1753 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Boyse

Robert Shiels, in Cibber-Shiels, Lives of the Poets (1753) 5:160-74.



This Poet was the son of the Revd. Mr. Joseph Boyse, a Dissenting minister of great eminence in Dublin. Our author's father was a person so much respected by those immediately under his ministerial care, and whoever else had the happiness of his acquaintance, that people of all denominations united in esteeming him, not only for his learning and abilities, but his extensive humanity and undissembled piety.

This Revd. Gentleman an had so much dignity in his manner, that he obtained from the common people the name of bishop Boyse, meant as a compliment to the gracefulness of his person and mien. But though Mr. Boyse was thus reverenced by the multitude, and courted by people of fashion, he never contracted the least air of superciliousness: He was humble and affable in his temper, equally removed from the stiffness of pedantry, and offensive levity. During his Ministerial charge at Dublin, he published many sermons, which compose several folio volumes, a few Poems and other Tracts; but what chiefly distinguished him as a writer, was the controversy he carried on with Dr. King, archbishop of Dublin, and author of the Origin of Evil, concerning the office of a scriptural bishop. This controverted point was managed on both sides with great force of argument, and calmness of temper. The bishop asserted that the episcopal right of jurisdiction had its foundation in the New-Testament: Mr. Boyse, consistent with his principles, denied that any ecclesiastical superiority appeared there; and in the opinion of many, Mr. Boyse was more than equal to his antagonist, whom he treated in the course of the controversy, with the greatest candour and good-manners.

It has been reported that Mr. Boyse had two brothers, one a clergyman of the church of England, and the other a cardinal at Rome, but of this circumstance we have no absolute certainty: Be it as it may, he had, however, no brother so much distinguished in the world as himself.

We shall now enter upon the life of our poet, who will appear while we trace it, to have been in every respect the reverse of his father, genius excepted.—

He was born in the year 1708, and received the rudiments of his education in a private school in Dublin. When he was but eighteen years old, his father, who probably intended him for the ministry, sent him to the university of Glasgow, that he might finish his education there. He had not been a year at the university, till he fell in love with one Miss Atchenson, the daughter of a tradesman in that city, and was imprudent enough to interrupt his education, by marrying her, before he had entered into his 20th year.

The natural extravagance of his temper soon exposed him to want, and as he had now the additional charge of a wife, his reduced circumstances obliged him to quit the university, and go over with his wife (who also carried a sister with her) to Dublin; where they relied upon the old gentleman for support. His behaviour in this dependent state, was the very reverse of what it should have been. In place of directing his studies to some useful acquisition, so as to support himself and family, he spent his time in the most abject trifling, and drew many heavy expences upon his father, who had no other means of supporting himself than what his congregation afforded, and a small estate of fourscore pounds a year in Yorkshire.

Considerations of prudence never entered into the heart of this unhappy young man, who ran from one excess to another, till an indulgent parent was reduced by his means to very great embarrassments. Young Boyse was of all men the farthest removed from a gentleman; he had no graces of person, and fewer still of conversation. To this cause it was perhaps owing, that his wife, naturally of a very volatile sprightly temper, either grew tired of him, or became enamour'd of variety. It was however abundantly certain, that she pursued intrigues with other men; and what is still more surprising, not without the knowledge of her husband, who had either too abject a spirit to resent it; or was bribed by some lucrative advantage to which he had a mind mean enough to stoop. Though never were three people of more libertine characters than young Boyse, his wife, and sister-in-law; yet the two ladies wore such a mask of decency before the old gentleman, that his fondness was never abated. He hoped that time and experience would recover his son from his courses of extravagance, and as he was of an unsuspecting temper, he had not the least jealousy of the real conduct of his daughter-in-law, who grew every day in his favour, and continued to blind him, by the seeming decency of her behaviour, and a performance of those acts of piety, he naturally expected from her. But the old gentleman was deceived in his hopes, for time made no alteration in his son. The estate his father possessed in Yorkshire was sold to discharge his debts, and when the old man lay in his last sickness, he was entirely supported by presents from his congregation, and buried at their expence.

We have no farther account of Mr. Boyse, till we find him soon after his father's death at Edinburgh; but from what motives he went there we cannot now discover. At this place his poetical genius raised him many friends, and some patrons of very great eminence. He published a volume of poems in 1731, to which is subjoined The Tablature of Cebes, and a Letter upon Liberty, inserted in the Dublin Journal 1726; and by these he obtained a very great reputation. They are addressed to the countess of Eglington, a lady of distinguished excellencies, and so much celebrated for her beauty, that it would be difficult for the best panegyrick to be too lavish in her praise. This amiable lady was patroness of all men of wit, and very much distinguished Mr. Boyse, while he resided in that country. She was not however exempt from the lot of humanity, and her conspicuous accomplishments were yet chequered with failings: The chief of which was too high a consciousness of her own charms, which inspired a vanity that sometimes betrayed her into errors.

The following short anecdote was frequently related by Mr. Boyse. The countess one day came into the bed-chamber of her youngest daughter, then about 13 years old, while she was dressing at her toilet. The countess observing the assiduity with which the young lady wanted to set off her person to the best advantage, asked her, "what she would give to be as handsome as her mamma?" To which Miss replied; "As much as your ladyship would give to be as young as me." This smart repartee which was at once pungent and witty, very sensibly affected the countess; who for the future was less lavish in praise of her own charms.

Upon the death of the viscountess Stormont, Mr. Boyse wrote an Elegy, which was very much applauded by her ladyship's relations. This Elegy he intitled, The Tears of the Muses, as the deceased lady was a woman of the most refined taste in the sciences, and a great admirer of poetry. The lord Stormont was so much pleased with this mark of esteem paid to the memory of his lady, that he ordered a very handsome present to be given to Mr. Boyse, by his attorney at Edinburgh.

Though Mr. Boyse's name was very well known in that city, yet his person was obscure; for as he was altogether unsocial in his temper, he had but few acquaintances, and those of a cast much inferior to himself; and with whom he ought to have been ashamed to associate It was some time before he could be found out; and lord Stormont's kind intentions had been defeated, if an advertisement had not been published in one of their weekly papers, desiring the author of the Tears of the Muses to call at the house of the attorney.

The personal obscurity of Mr. Boyse might perhaps not be altogether owing to his habits of gloominess and retirement Nothing is more difficult in that city, than to make acquaintances; There are no places where people meet and converse promiscuously: There is a reservedness and gravity in the manner of the inhabitants, which makes a stranger averse to approach them. They naturally love solitude; and are very slow in contracting friendships. They are generous; but it is with a bad grace. They are strangers to affability, and they maintain a haughtiness and an apparent indifference, which deters a man from courting them. They may be said to be hospitable, but not complaisant to strangers: Insincerity and cruelty have no existence amongst them; but if they ought not to be hated, they can never be much loved, for they are incapable of insinuation, and their ignorance of the world makes them unfit for entertaining sensible strangers. They are public spirited, but torn to pieces by factions. A gloominess in religion renders one part of them very barbarous, and an enthusiasm in politics so transports the genteeler part, that they sacrifice to party almost every consideration of tenderness. Among such a people, a man may long live, little known, and less instructed; for their reservedness renders them uncommunicative, and their excessive haughtiness prevents them from being solicitous of knowledge.

The Scots are far from being a dull nation, they are lovers of pomp and shew; but then there is an eternal stiffness, a kind of affected dignity which spoils their pleasures. Hence we have the less reason to wonder that Boyse lived obscurely at Edinburgh. His extreme carelessness about his dress was a circumstance very inauspicious to a man who lives in that city. They are such lovers of this kind of decorum, that they will admit of no infringement upon it; and were a man with more wit than Pope, and more philosophy than Newton, to appear at their market place negligent in his apparel, he would be avoided by his acquaintances who would rather risk his displeasure, than the censure of the public, which would not fail to stigmatize them, for associating with a man seemingly poor; for they measure poverty, and riches, understanding, or its opposite, by exterior appearance. They have many virtues but their not being polished prevents them from shining.

The notice which lady Eglington and the lord Stormont took of our poet, recommended him like wise to the patronage of the dutchess of Gordon, who was a lady not only distinguished for her taste, but cultivated a correspondence with some of the most eminent poets then living. The dutchess was so zealous in Mr. Boyse's affairs, and so solicitous to raise him above necessity, that she employed her interest in procuring the promise of a place for him. She gave him a letter, which he was next day to deliver to one of the commissioners of the customs at Edinburgh. It happened that he was then some miles distant from the city, and the morning on which he was to have rode to town with her grace's letter of recommendation proved to be rainy. This slender circumstance was enough to discourage Boyse, who never looked beyond the present moment: He declined going to town on account of the rainy weather, and while he let slip the opportunity, the place was bestowed upon another, which the commissioner declared he kept for some time vacant, in expectation of seeing a person recommended by the dutchess of Gordon.

Of a man of this indolence of temper, this sluggish meanness of spirit, the reader cannot be surprised to find the future conduct consist of a continued series of blunders, for he who had not spirit to prosecute an advantage put in his hands, will neither bear distress with fortitude, nor struggle to surmount it with resolution.

Boyse at last, having defeated all the kind intentions of his patrons towards him, fell into a contempt and poverty, which obliged him to quit Edinburgh, as his creditors began to sollicit the payment of their debts, with an earnestness not to be trifled with. He communicated his design of going to London to the dutchess of Gordon, who having still a very high opinion of his poetical abilities, gave him a letter of recommendation to Mr. Pope and obtained another for him to Sir Peter King, the lord chancellor of England. Lord Stormont recommended him to the sollicitor-general his brother, and many other persons of the first fashion.

Upon receiving these letters, he, with great caution, quitted Edinburgh, regretted by none but his creditors, who were so exasperated as to threaten to prosecute him wherever he should be found. But these menaces were never carried into execution, perhaps from the consideration of his indigence, which afforded no probable prospect of their being paid.

Upon his arrival in London, he went to Twickenham, in order to deliver the dutchess of Gordon's letter to Mr. Pope; but that gentleman not being at home, Mr. Boyse never gave himself the trouble to repeat his visit, nor in all probability would Pope have been over fond of him; as there was nothing in his conversation which any wise indicated the abilities he professed. He frequently related, that he was graciously received by Sir Peter King, dined at his table, and partook of his pleasures. But this relation, they who knew Mr. Boyse well, never could believe; for he was so abject in his disposition, that he never could look any man in the face whose appearance was better than his own; nor likely had courage to sit at Sir Peter King's table, where every one was probably his superior. He had no power of maintaining the dignity of wit, and though his understanding was very extensive, yet but a few could discover that he had any genius above the common rank. This want of spirit produced the greatest part of his calamities, because he knew not how to avoid them by any vigorous effort of his mind. He wrote poems, but those, though excellent in their kind, were lost to the world, by being introduced with no advantage. He had so strong a propension to groveling, that his acquaintance were generally of such a cast as could be of no service to him; and those in higher life he addressed by letters, not having sufficient confidence or politeness to converse familiarly with them; a freedom to which he was intitled by the power of his genius. Thus unfit to support himself in the world, he was exposed to variety of distress, from which he could invent no means of extricating himself, but by writing mendicant letters. It will appear amazing, but impartiality obliges us to relate it, that this man, of so abject a spirit, was voluptuous and luxurious: He had no taste for any thing elegant, and yet was to the last degree expensive. Can it be believed, that often when he had received half a guinea, in consequence of a supplicating letter, he would go into a tavern, order a supper to be prepared, drink of the richest wines, and spend all the money that had just been given him in charity, without having any one to participate the regale with him, and while his wife and child were starving home? This is an instance of base selfishness, for which no name is as yet invented, and except by another poet, with some variation of circumstances, was perhaps never practised by the most sensual epicure.

He had yet some friends, many of the most eminent dissenters, who from a regard to the memory of his father, afforded him supplies from time to time. Mr. Boyse by perpetual applications, at last exhausted their patience; and they were obliged to abandon a man on whom their liberality was ill bestowed, as it produced no other advantage to him, than a few days support, when he returned again with the same necessities.

The epithet of cold has often been given to charity, perhaps with a great deal of truth; but if any thing can warrant us to withhold our charity, it is the consideration that its purposes are prostituted by those on whom it is bestowed.

We have already taken notice of the infidelity of his wife, and now her circumstances were reduced, her virtue did not improve. She fell into a way of life disgraceful to the sex; nor was his behaviour in any degree more moral. They were frequently covered with ignominy, reproaching one another for the acquisition of a disease, which both deserved, because mutually guilty.

It was about the year 1740, that Mr. Boyse reduced to the last extremity of human wretchedness, had not a shirt, a coat, or any kind of apparel to put on; the sheets in which he lay were carried to the pawnbroker's, and he was obliged to be confined to bed, with no other covering than a blanket. He had little support but what he got by writing letters to his friends in the most abject stile. He was perhaps ashamed to let this instance of distress be known to his friends, which might be the occasion of his remaining six weeks in that situation. During this time he had some employment in writing verses for the Magazines; and whoever had seen him in his study, must have thought the object singular enough. He sat up in bed with the blanket wrapt about him, through which he had cut a hole large enough to admit his arm, and placing the paper upon his knee scribbled in the best manner he could the verses he was obliged to make: Whatever he got by those, or any of his begging letters, was but just sufficient for the preservation of life. And perhaps he would have remained much longer in this distressful state, had not a compassionate gentleman, upon hearing this circumstance related, ordered his cloaths to be taken out of pawn, and enabled him to appear again abroad.

This six weeks penance one would imagine sufficient to deter him for the future, from suffering himself to be exposed to such distresses; but by a long habit of want it grew familiar to him, and as he had less delicacy than other men, he was perhaps less afflicted with his exterior meanness. For the future, whenever his distresses so press'd, as to induce him to dispose of his shirt, he fell upon an artificial method of supplying one. He cut some white paper in slips which he tyed round his wrists, and in the same manner supplied his neck. In this plight he frequently appeared abroad, with the additional inconvenience of want of breeches.

He was once sent for in a hurry, to the house of a printer who had employed him to write a poem for his Magazine; Boyse then was without breeches, or waistcoat, but was yet possessed of a coat, which he threw upon him, and in this ridiculous manner went to the printer's house; where he found several women, whom his extraordinary appearance obliged immediately to retire.

He fell upon many strange schemes of raising trifling sums: He sometimes ordered his wife to inform people that he was just expiring, and by this artifice work upon their compassion; and many of his friends were frequently surprised to meet the man in the street to day, to whom they had yesterday sent relief, as to a person on the verge of death. At other times he would propose subscriptions for poems, of which only the beginning and conclusion were written; and by this expedient would relieve some present necessity. But as he seldom was able to put any of his poems to the press, his veracity in this particular suffered a diminution; and indeed in almost every other particular he might justly be suspected; for if he could but gratify an immediate appetite, he cared not at what expence, whether of the reputation, or purse of another.

About the year 1745 Mr. Boyse's wife died. He was then at Reading, and pretended much concern when he heard of her death.

It was an affectation in Mr. Boyse to appear very fond of a little lap dog which he always carried about with him in his arms, imagining it gave him the air of a man of taste. Boyse, whose circumstances were then too mean to put himself in mourning, was yet resolved that some part of his family should. He step'd into a little shop, purchased half a yard of black ribbon, which he fixed round his dog's neck by way of mourning for the loss of its mistress. But this was not the only ridiculous instance of his behaviour on the death of his wife. Such was the sottishness of this man, that when he was in liquor, he always indulged a dream of his wife's being still alive, and would talk very spightfully of those by whom he suspected she was entertained. This he never mentioned however, except in his cups, which was only as often as he had money to spend. The manner of his becoming intoxicated was very particular. As he had no spirit to keep good company, so he retired to some obscure ale-house, and regaled himself with hot two-penny, which though he drank in very great quantities, yet he had never more than a pennyworth at a time. — Such a practice rendered him so compleatly sottish, that even his abilities, as an author, became sensibly impaired.

We have already mentioned his being at Reading. His business there was to compile a Review of the most material transactions at home and abroad, during the last war; in which he has included a short account of the late rebellion. For this work by which he got some reputation, he was paid by the sheet, a price sufficient to keep him from starving, and that was all. To such distress must that man be driven, who is destitute of prudence to direct the efforts of his genius. In this work Mr. Boyse discovers how capable he was of the most irksome and laborious employment, when he maintained a power over his appetites, and kept himself free from intemperance.

While he remained at Reading, he addressed, by supplicating letters, two Irish noblemen, lord Kenyston, and lord Kingsland, who resided in Berkshire, and received some money from them; he also met with another gentleman there of a benevolent disposition, who, from the knowledge he had of the father, pitied the distresses of the son, and by his interest with some eminent Dissenters in those parts, raised a sufficient sum to cloath him, for the abjectness of his appearance secluded our poet even from the table of his Printer.

Upon his return from Reading, his behaviour was more decent than it had ever been before, and there were some hopes that a reformation, tho' late, would be wrought upon him. He was employed by a Bookseller to translate Fenelon on the Existence of God, during which time he married a second wife, a woman in low circumstances, but well enough adapted to his taste. He began now to live with more regard to his character, and support a better appearance than usual but while his circumstances were mending and his irregular appetites losing ground, his health visibly declined: he had the satisfaction, while in this lingering illness, to observe a poem of his, entitled The Deity, recommended by two eminent writers, the ingenious Mr. Fielding, and the rev. Mr. James Harvey, author of The Meditations. The former, in the beginning of his humorous History of Tom Jones, calls it an excellent poem. Mr. Harvey stiles it a pious and instructive piece; and that worthy gentleman, upon hearing that the author was in necessitous circumstances, deposited two guineas in the hands of a trusty person to be given him, whenever his occasions should press. This poem was written some years before Mr. Harvey or Mr. Fielding took any notice of it, but it was lost to the public, as the reputation of the Bookseller consisted in sending into the world abundance of trifles, amongst which, it was considered as one. Mr. Boyse said, that upon its first publication, a gentleman acquainted with Mr. Pope, took occasion to ask that poet, if he was not the author of it, to which Mr. Pope replied, "that he was not the author, but that there were many lines in it, of which he should not be ashamed." This Mr. Boyse considered as a very great compliment. The poem indeed abounds with shining lines and elevated sentiments on the several Attributes of the Supreme Being; but then it is without a plan, or any connexion of parts, for it may be read either backwards or forwards, as the reader pleases.

While Mr. Boyse was in this lingering illness, he seemed to have no notice of his approaching end, nor did he expect it, till it was almost past the thinking of. His mind, indeed, was often religiously disposed; he frequently talked upon that subject, and, probably suffered a great deal from the remorse of his conscience. The early impressions of his good education were never entirely obliterated, and his whole life was a continued struggle between his will and reason, as he was always violating his duty to the one, while he fell under the subjection of the other. It was in consequence of this war in his mind, that he wrote a beautiful poem called The Recantation.

In the month of May, 1749, he died in obscure lodgings near Shoe-Lane. An old acquaintance of his endeavoured to collect money to defray the expences of his funeral, so that the scandal of being buried by the parish might be avoided. But his endeavours were in vain, for the persons he sollicited, had been so troubled with applications during the life of this unhappy man, that they refused to contribute any thing towards his funeral. The remains of this son of the muses were, with very little ceremony, hurried away by the parish officers, and thrown amongst common beggars; though with this distinction, that the service of the church was performed over his corpse. Never was an exit more shocking, nor a life spent with less grace, than those of Mr. Boyse, and never were such distinguished abilities given to less purpose. His genius was not confined to poetry only, he had a taste for painting, music and heraldry, with the latter of which he was very well acquainted. His poetical pieces, if collected, would make six moderate volumes. Many of them are scattered in the Gentleman's Magazine, marked with the letter Y. and Alceus. Two volumes were published in London, but as they never had any great sale, it will be difficult to find them.

An ode of his in the manner of Spenser, entitled The Olive, was addressed to Sir Robert Walpole, which procured him a present of ten guineas. He translated a poem from the High Dutch of Van Haren, in praise of peace, upon the conclusion of that made at Aix la Chapelle; but the poem which procured him the greatest reputation, was, that upon the Attributes of the Deity, of which we have already taken notice. He was employed by Mr. Ogle to translate some of Chaucer's Tales into modern English, which he performed with great spirit, and received at the rate of three pence a line for his trouble. Mr. Ogle published a complete edition of that old poet's Canterbury Tales Modernized; and Mr. Boyse's name is put to such Tales as were done by him. It had often been urged to Mr. Boyse to turn his thoughts towards the drama as that was the most profitable kind of poetical writing, and as many a poet of inferior genius to him has raised large contributions on the public by the success of their plays. But Boyse never seemed to relish this proposal, perhaps from a consciousness that he had not spirit to prosecute the arduous task of introducing it on the stage; or that he thought himself unequal to the task.

In the year 1743 Mr. Boyse published without his name, an Ode on the battle of Dettingen, entitled Albion's Triumph; some Stanza's of which we shall give as a specimen of Mr. Boyse's poetry [omitted].