1856 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Ralph

George and Evert Duyckinck, Cyclopedia of American Literature (1856) 1:102-03.



The exact birthplace of this writer, who attained considerable distinction, by his political pamphlets and histories of England, and whose memory has been embalmed for posterity in the autobiography of Franklin and the Dunciad of Pope, has never been precisely ascertained. We first hear of him in the company of Franklin at Philadelphia, as one of his young literary cronies whom the sage confesses at that time to have indoctrinated in infidelity. In those days Ralph was "a clerk to a merchant," and much inclined to "give himself up entirely to poetry. He was," adds Franklin, "ingenious, genteel in his manners, and extremely eloquent; I think I never knew a prettier talker." He embarked with Franklin, as is well known, on his first voyage to England, leaving a wife and child behind him, as an illustration of his opinions, and the two cronies spent their money in London together, "inseparable companions" in Little Britain. Ralph rapidly went through all the phases of the old London school of preparation for a hack political pamphleteer. He tried the playhouse, but Wilkes thought he had no qualifications for the stage; he projected a weekly paper on the plan of the Spectator, bat the publisher Roberts did not approve of it; and even an attempt at the drudgery of a scrivener with the Temple lawyers was unsuccessful. He managed, however, to associate with his fortunes a young milliner who lodged in the house with the two adventurers; but he was compelled to leave her, and go into the country for the employment of a schoolmaster, and Franklin took advantage of his absence to make some proposals to the mistress which were rejected, and which Ralph pleaded afterwards as a receipt in full for all his obligations, pecuniary and otherwise, to his friend. While in the provinces, where, by the way, he called himself Mr. Franklin, he found employment in writing an epic poem which he sent by installments to his friend at London, who dissuaded him from it, and backed his opinions with a copy of Young's satire on the folly of authorship, which was then just published. He continued scribbling verses, however till, as Franklin says, "Pope cured him." His first publication appears to have been Night, a poem, in 1728, which is commemorated in the couplet of the Dunciad:

Silence, ye wolves, while Ralph to Cynthia howls,
And makes Night hideous — answer him ye owls:

A compliment which was paid not so much to that poem, whatever its demerits, as to a poetical squib which Ralph had published, entitled Sawney, reflecting unpleasantly on Pope, Swift, and Gay. Night was followed in 1729 by the Epic Zeuma, or the Love of Liberty. It is an octavo volume in three books, a story of love and war of a Peruvian chieftain whose mistress is captured by the Spaniards, and recovered again, while the hero falls in a grand battle. Of this work the curious reader of Franklin may be pleased with a specimen, and we accordingly quote a passage in a copy in the Harvard College library, the only one we have met with.

'Tis hard for man, bewilder'd in a maze
O doubtful reas'nings, to assign the cause
Why heav'n's all-ruling pow'r supremely just
And good, shou'd give Iberia's cruel sons
Unbounded leave to travel o'er the globe
And search remotest climes; to stretch their sway
Through all the western world; to exile Peace
And Liberty, with all their train of joys
From the afflicted lands; and proudly vex
Th' unhappy nations with oppressive rule.
In ages past, as time revolv'd the year,
'Twas all a round of innocent delights;
The fearless Natives rarely heard of war
And its destructive ills; Famine, Disease,
And all the various plagues of other realms,
Were there unknown, life was a constant scene
Of harmless pleasures; and, when full of days,
The woodland hunter and the toiling swain
Like ripen'd fruit that, in the midnight shade
Drops from the bough, in peace and silence sunk
Into the grave. But when the Spanish troops,
In search of plunder, crowded on the shore
And claimed, by right divine, the sovereign rule,
Another scene began; and all the woes,
Mankind can suffer, took their turn to reign.

A Pindaric ode in blank verse, The Muse's Address to the King, was another of Ralph's poetical attempts. The year 1730 produced a play, The Fashionable Lady, or Harlequin's Opera, performed at Goodman's Fields, followed by several others, The Fall of the Earl of Essex, Lawyer's Feast, and Astrologer. Pope, not the fairest witness, says that he praised himself in the journals, and that upon being advised to study the laws of dramatic poetry before he wrote for the stage, he replied, "Shakspeare writ without rules." His ability at writing, however, and making himself useful, gained him the support of Dodington, and secured him a puff in that politician's Diary. He wrote in the newspapers of the day, the London Journal, the Weekly Medley, and published The Remembrancer in the use of his patron. His History of England during the reigns of King William, Queen Anne, and George I., with an Introductory Review of the reigns of the Royal Brothers Charles II. and James II.; in which are to be found the seeds of the Revolution, was published in two huge folios, 1744-6, and he is said to have had in it Dodington's assistance. He was also the author of two octavo volumes on The Use and Abuse of Parliaments from 1660 to 1744, and a Review of the Public Buildings of London, in 1731, has been attributed to him. Charles James Fox has spoken well of his historical "acuteness" and "diligence," and noticed his "sometimes falling into the common error of judging by the event." His last production in 1758, for which his active experiences had fully supplied him with material, was entitled The Case of Authors by Profession or Trade Stated, with regard to Booksellers, the Stage and the Public. "It is," says Drake, "composed with spirit and feeling; enumerating all the bitter evils incident to an employment so precarious, and so inadequately rewarded; and abounds in anecdote and entertainment." Having thus recorded what he had learnt of this profession, and obtained a pension too late to enjoy it long, he died of a fit of the gout at Chiswick, Jan. 24, 1762.