1817 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Matthew Concanen

John Nichols, in Illustrations of the Literary History of the XVIII Century (1817-58) 2:189-93.



Mr. Concanen was a native of Ireland, the descendant of a good family. He was born in 1701, and was bred to the Law, a study too dry for his volatile disposition; and in 1721 was the Author of Wexford Wells, a Comedy, acted and printed at Dublin in that year; and about the same time published A Match at Football, a Poem, in three Cantos, dedicated to Mr. Bettesworth. In 1722 he published a volume of Poems on several Occasions, dedicated to the Duchess of Grafton; and soon after came to London, literally to seek his fortune. He published, in 1724, a volume of Miscellaneous Poems; by himself and others; and, at the date of the above Letter, was intimately connected with The London Journal, to which he communicated the ingenious critique of his friend Theobald, with the following introduction: "It is a debt which the World owes to those who have deserved well of it, to preserve their reputations as long as the materials of which they are formed can be made to last. To this kind of reward I think no sort of men better entitled than the Poets; whether we consider them as seldom receiving any other, or as they really are Benefactors in a very high degree to mankind. This is in a great measure confessed by the practice of other Countries towards the memory of such as have excelled among them, and by the consent of all Nations in their admiration and applause of the Antients. We are the only people in Europe who have had good Poets among them, and yet suffer their reputation to moulder, and their memory as it were to rust, for want of a little of that Critical care, which is as truly due to their merit as to that of the antient Greek and Roman Writers. — You perceive what I aim at. It is to observe to you, that some tolerable Comments upon the Works of our celebrated Poets are not only expedient, but necessary. Every Writer is obliged to make himself understood of the age in which he lives; but, as he cannot answer for the changes of manners and language which may happen after his death, those who receive pleasure and instruction from him are obliged, as well in gratitude to him as in duty to posterity, to endeavour to perpetuate his memory, by preserving his meaning. This is what the French have done by their Marots, Rabelais's, and Ronsards; nay even Boileau, who died within our memory, is thus armed against the assaults of Time. The Italians, who are not thereto provoked by a changing Language like ours, have not a tolerable Writer in their tongue whose Works are not illustrated by some useful Notes; while we, whose manners are so variable, and whose Language so visibly alters every century, have not one Poet (though there are several whom we admire) who has met with the good fortune of a kind hand endeavouring to secure him against mortality. Strange humour! Much pains have been taken to preserve to us the Picture of Chaucer, while nobody has thought it proper to render that better picture of him, his writings, intelligible to future ages. Butler has had a Monument erected to his memory in Westminster-Abbey; how much more emphatically might it be said to be erected to his memory if it were a Comment upon his excellent Hudibras: which, for want of such illustration, grows every day less pleasing to his Readers; who lose half his wit and pleasantry, while they are ignorant of the facts he alludes to. I own, it grows daily more difficult to perform this duty to old Authors; and therefore the Italians say, that a Comment ought to be made when the Work does not need it, for that it will be impossible to make one when it does. I have been thrown into these thoughts by a Letter from a Gentleman, who has first in our language given proofs of an ability to do justice to an excellent Writer. Sorry I am that he is not allowed to indulge the inclination, which is accompanied by so much knowledge and genius to execute it. The Letter (which I send you with this) was occasioned by some discourse I had with him upon a passage in Shakespeare, which, through the error of the text, neither he nor I could then discover the meaning of; but such is his zeal for that Author, and such is his penetration in matters of Learning, that in a day or two he perfectly cleared it up. I cannot conclude without observing, that such a Critick as this might bring the name of a Commentator into the repute which it has lost by the dull and useless pedantry of some Pretenders to it. Such a Gentleman, and none but such, ought to republish an old Writer, since it is in his power to make reprisals upon his Author, and to receive as much glory from him as he gives to him." — Mr. Concanen very soon after became acquainted with Mr. Warburton, who addressed to him the Letter printed in p. 6; and to whom that learned Writer presented the MS. of his famous little work on Prodigies and Miracles, a circumstance thus noticed by himself in a Letter to his Friend Dr. Hurd: "I met many years ago with an ingenious Irishman at a coffee-house, near Gray's-inn, where I lodged. He studied the Law and was very poor. I had given him money for many a dinner! and at last I gave him those papers, which he sold to the booksellers for more money than you would think, much more than they were worth. But I must finish the history both of the Irishman and the papers. Soon after, he got acquainted with Sir William Young, wrote for Sir Robert [Walpole], and was made Attorney-general of Jamaica. He married there an opulent widow, and died very rich a few years ago here in England; but of so scoundrel a temper, that he avoided ever coming into my sight: so that the memory of all this intercourse between us has been buried in silence till this moment. And who should this man be but one of the Heroes of the Dunciad, Concanen by name!

In the British Journal, Nov. 25, 1727, is a Letter by Concanen on Swift and Pope's Miscellanies; and in 1728 he wrote the Preface to the Collection of all the Verses, Essays, Letters, and Advertisements, occasioned by Mr. Pope's and Swift's Miscellanies. — In 1728, after the first appearance of the Dunciad, Mr. Concanen published A Supplement to the Profund. — "In this Supplement," Dr. Warton observes, "are some more shrewd remarks, and more pertinent examples, than might be expected from such a Writer, and are enough to make us think he had some more able assistant. Concanen was at that time an intimate friend of Warburton; and, it has been suggested, was assisted by him in writing these remarks; but of this there is no positive proof." — There occurs, however, on this account the following passage in the Dunciad, II. 299.

True to the bottom, see Concanen creep,
A cold, long-winded, native of the deep:
If Perseverance gain the Diver's prize,
Not everlasting Blackmore this denies:
No noise, no stir, no motion must thou make,
Th' unconscious stream flaps o'er thee like a lake.

"Concanen dealt very unfairly by Pope," as Pope's Commentator informs us, "in not only frequently imputing to him Broome's verses (for which, says he, he might, seem in some degree accountable, having corrected what that gentleman did), but those of the Duke of Buckingham and others." "He was since," adds Warburton, "a hired scribbler in The Daily Courant, where he poured forth much Billingsate against Lord Bolingbroke and others; after which this man was surprizingly promoted to administer Justice and Law in Jamaica." — Certain it is, that Concanen's wit and literary abilities, however, recommended him to the favour of the Duke of Newcastle, through whose interest he obtained, in July 1732, being then a Barrister at Law, the post of Attorney-general of the Island of Jamaica; which office he filled with the utmost integrity and honour, and to the perfect satisfaction of the inhabitants for near seventeen years; when, having acquired an ample fortune, he was desirous of passing the close of his life in his native country, with which intention he quitted Jamaica, and came to London, proposing to pass some little time there before he went to settle entirely in Ireland. But the difference of climate between that Metropolis and the place he had so long been accustomed to, had such an effect on his constitution, that he fell into a consumption, of which be died, Jan. 22; 1749, a few weeks after his arrival in London. Mr. Concanen's original Poems, though short, have considerable merit; but much cannot be said of his Wexford Wells. He has several Songs in The Musical Miscellany, 1729, 6 vols; and was concerned with Mr. Edward Roome and other gentlemen in altering Broome's Jovial Crew into a Ballad Opera, in which shape it is now frequently performed. — He was occasionally a writer in The London Journal; was the Author of The Specultists, 1730; and in 1731 published a Miscellany, called The Flowerpiece.