1779 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. William Broome

Samuel Johnson, Lives of the English Poets (1779-81); ed. Hill (1905) 3:75-81.



WILLIAM BROOME was born in Cheshire, as is said, of very mean parents. Of the place of his birth or the first part of his life I have not been able to gain any intelligence. He was educated upon the foundation at Eaton, and was captain of the school a whole year without any vacancy by which he might have obtained a scholarship at King's College. Being by this delay, such as is said to have happened very rarely, superannuated, he was sent to St. John's College by the contributions of his friends, where he obtained a small exhibition.

At his College he lived for some time in the same chamber with the well-known Ford, by whom I have formerly heard him described as a contracted scholar and a mere versifyer, unacquainted with life, and unskilful in conversation. His addiction to metre was then such that his companions familiarly called him "Poet." When he had opportunities of mingling with mankind he cleared himself, as Ford likewise owned, from great part of his scholastick rust.

He appeared early in the world as a translator of the Iliads into prose in conjunction with Ozell and Oldisworth. How their several parts were distributed is not known. This is the translation of which Ozell boasted as superior, in Toland's opinion, to that of Pope: it has long since vanished, and is now in no danger from the criticks.

He was introduced to Mr. Pope, who was then visiting Sir John Cotton at Madingley near Cambridge, and gained so much of his esteem that he was employed, I believe, to make extracts from Eustathius for the notes to the translation of the Iliad; and in the volumes of poetry published by Lintot, commonly called Pope's Miscellanies, many of his early pieces were inserted.

Pope and Broome were to be yet more closely connected. When the success of the Iliad gave encouragement to a version of the Odyssey Pope, weary of the toil, called Fenton and Broome to his assistance, and, taking only half the work upon himself, divided the other half between his partners, giving four books to Fenton, and eight to Broome. Fenton's books I have enumerated in his Life; to the lot of Broome fell the second, sixth, eighth, eleventh, twelfth, sixteenth, eighteenth, and twenty-third, together with the burthen of writing all the notes,

As this translation is a very important event in poetical history, the reader has a right to know upon what grounds I establish my narration. That the version was not wholly Pope's was always known; he had mentioned the assistance of two friends in his proposals, and at the end of the work some account is given by Broome of their different parts, which however mentions only five books as written by the coadjutors: the fourth and twentieth by Fenton, the sixth, the eleventh, and the eighteenth by himself; though Pope, in an advertisement prefixed afterwards to a new volume of his works, claimed only twelve. A natural curiosity, after the real conduct of so great an undertaking, incited me once to enquire of Dr. Warburton, who told me, in his warm language, that he thought the relation given in the note "a lie;" but that he was not able to ascertain the several shares. The intelligence which Dr. Warburton could not afford me, I obtained from Mr. Langton, to whom Mr. Spence had imparted it.

The price at which Pope purchased this assistance was three hundred pounds paid to Fenton, and five hundred to Broome, with as many copies as he wanted for his friends, which amounted to one hundred more. The payment made to Fenton I know but by hearsay; Broome's is very distinctly told by Pope, in the notes to The Dunciad.

It is evident that, according to Pope's own estimate, Broome was unkindly treated. If four books could merit three hundred pounds, eight and all the notes, equivalent at least to four, had certainly a right to more than six.

Broome probably considered himself as injured, and there was for some time more than coldness between him and his employer. He always spoke of Pope as too much a lover of money, and Pope pursued him with avowed hostility, for he not only named him disrespectfully in The Dunciad, but quoted him more than once in The Bathos, as a proficient in the Art of Sinking; and in his enumeration of the different kinds of poets distinguished for the profound, he reckons Broome among "the Parrots who repeat another's words in such a hoarse odd tone as makes them seem their own." I have been told that they were afterwards reconciled; but I am afraid their peace was without friendship.

He afterwards published a Miscellany of Poems, which is inserted, with corrections, in the late compilation.

He never rose to very high dignity in the church. He was some time rector of Sturston in Suffolk, where he married a wealthy widow; and afterwards, when the King visited Cambridge (1728), became Doctor of Laws. He was (in August 1728) presented by the Crown to the rectory of Pulham in Norfolk, which he held with Oakley Magna in Suffolk, given him by the Lord Cornwallis, to whom he was chaplain, and who added the vicarage of Eye in Suffolk; he then resigned Pulham, and retained the other two.

Towards the close of his life he grew again poetical, and amused himself in translating Odes of Anacreon, which he published in The Gentleman's Magazine, under the name of "Chester."

He died at Bath, November 16, 1745, and was buried in the Abbey Church.

Of Broome, though it cannot be said that he was a great poet, it would be unjust to deny that he was an excellent versifyer; his lines are smooth and sonorous, and his diction is select and elegant. His rhymes are sometimes unsuitable: in his Melancholy he makes "breath" rhyme to "birth" in one place, and to "earth" in another. Those faults occur but seldom; and he had such power of words and numbers as fitted him for translation, but, in his original works, recollection seems to have been his business more than invention. His imitations are so apparent that it is part of his reader's employment to recall the verses of some former poet. Sometimes he copies the most popular writers, for he seems scarcely to endeavour at concealment; and sometimes he picks up fragments in obscure corners. His lines to Fenton:

Serene, the sting of pain thy thoughts beguile,
And make afflictions objects of a smile;

brought to my mind some lines on the death of Queen Mary, written by Barnes, of whom I should not have expected to find an imitator:

But [Yet] thou, O Muse, whose sweet nepenthean tongue
Can charm the pangs of death with deathless song;
Canst [Can] stinging plagues with easy thoughts beguile,
Make pains and tortures [flames and torments] objects of a smile.

To detect his imitations were tedious and useless. What he takes he seldom makes worse; and he cannot be justly thought a mean man whom Pope chose for an associate, and whose co-operation was considered by Pope's enemies as so important, that he was attacked by Henley with this ludicrous distich:

Pope came off clean with Homer; but they say
Broome went before, and kindly swept the way.