recall Keats himself, though truly the tone of the book is robust enough to satisfy the most impassioned of Tory editors. As it happens, it was written by Keats's dearest friend, by John Hamilton Reynolds, whom the great poet mentions so affectionately in the latest of all his letters. Reynolds has been treated with scant consideration by the critics. His verses, I protest, are no whit less graceful or sparkling than those of his more eminent companions, Leigh Hunt and Barry Cornwall. His Garden of Florence is worthy of the friend of Keats. We have seen how his Peter Bell, which was Peter Bell the First, took the wind out of Shelley's satiric sails and fluttered the dove-cotes of the Lakeists. He was as smart as he could be, too clever to live, in fact, too light a weight for a grave age. In The Fancy, which Keats seems to refer to in a letter dated January 13th, 1820, Reynolds appears to have been inspired by Tom Moore's Tom Crib, but if so, he vastly improves on that rather vulgar original. He takes as his motto, with adroit impertinence, some lines of Wordsworth, and persuades us

nor need we blame the licensed joys, Though false to Nature's quiet equipoise: Frank are the sports, the stains are fugitive.

We can fancy the countenance of the Cumbrian sage at seeing his words thus nimbly adapted to be an apology for prize-fighting.

The poems are feigned to be the remains of one Peter Corcoran, student at law. A simple and pathetic memoir—which deserved to be as successful as that most felicitous of all such hoaxes, the life of the supposed Italian poet, Lorenzo Stecchetti—introduces us to the unfortunate young Irishman, who was innocently engaged to a charming lady, when, on a certain August afternoon, he strayed by chance into the Fives Court, witnessed a "sparring-exhibition" by two celebrated pugilists, and was thenceforth a lost character. From that moment nothing interested him except a favourite hit or a scientific parry, and his only topic of conversation became the noble art of self-defence. To his disgusted lady-love he took to writing eulogies of the Chicken and the Nonpareil. On one occasion he appeared before her with two black eyes, for he could not resist the temptation of taking part in the boxing, and "it is known that he has parried the difficult and ravaging hand of Randall himself." The attachment of the young lady had long been declining, and she took this opportunity of forbidding him her presence for the future. He felt this abandonment bitterly, but could not surrender the all-absorbing passion which was destroying him. He fell into a decline, and at last died "without a struggle, just after writing a sonnet to West-Country Dick."

The poems so ingeniously introduced consist of a kind of sporting opera called King Tims the First, which is the tragedy of an emigrant butcher; an epic fragment in ottava rima, called The Fields of Tothill, in which the author rambles on in the Byronic manner, and ceases, fatigued with his task, before he has begun to get his story under weigh; and miscellaneous pieces. Some of these latter are simply lyrical exercises, and must have been written in Peter Corcoran's earlier days. The most characteristic and the best deal, however, with the science of fisticuffs. Here are the lines sent by the poet to his mistress on the painful occasion which we have described above, "after a casual turn up":

_Forgive me,—and never, oh, never again, I'll cultivate light blue or brown inebriety;[1] I'll give up all chance of a fracture or sprain, And part, worst of all, with Pierce Egan's[2] society.

Forgive me,—and mufflers I'll carefully pull O'er my knuckles hereafter, to make them, well-bred; To mollify digs in the kidneys with wool, And temper with leather a punch of the head_.

And, Kate!—if you'll fib from your forehead that frown, And spar with a lighter and prettier tone;— I'll look,—if the swelling should ever go down, And these eyes look again,—upon you, love, alone!

[Footnote 1: "Heavy brown with a dash of blue in it" was the fancy phrase for stout mixed with gin.]

[Footnote 2: The author of Boxiana and Life in London.]

It must be confessed that a less "fancy" vocabulary would here have shown a juster sense of Peter's position. Sometimes there is no burlesque intention apparent, but, in their curious way, the verses seem to express a genuine enthusiasm. It is neither to be expected nor to be feared that any one nowadays will seriously attempt to advocate the most barbarous of pastimes, and therefore, without conscientious scruples, we may venture to admit that these are very fine and very thrilling verses in their own unexampled class:

Oh, it is life! to see a proud And dauntless man step, full of hopes, Up to the P.C. stakes and ropes, Throw in his hat, and with a spring Get gallantly within the ring; Eye the wide crowd, and walk awhile Taking all cheerings with a smile; To see him strip,—his well-trained form, White, glowing, muscular, and warm, All beautiful in conscious power, Relaxed and quiet, till the hour; His glossy and transparent frame, In radiant plight to strive for fame! To look upon the clean-shap'd limb In silk and flannel clothed trim;— While round the waist the kerchief tied Makes the flesh glow in richer pride. 'Tis more than life, to watch him hold His hand forth, tremulous yet bold, Over his second's, and to clasp His rival's in a quiet grasp; To watch the noble attitude He takes,—the crowd in breathless mood,— And then to see, with adamant start, The muscles set,—and the great heart Hurl a courageous, splendid light Into the eye,—and then—the FIGHT.

This is like a lithograph out of one of Pierce Egan's books, only much more spirited and picturesque, and displaying a far higher and more Hellenic sense of the beauty of athletics. Reynolds' little volume, however, enjoyed no success. The genuine amateurs of the prize-ring did not appreciate being celebrated in good verses, and The Fancy has come to be one of the rarest of literary curiosities.


ULTRA-CREPIDARIUS; a Satire on William Gifford. By Leigh Hunt. London, 1823: printed for John Hunt, 22, Old Bond Street, and 38, Tavistock Street, Covent Garden.

If the collector of first editions requires an instance from which to justify the faith which is in him against those who cry out that bibliography is naught, Leigh Hunt is a good example to his hand. This active and often admirable writer, during a busy professional life, issued a long series of works in prose and verse which are of every variety of commonness and scarcity, but which have never been, and probably never will be, reprinted as a whole. Yet not to possess the works of Leigh Hunt is to be ill-equipped for the minute study of literary history at the beginning of the century. The original 1816 edition of Rimini, for instance, is of a desperate rarity, yet not to be able to refer to it in the grotesqueness of this its earliest form is to miss a most curious proof of the crude taste of the young school out of which Shelley and Keats were to arise. The scarcest of all Leigh Hunt's poetical pamphlets, but by no means the least interesting, is that whose title stands at the head of this chapter. Of Ultra-crepidarius, which was "printed for John Hunt" in 1823, it is believed that not half a dozen copies are in existence, and it has never been reprinted. It is a rarity, then, to which the most austere despisers of first editions may allow a special interest.

From internal evidence we find that Ultra-crepidarius; a Satire on William Gifford, was sent to press in the summer of 1823, from Maiano, soon after the break-up of Hunt's household in Genoa, and Byron's departure for Greece. The poem is the "stick" which had been recently mentioned in the third number of the Liberal:

Have I, these five years, spared the dog a stick, Cut for his special use, and reasonably thick?

It had been written in 1818, in consequence of the famous review in the Quarterly of Keats's Endymion, a fact which the biographers of Keats do not seem to have observed. Why did Hunt not immediately print it? Perhaps because to have done so would have been worse than useless in the then condition of public taste and temper. What led Hunt to break through his intention of suppressing the poem it might be difficult to discover. At all events, in the summer of 1823 he suddenly sent it home for publication; whether it was actually published is doubtful, it was probably only circulated in private to a handful of sympathetic Tory-hating friends.

Ultra-crepidarius is written in the same anapaestic measure as The Feast of the Poets, but is somewhat longer. As a satire on William Gifford it possessed the disadvantage of coming too late in the day to be of any service to anybody. At the close of 1823 Gifford, in failing health, was resigning the editorial chair of the Quarterly, which he had made so formidable, and was retiring into private life, to die in 1826. The poem probably explains, however, what has always seemed a little difficult to comprehend, the extreme personal bitterness with which Gifford, at the close of his career, regarded Hunt, since the slayer of the Della Cruscans was not the man to tolerate being treated as though he were a Della Cruscan himself. However narrow the circulation of Ultra-crepidarius may have been, care was no doubt taken that the editor of the Quarterly Review should receive one copy at his private address, and Leigh Hunt returned from Italy in time for that odd incident to take place at the Roxburgh sale, when Barron Field called his attention to the fact that "a little man, with a warped frame, and a countenance between the querulous and the angry, was gazing at me with all his might." Hunt tells this story in the Autobiography, from which, however, he omits all allusion to his satire.

The latter opens with the statement that:

'Tis now about fifty or sixty years since (The date of a charming old boy of a Prince)—

Mercury was in a state of rare fidget from the discovery that he had lost one of his precious winged shoes, and had in consequence dawdled away a whole week in company with Venus, not having dreamed that it was that crafty goddess herself, who, wishing for a pair of them, had sent one of Mercury's shoes down to Ashburton for a pattern. Venus confesses her peccadillo, and offers to descend to the Devonshire borough with her lover, and see what can have become of the ethereal shoe. As they reach the ground, they meet with an ill-favoured boot of leather, which acknowledges that it has ill-treated the delicate slipper of Mercury. This boot, of course, is Gifford, who had been a shoemaker's apprentice in Ashburton. Mercury curses this unsightly object, and part of his malediction may here be quoted.

I hear some one say "Murrain take him, the ape!" And so Murrain shall, in a bookseller's shape; An evil-eyed elf, in a down-looking flurry, Who'd fain be a coxcomb, and calls himself Murray. Adorn thou his door, like the sign of the Shoe, For court-understrappers to congregate to; For Southey to come, in his dearth of invention, And eat his own words for mock-praise and a pension; For Croker to lurk with his spider-like limb in, And stock his lean bag with waylaying the women; And Jove only knows for what creatures beside To shelter their envy and dust-liking pride, And feed on corruption, like bats, who at nights, In the dark take their shuffles, which they call then flights; Be these the court-critics and vamp a Review. And by a poor figure, and therefore a true, For it suits with thy nature, both shoe-like and slaughterly Be its hue leathern, and title the Quarterly, Much misconduct, and see that the others Misdeem, and misconstrue, like miscreant brothers; Misquote, and misplace, and mislead, and misstate, Misapply, misinterpret, misreckon, misdate, Misinform, misconjecture, misargue; in short, Miss all that is good, that ye miss not the Court.

* * * * *

And finally, thou, my old soul of the tritical, Noting, translating, high slavish, hot critical, Quarterly-scutcheon'd, great heir to each dunce, Be Tibbald, Cook, Arnall, and Dennis at once

At the end, Mercury dooms the ugly boot to take the semblance of a man, and the satire closes with its painful metamorphosis into Gifford. The poem is not without cleverness, but it is chiefly remarkable for a savage tone which is not, we think, repeated elsewhere throughout the writings of Hunt. The allusions to Gifford's relations, nearly half a century earlier, to that Earl Grosvenor who first rescued him from poverty, the well-deserved scorn of his intolerable sneers at Perdita Robinson's crutches:

Hate Woman, thou block in the path of fair feet; If Fate want a hand to distress them, thine be it; When the Great, and their flourishing vices, are mention'd Say people "impute" 'em, and show thou art pension'd; But meet with a Prince's old mistress discarded, And then let the world see how vice is rewarded

the indications of the satirist's acquaintance with the private life of his victim, all these must have stung the editor of the Quarterly to the quick, and are very little in Hunt's usual manner, though he had examples for them in Peter Pindar and others. There is a very early allusion to "Mr. Keats and Mr. Shelley," where, "calm, up above thee, they soar and they shine." This was written immediately after the review of Endymion in the Quarterly.

At the close is printed an extremely vigorous onslaught of Hazlitt's upon Gifford, which is better known than the poem which it illustrates. In itself, in its preface, and in its notes alike this very rare pamphlet presents us with a genuine curiosity of literature.


ENGLAND'S TRUST AND OTHER POEMS. By Lord John Manners. London: printed for J.G. & J. Rivington, St. Paul's Church Yard, and Waterloo Place, Pall Mall. 1841.

My newspaper informed me this morning that Lord John Manners took his seat last night, in the Upper House, as the Duke of Rutland. These little romantic surprises are denied to Americans, who do not find that old friends get new names, which are very old names, in the course of a night. My Transatlantic readers will never have to grow accustomed to speak of Mr. Lowell as the Earl of Mount Auburn, and I firmly believe that Mr. Howells would consider it a chastisement to be hopelessly ennobled. But my thoughts went wanderting back at my breakfast to-day to those far-away times, the fresh memory of which was still reverberating about my childhood, when the last new Duke was an ardent and ingenuous young patriot, who never dreamed of being a peer, and who hoped to refashion his country to the harp of Amphion. So I turned, with assuredly no feeling of disrespect, to that corner of my library where the peches de jeunesse stand—the little books of early verses which the respectable authors of the same would destroy if they could—and I took down England's Trust.

Fifty years ago a group of young men, all of them fresh from Oxford and Cambridge, most of them more or less born in the purple of good families, banded themselves together to create a sort of aristocratic democracy. They called themselves "Young England," and the chronicle of them—is it not patent to all men in the pages of Disraeli's Coningsby? In the hero of that novel people saw a portrait of the leader of the group, the Hon. George Percy Sydney Smythe, to whom also the poems now before us, parvus non parvae pignus amicitiae, were dedicated in a warm inscription. The Sidonia of the story was doubtless only echoing what Smythe had laid down as a dogma when he said: "Man is only truly great when he acts from the passions, never irresistible but when he appeals to the imagination." It was the theory of Young England that the historic memory must be awakened in the lower classes; that utilitarianism was sapping the very vitals of society, and that ballads and May-poles and quaint festivities and processions of a loyal peasantry were the proper things for politicians to encourage. It was all very young, and of course it came to nothing. But I do not know that the Primrose League is any improvement upon it, and I fancy that when the Duke of Rutland looks back across the half-century he sees something to smile at, but nothing to blush for.

One of the notions that Young England had got hold of was that famous saying of Fletcher of Saltoun's friend about making the ballads of a people. So they set themselves verse-making, and a quaint little collection of books it was that they produced, all smelling alike at this time of day, with a faint, faded perfume of the hay-stack, countrified and wild. Mr. Smythe, who presently became the seventh Viscount Strangford and one of the wittiest of Morning Chroniclers, only to die bitterly lamented before the age of forty, wrote Historic Fancies, Mr. Faber, then a fellow of University College, Oxford, and afterwards a leading spirit among English Catholics, published The Cherwell Water-Lily, in 1840, and on the heels of this discreet volume came the poems of Lord John Manners.

When England's Trust appeared, its author had just left Cambridge. Almost immediately afterward, it was decided that Young England ought to be represented in Parliament, where its Utopian chivalries, it was believed, needed only to be heard to prevail. Accordingly Lord John Manners presented himself, in June 1841, as one of the Conservative candidates for the borough of Newark. He was elected, and so was the other Tory candidate, a man already distinguished, and at present known to the entire world as Mr. W.E. Gladstone. On the hustings, Lord John Manners was a good deal heckled, and in particular he was teased excessively about a certain couplet in England's Trust. I am not going to repeat that couplet here, for after nearly half a century the Duke of Rutland has a right to be forgiven that extraordinary indiscretion. If any of my readers turn to the volume for themselves, which, of course, I have no power to prevent their doing, they will probably exclaim:

"Was it the Duke of Rutland who wrote that?" for if frequency of quotation is the hall-mark of popularity, his Grace must be one of the most popular of our living poets.

There is something exceedingly pathetic in this little volume. Its weakness as verse, for it certainly is weak, had nothing ignoble about it, and what is weak without being in the least base has already a negative distinction. The author hopes to be a Lovelace or a Montrose, equally ready to do his monarch service with sword or pen. The Duke of Rutland has not quite been a Montrose, but he has been something less brilliant and much more useful, a faithful servant of his country, through an upright and laborious life. The young poet of 1841, thrilled by the Tractarian enthusiasm of the moment, looked for a return of the high festivals of the Church, for a victory of faith over all its Paynim foes. "The worst evils," he writes, "from which we are now suffering, have arisen from our ignorant contempt or neglect of the rules of the Church." He was full of Newman and Pusey, of the great Oxford movement of 1837, of the wind of fervour blowing through England from the common-room of Oriel. Now all is changed past recognition, and with, perhaps, the solitary exception of Cardinal Newman, preserved in extreme old age, like some precious exotic, in his Birmingham cloister, the Duke of Rutland may look through the length and breadth of England without recovering one of those lost faces that fed the pure passion of his youth.

The hand which brought the flame from Oriel to the Cambridge scholar was that of the Rev. Frederick William Faber, and a great number of the poems in England's Trust are dedicated to him openly or secretly. Here is a sonnet addressed to Faber, which is very pleasant to read:

Dear Friend! thou askest me to sing our loves, And sing them fain would I; but I do fear To mar so soft a theme; a theme that moves My heart unto its core. O friend most dear! No light request is thine; albeit it proves Thy gentleness and love, that do appear When absent thus, and in soft looks when near. Surely, if ever two fond hearts were, twined In a most holy, mystic knot, so now Are ours; not common are the ties that bind My soul to thine; a dear Apostle thou, I a young Neophyte that yearns to find The sacred truth, and stamp upon his brow The Cross, dread sign of his baptismal vow!

The Apostle was only twelve months older than the Neophyte, who was in his twenty-third year, but he was a somewhat better as well as stronger poet. The Cherwell Water-Lily is rather a rare book now, and I may perhaps be allowed to give an example of Faber's style. It is from one of many poems in which, with something borrowed too consciously from Wordsworth, who was the very Apollo of Young England, there Is yet a rendering of the beauty and mystery of Oxford, and of the delicate sylvan scenery which surrounds it, which is wholly original;

Previous Part     1  2  3  4     Next Part
Home - Random Browse