1753 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Lewis Theobald

Anonymous, in Cibber-Sheils, Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland (1753) 5:276-87.



This gentleman was born at Sittingburn in Kent; of which place his father, Mr. Peter Theobald, was an eminent attorney. His grammatical learning he received chiefly under the revd. Mr. Ellis, at Isleworth in Middlesex, and afterwards applied himself to the study and practice of the law: but finding that study too tedious and irksome for his genius, he quitted it for the profession of poetry. He engaged in a paper called the Censor, published in Mist's Weekly Journal; and by delivering his opinion with two little reserve concerning some eminent wits, he exposed himself to their lashes, and resentment. Upon the publication of Pope's Homer, he praised it in the most extravagant terms of admiration; but afterwards thought proper to retract his opinion, for reasons we cannot guess, and abused the very performance he had before hyperbolically praised.

Mr. Pope at first made Mr. Theobald the hero of his Dunciad, but afterwards, for reasons best known to himself, he thought proper to disrobe him of that dignity, and bestow it upon another: with what propriety we shall not take upon us to determine, but refer the reader to Mr. Cibber's two letters to Mr. Pope. He was made hero of the poem, the annotator informs us, because no better was to be had. In the first book of the Dunciad, Mr. Theobald, or Tibbald, as he is there called, is thus stigmatised,

—Dullness her image full exprest,
But chief in Tibbald's monster-breeding breast—
Sees Gods with Daemons in strange league engage
And Earth, and heav'n, and hell her battles wage
She eyed the bard, where supperless he sate,
And pin'd unconscious of his rising fate—
Studious he sate, with all his books around
Sinking from thought to thought, a vast profound
Plung'd for his sense, but found no bottom there;
Then writ, and flounder'd on, in meer despair.
He roll'd his eyes, that witness'd huge dismay,
Where yet unpawn'd much learned lumber lay.

He describes Mr. Theobald as making the following address to Dulness.

—For thee
Old puns restore, lost blunders nicely seek,
And crucify poor Shakespear once a-week.
For thee I dim these eyes, and stuff this head,
With all such reading as was never read;
For thee, supplying in the worst of days,
Notes to dull books, and prologues to dull plays;
For thee explain a thing till all men doubt it,
And write about it, goddess, and about it;
So spins the silkworm small its slender store,
And labours till it clouds itself all o'er.

In the year 1726 Mr. Theobald published a piece in octavo, called Shakespear restored: Of this it is said, he was so vain as to aver, in one of Mist's Journals, June the 8th, "That to expose any errors in it was impracticable;" and in another, April the 27th, "that whatever care might for the future be taken, either by Mr. Pope, or any other assistants, he would give above five hundred emendations, that would escape them all."

During two whole years, while Mr. Pope was preparing his edition, he published advertisements requesting assistance, and promising satisfaction to any who would contribute to its greater perfection. But this restorer, who was at that time solliciting favours of him, by letters, did wholly conceal that he had any such design till after its publication which he owned in the Daily Journal of November 26, 1728: and then an outcry was made, that Mr. Pope had joined with the bookseller to raise an extravagant subscription; in which he had no share, of which he had no knowledge, and against which he had publickly advertised in his own proposals for Homer.

Mr. Theobald was not only thus obnoxious to the resentment of Pope, but we find him waging war with Mr. Dennis, who treated him with more roughness, though with less satire. Mr. Theobald in the Censor, Vol. II. No. XXXIII. calls Mr. Dennis by the name of Furius. "The modern Furius (says he) is to be looked upon as more the object of pity, than that which he daily provokes, laughter, and contempt. Did we really know how much this poor man suffers by being contradicted, or which is the fame thing in effect, by hearing another praised; we should in compassion sometimes attend to him with a silent nod, and let him go away with the triumphs of his ill-nature. Poor Furius, where any of his cotemporaries are spoken well of, quitting the ground of the present dispute, steps back a thousand years, to call in the succour of the antients. His very panegyric is spiteful, and he uses it for the same reason as some ladies do their commendations of a dead beauty, who never would have had their good word; but that a living one happened to be mentioned in their company. His applause is not the tribute of his heart, but the sacrifice of his revenge."

Mr. Dennis in resentment of this representation made of him, in his remarks on Pope's Homer page 9, 10. thus mentions him. "There is a notorious idiot, one HIGHT WHACHUM, who from an Under-spur-leather to the law, is become an Under-strapper to the play-house, who has lately burlesqued the Metamorphoses of Ovid, by a vile translation, &c. This fellow is concerned in an impertinent paper called the Censor." Such was the language of Mr. Dennis, when enflamed by contradiction.

In the year 1729 Mr. Theobald introduced upon the stage a Tragedy called the Double Falsehood; the greatest part of which he asserted was Shakespear's. Mr. Pope insinuated to the town, that it was all, or certainly the greatest part written, not by Shakespear, but Theobald himself, and quotes this line, "None but thyself can be thy parallel." Which he calls a marvellous line of Theobald, unless (says he) the play called the Double Falsehood be (as he would have it thought) Shakespeare; but whether this line is his or not, he proves Shakespear to have written as bad. The arguments which Mr. Theobald uses to prove the play to be Shakespear's are indeed far from satisfactory; first, that the MS. was above sixty years old;— Secondly, that once Mr. Betterton had it, or he hath heard so; Thirdly, that some body told him the author gave it to a bastard daughter of his; But fourthly, and above all, that he has a great mind that every thing that is good in our tongue should be Shakespear's.

This Double Falsehood was vindicated by Mr. Theobald, who was attacked again in the art of sinking in poetry. Here Mr. Theobald endeavours to prove false criticisms, want of understanding Shakespear's manner, and perverse cavelling in Mr. Pope: He justifies himself and the great dramatic poet, and essays to prove the Tragedy in question to be in reality Shakerpear's, and not unworthy of him. We cannot set this controversy in a clearer light, than by transcribing a letter subjoined to the Double Falsehood.

"DEAR SIR,

"You desire to know, why in the general attack which Mr. Pope has lately made against writers living and dead, he has so often had a fling of satire at me. I should be very willing to plead guilty to his indictment, and think as meanly of myself as he can possibly do, were his quarrel altogether upon a fair, or unbiased nature. But he is angry at the man; and as Juvenal says 'Facit indignatio versum.' He has been pleased to reflect on me in a few quotations from a play, which I had lately the good fortune to usher into the world, I am there concerned in reputation to enter upon my defence. There are three passages in his Art of Sinking in Poetry, which he endeavours to bring into disgrace from the Double Falsehood.

"One of these passages alledged by our critical examiner is of that stamp, which is certain to include me in the class of profound writers. The place so offensive for its cloudiness, is,

—The obscureness of her birth
Cannot eclipse the lustre of her eyes,
Which make her all one light.

"I must own, I think, there needs no great Oedipus to solve the difficulty of this passage. Nothing has ever been more common, than for lovers to compare their mistresses eyes to suns and stars. And what does Henriquez say more here than this, 'That though his mistress be obscure by her birth; yet her eyes are so refulgent, they set her above that disadvantage, and make her all over brightness.' I remember another rapture in Shakespear, upon a painter's drawing a fine lady's picture, where the thought seems to me every whit us magnified and dark at the first glance,

—But her eyes—
How could he see to do them! having done one,
Methinks it should have power to steal both his,
And leave itself unfinished.

"This passage is taken from the Merchant of Venice, which will appear the more beautiful, the more it is considered.

"Another passage which Mr. Pope is pleased to be merry with, is in a speech of Violante's; 'Wax! render up thy trust.' This, in his English is open the letter; and he facetiously mingles it with some pompous instances, most I believe of his own framing; which in plain terms signify no more than, See, whose there; snuff the candle; uncork the bottle; chip the bread to shew how ridiculous actions of no consequence are, when too much exalted in the diction. This he brings under a figure, which he calls the Buskin, or Stately. But we'll examine circumstances fairly, and then we shall see which is most ridiculous; the phrase, or our sagacious censurer.

"Violante is newly debauched by Henriquez, on his solemn promise of marrying her: She thinks he is returning to his father's court, as he told her, for a short time; and expects no letter from him. His servant who brings the letter contradicts his master's going for court; and tells her he is gone some two months progress another way, upon a change of purpose. She who knew what concessions she had made to him, declares herself by starts, under the greatest agonies; and immediately upon the servant leaving her, expresses an equal impatience and fear of the contents of this unexpected letter.

To hearts like mine, suspence is misery.
Wax! render up thy trust, — Be the contents
Prosperous, or fatal, they are all my due.

"Now Mr. Pope shews us his profound judgment in dramatical passions; thinks a lady in her circumstances cannot without absurdity open a letter that seems to her as surprize, with any more preparation than the most unconcerned person alive should a common letter by the penny-post. I am aware Mr. Pope may reply, his cavil was not against the action itself of addressing to the wax, but of exalting that action in the terms. In this point I may fairly shelter myself under the judgment of a man, whose character in poetry will vie with any rival this age shall produce.

"Mr. Dryden in his Essay on Dramatic Poetry, tells us, 'That when from the most elevated thoughts of verse, we pass to those which are most mean, and which are common with the lowest household conversation; yet still there is a choice to be made of the best words, and the least vulgar (provided they be apt) to express such thoughts. Our language, says he, is noble, full, and significant, and I know not, why he who is master of it, may not cloath ordinary things in it as decently as the Latin, if we use the same diligence in the choice of words.'

"I come now to the last quotation, which in our examiner's handling, falls under this predicament of being a thought astonishingly out of the way of common sense. 'None but himself can be his parallel.' This, he hints, may seem borrowed from the thought of that master of a show in Smithfield who wrote in large letters over the picture of his Elephant. This is the greatest Elephant in the world exerpt himself: I like the pleasantry of the banter, but have no great doubt of getting clear from the severity of it. The lines in the play stand thus.

Is there a treachery like this in baseness,
Recorded any where? It is the deepest;
None but itself can be its parallel.

"I am not a little surprized, to find that our examiner at last is dwindled into a word-catcher. Literally speaking, indeed, I agree with Mr. Pope, that nothing can be the parallel to itself; but allowing a little for the liberty of expression, does it not plainly imply, that it is a treachery which stands single for the nature of its baseness, and has not its parallel on record; and that nothing but a treachery equal to it in baseness can parallel it? If this were such nonsense as Pope would willingly have it, it would be a very bad plea for me to allege, as the truth is, that the line is in Shakespear's old copy; for I might have suppressed it. But I hope it is defensible; at least if examples can keep it in countenance. There is a piece of nonsense of the same kind in the Amphytrio of Plautus: Sofia having survey'd Mercury from top to toe, finds him such an exact resemblance of himself, in dress, shape, and features, that he cries out, 'Tam consimil' est, atq; ego.' That is, he is as like me, as I am to myself. Now I humbly conceive, in strictness of expression a man can no more be like himself, than a thing its own parallel. But to confine myself to Shakespear. I doubt not but I can produce some similar passages from him which literally examined, are stark nonsense; and yet taken with a candid latitude have never appeared ridiculous. Mr. Pope would scarce allow one man to say to another. 'Compare and weigh your mistress with your mistress; and I grant she is a very fair woman; but compare her with some other woman that I could name, and the case will be very much altered.' Yet the very substance of this, is said by Shakespear, in Romeo and Juliet; and Mr. Pope has not degraded it as any absurdity, or unworthy of the author.

Pho! pho! you saw her fair, none else being by;
HERSELF poiz'd with HERSELF in either eye.
But, &c.

Or, what shall we say of the three following quotations.

ROMEO and JULIET.
—Oh! so light a foot
Will ne'er wear out the everlasting flint.

WINTER'S TALE.
—For Cogitation
Resides not in the man that does not think.

HAMLET.
—Try what repentance can, what can it not?
Yet what can it, when one cannot repent.

"Who does not see at once, the heaviest foot that ever trod cannot wear out the everlasting flint? or that he who does not think has no thoughts in him? or that repentance can avail nothing when a man has not repentance? yet let these passages appear, with a casting weight of allowance, and their absurdity will not be so extravagant, as when examined by the literal touchstone.

Your's, &c.

LEWIS THEOBALD."

By perusing the above, the reader will be enabled to discern whether Mr. Pope has wantonly ridiculed the passages in question; or whether Mr. Theobald has, from a superstitious zeal for the memory of Shakespear, defended absurdities, and palliated extravagant blunders.

The ingenious Mr. Dodd, who has lately favoured the public with a judicious collection of the beauties of Shakespear, has quoted a beautiful stroke of Mr. Theobald's, in his Double Falsehood, upon music.

Strike up, my masters;
But touch the strings with a religious softness;
Teach sounds to languish thro' the night's dull ear,
Till Melancholy start from her lazy couch,
And carelessness grow concert to attention.
ACT I. SCENE III.

A gentleman of great judgment happening to commend these lines to Mr. Theobald, he assured him he wrote them himself; and only them in the whole play.

Mr. Theobald, besides his edition of all Shakespear's plays, in which he corrected, with great pains and ingenuity, many faults which had crept into that great poet's writings, is the author of the following dramatic pieces.

I. The Persian Princess, or the Royal Villain; a Tragedy, acted at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, printed in the year 1715. The author observes in his preface, this play was written and acted before he was full nineteen years old.

II. The Perfidious Brother; a Tragedy acted at the Theatre in Little Lincoln's-Inn-Fields, 1716. This play is written on the model of Otway's Orphan; the scene is in a private family in Brussels.

III. Pan and Syrinx; an Opera of one act, performed on the Theatre in Little Lincoln's Inn Fields, 1717.

IV. Decius and Paulina, a Masque; to which is added Musical Entertainments, as performed at the theatre in Lincoln's-Inn-Fields, in the Dramatic Opera of Circe.

V. Electra, a Tragedy; translated from the Greek of Sophocles, with notes, printed in the year 1714, dedicated to Joseph Addison, Esq.

VI. Oedipus King of Thebes; a Tragedy translated from Sophocles, with notes, translated in the year 1715, dedicated to the earl of Rockingham.

VII. Plutus, or the World's Idol; a Comedy translated from the Greek of Aristophanes, with notes, printed in the year 1715. The author has to this Translation prefixed a Discourse, containing some Account of Aristophanes, and his two Comedies of Plutus and the Clouds.

VIII. The Clouds, a Comedy; translated from Aristophanes, with notes, printed in the year 1715.

IX. The Rape of Proserpine; a Farce acted at the Theatre-Royal in Lincoln's-Inn-Fields, 1727.

X. The Fatal Secret; a Tragedy acted at the Theatre-Royal in Covent-Garden, 1725.

XI. The Vocal Parts of an Entertainment, called Apollo and Daphne, or the Burgo Master Trick'd; performed at the Theatre in Lincoln's-Inn-Fields, 1726.

XII. Double Falsehood; which we have already mentioned.

Mr. Theobald's other Works are chiefly these.

The Gentleman's Library, containing Rules for Conducting all Parts of Life, in 12mo. 1722.

The first Book of Homer's Odyssey translated, with notes, 8vo. 1716

The Cave of Poverty, written in imitation of Shakespear.

Pindaric Ode on the Union, 1707.

A Poem sacred to the Memory of Queen Anne, Folio 1714.

Translations from Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Lives of Antiochus, and Berenice, from the French, 1717.