1896 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

David Mallet

George Eyre-Todd, in Scottish Poetry in the Eighteenth Century (1896) 1:116-17.



When the name MacGregor was proscribed in Scotland one of the members of the clan changed his patronymic to that of Malloch. A descendant, possibly a son, of this person, was the poet afterwards known as David Mallet. His parents were in lowly circumstances, and he is said to have acted for a time as janitor of Edinburgh High School. Presently, however, on the recommendation of the University authorities, he became tutor to the sons of the Duke of Montrose, with whom he travelled, and through whom he found an introduction to the greater society of London of his day. So adroitly did he avail himself of his opportunities that he became Under-Secretary to Frederick, Prince of Wales, at a salary of 200 a year. Something of his pliability and astuteness may be gathered from his change of name. Finding that the coffee-house wits were apt to nickname him Moloch, he changed his Scottish surname to an English shape, and turned Malloch into Mallet.

Of the poet's personal character perhaps the less said the better. Dr. Johnson has recorded that "he was the only Scot whom Scotchmen did not commend," and Professor Walker more recently has summed his vices in a sentence — "He was a venal writer, a treacherous friend, a dishonest man." After the death of Pope, who had been his friend, he accepted a reward from Bolingbroke to blacken the memory of the poet. He took, under the will of the Duchess of Marlborough, a bequest of 1000 to write a life of the Duke, to which he never put his pen. And he accepted the job of stirring popular feeling against the unfortunate Admiral Byng, for whose destruction he wrote and published a letter under the signature of "A Plain Man." For some of his other dishonourable meannesses the reader may be referred to Johnson's Lives of the Poets. The quondam tutor, however, made some figure in the London life of his time. When Gibbon, the future historian, announced at Oxford that he had embraced Catholicism, it was to Mallet's house that his father took him in the hope of weaning him from that faith. And it was to Mallet that the brilliant and unscrupulous Bolingbroke bequeathed the atheistic part of his writings, which the poet published in 1754.

Mallet was twice married. By his first wife he had seven children, and one of his daughters was the authoress of a tragedy performed at Drury Lane. Two years before his death he was appointed Keeper of the Book of Entries for ships in the port of London.

Mallet's finest and best-known poem, the ballad of William and Margaret, was founded on an actual incident, the seduction of a daughter of Professor James Gregory of St. Andrews by a son of Sir William Sharpe of Strathyrum, and a nephew of the notorious Archbishop Sharpe. On discovery of his daughter's misfortune Dr. Gregory, it is said, made Mr. Sharpe the offer of half his fortune if he would marry the young lady. The offer was rejected with scorn, and presently, sinking under grief and shame, Miss Gregory died. Shortly after the occurrence the composition of the ballad was suggested to Mallet by a verse in Fletcher's comedy, The Knight of the Burning Pestle. The piece was published in the Orpheus Caledonius in 1725.

Another ballad, Edwin and Emma, which the poet based likewise upon actual circumstance, is tainted with the worst faults of the artificial school. The same thing is to be said of his piece on Verbal Criticism, which was written to pay court to Pope. And the Excursion, which he published in 1728, in emulation of Thomson's Seasons, contains all the faults and none of the merits of his early friend's work. A pastoral, Amyntor and Theodora, published in 1747, for which he received the sum of 120, displays somewhat more vigour and spirit, but at its best it also only echoes the blank verse of Thomson. Mallet also produced one or two short pieces in light strain, somewhat in the vein of modern "vers de societe." He was author, as well, of poetical epistles, prologues and epilogues to the dramas of friends, &c. Besides his poetry he wrote, in 1750, the life of Bacon, still prefixed to that philosopher's works. Some of his pieces had also considerable success on the stage — Eurydice, in 1731, Mustapha, satirizing Walpole in order to please Prince Frederick, in 1739, and Elvira, in 1763. He was also joint author with Thomson of the masque of Alfred; and this and his other masque, Britannia, both contain lyrics which are remembered. Mallet's poems were included in the series of poets edited by Dr. Johnson. They have been re-printed in Chalmers's Collection in 1810, and in the Chiswick Poets in 1822.