1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Tobias Smollett

Thomas Campbell, in Specimens of the British Poets (1819; 1845) 512-13.



TOBIAS SMOLLETT was the grandson of Sir James Smollett, of Bonhill, a member of the Scottish parliament, and one of the commissioners for the Union. The father of the novelist was a younger son of the knight, and had married without his consent. He died in the prime of life, and left his children dependent on their grandfather. Were we to trust to Roderick Random's account of his relations, for authentic portraits of the author's family, we would entertain no very prepossessing idea of the old gentleman; but it appears that Sir James Smollett supported his son, and educated his grandchildren.

Smollett was born near Renton, in the parish of Cardross, and shire of Dumbarton, and passed his earliest years among those scenes on the banks of the Leven, which he has described with some interest in the Adventures of Humphrey Clinker. He received his first instructions in classical learning at the school of Dumbarton. He was afterward removed to the college of Glasgow, where he pursued the study of medicine; and, according to the practice then usual in medical education, was bound apprentice to Mr. Gordon, a surgeon in that city. Gordon is generally said to have been the original of Potion in Roderick Random. This has been denied by Smollett's biographers; but their conjecture is of no more weight than the tradition which it contradicts. In the characters of a work, so compounded of truth and fiction, the author alone could have estimated the personality which he intended, and of that intention he was not probably communicative. The tradition still remaining at Glasgow, is, that Smollett was a restive apprentice, and a mischievous stippling. While at the university he cultivated the study of literature, as well as of medicine, and showed a disposition for poetry, but very often in that bitter vein of satire which he carried so plentifully into the temper of his future years. He had also, before he was eighteen, composed a tragedy, entitled The Regicide. This tragedy was not published till after the lapse of ten years, and then it probably retained but little of its juvenile shape. When printed, "to shame the rogues," it was ushered in by a preface, abusing the stage-managers, who had rejected it, in a strain of indignation with which the perusal of the play itself did not dispose the reader to sympathize.

The death of his grandfather left Smollett without provision, and obliged him to leave his studies at Glasgow prematurely. He came to London, and obtained the situation of a surgeon's mate on board a ship of the line, which sailed in the unfortunate expedition to Carthegena. The strong picture of the discomforts of his naval life, which he afterward drew, is said to have attracted considerable attention to the internal economy of our ships of war, and to have occasioned the commencement of some salutary reformations. But with all the improvements which have been made, it is to be feared that the situation of an assistant surgeon in the navy is still less respectable and comfortable than it ought to be made. He is still without equal advantages to those of a surgeon's mate in the army, and is put too low in the rank of officers.

Smollett quitted the naval service in the West Indies, and resided for some time in Jamaica. He returned to London in 1746, and in the following year married a Miss Lascelles, whom he had courted in Jamaica, and with whom he had the promise of 3000. Of this sum, however, he obtained but a small part, and that after an expensive lawsuit. Being obliged therefore to have recourse to his pen for his support, he, in 1748, published his Roderick Random, the most popular of all the novels on which his high reputation rests. Three years elapsed before the appearance of Peregrine Pickle. In the interval he had visited Paris, where his biographer, Dr. Moore, who knew him there, says that he indulged in the common prejudices of the English against the French nation, and never attained the language so perfectly as to be able to mix familiarly with the inhabitants. When we look to the rich traits of comic effect, which his English characters derive from transferring the scene to France, we can neither regard his journey as of slight utility to his powers of amusement, nor regret that he attended more to the follies of his countrymen than to French manners and phraseology. After the publication of Peregrine Pickle he attempted to establish himself at Bath as a physician, but was not successful. His failure has been attributed to the haughtiness of his manners. It is not very apparent, however, what claims to medical estimation he could advance; and the celebrity for aggravating and exposing personal follies, which he had acquired by his novels, was rather too formidable to recommend him as a confidential visitant to the sick chambers of fashion. To a sensitive valetudinarian many diseases would be less alarming than a doctor, who might slay the character by his ridicule, and might not save the body by his prescriptions.

Returning disappointed from Bath, he fixed his residence at Chelsea, and supported himself during the rest of his life by his literary employments. The manner in which he lived at Chelsea, and the hospitality which he afforded to many of his poorer brethren of the tribe of literature, have been somewhat ostentatiously described by his own pen; but Dr. Moore assures us, that the account of his liberality is not overcharged. In 1753 he produced his novel of Count Fathom; and three years afterward, whilst confined in prison, for a libel on Admiral Knowles, amused himself with writing the Adventures of Launcelot Greaves. In the following year he attempted the stage in a farce, entitled the Reprisals, which, though of no great value, met with temporary success. Prolific as his pen was, he seems from this period to have felt that he could depend for subsistence more securely upon works of industry than originality; and he engaged in voluminous drudgeries, which added nothing to his fame, whilst they made inroads on his health and equanimity. His conduct of the Critical Review, in particular, embroiled him in rancorous personalities, and brought forward the least agreeable parts of his character. He supported the ministry of Lord Bute with his pen, but missed the reward which he expected. Though he had realized large sums by several of his works, he saw the evening of his life approach, with no provision in prospect, but what he could receive from severe and continued labours; and with him, that evening might be said to approach prematurely, for his constitution seems to have begun to break down when he was not much turned of forty. The death of his only daughter obliged him to seek relief from sickness and melancholy by travelling abroad for two years; and the Account of his Travels in France and Italy, which he published on his return, afforded a dreary picture of the state of his mind. Soon after his return from the Continent, his health still decaying, he made a journey to Scotland, and renewed his attachment to his friends and relations. His constitution again requiring a more genial climate, and as he could ill support the expense of travelling, his friends tried, in vain, to obtain for him from ministers, the situation of consul at Nice, Naples, or Leghorn. Smollett had written both for and against ministers, perhaps not always from independent motives; but to find the man, whose genius has given exhilaration to millions, thus reduced to beg, and to be refused the means that might have smoothed the pillow of his death-bed in a foreign country, is a circumstance which fills the mind rather too strongly with the recollection of Cervantes. He set out, however, for Italy in 1770, and, though debilitated in body, was able to compose his novel of Humphrey Clinker. After a few months of residence in the neighborhood of Leghorn, he expired there, in his fifty-first year.

The few poems which he has left have a portion of delicacy which is not to be found in his novels: but they have not, like those prose fictions, the strength of a master's hand. Were he to live over again, we might wish him to write more poetry, in the belief that his poetical talent would improve by exercise; but we should be glad to have more of his novels, just as they are.