1809 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Horace Walpole

Nathan Drake, in Essays Illustrative of the Rambler (1809-10) 2:276-84.



HORACE WALPOLE, EARL of ORFORD, the youngest son of Sir Robert Walpole, first Earl of Orford, was born in the year 1716. He was educated at Eton school; whence, at the customary period, he was sent to Kings College, Cambridge. He early exhibited a strong predilection for elegant literature, which in the year 1739 he extended and improved by a tour upon the continent. In his travels he was accompanied by the poet Gray; but, unfortunately, during their residence in Italy, a dispute took place which separated the two friends, and Mr. Gray returned to England.

It is probable, that Mr. Walpole was intended by his father for the diplomatic department, and, had Sir Robert lived longer, would, there is reason to suppose, have been high in office. The propensities of Mr. Walpole were, however, altogether on the side of a literary life; and though he entered into parliament in 1741, and continued a member for more than twenty years, his chief and dearest pursuits were those connected with learning and the polite arts. For eloquence as a Senator he was not celebrated, and seldom indeed spoke; that this was rather the defect of inclination than of ability, is evident from the speech that he delivered in vindication of his father's conduct in 1742, which, from its energy and filial piety, made a strong impression on the house.

To the patrimony which he inherited was added an ample revenue from various public offices; in 1738 he was appointed inspector of exports and imports, a place which he afterwards exchanged for that of usher of his majesty's exchequer; and he was subsequently comptroller of the pipe, and clerk of the escheats in the exchequer. His politics were, nevertheless, those of the Whig party, to which he steadily adhered, until the enormities of the French revolution induced him to found his creed on other principles.

On relinquishing his parliamentary duties, he retired to his seat at Strawberry-hill, where, in the almost exclusive enjoyment of literary luxury, and architectural embellishment, he passed the residue of his days. The scite of this beautiful villa, which originally supported but a small tenement, he had purchased in 1747; and it was the pleasing employment of many years to extend, improve, and convert, his cottage, for it was little more, into one of the most elegant and striking gothic mansions. His singular knowledge of Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman architecture enabled him to execute his designs with, at that period, unprecedented taste and accuracy; he led the way, indeed, to the partiality, which has since been so much diffused, for structures of this species; and, as might be expected, the result of continued attention to the subject has been a still more discriminating intimacy with the different styles and orders of the civil, military, and ecclesiastical fabrics of the Saxon and Norman ages.

The productions which issued from Mr. Walpole's press, for he built one at Strawberry-hill, were not solely confined to his own writings; he printed, as presents to his friends, several works which had become extremely scarce, and spared no expense in rendering them splendid and complete.

As a literary character, that in which he will be alone known to posterity, he is to be viewed as a poet, an historian, an antiquary, a novellist, an epistolary writer, and an essayist. His merits as a miscellaneous poet are inconsiderable; it is on his efforts in the dramatic province of the Muses that he founds a claim to our applause; The Mysterious Mother is a tragedy which, notwithstanding the unfortunate texture of its fable, makes a powerful impression on the mind, and exhibits evident marks of genius, as well as of close enquiry into the human heart. There is little doubt that, had the incidents admitted of representation, without too great a shock to the feelings, it would have become a standard play.

In his historical capacity he has displayed rather the keenness of the controversialist, and the ingenuity of the sceptic, than the requisite abilities for legitimate history. The Historic Doubts concerning Richard the Third have thrown, however, some new lights upon an intricate part of our annals, and have placed the person and character of the Usurper in a point of view considerably different from that in which they have been usually beheld.

To the class of antiquarian literature belong The Anecdotes of Painting and Engraving, and A Catalogue of Royal and Noble Authors; the former, founded on the materials collected by Vertue, is conducted with peculiar taste and judgment, and has proved, in no slight degree, instrumental to the progress of these elegant arts; while the latter, by commemorating those of illustrious rank who have been remarkable for literary genius, may have contributed to excite among our youthful nobility a more undivided attention to the liberal pursuits of learning. The Catalogue of Walpole has lately served as the basis of an elaborate work, on a somewhat similar, but more extended, plan, by Mr. Park. This edition, with the continuation, occupies five volumes octavo, and is embellished with a number of highly-finished portraits.

In the year 1764 our author produced the most popular of his original works, the Castle of Otranto, a tale which has given origin to a thousand imitations. It was at first brought before the public as a translation, by William Marshall, Gent. from the original Italian of Onuphrio Muralto; but its favourable reception soon unmasked the real author, who, in a second edition, came forward in propria persona. It is said to have been written in eight evenings; but the following extract from a letter, by Mr. Walpole, dated March 9, 1765, presents us with a more probable period for its composition: "Shall I confess to you what was the origin of this romance? I waked one morning in the beginning of last June from a dream, of which all I could recover was, that I had thought myself in an ancient castle (a very natural dream for a head filled like mine with gothic story); and that on the uppermost banister of a great staircase, I saw a gigantic hand in armour. In the evening I sat down, and began to write, without knowing in the least what I intended to say or relate. The work grew on my hands, and I grew fond of it. Add, that I was very glad to think of any thing rather than politics. In short, I was so engrossed with my tale, which I completed in less than two months, that one evening I wrote from the time I had drank my tea, about six o'clock, till half an hour after one in the morning; when my hands and fingers were so weary, that I could not hold the pen to finish the sentence, but left Matilda and Isabella talking in the middle of a paragraph.

The imagination and the developement of character displayed in this little romance have much merit; but the machinery is too forcibly obtruded, and too frequently employed; it even occasionally excites a ludicrous association of ideas; an effect ever fatal to the interest of a narrative of which the principal object is to excite terror.

It would appear from the care which Mr. Walpole took to preserve a complete copy of his correspondence, that he entertained a high idea of its merits; it certainly displays no small portion of vivacity, and is, at the same time, characteristic of its author's taste, habits, and peculiarities; but it is deficient in simplicity, and too often flippant and sarcastic.

The nine papers which Mr. Walpole contributed to the World do not give him a claim to any very distinguished rank as an essayist. They are chiefly ironical; and of these, No. 103 on Politeness, and No. 195 on Suicide, are the best. The character of Boncoeur in No. 103 was designed for Norborne Berkeley, who, we are told in the fifth volume of our author's works, on sinking with his horse up to the middle in Woburn-park, declared that it was only a little damp; the sufferer also from the attack of Maclean the robber, and the story of the Visiting Highwayman, in the same number, were circumstances founded on fact; the former occurring to Walpole himself, and the latter to Mrs. Cavendish.

Of the style of our author, though it has been praised, both in these numbers, and in his numerous other works, we cannot speak highly in favour; it is not only occasionally inelegant, and incorrect, but even frequently, from a perpetual affectation of ease, assumes a vulgar garb; thus the indefinite nominative "one" is constantly occurring, and sometimes commences a sentence three or four times in immediate succession; as in No. 160, "One can scarce reflect" — "One must not word" — "One might even suppose."

Another and more serious objection to Mr. Walpole as an Essayist is, the pruriency of imagination which he has occasionally indulged: the paper just quoted for its defect in style is one of these; though it is but candid to state, that it was originally disapproved by its author; who, in a letter to General Conway, thus accounts for its publication: "My Lady A. flatters me extremely about my WORLD, but it has brought me into a peck of troubles. In short, the good-natured town have been pleased to lend me a meaning, and call my Lord Bute Sir Eustace. I need not say how ill the story tallies to what they apply it; but I do vow to you, that so far from once entering into my imagination, my only apprehension was, that I should be suspected of Battery for the compliment to the princess in the former part. It is the more cruel, because you know it is just the thing in the world in which one must not defend one's self. If I might, I can prove that the paper was writ last Easter, long before this history was ever mentioned, and flung by because I did not like it. I mentioned it one night to my lady Hervey, which was the occasion of its being printed."

We have hitherto mentioned the author of the Castle of Otranto by the name most familiar to the literary world, and by which he himself wished to be known; for it was very late in life before he was advanced to the peerage; he was, indeed, nearly seventy-four when, by the death of his nephew in 1791, he acquired the title of Earl of Orford; a title, however, that he rarely assumed, nor did he ever claim the privilege of his rank in the house of lords. He survived his exaltation but a few years; dying, at the age of eighty, on March 2d, 1797.

The personal conduct of this accomplished nobleman appears to have been nearly correct. Of his generosity as a patron, however, not much can be said, when we recollect the circumstances relative to poor Chatterton; if the abuse which has been poured upon his Lordship, on this account, be deemed, as it generally must be, I conceive, uncommonly virulent and overcharged, it will still be difficult, even with the most candid, to avoid applying to the part which he acted in this unhappy affair, the epithets negligent, cold, and selfish.