1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. John Brown

John Nichols, in Literary Anecdotes of the XVIII Century (1812-15) 2:211-15n.



This elegant, ingenious, and unhappy author (who at the time of printing this poem [Liberty], and long after, lived in habits of intimate friendship with Mr. Bowyer, from whose press such part of his writings as made their first appearance in London were produced), was born at Rothbury, in the county of Northumberland, November 5, 1715. The family from which he was descended were the Browns of Colstown, near Haddington in Scotland. His father, John Brown, was a native of Scotland; and, at the time of his son's birth, was curate to Dr. Thomlinson, rector of Rothbury. He afterwards was collated to the vicarage of Wigton in Cumberland. To this place he carried his son, who there received the first part of his education. Thence he was removed to the University of Cambridge, 1732, and entered of St. John's College, under the tuition of Dr. Tunstall. After taking the degree of bachelor of arts in 1735, with great reputation, he returned to Wigton, and was ordained by Dr. Fleming, bishop of Carlisle. His first preferment was to a minor canonry and lectureship of that cathedral. In 1739 he took the degree of M.A.; and some time after was presented the living of Morland, in the county of Westmoreland. He resigned his preferment in the cathedral of Carlisle in disgust; and remained in obscurity at that city several years, till the Rebellion of 1745, when he acted as a volunteer at the siege of the castle, and behaved with great intrepidity. Having applied himself to poetry, and composed An Essay on Satire (which he published), occasioned by the death of Mr. Pope; that production made him known to Mr. Warburton; who introduced him to many of his friends; and, among the rest, to Mr. Charles Yorke; by whose means he obtained of the Lord Viscount Royston the rectory of Horksley, near Colchester, worth 300 a year. This living he soon after left, on a quarrel with the patron's family; and accepted the vicarage of Newcastle from the Bishop of Carlisle (Dr. Osbaldeston) whose chaplain he was. On several other occasions he also experienced the friendship of Dr. Warburton; who, in a letter to Mr. Hurd, Jan. 30, 1749-50, says, "Mr. Brown has fine parts: he has a genius for poetry, and has acquired a force of versification very uncommon. Poor Mr. Pope had a little before his death planned out an epic poem, which he began to be very intent upon. The subject was Brute. I gave this plan to Mr. Brown. He has wrote the first book, and in a surprising way, though an unfinished essay. I told him this was to be the work of years, and mature age, if ever it was to be done; that, in the mean time, he should think of something in prose that might be useful to his character in his own profession. I recommended to him a thing I once thought of myself — it had been recommended to me by Mr. Pope — an examination of all Lord Shaftesbury says against Religion. Mr. Pope told me, that, to his knowledge, the Characteristics had done more harm to Revealed Religion in England than all the works of Infidelity put together. Mr. Brown now is busy upon this work." A few days after, Feb. 10, he adds, ... "All you say of Mr. Brown's poetical scheme is exactly true: and, to speak in the classical language, it must be committed to the Gods. Time will shew whether they will mature it." — Again, Dec. 23, 1750, "It is generous and right in you, to take notice in an advantageous manner of two such promising young men as Mr. Brown and Mr. Mason, who prevent us from despairing of the quick revival of the poetic genius. Mr. Brown is printing his Remarks on the Characteristics. It will be much better than you could conceive from the specimen you saw of it. Mr. Yorke and I advised him to give it a different form. We said, that if we were to answer a grave, formal, methodical work, we should choose to do it in the loose way of dialogue and raillery: as, on the other hand, if we wrote against a rambling discourse of wit and humour, the best way of exposing it would by by logical argumentation. The truth is (inter nos) his talents do not seem so much to lie towards line and easy raillery, as to a vivacity, an elegance, and a correctness of observation in the reasoning way." — June 30, 1753, Dr. Warburton says, "Our friend, little Brown, seems to have been much pleased with the observation I communicated to him on poor Law's folly. 'Mr. Hurd's remark was like the man it came from; like a man who sees by an early penetration that which the generality never find out till they have drudged on to the end of life. I assure you, you cannot love and esteem him more than I do. I think him amongst the first rank of men on every account.' Brown never said or writ any thing that gave me a better opinion of his sense." — Oct. 14, 1754, "Our honest little friend Brown is fertile in projects. He has a scheme to erect a chaplain and chapel in the castle of Carlisle, and to be himself the man. Inter nos, I believe he might as well think of erecting a third archbishoprick. He wrote to me for Sir John Ligonier's interest with the Duke; whose application there would be enough to blast the project, could he ever bring it to blossom. I was sorry I had a necessity to tell him this, because it was a thing not be to spoke of. And now I have done so, I question whether he will credit it." — Nov. 13, 1754, "Pray make my best compliments to our good friend Master Doctor Brown (to address him in the old style, while I am uncertain of his new), and greet him on his fresh honours: I thank him for his letter, which, as we shall see him so soon, I forbear to trouble him with the further acknowledgment of. He knows he is always welcome to Prior-park." — The Doctor's degree was obtained in 1755; and on this occasion Mr. Hurd thus addressed Mr. Bowyer: "Brown the antagonist of Lord Shaftesbury, is now in College, and has taken his Doctor's degree. He preached a Sermon here, which many people commended; it was to prove that Tyranny was productive of Superstition, and Superstition of Tyranny; that Debauchery was the cause of Free-thinking, and Free-thinking of Debauchery. His conclusion was, that the only way of keeping us from being a French province, was to preserve our constitutional liberties, and the purity of our manners." About this period he wrote the Tragedy of Barbarossa; on which Dr. Warburton observes, Jan. 31, 1755-56, "Brown has told me the grand secret; and I wish it had been a secret still to me, when it was none to every body else. I am grieved that either these unrewarding times, or his love of poetry, or his love of money, should have made him overlook the duty of a Clergyman in all times, to make connexions with Players. Mr. Allen is grieved. You are sufficiently grieved, as I saw by your postscript in a letter to him, where you reprove him for an advertisement. We told him, that we should both have dissuaded him from his project had he communicated it to us. As it was, we had only to lament that state of these times, that forced a learned and ingenious Clergyman into these measures, to put himself at ease." — In 1757, he published his celebrated Estimate of the Manners and Principles of the Times, a work which was run down by popular clamour, but not answered. In this work, after having endeavoured to depreciate the literary spirit of the age, Dr. Brown thus characterizes his friend Dr. Warburton, "True it is, amidst the general defect of taste and learning, there is a Writer, whose force of genius, and extent of knowledge, might almost redeem the character of the times. But that superiority, which attracts the reverence of the few, excites the envy and hatred of the many: and while his works are translated and admired abroad, and patronised at home, by those who are most distinguished in genius, taste, and learning, himself is abused, and his friends insulted for his sake, by those who never read his writings, or, if they did, could neither taste nor comprehend them: while every little aspiring or despairing scribbler eyes him as Cassius did Caesar, and whispers to his fellow,

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus; and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs; and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves!

No wonder then if the malice of the Lilliputian tribe be bent against this dreaded Gulliver; if they attack him with poisoned arrows, whom they cannot subdue by strength." — Sept. 19, 1757, Dr. Warburton says, "Brown is here; I think rather perter than ordinary, but no wiser. You cannot imagine the tenderness they all have of his tender places: and with how unfeeling a hand I probe them. — It seems he said something to them of another Estimate. My wife told him, he must take care of carrying the joke too far. To me he has mentioned nothing of it, nor have I given him an opportunity." — Obtaining the vicarage of St. Nicholas, Newcastle, he resigned his living in Essex to Lord Hardwicke; between whom, as well as Dr. Warburton and him, there had some time before been a coolness. — June 17, 1760. "The Vicar of Newcastle has, at length, ceded his place to the Estimator; who, I suppose, will now gratify his resentment against his former patrons, for their turning their back upon him." — Oct. 9. "Brown is just got here. His visits are always surprises. He is going shortly to London, for institution to Newcastle. Your candour was misplaced. By his own confession, his purpose in the proposal to B. D. [the Bishop of Durham] was to keep Horksley. Nor does he seem sensible of any inconsistency between his pretensions and his conduct: so happily is he framed to satisfy himself." — March 18, 1761. "I am sorry for Dr. Brown. — It is very painful, as I have heard Mr. Allen say with his usual tenderness and humanity, to hear these things of one whom one has known and esteemed. But whatever inclination his spite to the family, rather than the value of the thing itself, might give him to hold the living, he must needs think himself obliged by the good advice of his friends. When he comes to cool a little, he cannot but perceive that both his ease and his honour required him to resign Horksley, after what had passed between him and his patron. But why is this deduction at Newcastle? It is impossible he should have disgusted the Corporation already." — Dr. Brown received no higher preferment, which to a person of his spirit must have been a great mortification. In the latter part of his life, he had an invitation from the Empress of Russia to superintend a grand design which she had formed, of extending the advantages of civilization over that great Empire. He accepted the offer, and actually prepared for the journey; but, finding his health in too precarious a state to admit of his fulfilling his intention, he was obliged to relinquish it. This and other disappointments were followed by a dejection of spirits, which he had often been subject to. In an interval of deprivation of reason, Sept. 23, 1766, he unfortunately destroyed himself, in the 51st year of his age. "What do you think of poor Brown," says Bishop Warburton, "you hear what is come to pass." On which Bishop Hurd observes, "He was a man of honour and probity; but his judgment, lying too much at the mercy of a suspicious temper, betrayed him, on some occasions, into a conduct, which looked like unsteadiness, and even ingratitude towards his best friends. But, whatever there was, or seemed to be, of this complexion in his life or writings, must be imputed to the latent constitutional disorder, which ended so fatally." — Such of his writings as were printed by Mr. Bowyer will be mentioned under their several years.