1753 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Joseph Mitchell

Anonymous, in Cibber-Shiels, Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland (1753) 4:347-51.



This gentleman was the son of a Stonecutter in Scotland, and was born about the year 1684. He received a university education while he remained in that kingdom, and having some views of improving his fortune, repaired to the metropolis. We are not able to recover many particulars concerning the poet, who was never sufficiently eminent to excite much curiosity concerning him. By a dissipated imprudent behaviour he rendered those, who were more intimately acquainted with him, less solicitous to preserve the the circumstances of his life, which were so little to his advantage. We find him enjoying the favour of the earl of Stair, and Sir Robert Walpole, to whom he addresses some of his poems. He received so many obligations from the latter, and was so warm in his interest, that he obtained the epithet of Sir Robert Walpole's Poet, and for a great part of his life had an entire dependence on the bounty of that munificent statesman. Mr. Mitchel, who was a slave to his pleasures, and governed by every gust of irregular appetite, had many opportunities of experiencing the dangerous folly of extravagance, and the many uneasy moments which it occasions. Notwithstanding this, his conduct was never corrected, even when the means of doing it were in his power. At a time when Mr. Mitchel laboured under sever necessities, by the death of his wife's uncle several thousand pounds devolved to him, of which he had no sooner got possession, than he planned schemes of spending it, in place of discharging the many debts he had contracted. This behaviour, as it conveyed to his creditors no high idea of his honesty, so it obliged him to be perpetually skulking, and must consequently have embittered even those hours which he falsely dedicated to pleasure; for they who live under a perpetual dread of losing their liberty, can enjoy no great comfort even in their most careless moments.

Of the many poems which Mr. Mitchel wrote, but few succeeded to any degree, nor indeed much deserved it. At a time when the politicians were engaged in settling the Land-Tax, and various opinions were offered concerning the ability of that branch of the commonwealth, so that a proper medium or standard might be fixed; he versified the Totness Address, much about the time of his present Majesty's accession to the throne; in which it is humorously proposed, that the landed interest should pay twenty shillings in the pound. This poem having a reference to a fashionable topic of conversation, was better received than most of his other pieces.

There was likewise a poem of Mr. Mitchel's, called The shoe-heel, which was much read on account of the low humour it contains. He has addressed to Dr. Watts a poem on the subject of Jonah in the Whale's Belly. In the dedication he observes, "That it was written for the advancement of true virtue and reformation of manners; to raise an emulation amongst our young poets to attempt divine composures, and help to wipe off the censures which the numerous labours of the muses are justly charged with. If (says he) it shall serve any of these purposes, I shall be satisfied, though I gain no reputation by it among those who read a new poem with no other view, than to pass a judgment on the abilities of the author." When the antagonists of Pope were threatened with the publication of the Dunciad, Mr. Mitchel had some suspicion that he himself was to be stigmatized in it: conscious that he had never offended Mr. Pope, he took an opportunity to write to him upon the subject. He informed him, that he had been an admirer of his writings; that he declined all connexion with those men, who combined to reduce his reputation, and that when no offence was given, no resentment should be discovered. Mr. Pope, upon receiving this letter from Mitchel, protesting his innocence as to any calumny published against him, was so equitable as to strike him out of his Dunciad, in which, by misrepresentations he had assigned him a place.

Mr. Mitchel lived in good correspondence with many of the most eminent wits of the time, and was particularly honoured with the friendship of Aaron Hill, esq; a gentleman of so amiable a disposition, that whoever cultivated an intimacy with him, was sure to be a gainer. Once, when Mr. Mitchel was in distress, Mr. Hill, who could not perhaps conveniently relieve him by pecuniary assistance, gave him a higher instance of friendship, than could be shewn by money. He wrote a beautiful dramatic piece in two acts, called The Fatal Extravagant, in which he exposed the hideous vice of gaming. This little dramatic work is planned with such exquisite art, wrought up with so much tenderness, and the scenes are so natural, interesting, and moving, that I know not if Mr. Hill has any where touched the passions with so great a mastery. The play met with the success it deserved, and contributed to relieve Mr. Mitchel's necessities, who had honour enough, however, to undeceive the world, and acknowledge his obligations to Mr. Hill, by making mankind acquainted with the real author of The Fatal Extravagant. As this was a favour never to be forgotten, so we find Mr. Mitchel taking every proper occasion to express his gratitude, and celebrate his patron. Amongst the first of his poems, is An Ode, addressed to Mr. Hill, which is one of the best of his compositions. The last two stanzas are as follow,

Heedless of custom, and the vulgar breath,
I toil for glory in a path untrod,
Or where but few have dared to combat death,
And few unstaggering carry virtue's load.
Thy muse, O Hill, of living names,
My first respect, and chief attendance claims.
Sublimely fir'd, thou look'st disdainful down
On trifling subjects, and a vile renown.
In ev'ry verse, in ev'ry thought of thine,
There's heav'nly rapture and design.
Who can thy god-like Gideon view,
And not thy muse pursue,
Or wish, at least, such miracles to do?

Sure in thy breast, one ancient Hebrew fire
Reviv'd, glows hot, and blazes forth,
How strong, how fierce the flames aspire!
Of thy interior worth,
When burning worlds thou sett'st before our eyes,
And draw'st tremendous judgments from the skies!
O bear me on thy seraph wing,
And teach my weak obsequious muse to sing.
To thee I owe the little I can boast;
Thy heat first melted my co-genial frost.
Preserve the sparks thy breath did fan,
And by thy likeness form me into true poetic man.

Mr. Mitchel died in the year 1738. He seems to have been a poet of the third rate; he has seldom reached the sublime; his humour, in which he more succeeded, is not strong enough to last; his versification holds a state of mediocrity; he possessed but little invention, and if he was not a bad rhimester, he cannot be denominated a fine poet, for there are but few marks of genius in his writings. His poems were printed in two vol. 8vo. in the year 1729.

He wrote also, The Union of the Clans; or the Highland-Fair. A Scot's Opera. 'Twas acted at the Theatre-Royal in Drury-Lane, about the year 1730, but did not succeed.