1753 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Elizabeth Thomas

Anonymous, in Cibber-Shiels, Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland (1753) 4:146-61.



This lady, who is known in the world by the poetical name of Corinna, seems to have been born for misfortunes; her very bitterest enemies could never brand her with any real crime, and yet her whole life has been one continued scene of misery. The family from which she sprung was of a rank in life beneath envy, and above contempt. She was the child of an ancient, and infirm parent, who gave her life when he was dying himself, and to whose unhappy constitution she was sole heiress. From her very birth, which happened 1675, she was afflicted with fevers and defluxions, and being over-nursed, her constitution was so delicate and tender, that had she not been of a gay disposition, and possessed a vigorous mind, she must have been more unhappy than she actually was. Her father dying when she was scarce two years old, and her mother not knowing his real circumstances, as he was supposed from the splendour of his manner of life to be very rich, some inconveniences were incurred, in bestowing upon him a pompous funeral, which in those times was fashionable. The mother of our poetess, in the bloom of eighteen, was condemned to the arms of this man, upwards of 60, upon the supposition of his being wealthy, but in which she was soon miserably deceived. When the grief, which so young a wife may be supposed to feel for an aged husband, had subsided, she began to enquire into the state of his affairs, and found to her unspeakable mortification, that he died not worth one thousand pounds in the world. As Mrs. Thomas was a woman of good sense, and a high spirit, she disposed of two houses her husband kept, one in town, the other in the county of Essex, and retired into a private, but decent country lodging. The chambers in the Temple her husband possessed, she sold to her brother for 450 which, with her husband's books of accounts, she lodged in her trustee's hands, who being soon after burnt out by the fire in the paper buildings in the Temple (which broke out with such violence in the dead of night, that he saved nothing but his life) she lost considerably. Not being able to make out any bill, she could form no regular demand, and was obliged to be determined by the honour of her husband's clients, who, though persons of the first fashion, behaved with very little honour to her. The deceased had the reputation of a judicious lawyer, and an accomplished gentleman, but who was too honest to thrive in his profession, and had too much humanity ever to become rich. Of all his clients, but one lady behaved with any appearance of honesty. The countess dowager of Wentworth having then lost her only daughter the lady Harriot (who was reputed the mistress of the duke of Monmouth) told Mrs. Thomas, "that she knew she had a large reckoning with the deceased, but, says she, as you know not what to demand, so I know not what to pay; come, madam, I will do better for you than a random reckoning, I have now no child, and have taken a fancy to your daughter; give me the girl, I will breed her as my own, and provide for her as such when I die." The widow thank'd her ladyship, but with a little too much warmth replied, "she would not part with her child on any terms," which the countess resented to such a degree, that she would never see her more, and dying in a few years, left 1500 per annum inheritance, at Stepney, to her chambermaid.

Thus were misfortunes early entailed upon this lady. A proposal which would have made her opulent for life, was defeated by the unreasonable fondness of her mother, who lived to suffer its dismal consequences, by tasting the bitterest distresses. We have already observed, that Mrs. Thomas thought proper to retire to the country with her daughter. The house where she boarded was an eminent cloth-worker's in the county of Surrey, but the people of the house proved very disagreeable. The lady had no conversation to divert her; the landlord was an illiterate man, and the rest of the family brutish, and unmannerly. At last Mrs. Thomas attracted the notice of Dr. Glysson, who observing her at church very splendidly dressed, sollicited her acquaintance. He was a valuable piece of antiquity, being then, 1684, in the hundredth year of his age. His person was tall, his bones very large, his hair like snow, a venerable aspect, and a complexion, which might shame the bloom of fifteen. He enjoyed a round judgment, and a memory so tenacious, and clear, that his company was very engaging. His visits greatly alleviated the solitude of this lady. The last visit he made to Mrs. Thomas, he drew on, with much attention, a pair of rich Spanish leather gloves, embost on the backs, and tops with gold embroidery, and fringed round with gold plate. The lady could not help expressing her curiosity, to know the history of those gloves, which he seemed to touch with so much respect. He answered, "I do respect them, for the last time I had the honour of approaching my mistress, Queen Elizabeth, she pulled them from her own Royal hands, saying, here Glysson, wear them for my sake. I have done so with veneration, and never drew them on, but when I had a mind to honour those whom I visit, as I now do you; and since you love the memory of my Royal mistress, take them, and preserve them carefully when I am gone." The Dr. then went home, and died in a few days.

This gentleman's death left her again without a companion, and an uneasiness hung upon her, visible to the people of the house; who guessing the cause to proceed from solitude, recommended to her acquaintance another Physician, of a different cast from the former. He was denominated by them a conjurer, and was said to be capable of raising the devil. This circumstance diverted Mrs. Thomas, who imagined, that the man whom they called a conjurer must have more sense than they understood. The Dr. was invited to visit her, and appeared in a greasy black Grogram, which he called his Scholar's Coat, a long beard, and other marks of a philosophical negligence. He brought all his little mathematical trinkets, and played over his tricks for the diversion of the lady whom, by a private whisper, he let into the secrets as he performed them, that she might see there was nothing of magic in the case. The two most remarkable articles of his performance were, first lighting a candle at a glass of cold water (performed by touching the brim before with phosphorus, a chymical fire which is preserved in water and burns there) and next reading the smallest print by a candle of six in the pound, at a hundred yards distance in the open air, and darkest night. This was performed by a large concave-glass, with a deep pointed focus, quick-silvered on the back-side, and set in tin, with a socket for a candle, sconce fashion, and hung up against a wall. While the flame of the candle was diametrically opposite to the centre, the rays equally diverging, gave so powerful a light as is scarce credible; but on the least variation from the focus, the charm ceased. The lady discerning in this man a genius which might be improved to better purposes than deceiving the country people, desired him not to hide his talents, but to push himself in the world by the abilities of which he seemed possessed. "Madam," said he, "I am now a fiddle to asses, but I am finishing a great work which will make those asses fiddle to me." She then asked what that work might be? He replied, "his life was at stake if it took air, but he found her a lady of such uncommon candour, and good sense, that he should make no difficulty in committing his life and hope to her keeping." All women are naturally fond of being trusted with secrets; this was Mrs. Thomas's failing: the Dr. found it out, and made her pay dear for her curiosity. "I have been, continued he, many years in search of the Philosopher's Stone, and long master of the smaragdin-table of Hermes Trismegistus; the green and red dragons of Raymond Lully have also been obedient to me, and the illustrious sages themselves deign to visit me; yet is it but since I had the honour to be known to your ladyship, that I have been so fortunate as to obtain the grant secret of projection. I transmuted some lead I pulled off my window last night into this bit of gold." Pleased with the sight of this, and having a natural propension to the study, the lady snatched it out of the philosopher's hand, and asked him why he had not made more? He replied, "it was all the lead I could find." She then commanded her daughter to bring a parcel of lead which lay in the closets and giving it to the Chymist, desired him to transmute it into gold on the morrow. He undertook it, and the next day brought her an ingot which weighed two ounces, which with the utmost solemnity he avowed was the very individual lead she gave him, transmuted to gold.

She began now to engage him in serious discourse; and finding by his replies, that he wanted money to make more powder, he enquired how much would make a stock that would maintain itself? He replied, one fifty pounds after nine months would produce a million. She then begged the ingot of him, which he protested had been transmuted from lead, and flushed with the hopes of success, hurried to town to examine whether the ingot was true gold, which proved fine beyond the standard. The lady now fully convinced of the truth of the empyric's declaration, took fifty pounds out of the hands of a Banker, and entrusted him with it.

The only difficulty which remained, was, how to carry on the work without suspicion, it being strictly prohibited at that time. He was therefore resolved to take a little house in another county, at a few miles distance from London, where he was to build a public laboratory, as a professed Chymist, and deal in such medicines as were most vendible, by the sale of which to the apothecaries, the expence of the house was to be defrayed during the operation. The widow was accounted the housekeeper, and the Dr. and his man boarded with her; to which she added this precaution, that the laboratory, with the two lodging rooms over it, in which the Dr. and his man lay, was a different wing of the building from that where she and her little daughter, and maid servant resided; and as she knew some time must elapse before any profit could be expected, she managed with the utmost frugality. The Dr. mean time acted the part of a tutor to miss, in Arithmetic, Latin, and Mathematics, to which she discovered the strongest propensity. All things being properly disposed for the grand operation, the vitriol furnace was set to work, which requiring the most intense heat for several days, unhappily set fire to the house; the stairs were consumed in an instant, and as it surprized them all in their first sleep, it was a happy circumstance that no life perished. This unlucky accident was 300 loss to Mrs. Thomas: yet still the grand project was in a fair way of succeeding in the other wing of the building. But one misfortune is often followed by another. The next Sunday evening, while she was reading to, and instructing her little family, a sudden, and a violent report, like a discharge of cannon was heard; the house being timber, rocked like a cradle, and the family were all thrown from their chairs on the ground. They looked with the greatest amazement on each other, not guessing the cause, when the operator pretending to revive, fell to stamping, tearing his hair, and raving like a madman, crying out undone, undone, lost and undone for ever. He ran directly to the Athanor, when unlocking the door, he found the machine split quite in two, the eggs broke, and that precious amalgam which they contained was scattered like sand among the ashes. Mrs. Thomas's eyes were now sufficiently opened to discern the imposture, and, with a very serene countenance, told the empyric, that accidents will happen, but means might be fallen upon to repair this fatal disappointment. The Dr. observing her so serene, imagined she would grant him more money to compleat his scheme, but she soon disappointed his expectation, by ordering him to be gone, and made him a present of five guineas, lest his desperate circumstances should induce him to take some violent means of providing for himself.

Whether deluded by a real hope of finding out the Philosopher's Stone, or from an innate principle of villainy, cannot be determined, but he did not yet cease his pursuit, and still indulged the golden delusion. He now found means to work upon the credulity of an old miser, who upon the strength of his pretensions, gave him his daughter in marriage, and embarked all his hoarded treasure, which was very considerable, in the same chimerical adventure. In a word, the miser's stock was also lost, the empyric himself, and the daughter reduced to beggary. This unhappy affair broke the miser's heart, who did not many weeks survive the loss of his cash. The Dr. also put a miserable end to his life by drinking poison, and left his wife with two young children in a state of beggary. But to return to Mrs. Thomas.

The poor lady suffered on this occasion a great deal of inward anguish; she was ashamed of having reduced her fortune, and impoverished her child by listening to the insinuations of a madman. Time and patience at last overcame it; and when her health, which by this accident had been impaired, was restored to her, she began to stir amongst her husband's great clients. She took a house in Bloomsbury, and by means of good oeconomy, and an elegant appearance, was supposed to be better in the world than she really was. Her husband's clients received her like one risen from the dead: They came to visit her, and promised to serve her. At last the duke of Montague advised her to let lodgings, which way of life she declined, as her talents were not suited for dealing with ordinary lodgers; but added she, "if I knew any family who desired such a conveniency, I would readily accommodate them." "I take you at your word," replied the duke, "I will become your sole tenant: Nay don't smile, for I am in earnest, I love a little freedom more than I can enjoy at home, and I may come sometimes and eat a bit of mutton, with four or five honest fellows, whose company I delight in." The bargain was bound, and proved matter of fact, though on a deeper scheme than drinking a bottle: And his lordship was to pass in the house for Mr. Freeman of Hertfordshire.

In a few days he ordered a dinner for his beloved friends, Jack and Tom, Will and Ned, good honest country-fellows, as his grace called them. They came at the time appointed; but how surprized was the widow, when she saw the duke of Devonshire, the lords Buckingham, and Dorset, and a certain viscount, with Sir William Dutton Colt, under these feign'd names. After several times meeting at this lady's house, the noble persons, who had a high opinion of her integrity, entrusted her with the grand secret, which was nothing less than the project for the Revolution.

Tho' these meetings were held as private as possible, yet suspicions arose, and Mrs. Thomas's house was narrowly watched; but the messengers, who were no enemies to the cause, betrayed their trust, and suffered the noblemen to meet unmolested, or at least without any dread of apprehension.

The Revolution being effected, and the state came more settled, that place of rendezvous was quitted: The noblemen took leave of the lads, with promises of obtaining a pension, or some place in the household for her, as her zeal in that cause highly merited; besides she had a very good claim to some appointment, having been ruined by shutting up the Exchequer. But alas! court promises proved an aerial foundation, and these noble peers never thought of her more. The duke of Montague indeed made offers of service, and being captain of the band of pensioners, she asked him to admit Mr. Gwynnet, a gentleman who had made love to her daughter, into such a post. This he promised, but upon these terms, that her daughter should ask him for it. The widow thanked him, and not suspecting that any design was covered under this offer, concluded herself sure of success: But how amazed was she to find her daughter (whom she had bred in the most passive subjection) and who had never discovered the least instance of disobedience, absolutely refuse to ask any such favour of his grace. She could be prevailed upon neither by flattery, nor threatning, and continuing still obstinate in her resolution; her mother obliged her to explain herself, upon the point of her refusal. She told her then, that the duke of Montague had already made an attack upon her, that his designs were dishonourable; and that if she submitted to ask his grace one favour, he would reckon himself secure of another in return, which he would endeavour to accomplish by the basest means. This explanation was too satisfactory: Who does not see the meanness of such an ungenerous conduct? He had made use of the mother as a tool, for carrying on political designs; he found her in distress, and as a recompence for her service, and under the pretence of mending her fortune, attempted the virtue of her daughter, and would provide for her, on no other terms, but at the price of her child's innocence.

In the mean time, the young Corinna, a poetical name given her by Mr. Dryden, continued to improve her mind by reading the politest authors: Such extraordinary advances had she made, that upon her sending some poems to Mr. Dryden, entreating his perusal, and impartial sentiments thereon, he was pleased to write her the following letter.

"Fair CORINNA,

I have sent your two poems back again, after having kept them so long from you: They were I thought too good to be a woman's; some of my friends to whom I read them, were of the same opinion. It is not very gallant I must confess to say this of the fair sex; but, most certain it is, they generally write with more softness than strength. On the contrary, you want neither vigour in your thoughts, nor force in your expression, nor harmony in your numbers; and methinks, I find much of Orinda in your manner, (to whom I had the honour to be related, and also to be known) but I am so taken up with my own studies, that I have not leisure to descend to particulars, being in the mean time, the fair Corinna's

Most humble, and Most faithful servant

JOHN DRYDEN.

Nov. 12, 1699."

Our amiable poetess, in a letter to Dr. Talbot, Bishop of Durham, has given some farther particulars of her life. We have already seen that she was addressed upon honourable terms, by Mr. Gwynnet, of the Middle Temple, son of a gentleman in Gloucestershire. Upon his first discovering his passion to Corinna, she had honour enough to remonstrate to him the inequality of their fortune, as her affairs were then in a very perplexed situation. This objection was soon surmounted by a lover, especially as his father had given him possession of the greatest part of his estate, and leave to please himself. Mr. Gwynnet no sooner obtained this, than he came to London, and claimed Corinna's promise of marriage: But her mother being then in a very weak condition, she could not abandon her in that distress, to die among strangers. She therefore told Mr. Gwynnet, that as she had not thought sixteen years long in waiting for him, he could not think six months long in expectation of her. He replied, with a deep sigh, "Six months at this time, my Corinna, is more than sixteen years have been; you put it off now, and God will put it off for ever." — It proved as he had foretold; the next day went into the country, made his will, sickened, and died April the 16th, 1717, leaving his Corinna the bequest of six-hundred pounds; and adds she, "Sorrow has been my food ever since."

Had she providentially married him, she had been secure from the insults of poverty; but her duty to her parent was more prevalent than considerations of convenience. After the death of her lover, she was barbarously used: His brother stifled the will, which compelled her to have recourse to law; he smothered the old gentleman's conveyance deed, by which he was enabled to make a bequest, and offered a large sum of money to any person, who would undertake to blacken Corinna's character; but wicked as the world is, he found none so compleatly abandoned, as to perjure themselves for the sake of his bribe. At last to shew her respect to the memory of her deceased lover, she consented to an accommodation with his brother, to receive 200 down, and 200 at the year's end. The first payment was made, and distributed instantly amongst her mother's creditors; but when the other became due, he bid her defiance, stood suit on his own bond, and held out four terms. He carried it from one court to another, till at last it was brought to the bar of the House of Lords; and as that is a tribunal, where the chicanery of lawyers can have no weight, he thought proper to pay the money without a hearing: The gentlemen of the long-robe had made her sign an instrument, that they should receive the money and pay themselves: After they had laid their cruel hands upon it, of the 200 the poor distressed lady received but 13 16 s. which reduced her to the necessity of absconding from her creditors, and starving in an obscure corner, till she was betrayed by a false friend, and hurried to jail.

Besides all the other calamities of Corinna, she had ever a bad state of health, occasioned by an accident too curious to be omitted.

In the year 1730 her case was given into the college of physicians, and was reckoned a very surprizing one. It is as follows.

"In April 1711 the patient swallowed the middle bone of the wing of a large fowl, being above three inches long; she had the end in her mouth, and speaking hastily it went forcibly down in the act of inspiration. After the first surprize, feeling no pain she thought no more of it; in a few days after, she complained what she eat or drank lay like a stone in her stomach, and little or nothing pass'd through her. After three weeks obstruction, she fell into a most violent bloody flux, attended with a continual pain at the pit of her stomach, convulsions, and swooning fits; nor had she any ease but while her stomach was distended with liquids, such as small beer, or gruel: She continued in this misery, with some little intervals, till the Christmas following, when she was seized with a malignant fever, and the convulsions encreased to so high a degree, that she crowed like a cock, and barked like a dog, to the affrightment of all who saw her, as well as herself. Dr. Colebatch being called to her relief, and seeing the almost incredible quantity of blood she voided, said it was impossible she could live, having voided all her bowels. He was however prevailed with to use means, which he said could only be by fetching off the inner coat of her stomach, by a very strong vomit; he did so, and she brought the hair-veel in rolls, fresh and bleeding; this dislodged the bone, which split length ways, one half pass'd off by siege, black as jet, the cartilaginous part at each end consumed, and sharp on each side as a razor, the other part is still lodged within her. In this raw and extream weak condition, he put her into a salivation, unknown to her mother or herself, to carry off the other part, which shocked them to such a degree, that they sent for Dr. Garth, who with much difficulty, and against his judgment, was prevailed on to take it off, and using a healing galenical method, she began to recover so much strength as to be turned in her bed, and receive nourishment: But she soon after was seized with the Iliac Passion, and for eleven days, her excrements came upwards, and no passage could be forced through her, till one Day by Dr. Garth, with quick silver. After a few weeks it returned again, and the same medicine repeated, upon which she recovered, and for some months was brought to be in a tolerable state of health, only the region of the spleen much swelled; and at some times, when the bone moved outwards, as it visibly did to sight and touch, was very painful. In July 1713, on taking too strong a purge, a large imposthume bag came away by stool, on which it was supposed, the cyltus, which the bone had worked for itself, being come away, the bone was voided also; but her pains continued so extraordinary, she willingly submitted to the decree of four surgeons, who agreed to make an incision in the left side of the abdomen, and extract the bone; but one of the surgeons utterly rejecting the operation, as impracticable, the bone being lodged in the colon, sent her to Bath, where she found some relief by pumping, and continued tolerably well for some years, even to bear the fatigue of an eight years suit at law, with an unjust executor; save that in over-walking, and sudden passion, she used to be pained, but not violent; and once or twice in a year a discharge of clean gall, with some portions of a skin like thin kid leather tinged with gall, which she felt break from the place, and leave her sore within; but the bone never made any attempt outwards after the first three years. Being deprived of a competent fortune, by cross accidents, she has suffered all the extremities of a close imprisonment, if want of all the necessaries of life, and lying on the boards for two years may be termed such, during which time she never felt the bone. But on her recovering liberty, and beginning to use exercise, her stomach, and belly, and head swelled to a monstrous degree, and she was judged in a galloping dropsy; but no proper medicines taking place, she was given over as incurable, when nature unexpectedly helped itself, and in twelve hours time by stool, and vomit, she voided about five gallons of dirty looking water, which greatly relieved her for some days, but gathered again as the swelling returned, and always abounded with a hectic, or suffocating asthma in her stomach, and either a canine appetite or loathing. She has lately voided several extraneous membranes different from the former, and so frequent, that it keeps her very low, some of which she has preserved in spirits, and humbly implores your honours judgment thereon."

Under all these calamities, of which the above is a just representation, did poor Corinna labour; and it is difficult to produce a life crouded with greater evils. The small fortune which her father left her, by the imprudence of her mother, was soon squandered: She no sooner began to taste of life, than an attempt was made upon her innocence. When she was about being happy in the arms of her amiable lover Mr. Gwynnet, he was snatched from her by an immature fate. Amongst her other misfortunes, she laboured under the displeasure of Mr. Pope, whose poetical majesty she had innocently offended, and who has taken care to place her in his Dunciad. Mr. Pope had once vouchsafed to visit her, in company with Henry Cromwel, Esq; whose letters by some accident fell into her hands, with some of Pope's answers. As soon as that gentleman died, Mr. Curl found means to wheedle them from her, and immediately committed them to the press. This so enraged Pope, that tho' the lady was very little to blame, yet he never forgave her.

Not many months after our poetess had been released from her gloomy habitation, she took a small lodging in Fleet street, where she died on the 3d of February 1730, in the 56th year of her age, and was two days after decently interred in the church of St, Bride's.

Corinna, considered as an authoress, is of the second rate, she had not so much wit as Mrs. Behn, or Mrs. Manley, nor had so happy a power of intellectual painting; but her poetry is soft and delicate, her letters sprightly and entertaining. Her Poems were published after her death by Curl; and two volumes of Letters which pass'd between her and Mr. Gwynnet [quotation omitted].