1810 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Scott of Amwell

Alexander Chalmers, in Works of the English Poets (1810) 17:445-52



This very amiable man, the youngest son of Samuel and Martha Scott, was born on the ninth day of January 1730, in the Grange Walk, in the parish of St. Mary Magdalen, Bermondsey. His father was a draper and citizen of London, a man of plain and irreproachable manners, and one of the society of the people called Quakers, in which persuasion our poet was educated, and continued during the whole of his life, although not with the strictest attention to all the peculiarities of that sect.

His father does not appear to have intended him for a classical education. In his seventh year he was put under the tuition of one John Clarke, a native of Scotland, who kept a school in Bermondsey Street, but attended young Scott at his father's house, where he instructed him in the rudiments of the Latin tongue. Little is known of his proficiency tinder this tutor, whom, however, in his latter days, he remembered with pleasure, although he was a man of severe manners. In his tenth year, his father retired with his family, consisting of Mrs. Scott and two sons, to the village of Amwell in Hertfordshire, where, for some time, he carried on the malting trade.

Here our poet was sent to a private day-school, in which he is said to have had few opportunities of polite literature, and those few were declined by his father from a dread of the small-pox, which neither he nor his son had yet caught. This terrour, perpetually recurring as the disorder made its appearance in one quarter or another, occasioned such frequent removals as prevented his son from the advantages of regular education. The youth, however, did not neglect to cultivate his mind by such means as were in his power. About the age of seventeen, he discovered an inclination to the study of poetry, with which he combined a delight in viewing the appearances of rural nature. At this time he derived much assistance from the conversation and opinions of one Charles Frogley, a person in the humble station of a bricklayer, but who had improved a natural taste for poetry, and arrived at a considerable degree of critical discernment. This Mr. Scott thankfully acknowledged when he had himself attained a rank among the writers of his age, and could return with interest the praise by which Frogley had cheered his youthful attempts. The only other adviser of his studies, in this sequestered spot, was a Mr. John Turner, afterwards a dissenting preacher. To him he was introduced in 1753 or 1754, and on the removal of Mr. Turner to London and afterwards to Colliton in Devonshire, they carried on a friendly correspondence on matters of general taste.

Mr. Scott's first poetical essays were published in the Gentleman's Magazine, "the great receptacle for the ebullitions of youthful genius." Mr. Hoole, his biographer, has not been able to discover all the pieces inserted by him in that work, but has reprinted three of them, which are now added to the collection originally formed by himself. Other pieces which he occasionally communicated to his friend Turner, were either mislaid, or on more mature deliberation kept back from the press. He appears to have looked up to Turner's opinions with much deference, and it was probably at his solicitation that he first ventured to come before the public as a candidate for poetical fame.

With the taste of the public during his retirement at Amwell, he could have little acquaintance. He had lived here about twenty years, at a distance from any literary society or information. His reading was chiefly confined to books of taste and criticism, but the latter at that time were not many, nor very valuable. In the ancient or modern languages it does not appear that he made any progress. Mr. Hoole thinks he knew very little of Latin, and had no knowledge of either French or Italian. Those who know of what importance it is to improve genius by study, will regret that such a man was left, in the pliable days of youth, without any acquaintance with the noble models on which English poets have been formed. They will yet more regret that the cause of this distance from literary society, the source of all generous and useful emulation, was a superstitious dread of the small-pox, already mentioned as obstructing his early studies, and which continued to prevail with his parents to such a degree, that although at the distance of only twenty miles, their son had been permitted to visit London but once in twenty years. His chief occupation, when not in a humour to study, was in cultivating a garden, for which he had a particular fondness, and at length rendered one of the most attractive objects to the visitors of Amwell.

About the year 1760, he began to make occasional, though cautious and short visits to London, and in the spring of this year published his Four Elegies, descriptive and moral, epithets which may he applied to almost all his poetry. These were very favourably received, and not only praised by the public critics, but received the valuable commendations of Dr. Young, Mrs. Talbot, and Mrs. Carter, who loved poetry, and loved it most when in conjunction with piety.

Although Mr. Scott had not given his name to this publication, he was not long undiscovered, and began to be honoured with the notice of several of the literati of the day, which, however, did not flatter him into vanity or carelessness. For many years he abstained from further publication, determined to put in no claims that were not strengthened by the utmost industry, and frequent and careful revisal. This, I am apt to think, in some cases checked his enthusiasm, and gave to his longer poems an appearance of labour.

In 1761, during the prevalence of the small-pox at Ware, he removed to St. Margaret's, a small hamlet about two miles distant from Amwell, where Mr. Hoole informs us be became first acquainted with him, and saw the first sketch of his poem of Amwell, to which he then gave the title of A Prospect of Ware and the Country adjacent. In 1766, he became sensible of the many disadvantages he laboured under by living in continual dread of the small-pox, and had the courage to submit to the operation of inoculation, which was successfully performed by the late baron Dimsdale. He now visited London more frequently, and Mr. Hoole had the satisfaction to introduce him, among others, to Dr. Johnson. "Notwithstanding the great difference of their political principles, Scott had too much love for goodness and genius, not to be highly gratified in the opportunity of cultivating a friendship with that great exemplar of human virtues, and that great veteran of human learning; while the doctor, with a mind superior to the distinction of party, delighted with equal complacency in the amiable qualities of Scott, of whom he always spoke with feeling regard [author's note: Hoole's Life of Scott]."

In 1767, he married Sarah Frogley, the daughter of his early friend and adviser Charles Frogley. The bride was, previous to her nuptials, admitted a member of thesociety of Quakers. For her father he ever preserved the highest respect, and seems to have written his eleventh Ode, with a view to relieve the mind of that worthy man from the apprehension of being neglected by him. The connection he had formed in his family, however, was not of long duration. His wife died in child-bed in 1768, and the same year he lost his father, and his infant child. For some time he was inconsolable, and removed from Amwell, where so many objects excited the bitter remembrance of all he held dear, to the house of a friend at Upton. Here, when time and reflection had mellowed his grief, he honoured the memory of his wife by an elegy, in which tenderness and love are expressed in the genuine language of nature. As he did not wish to make a parade of his private feelings, a few copies only of this elegy were given to his friends, nor would he ever suffer it to be published for sale. It procured him the praise of Dr. Hawkesworth, and the friendship of Dr. Langhorne, who about this time had been visited by a similar calamity. — His mother, it ought to have been mentioned, died in 1766; and in 1769, he lost his friend and correspondent Mr. Turner.

In November 1770, he married his second wife, Mary de Horne, daughter of the late Abraham de Horne, "a lady whose amiable qualities promised him many years of uninterrupted happiness." During his visits in London, he increased his literary circle of friends by an introduction to Mrs. Montague's parties. Among those who principally noticed him with respect, were lord Lyttelton, sir William Jones, Mr. Potter, Mr. Mickle, and Dr. Beattie, who paid him a cordial visit at Amwell in 1773, and again in 1781, and became one of his correspondents.

Although we have hitherto contemplated our author as a student and occasional poet, he rendered himself more conspicuous as one of those reflectors on public affairs who employ much of their time in endeavouring to he useful. He appears to have acquired the spirit and patriotism of the country gentleman whose abilities enable him to do good, and whose fortune adds the influence which is often necessary to render that good effectual and permanent. Among other subjects, his attention had often been called to that glaring defect in human polity, the state of the poor, and having revolved it in his mind, with the assistance of many personal inquiries, he published, in 1773, Observations on the present State of the parochial and vagrant Poor. It is needless to add that his advice in this matter was rather approved than followed. Some of his propositions, indeed, were incorporated in Mr. Gilbert's Bill, in the year 1782, but the whole was lost for want of parliamentary support.

In 1776 he published his Amwell, a descriptive poem, which he had long been preparing and in which he fondly hoped to immortalize his favourite village. His biographer, however, has amply demonstrated the impossibility of communicating local enthusiasm by any attempt of this kind. The reflections occasionally introduced, and the historical or encomiastic digressions, are generally selected as the most pleasing passages in descriptive poetry, but all that is really descriptive, all that would remove us from the closet to the scene is a hopeless attempt to do that by the pen which can only be done by the pencil. Of all writers, whether in prose or verse, who have attempted picturesque description, Gilpin alone has succeeded, not indeed completely, for language will not admit of it, but in bringing objects the nearest to the eye.

At such intervals as our author could spare, he wrote various anonymous pamphlets and essays, on miscellaneous subjects, and is said to have appeared among those enemies of the measures of government who answered Dr. Johnson's Patriot, False Alarm, and Taxation no Tyranny. On the commencement of the Rowleian controversy, he took the part of Chatterton, and was among the first who questioned the authenticity of the poems ascribed to Rowley. This he discussed in some letters inserted in the Gentleman's Magazine. Of course he was led to admire the wonderful powers of the young impostor, and in his twenty-first Ode pays a poetical tribute to his memory, in which, with others of his brethren at that time, he censures the unfeeling rich for depriving their country of a new Shakspeare or Milton.

These, however, were his amusements; the more valuable part of his time was devoted to such public business as is ever best conducted by men of his pure and independent character. He gave regular attendance at turnpike meetings, navigation trusts, and commissions of land tax, and proposed and carried various schemes of local improvement, particularly the fine road between Ware and Hertford, and some useful alterations in the streets of Ware. Among his neighbours he frequently, by a judicious interference or arbitration, checked that spirit of litigation which destroys the felicity of a country life. During the meritorious employments of his public and political life, it can only be imputed to him that in his zeal for the principles he espoused, he sometimes betrayed too great warmth; and in answering Dr. Johnson's pamphlets, it has been allowed that he made use of expressions which would better become those who did not know the worth of that excellent character.

In 1778, he published a work of great labour and utility, entitled, A Digest of the Highway and General Turnpike laws. In this compilation, Mr. Hoole informs us, all the acts of parliament in force are collected together, and placed in one point of view; their contents are arranged under distinct heads, with the addition of many notes, and an appendix on the construction and preservation of public roads, probably the only scientific treatise on the subject. A part of this work appeared in 1773, under the title of a Digest of the Highway Laws.

In the spring of 1782, he published what he had long projected, a volume of poetry, including his Elegies, Amwell, and a great variety of hitherto unpublished pieces. On this volume it is evident he had bestowed great pains, and added the decorations of some beautiful engravings. A very favourable account was given of the whole of its contents in the Monthly Review; but the Critical having taken some personal liberties with the author, hinting that the ornaments were not quite suitable to the plainness and simplicity of a quaker, Mr. Scott thought proper to publish a letter addressed to the authors of that journal, in which he expostulated with them on their conduct, and defended his poetry. Every friend, however, must wish he had passed over their strictures in silence. His defence of his poetry betrays him into the error of which he complained, and we see far more of the conceited egotist than could have been supposed to belong to his simple and humble character.

After this contest, he began to prepare a work of the critical kind. He had been dissatisfied with some of Dr. Johnson's Lives of the Poets, and had amassed in the course of his own reading and reflection a number of observations on Denham, Milton, Pope, Dyer, Goldsmith, and Thomson, which he sent to the press under the title of Critical Essays, but did not live to publish. On the 25th of October 1783, he accompanied Mrs. Scott to London for the benefit of medical advice for a complaint under which she laboured at that time; but on the first of December, while at his house at Ratcliff, he was attacked by a putrid fever, which proved fatal on the 12th of that month, and he was interred on the 18th in the quaker's burying ground at Ratcliff. He had, arrived at his fifty fourth year, and left behind him a widow and a daughter, their only child, then about six years old. His death, was the more lamented as he was in the vigour of life, and had the prospect of many years of usefulness. "In his person he was tall and slender, but his limbs were remarkably strong and muscular: he was very active, and delighted much in the exercise of walking: his countenance was cheerful and animated." The portrait prefixed to his works is not a very correct likeness, nor was he himself satisfied with it.

His public and private character appears to have been in every respect worthy of imitation, but what his religious opinions were, except that he cherished a general reverence for piety, is somewhat doubtful. Professedly, he was one of the society called Quakers, but the paper which that society, or some of his relations, thought it necessary to publish after his death, seems to intimate, that in their opinion, and finally in his own, his practice had not in all respects been consistent. Hoole has suppressed this document, while he has thrown out a hint which is altogether unintelligible without a reference to it. He says, that "he had been told that the state of his mind did not a little contribute to strengthen his malady." Whether this was the case, the reader may judge from a perusal of the following statement, originally drawn up for the use of The Friends, and which is now reprinted, without any suspicion that it will injure the memory of Mr. Scott, and certainly without any intention to produce such an effect. Those who have admired him as the active and benevolent citizen, and the favoured poet, will not, it is hoped, whatever their religious opinion may be, view him with less complacency on his death-bed as the humble Christian.

"John Scott was favoured with strength of body, and an active and vigorous mind: he was esteemed regular and moral in his conduct, and extensive in his knowledge, being remarkably diligent and attentive in promoting works of public utility: in assisting individuals in cases of difficulty, and in the conciliation of differences. His removal hence is generally lamented by his neighbours, both in superior and inferior stations. Notwithstanding these qualifications, there is reason to believe he frequently experienced the conviction of the spirit of truth, for not faithfully following the Lord, and adhering to the cross of Christ, by which true believers are crucified to the world and the world to them.

"During the yearly meeting in London, in the year 1783, he attended many of the meetings for worship, and appeared to be more religiously concerned than for some years preceding.

"On the 1st of the 12th month he was seized with a fever; and, expecting it would prove fatal, he was greatly humbled in spirit, saying to his wife, that his father was a good man, and he believed was gone to Heaven, expressing a sense of the happiness of the righteous in futurity; but being convinced of his own low and unprepared state, he said, he himself was unworthy of the lowest place in the heavenly mansions, but hoped he should not be a companion of accursed and wrathful spirits.

"In the early part of his illness, he discoursed with his wife concerning some outward affairs, particularly desiring that his only and beloved daughter might he brought up among friends.

"Notwithstanding the severity of the distemper, he was favoured with a clear and unimpaired understanding, and the exercise of his spirit seemed to be almost continual for peace and reconciliation with his Maker; having a hope, that if it should please the Lord to spare him, he should become a new man; but, in much diffidence, he expressed a fear lest the old things should again prevail; he also said to the person who attended him, that 'he had been too proud.' But it is well known, that his behaviour to his inferiors was the reverse, for to them he was remarkably easy of access.

"Speaking frequently of his brother, and expressing a desire to see him, on the 9th of the 12th month a special messenger was sent to Hertford, from Ratcliff, requesting his attendance there. His brother, on being informed next morning, by letter, of his continual solicitude to see him, and him only, reached his house at Ratcliff about four that afternoon. Being introduced to his bed-side, on asking him how he did, he answered, 'Very bad: I wanted to see thee, and if thee had come sooner, I had, a great deal to say to thee, but I fear now I cannot.' What afterwards passed between them was as follows. After a short space of silence, John Scott began to speak, with a voice full of power: — "I wanted to see thee, to tell thee that I have nothing to trust to but the blessed Jesus; and that, if I die, I do not die an unbeliever. If I die, I die a believer, and have nothing to trust to but mere unmerited mercy.' Finding him brought down, as from the clefts of the rocks, and the heights of the hills, into the valley of deep humiliation, his brother rejoiced in spirit, and spake comfortably to him, expressing the deeply humiliating views he had of his own state. J. Scott replied — 'O! if it is so with thee, how must it have been with me who have been the chief of sinners. The insufficiency of self-righteousness being mentioned, 'Oh,' said he, with great earnestness, 'righteousness! I have no righteousness, nor any thing to trust to, but the blessed Jesus and his merits.' Pausing awhile, he proceeded — 'There is within me which keeps me from despairing. I date not despair, although I have as much reason to despair as any one, were it not for him who showed mercy to the thief upon the cross. The thief upon the cross, and Peter, who denied his master, are much before me.' Being advised to trust in the Lord, he replied, 'I have none else to trust in. Oh!' said he, 'the Saviour! he is the way, and there is no other; I now see there is no other. Oh, the Saviour! I have done too much against him; and if I live, I hope I shall be able to let the world know it, and that, in many respects, my mind is altered. But I dare not make resolutions.' His brother mentioning former times, and the days of his youth, in which they frequently conversed about, and were both clearly convinced of, the necessity of inward and experimental piety, he answered — 'I was then very deficient, but I have since been much more shaken.' Visiting the sick in a formal customary manner, being represented as unprofitable, he replied, 'Oh! it is not a time to be solicitous about forms! Here is a scene, indeed, enough to bring down the grandeur of many, if they could see it. I buoyed myself up with the hope of many days.' Recommending him to the great object, Christ within, the hope of glory, to which his mind was measurably turned, his brother seemed to withdraw, on which he clasped his hand, and took a solemn farewell.

"He continued in mutability about two days longer, altogether in a calm and rational state. About twelve hours before his decease, his speech much faltered: but, by some broken expressions, it appeared that the religious concern of his mind was continued.

"On the 12th day of the 12th month, 1783, he departed this life in remarkable quietness, without sigh or groan, and was buried in friends' burying ground on the 18th, being nearly 54 years of age.

"The publication of these Memoirs proceeds not from partiality to our deceased friend: they are preserved as a word of reproof to the careless, and of comfort to the mourners in Zion.

"May none, in a day of health and prosperity, reject the visitation of his divine grace and favour, who hath declared, that 'his spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh.' Nor, on the other, may the penitent, and truly awakened, at no time despair of that mercy and forgiveness which the Lord hath promised to them who sincerely repent."

His Critical Essays were published in 1785, by Mr. Hoole, who prefixed a life, written with much affection, yet with impartiality. He loved the man, and he freely criticises the poet. Of his peculiar habits we have only one anecdote: — "He preferred the time for poetical composition, when the rest of the family were in bed; and it was frequently his custom to sit in a dark room, and when he had composed a number of lines, he would go into another room where a candle was burning, in order to commit them to paper. Though in general very regular in his hour of retiring to rest, he would sometimes be up great part of the night, when he was engaged in any literary work."

As a poet, he may be allowed to rank among those who possess genius in a moderate degree; who please by short efforts and limited inspirations; but whose talents are better displayed in moral reflection and pathetic sentiment than in flights of fancy. His Elegies, as they were the first, are among the best of his performances. Simplicity appears to have been his general aim, and he was of opinion that it was too little studied by modern writers. In the Mexican Prophecy, however, and in Serim, there is a fire and spirit worthy of the highest school. His Amwell will ever deserve a. distinguished place among descriptive poems; although it is liable to all the objections attached to descriptive poetry. But he cannot be denied the merit of being original in many individual passages; and he appears to have viewed Nature with the eye of a genuine poet. He has himself pointed out some coincidences with former poets, which were accidental; and perhaps others may be discovered, without detracting from the independence of his Muse. His feeblest effort is the Essay on Painting, a hasty sketch, in which he professed himself, and that not in very humble terms, to be the rival of Hayley, on the same subject. The public, I am afraid, has decided against him. Upon the whole, however, the vein of pious and moral reflection, and the benevolence and philanthropy, which pervade all his poems, will continue to make them acceptable to those who read to be improved, and are of opinion that pleasure is not the sole end of poetry.