1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Melmoth

John Nichols, in Literary Anecdotes of the XVIII Century (1812-15) 3:41-43n.



Mr Cole, in his MSS. styles Mr. Melmoth "a worthy and amiable character — lived some time at Shrewsbury, but now (1771) at Bath, where he married his second wife, an Irish lady." The first wife was Dorothy, daughter of the celebrated Dr. King, principle of Mary hall, Oxford (see vol. II. p. 607); the second was Mrs. Ogle. — In November 1794, a gentleman, who well knew him, says, "Mr. Melmoth is still living at Bath, in full possession of his faculties, at the advanced age of 84; and, as a proof of it, has very lately favoured the literary world with a Pamphlet, written with his usual classic elegance, being a vindication (an a most successful one) of his opinion respecting the conduct of Pliny towards the Christians, in answer to an attack made upon it by the learned Mr. Bryant. It would be indelicate, perhaps, to detail particulars of the life of any private gentleman still in being; for, though an Author may be considered as a public character, the publick have nothing to do but with his Works. Suffice, therefore, to remark, in general, that he is no less distinguished for integrity of life, than for polite manners and elegant taste. I will add the simple fact, that he is the eldest son of that great lawyer, and good man, William Melmoth, esq. bencher of Lincoln's Inn, who died in 1743, leaving that valuable legacy to posterity, The Great Importance of a Religious Life; a tract which has gone through 27 editions, most of them reprinted under the inspection of Mr. Melmoth, and of which (according to the testimony of the Editor of the Biographical Anecdotes of Mr. Bowyer) above 100,000 copies have been sold since the Author's decease. The Works of Mr. Melmoth are in every body's hands, and are so well known that it would be scarcely necessary to give a list of them, were it not that, by the assumption of his name, some very trifling performance have enjoyed an ephemeral importance which did not belong to them or their author, who impudently enough took up a nearly similar name, with the innocent view, perhaps, of raising the price, perhaps, rather than the reputation of his Works. See Gent. Mag. vol. LXIV.

Mr. Melmoth is generally allowed to have been one of the most elegant writers in the British Nation. He first became known in the literary world, by a Translation of The Letters of Pliny the Consul; with occasional Remarks, by William Melmoth, Esq. 1746, 2 vols. 8vo; reprinted 1747, and 1748, and frequently since. — Mr. Warton, in a Note on Pope's Works, mentions Melmoth's Pliny, as one of the few works that are better known than the original. And Dr. Birch, in his Life of Tillotson, p. 362, says, "one of our elegant writers, whose Version of Pliny has shewn, what was never before imagined possible, that translations may equal the force and beauty of the originals, has, in another work of his, mixed the highest compliments upon the Archbishop's sentiments with the strongest exceptions of his style, declaring, that he seems to have no sort of notion of rhetorical numbers; and that no man had ever less pretensions to genuine oratory; that one cannot but regret, that he, who abounds with such noble sentiments, should want the art of setting them off with all the advantage they deserve; that the sublime in morals should not be attended with a suitable elevation of language. The truth however is, his words are frequently ill chosen, and almost always ill placed; his periods are both tedious and inharmonious, as his metaphors are generally mean, and often ridiculous" — His next work was an agreeable specimen of epistolary correspondence, under the name of Letters of the late Sir Thomas Fitzosborne, bart. on several Subjects — absentis pignus amicitiae, 1748. 8vo. A second volume of these Letters was published in 1749; and in the same year a second edition of both volumes in one. They were afterwards frequently reprinted. — He next published The Letters of Marcus Tullius Cicero to several of his Friends, with Remarks, 1753, 2 vols. 8vo; Cato, or an Essay on Old Age, 1773, 8vo; Laelius, or an Essay on Friendship, 1777, 8vo; The Translator of Pliny's Letters vindicated from the Objections of Jacob Bryant, Esq. to his Remarks respecting Trajan's Persecution of the Christians in Bithynia, 1794, 8vo. — "The Postscript to this excellent Tract (it has been well observed) is worthy of the perusal of every hot Controvertist, and may possibly be a lesson to some of that description. Polemical writers are apt to carry on the debate with so much petulant intemperance, that the question seems ultimately to be, which of the disputants shall have the honour of the last word. The author of the present Defence disclaims all ambition of that kind; and no reply, from whatever hand it may come, shall induce him to advance a step farther in the controversy. It was, indeed, with the utmost regret that he was constrained, by a very unprovoked attack, to enter into it; and he could not but consider himself, upon that occasion, as in circumstances in several respects similar to those of a certain veteran Actor of ancient Rome, who having, in his declining years retired from the theatre, and being compelled by Caesar, in the last period of his days, to re-appear upon the stage, addressed the audience in a suitable prologue, which concludes with these elegant and very apposite lines:

Ut hedera serpens vires arboreas necat,
Ita me vetustas amplexa annorum enecat:
Sepulchri similis nihil nisi nomen retineo.
Monthly Review, N.S. vol. XV. p. 252;
and Gent. Mag. vol. LXIV. p. 530.

In Dodsley's Poems, vol. I. p. 216, edit. 1782, is a Poem by Mr. Melmoth, intituled, Of Active and Retired Life, an Epistle to Henry Coventry, Esq. [Author of Philemon to Hydaspes; see vol. V. p. 568]. And in Pearch's Poems, vol. II. p. 142, The Transformation of Lycon and Euphormius, p. 149. A Tale; and p. 151, Epistle to Sappho. — This literary Veteran closed his honourable career by a tribute of filial piety to his Father, duly noticed in p.39 — He died at Bath, March 14, 1799, aet. 89; his second wife surviving him. — Take the tribute paid to him by the Author of The Pursuits of Literature [by Thomas James Mathias], Part IV, p. 89: William Melmoth, esq. a most elegant and distinguished writer 'near half an age, with every good man's praise.' His translation of Cicero and Pliny will speak for him while Roman and English eloquence can be united. Mr. Melmoth is a happy example of the mild influence of learning on a cultivated mind; I mean, of that learning which is declared to be the aliment of youth, and the delight and consolation of declining years. Who would not envy this 'fortunate old man' his most finished Translation, and Comment on Tully's Cato? or rather, who would not rejoice in the refined and mellowed pleasures of so accomplished a gentleman and so liberal a scholar?" — Dr. Johnson speaks very slightingly of Mr. Melmoth, whom, in some small dispute, he "reduced to whistle" about 1750 (Boswell, vol. III. p. 225)