Know, reader, that the Laureate's post sublime,
Is destined to record in tuneful rhyme,
The deeds of British monarchs, twice a year.
If great — how happy is the tuneful tongue,
If pitiful (as Shakespeare says) the song,
Must suckle fools, and chronicle small beer.
But for two circumstances the name of Nahum Teat would have been totally forgotten, and they are, that be was part author of a new version of the Psalms, and was Poet Laureate in the reigns of William III., Queen Anne, and George I.
He was the son of Dr. Faithful Teat, a clergyman, was born in Dublin in 1652, and educated at Trinity College, in that City.
Determined to adopt the literary profession, he went to London, where he became acquainted with Dryden, whom he assisted in the composition of several plays, and for whom he wrote most of the second part of Absalom and Achitophel, which was published in November, 1682. In the edition of this poem, published by Jacob Tonson in 1716 (when both Dryden and Tate were dead), the preface states that:
"In the year 1680, Mr. Dryden undertook the poem of Absalom and Achitophel, upon the desire of King Charles II. The performance was applauded by every one; and several persons pressing him to write a second part, he, upon declining it himself, spoke to Mr. Tate to write one, and gave him his advice in the direction of it and that part beginning, 'Next these, a troop of busy spirits press,' and ending 'To talk like Doeg, and to write like thee,' containing near two hundred verses, were entirely Mr. Dryden's composition, besides some touches in other places."
Having a strong Tory tone, Tate's verses, though far inferior to Dryden's, brought him into notice at Court; and, encouraged by the patronage he received, he produced several plays, which, however, were only moderately successful. He had the temerity to alter King Lear for the stage, and, whatever may now be the opinion as to the merits of his version, it held possession of the boards for nearly a century.
On the death of Shadwell, Tate was appointed Poet Laureate; but the office of Historiographer Royal, which Shadwell and Dryden had previously also filled, was conferred upon Thomas Rymer.
The greatest merit of Tate's official odes is their brevity; they are characterised by more than the usual amount of fulsome adulation, and in the verses on the death of Queen Mary II., he stretches poetical license to the extent of asserting that queens have a special reception on their entry into Paradise.
Having borrowed metaphors and similes from Milton, he rearranges them in his own style, after the following fashion:
With robes invested of celestial dies,
She towr's, and treads the Empyrean Skies;
Angelick choirs, skill'd in triumphant song,
Heaven's battlements and crystal turrets throng,
The signal's given, the eternal gates unfold
Burning with jasper, wreath'd in burnish'd gold;
And myriads now of flaming minds I see—
Pow'rs, Potentates, Heaven's awful Hierarchy
In gradual orbs enthron'd, but all divine
Ineffably those sons of glory shine.
On the accession of Queen Anne, in 1702, the following new letters patent were issued:
"These are to certify that I have sworn and admitted Nahum Tate into ye place and quality of Poet Laureate to Her Majesty in ordinary, to have, hold, and exercise and enjoy the said place, together with all rights, profits, privileges, and advantages thereunto belonging, in as full and ample manner as any Poet Laureate hath formerly held, and of right ought to have held and enjoyed the same.
Given under my hand this 24th day of December, in the first year of her Majesty's reign.
During this reign, the appointment of Laureate was placed in the gift of the Lord Chamberlain; consequently, in 1714, Tate was again formally appointed. In these documents, the name is spelt Tate, although it is doubtful when and for what reason the poet abandoned the correct orthography of the family name of Teat.
Pope wittily Summed up Tate's poetical talents, in lines of the utmost severity:—
The Bard whom pilfer'd pastorals renown,
Who turns a Persian tale for half-a-crown
Just writes to make his barrenness appear,
And strains from hard-bound brains, eight lines a year;
He, who still wanting, though he lives on theft,
Steals much, spends little, yet has nothing left :
And he, who now to sense, now nonsense leaning,
Means not, but blunders round a meaning;
And he, whose fustian's so sublimely bad,
It is not poetry, but prose run mad.
All these, my modest satire, bade translate,
And own'd that nine such Poets made a Tate.
All this bitter satire might have been applied with justice to Tate, had he produced nothing better than his official odes; but such was certainly not the case; his translation of Ovid's Remedy of Love, included in Tonson's edition of Miscellaneous Poems, is very gracefully written, and Panacea, a poem on the power and virtues of tea (then a highly-priced luxury), is excellent in its construction, although the subject lacks interest at the present time. Sir Walter Scott speaks indulgently of Tate, and admits him amongst the "second-rate bards, who by dint of expletive and pleonasm, can find smooth lines, if any one will supply ideas." Contemporary critics ranked him far higher; one says:
The British laurel by old Chaucer worn,
Still fresh and gay did Dryden's brow adorn,
And that its lustre may not fade on thine,
Wit, fancy, judgment, Tate in thee combine.
Long may the laurel flourish on your brow,
Since you so well a Laureate's duty know,
For virtue's rescue daring to engage
Against the tyrant vices of the age.
Swift, with the characteristic ill-nature which prompted him to sneer at every one whom he did not greatly fear, or who did not greatly fear him, taunts Tate for being too prolific:
"Nahum Tate, who is ready to take oath that he has caused many reams of verse to be published, whereof both himself and his bookseller (if lawfully required) can still produce authentic copies, and therefore wonders why the world is pleased to make such a secret of it."
As an instance of Tate's happy knack of throwing off verses on the current topics of the day, a little epigram on The Spectator may be given; it appeared in No. 488, dated Friday, Sept. 19, 1712, accompanied by the following letter:
"SIR, — Having heard the following epigram very much commended, I wonder that it has not yet had a place in any of your papers; I think the suffrage of our Poet Laureat should not be overlooked, which shows the opinion he entertains of your paper, whether the notion he proceeds upon be true or false. I make bold to convey it to you, not knowing if it has yet come to your hands:
ON THE SPECTATOR.
By MR. TATE.
—Aliusque et idem
Nasceris. — HOR., Carm. Saec. 10.
You rise another, and the same.
When first the Tatler to a mute was turn'd,
Great Britain for her censor's silence mourn'd;
Robb'd of his sprightly beams, she wept the night,
Till the Spectator rose, and blaz'd as bright.
So the first man the sun's first setting view'd,
And sigh'd till circling day his joys renew'd.
Yet, doubtful how that second sun to name,
Whether a bright successor, or the same,
So we; but now from this suspense are freed,
Since all agree, who both with judgment read,
'Tis the same sun, and does himself succeed."
It must be remembered that Addison and Steele contributed to the Tatler, which ceased to appear in 1711, and were afterwards the chief writers for the Spectator.
In conjunction with Dr. Brady, Tate issued a version of twenty Psalms, and shortly afterwards the complete work, entitled, A New Version of the Psalms of David, fitted to the tunes used in churches, by N. Brady, D.D., Chaplain in Ordinary to Her Majesty, and N. Tate, Esq., Poet Laureate. This work met with much hostile criticism, many ignorant and bigoted persons believing there was something sacred in the obsolete words, and quaint expressions in the old Sternhold and Hopkins' version, first published in 1562.
But the Bishop of London sent out letters to all the clergy of his diocese, recommending them to adopt the new arrangement, and the following order in Council officially sanctioned its use:—
"At the Court of Kensington, December 3, 1696. Present the King's most excellent Majesty in Council. Upon the humble petition of Nicholas Brady and Nahum Tate, this day read at the Board, setting forth that the petitioners have, with their utmost care and industry, completed a new version of the Psalms of David in English metre, fitted for public use; and humbly praying His Majesty's Royal allowance that the said version may be used in such congregations as shall think fit to receive it; His Majesty taking the same into his royal consideration is pleased to order in Council that the said new version of the Psalms in English metre be, and the same is hereby allowed, and permitted to be used in all churches and chapels and congregations as shall think fit to receive the same."
This Dr. Brady was, like Tate, an Irishman, a considerable versifier, and the author of at least one tragedy. He preached the sermon at the funeral of Shadwell; took an active part in the Revolution of 1688, for which he was well rewarded; and was a man of some talent, and considerable worldly wisdom.
Of Tate's poetical works, there is little more to be said; he wrote about a dozen plays, and projected several prose works. One of these, The Monitor, a dull, but well-meant, and very moral journal, which first appeared on March 2, 1713, had only a brief career, although published under royal and distinguished patronage; and this may be considered the last work of poor Tate, a Laureate inferior to many of the race, though very far from being the worst poet, and by no means a vicious one.
Dr. Johnson asserts that Tate was removed from the office of Laureate, on the accession of George I., to make way for Rowe. This has been denied; but the fact that Tate had to seek refuge from his creditors in the sanctuary of the Mint (some have stated that he was imprisoned), where he died in extreme poverty, on the 12th August, 1715, seems to corroborate the doctor's statement.
Tate was not a favourite in society; he was not a successful man; and when an almost entire redistribution of Court patronage took place, it was only to be expected that he should have to forfeit his office, in favour of a poet who (like Rowe) was of a courtly disposition, graceful manners, and who belonged to the dominant faction.
O! pass more innocent, in infant state,
To the mild limbo of our Father Tate;
Or peaceably forgot, at once be bleat
In Shadwell's bosom with eternal rest!