1804 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Ralph

S. S., "Memoir of James Ralph" Universal Magazine NS 2 (September 1804) 224-28.



Mr. Editor,

In works so comprehensive as Biographical Dictionaries, many errors and deficiencies are to he expected. To correct and supply these, is the province of a Miscellany like yours. I have it in my power to transmit to you a circumstantial account of the Life of Ralph, the celebrated political writer, known to many as the poet stigmatized by Pope in the Dunciad:

Silence, ye woves! while Ralph to Cynthia howls,
Making night hideous! Answer him, ye owls!

This, I conceive, cannot fail to be acceptable to the reader, as no memoirs of him, at all satisfactory, have yet been laid before the public. James Ralph was the son of American parents, by no means conspicuous in life; and who thought they had done their duty by him when they placed him as clerk in a merchant's counting-house at Philadelphia. Condemned to the toil of a desk and ledger, and burthened, early in life, with a wife and child, Ralph could not quite suppress that poetic mania that haunted him through life. In company with Benjamin Franklin, afterwards so well known to the world as a legislator and philosopher, and some few others, he was in the habit of resorting, at all vacant hours, to the woods in the neighbourhood of the Schuylkill, for the purpose of poetical studies and recitation. Here he was perpetually rallied by his companions on his poetical inability. Indeed, it may readily he imagined that Ralph's first essays were none of the most brilliant; and it is possible that he might have rested contented with the exercise of his pen on the subject of pounds, shillings, and pence, but for the favourable issue of a stratagem, by which means he entrapped the applause of his youthful critics. Suspecting, and indeed with some degree of truth, that envy had an influence over the decision of his judges, he prevailed on Franklin to father one of his poetical efforts (a version of the eighteenth psalm, in which the descent of the Divinity is described). Franklin, accordingly, presented it as his own at their periodical meeting. The poem was praised to the skies; and thus was the destined champion in politics of Lord Bute firmly persuaded that he was born to be the metrical phoenix of the age. Elated with this idea, and eager to commence his course, he took advantage of the voyage of Franklin to England, and accompanied the philosopher, who had wisdom enough to be in pursuit of more solid tenements than those airy castles that glittered so bright to poor Ralph's inflated fancy. It must ever be recorded, to the disrepute of our quondam author, that he forsook his wife and infant child on no other pretext than the unpleasantness of his wife's family; for, though he gave out at Philadelphia that he went to England merely to seek mercantile connections, and intended only to make a temporary stay there, he confessed to Franklin that it was his fixed intention never to return. It were well for his historian if this were the only blemish in his character that demanded narration: — it is a painful talk to detail the weakness of rectitude and honour under the attacks of penury and disappointment.

On his arrival in London, Ralph shared the lodging of Franklin, for which three shillings and sixpence a week was paid by the latter, as the whole stock of Ralph's treasure had been exhausted by the expences of the voyage. His first attempt at that eminence for which he believed himself formed was the stage; but Wilkes, to whom he applied, candidly told him, it was impossible that he ever should figure as an actor, and begged him to decline all thoughts of a theatrical life. By Ralph's ready acquiescence, we must allow the justice of Wilkes's opinion; but still it seems matter of surprise that he was deemed so utterly unqualified for any walk of the drama, as he is allowed to have been a man of elegant address; even thus early had made some proficiency in letters, and had a method of conversing at once graceful and eloquent. Disappointed in his first hope, he next resorted to Roberts, a bookseller in Paternoster-row; to whom, nothing diffident of his own talents, he proposed to write a weekly paper, after the manner of the Spectator. But the want of reputation necessary for such an undertaking, together with the nature of the terms on which he wished the publication to take place, caused the bookseller to give a speedy and decided negative to his proposal. Poor Ralph now found his airy schemes evaporating apace. His hopes sank, his pride fell before poverty, and he endeavoured to obtain employment as a copying clerk for the law-stationers in the neighbourhood of the Temple — but could not find any place vacant. Without the aid of Franklin, he now might have experienced the fate of Chatterton. Franklin, instead of composing poems, set his hand to work at printing them; and, by the produce of his industry, contrived to support both his friend and himself. The playhouse, the ignis fatuus of Ralph, still had its attractions; and frequently, instead of having a dinner, the friends paid their mite to become spectators of a play. Ralph commenced his Poem on Night; but his prospects, both as to fame and profit, hourly receded to a greater distance. He found consolation, however, in a female lodger in the house, to whom he read comedies — till he quite forgot the unfortunate wife and child he had left behind him in America. Franklin's resources now becoming insufficient, our author suddenly determined on quitting London for a time, and retired to a recluse village in Berkshire, where, without friends, without money, he contrived to introduce himself as a schoolmaster; but, in fact, his forms held only a few boys one stage removed from infancy, and for the education of whom sixpence a week was deemed an ample equivalent. He was so sensible of the degradation of the epic poet in this instance, that he dropped his name while in Berkshire — modestly paying his good friend Franklin the compliment of adopting his in its stead. The "cacoethes scribendi" still raged. We will readily allow his pupils to have made no great progress; but the poem drew toward a conclusion. As Alfred threw off the peasant's garb, and burst on the world with renovated splendor, so Ralph left the pedagogue behind, and, hugging his book, as Camoens did the Lusiad, appeared in London, resumed his name, and had the happiness, at length, of seeing his poem published, with some little success. This circumstance relieved, for a while, his necessities. The booksellers gave him some little employment, and he beheld himself in the high-road for what Lord Orford was pleased to deem the poet's competence — that is to say, something a trifle better than bread and water, if he laboured hard to obtain it. Singing-birds, his lordship affirms, with a generosity worthy a professed admirer of the arts, should not be too well fed! Poor Ralph's note, at this time, stood little danger of being injured by intemperance, for his evil genius led him to engage in the war of the Dunces. He was not mentioned in the first edition of the terrible work, but, volunteering his services on the weaker side, Pope honoured him with a niche in the second copy; which distinction, we may presume, he was by no means ambitious of, as it operated so far on his employers, as to occasion their withholding all patronage from him. Brought back to wisdom by his necessities, he had, while he deplored the folly of attacking a satirical wit, some new walk of life to seek, in order to avoid the miseries of actual starvation. The stage still presented itself to his fancy, fraught with the treasures of Peru. Though debarred from wearing himself the sock or buskin, his genius might furnish matter for those to whom Nature had been more kind. He took up the pen, and, as a first attempt, produced The Fashionable Lady, acted in 1729. Shortly after appeared The Fall of Essex, altered by him from the Unhappy Favourite of Banks. But so low was his credit as a writer, that he could prevail on none but the manager of the Goodman's-fields company to act these pieces. This company was then composed of raw, uncultivated actors, and the representation of both plays produced but a very trivial sum. Indeed, Ralph had rather a violent propensity to be a writer of plays, than talents requisite for the composing of them. No marks of dramatic ability are evinced in any of his theatrical productions: still he persevered, and every fresh rebuff appeared to operate merely as a stimulus to new exertions. About the year 1735, he commenced a managing partner with Henry Fielding, in the Haymarket Theatre. He now wrote the Astrologer, a comedy, on the plan of the Alchymist. In this play is joined, to the disadvantage of a plot founded on the almost-forgotten scheme of the philosopher's stone, an affectedly obsolete style, the most disgusting. It was often rehearsed, but the great success of Fielding's Pasquin put aside all thoughts of bringing it forward; and Ralph found that his share in the management must be confined to a view of his partner's celebrity. He, however, espoused a play by Mrs. Cooper, called The Nobleman. It was performed under his direction; but the event proved him as poor a critic as a dramatist. The comedy was condemned, and that in so decisive a way, that, to the great mortification of Ralph, it was not thought worth while to print it. One farce, written by him, long since forgotten, kept the stage a short time — the mere quivering of a taper before it expires. His favourite Astrologer he persuaded Garrick to act at Drury-lane; but so little was the public curiosity excited, that only twenty-one pounds were taken on the first night of its representation. The profits of the second night were to belong to Ralph — but the playhouse doors were shut up, for the want of an audience! How obstinately are some men attached to excellencies which they possess only in fancy, while they neglect talents that would afford them a rational subject of self-exultation! Sir Robert Walpole was desirous of exciting admiration rather as a man of gallantry and elegance (for which character he was by no means formed) than as an able statesman; and Garrick was, perhaps, vainer of his qualifications as a writer than an actor! Ralph, so often disappointed as a dramatist, but possessed of such considerable powers as a political writer, professes his veneration for the stage in the following strong terms: "When the playhouse is named, I make it a point to pull off my hat, and think myself obliged to the lowest implement belonging to it!" The time, however, now approached at which our poet was to cease to

—Flatter, cringe, or bend the knee
To those, who, slaves to all, are slaves to me;

— when he was to exchange an attendance at the levee of the manager for a more servile but more profitable attendance at that of the prime minister. Ralph's first introduction to political life was owing to the publication of the Duchess of Marlborough's Memoirs, in 1742. To these he wrote a reply, under the title of The other Side of the Question: this reply was written with so much art, and rendered so interesting by the author's management, that it had an extensive sale, and recommended him to the notice of persons of the first power and consequence. He was employed to write several political pamphlets; a talk that he executed with great skill. — As to his sentiments, they possessed that amiable ductility so requisite in a party writer — he bowed to the golden idol, "and let his opinion fall as incense." I will not follow him through the variety of political works in which he was now engaged (among which was the Continuation of Guthrie's History of England). Suffice it, his writings carried more weight than those of any contemporary, and rendered him so formidable, towards the end of Walpole's administration, that it was thought proper to buy him off with an income. He was patronized by Lords Bolingbroke and Melcombe. With the latter he was on terms of familiar intimacy. A silly mistake, however, had nearly caused a rupture between him and his noble friend. Melcombe gave orders to a servant to go to the historian, who lived not far from his lordship, at Isleworth, and take a card of dinner invitation to Mr. Ralph and family. The fellow mistook the word "card" for "cart," and positively set out with one on full speed, to bring the party to his lordship's house. This supposed indignity offended the pride of Ralph, who, with great gravity, sent back the messenger and his carriage with a long expostulatory letter. Garrick, likewise, entertained a warm friendship for Ralph. He did not confine his sentiment to mere words, or convivial meetings, but interceded with Mr. Pelham (then minister) for an addition to our author's income. Mr. Pelham, with a becoming dignity, replied, that he made it a rule never to buy the favour or even the silence of a political writer; but that he was willing to grant that to the request of Mr. Garrick, which he had never granted to his own interest or tears. A pension of 200 per annum was accordingly settled on Ralph. It is with regret that we acknowledge this favour not to have produced its due effect in his bosom. — He shortly quarrelled with Garrick (most probably concerning some ridiculous drama he had written), and attacked him with caustic severity, in a pamphlet, intituled, The Case of Authors by Profession, 1758. This pamphlet produced the effect upon Mr. Garrick which the author intended; for he felt all the poignancy of the satire that was aimed at him, and resented the ingratitude of the writer in such a manner, as, perhaps, rendered Ralph himself more uneasy than he had made his friend. Garrick never spoke to him afterwards, and persisted to refrain from all companies of which Ralph was to form a part. Among the various pieces now published by our author, we must notice his Review of the Reigns of Charles the Second and James the Second, which forms, perhaps, the most noble magazine for the recorder of those times that any historian ever had presented to him. The death of George the Second put Ralph in possession of his utmost wishes. — Lord Bute settled on him a pension of six hundred pounds per annum. He, however, did not live to enjoy more than one half-year's income, but fell, in 1761, a victim to the gout; a disorder to which a sedentary life, and habits of indulgence, had rendered him very subject.

Ralph presents to the retrospect of his historian a character that cannot command respect, whether he be considered as a writer or a Man. His first step in life, the desertion of his wife and infant, is a breach of morals that no sophistry can extenuate. As an author, his pen was ever ready to receive the wages of fluctuating prostitution. To deny his merit were a futile effort; but be it remembered, that while his writings in defence of one party extort our applause, he had offered to espouse the opposite side of the question, if the recompence were larger. Though it was not in my power to improve the conduct of this once celebrated author, be assured that I have narrated it with fidelity.

I am, Sir, your's, &c.

S. S.