1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Charles Jennens

John Nichols, in Literary Anecdotes of the XVIII Century (1812-15) 3:121-24n.



Charles Jennens, esq. of Gopsal in Leicestershire; for whom Mr. Bowyer printed afterwards, on the model of his Lear, the Tragedies of Hamlet, 1772; Othello and Macbeth, 1773. He would have proceeded further, but Death prevented him. The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, which was in his life-time put to the press, was published in 1774. He had a very noble library, and a large collection of pictures, both in Great Ormond-street and at Gopsal, described in London and its Environs, vol. V. p. 76-97; and in the Connoisseur, 8vo; and his house at Gopsal in Young's Tour. — I have the less occasion to enlarge on his character, as it has been very strongly delineated by a gentleman who knew him well. I scarcely need add, that this was the late George Steevens, esq.; and, as the attack, though severe, was on Vanity, not on Vice, I do not hesitate to retain the article in the present Edition, reserving to myself the right of subjoining to it some proper anecdotes.

"In his youth he was so remarkable for the number of his servants, the splendour of his equipages, and the profusion of his table, that from this excess of pomp he acquired the title of Solyman the Magificent. He is said to have composed the words for some of Handel's Oratorios, and particularly those for The Messiah; an easy task, as it is only selection from Scripture verses. Not long before his death he imprudently thrust his head into a nest of hornets, by an edition of Shakspeare, which he began, by publishing King Lear, in 8vo. The chief error of Mr. Jennens's life consisted in his perpetual association with a set of men every way inferior to himself. By these means he lost all opportunities of improvement, but gained what he preferred to the highest gratifications of wisdom — flattery in excess. He generally took care to patronise such tradesmen and such artists as few other persons would employ. Hence his shelves were crowded with the lumber of Russel's needy shop, and his walls discoloured by the refuse of Hayman's miserable pencil. He wrote, or caused to be written by some of his numerous parasites, a pamphlet against Dr. Johnson and Mr. Steevens, the editors of Shakspeare, whom he suspected (perhaps justly enough) of having turned his commentatorial talents into ridicule. This doughty performance he is said to have had read aloud to him every day for at least a month after its publication, while he himself kept a constant eye on the newspapers, that he might receive the earliest intelligence of the moment at which these gentlemen should have hanged or drowned themselves in consequence of his attack on their abilities and characters. But, alas! while they were only laughing, he, poor man, was so much hurt by the playful severity they had exerted, that he rarely met with a forlorn object in the street, but he was ready to ask what unsuccessful work of literature had reduced him to such wretchedness, being unwilling to admit that any thing

—could have subdued nature
To such a lowness, but his unkind criticks.

In short, his companions having continually intercepted every approach of unwelcome truth to his ears, he was confounded when it reached him through the pen of an opponent; and he saw himself publicly represented as the only Editor to whom the scenes of Shakspeare had not even the most inconsiderable obligation. He might indeed with equal prudence have enlisted his age under the banners of Venus, where it would have appeared to as much advantage as in the service of Literature. — That the two Criticks already mentioned may escape the accusation of having disturbed an unoffending old man in his harmless amusement, is necessary we should add, that hostilities were commenced by himself, he having, in his Preface and Notes to King Lear, charged all his predecessors, by implication at least, with negligence and infidelity. — A pleasant circumstance, however, relative to his mode of collation, ought not to be forgotten. An eminent surgeon called at his house one evening, and found him, before a long table, on which all the various editions of his Author were kept open by the weight of wooden bars. He himself was hobbling from one book to another with as much labour as Gulliver moved to and fro before the keys of the Brobdingnagian harpsichord sixty feet in length. The obstinacy of Mr. Jennens was equal to his vanity. What he had once asserted, though manifestly false, he would always maintain. Being in possession of a portrait by Cornelius Jansen, he advertised it as the head of Shakspeare; and though it was found to be dated in 1610, before Jansen was in England, our Critick not only disdained to retract his first position, but wrote letters in the newspapers to compliment himself on the ownership of such an undoubted original of his favourite Bard. So enamoured (as has been before observed) was our Magnifico of pomp, that if his transit were only from Great Ormond-street, Bloomsbury, where he resided, to Mr. Bowyer's, in Red Lion-passage, Fleet-street, he always travelled with four horses, and sometimes with as many servants behind his carriage. In his progress up the paved court, a footman usually preceded him, to kick oyster-shells and other impediments out of his way. He changed his Publishers more than once, having persuaded himself that the ill success of his projected Edition of our great Dramatic Poet was in some measure owing to their machinations, in conjunction with those of the Booksellers. The important sinecure of vending his Works he at last conferred on the truly honest Master Owen of the Mineral Water Warehouse at Temple Bar; who deserved a more creditable occupation than that of exposing to sale what no man would purchase. To his first Printer, Mr. Richardson, as often as he disappointed him of a proof, he would display all the insolence of conscious wealth; and on his domesticks he occasionally poured out a turbulence of rage that was not over-delicate in its choice of expressions. The fate of his critical undertakings may convey a useful lesson to those who commence Authors in their dotage. It may likewise teach the "golden fool" (as Shakspeare calls the man of greater opulence than learning) that though the praise of a few sycophants is an easy purchase, the world at large will never sell its approbation, were there, as Jugurtha said, any merchant rich enough to buy it. Let us, however, do justice to Mr. Jennens's merits where we are lucky enough to find them. He was profusely liberal to those who in his opinion deserved liberality. The indigent Nonjuror and Nonconformist never solicited relief in vain. At his country seat, as well as at his house in town, he chiefly lived in intimacy with these discontented members of the commonwealth, and to a lower order of the same beings his munificence was in general confined. The Reviewers indeed might have made their fortunes out of his purse, could they have been bribed to applaud his editorial abilities, prefer Hayman to Raffaelle, and support his assertion relative to Cornelius Jansen, by setting both chronology and probability at defiance."

I shall now subjoin a remark which I received on this note very soon after its publication, by an anonymous but judicious Correspondent, who favoured me with several other corrections and additions: "There is one account in your Publication I cannot read without great distaste and dissatisfaction; and that is what you say of that ever to be respected man the late Mr. Jennens of Gopsal. He certainly deserved to be painted in infinitely better colours than you have given him. What, shall a man's inclination to publish a book in a way peculiar to his own taste, because it displeases some other people, cancel the merits of a most exemplary life, of ten thousand good actions, and cause only a set of inoffensive follies to be exposed to the public view, from which, or some others of a kind equally ridiculous, perhaps no man is free? I knew him not, nor was l known to him; but, as a neighbouring gentleman, I was perpetually hearing of his good actions. His charity and benevolence were not, as you represent, limited and confined, but were pure and boundless; as extensive, as that noble Religion, which he sincerely believed and practised, prescribes to its most attached votaries. In short, Sir, I should not think I exalted his character too much, or dishonoured your worthy friends, were I to give it as my opinion, that the Christian school has not produced in this present century three more deserving disciples than Jennens, Markland, and Bowyer. W. B. B."

This worthy gentleman, let me add, was as benevolent as he was rich. The establishment of his household, both in town and country, were on a scale of hospitable magnificence. He was, from education and principle, a Nonjuror; and many worthy men of the same turn of mind were fend and protected by his bounty. His writing the unfortunate Preface to Lear, however, was literally "thrusting himself into a nest of hornets." Among these was Mr. Stevens, who played off his artillery against Mr. Jennens both in Reviews and Newspapers. One Letter of his, in particular, in the Public Advertiser of Jan. 26, 1771, called forth an answer in the same Paper, of Feb. 14; in which the Writer says, "I assert that Mr. Jennens understands Musick, Poetry, and Painting; I appeal to the Catalogue of his Pictures, which bear all the living testimony that Pictures can bear of original and intrinsic merit. His taste in Musick is still less disputable — the compilation of the Messiah has been ever attributed to him. Handel generally consulted him; and to the time of his death lived with him in the strictest intimacy and regard. Respecting his knowledge of Poetry, the testimony of Mr. Holdsworth must principally be referred to. This ingenious author left to Mr. Jennens his most valuable Notes on Virgil, which were lately published, and received with the fullest approbation. Were Handel or Holdsworth men so mean or despicable, as to offer incense at the shrine of Ignorance? If Adulation was the idol of Mr. Jennens's heart, is it likely he would have sought for it from the bluntness of the one, or the sober dignity of the other? Would he not (for the ear of Flattery is seldom nice) have rather expected it from some languid Musician, or some adulterate Critick? In short, Mr. Printer, there are some oblique reasons for which this Gentleman must be sacrificed; for, if Truth had access to the Publick, it would pronounce that he is a man of Taste and Erudition; of the strictest morals; and (let it not be matter of still further scandal to him) that he is a Defender of the Unfortunate, a Protector of Innocence, and Encourager of Arts, a Patron of Learning, a generous and forgiving Enemy, and the tenderest and most affectionate of Friends." — He died Nov. 20, 1773; and was buried on the 27th, in the family vault at Nether Whitacre.