1782 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Julius Mickle

Anonymous, "Anecdotes of William Julius Mickle" European Magazine 1 (June 1782) 451-52.



Mr. Mickle is the son of the Rev. Alexander Mickle, a Scotch Clergyman, who, in the early part of his life, was several years a Dissenting Minister in London; and was some time an assistant of the esteemed Dr. Watts. He is said in the Scots Magazine, which mentions his death, to have assisted in the translation and notes of Bayle's Dictionary. On being presented to the Church of Langholm, a village on the borders, he married, and our author is one of his youngest sons. Mr. Mickle's passion for poetry early displayed itself; but he has been often heard to say, that when a boy, he was by no means fond of his book, till, when about thirteen years of age, Spenser's Fairy Queen fell in his way, when he immediately became passionately fond of that author, and began attempting his manner. He now read and studied with the greatest avidity, and wrote two tragedies, and half an epic poem, before he was eighteen; but these were long ago committed to the flames. Some of his miscellaneous works of that period, however, remain, and are in Pearch's collection; but we presume with the corrections of his riper years. Towards the end of the late war, about the time when he came of age, he endeavoured to get a commission in the Marine service, but was disappointed; and about the same time he sent some of his poetical MSS. to the first Lord Lyttleton, begging his Lordship's opinion if he should cultivate his inclination and talent for poetry. His Lordship's answer was every way flattering, and many personal interviews took place in consequence of his Lordship's approbation of those manuscripts; few of which, however, have yet been published. About the year 1765, or 1766, our author went to Oxford; and, we have been informed, that during his studies he was several years employed as Corrector of the Clarendon press: a situation which he chose for the literary opportunities which it furnished.

At this time it was that the Clarendon Press introduced to the world Mr. Mickle's first publication, intitled, Pollio. This is an elegiac, on the death of a brother, said to be written in a wood where they had spent many of the happy hours of puerile amusement together. This little poem was shewn in MS. to, and received some corrections from the hand of, Lord Lyttleton. The gentleman from whom we are favoured with these anecdotes, has seen some of his Lordship's correspondence with our author. In one letter he calls Pollio equal to any thing of the kind in our language; but, in another letter, his Lordship condemns the Elegy on Mary, Queen of Scots, which had been submitted to his perusal, and refuses to criticise it; not on account of the want of poetical merit, if our, correspondent remembers right, but because such tribute was not due to the memory of so bad a woman; referring our author to Thuanus, for the proofs of her guilt. This anecdote explains the note at the end of this beautiful elegy, where our author says, that the innocence of Mary has been lately strongly vindicated; that Buchanan, upon whose testimony Thuanus wrote, has been detected of forgery, and the grossest falsehood; and that, therefore, to drop a tear on the sufferings of this much-injured Princess is not unworthy an author, who would appear in the cause of virtue and honour.

In spring 1767 our author published The Concubine, a poem, in the manner of Spenser, which as gone through several editions, and is now more properly intitled Syr Martyn. It contains many strokes of that dry humour, or ridicule, which is called the manner of Cervantes; and it is somewhat remarkable, that there is a striking resemblance between our author's lady, in this poem, and that of Dr. Smollett's, in Humphrey Clinker, which was published two years afterwards.

Having read Castera's French translation at seventeen, our author has told his friends that he then conceived the first idea of translating the Lusiad into English; but he was obliged to postpone it for some years: but it continued to be the chief object in his view, and he accomplished at in a manner that has procured him a place in the highest rank of living poets. While the English language remains, Mr. Mickle's Lusiad will he considered as one of its greatest and best productions.

It is said that Dr. Johnson had a translation of the Lusiad in view near thirty years ago, but that other avocations prevented his undertaking a work of such labour and length. Dr. Goldsmith also had an eye to it, but was prevented by the same reason. At the conclusion of the introduction, Mr. Mickle thus mentions both these gentlemen: "To the names of many gentlemen from whom he has received assistance, or encouragement, he is happy to be enabled to add Dr. Johnson to the number of those; whose kindness for the man, and good wishes for the translation, call for his sincerest gratitude. Nor must a tribute to the memory of Dr. Goldsmith be neglected: he saw a part of this version, but he cannot now receive the thanks of the translator."

Voltaire, in his critique upon epic poetry, has highly commended and severely condemned the Lusiad. In this article, which he has often altered in his subsequent editions, he has made the grossest historical blunders, and given the most rash and uncandid criticism, misrepresenting without shame, and condemning the Lusiad for faults which do not exist in it. These Mr. Mickle has pointed out and refuted, and has added a severe critique on the Henriade; and the first edition of the Lusiad, containing his strictures, was presented to Voltaire by a gentleman on his travels. About half a year after, M. de le Harpe, author of the Siege of Calais, and a friend of Voltaire, published a prose translation of the Lusiad in French, which is a most wretched performance indeed, mangled and unfair, published evidently, to accommodate the Lusiad to Voltaire's critique. The grossest misrepresentations of Voltaire he has the effrontery to defend, and has involved the Eneid in the same sentence which he passes on the Lusiad; as Mr. Mickle, in his second edition, has pointed out in his account of M. La Harpe's version.

To the English Lusiad is prefixed some dissertations political and historical. Abbe Reynal's opinion that the savage state is better than the polished, and that the discovery of the Eastern and Western Worlds has been a misfortune to mankind, is ably combated. Abbe Reynal has offered a medal to be given in the year 1783 for the best dissertation on these subjects. Perhaps the dissertation that ought to win the prize is already printed, and in the, hands of the purchasers of the Lusiad. Another of the prefatory dissertations is an accurate history of the rise and fall of the Portuguese empire in Asia, in which our author paints the happy effects of good government, and the ruinous consequences of peculation and tyranny in the strongest colours.

We are assured from undoubted authority, that this history of Portuguese Asia has been translated into Portuguese by one of the ablest pens of that country, and is now in the press at Lisbon. And what is a singular honour, Mr. Mickle has introduced the poet of Portugal to the acquaintance of his own countrymen. Portugal is not a literary nation, and Camoens was known and read by only a few. But when it was heard in Lisbon that the works of a Portugese poet were received with applause in London, every one was desirous to read them; and the Lusiadas, which were sold for a six-and-ninepence, immediately rose to a six-and-thirty, and were soon not to be had. Two new editions have since appeared, the preface to which mentions Mr. Mickle's translation with high encomium; and when our correspondent, about half a year ago, left Lisbon, it was in agitation among the literati to give an elegant quarto edition of their poet, adorned with sculptures in the superb manner with which the French nation honours its classics, and to which was to be added the historical introduction and notes of Mr. Mickle, translated into the Portuguese; and several of the first of the nobility are at the head of the proposal.

In 1779 and 1780 our author was Secretary to Commodore Johnstone on the Lisbon station, and has been in some engagements. When he was at Lisbon, the Portuguese literari paid him every attention and honour. He was present at the superb opening of the Royal Academy of Lisbon, of which he was enrolled a member, and fellow of foreign correspondence. Just before he went to sea in the summer of 1779, he handed about among his friends proposals for printing his own poetical works by subscription, in one volume quarto; three parts of which were to consist of originals. The literary world cannot but hope that he will now have leisure to complete his design. Since his return to England, he has published the elegant little poem which we reviewed in January. By what has been said above, it will appear he is middle aged; and as the generality of readers are desirous to know an author's person, he is rather below the middle size, but athletic, and bearing the promise of many years of literary labour.

If Mr. Mickle is possessed of any literary correspondence of the first Lord Lyttleton it is pity they are with-held so long from the public. Would he favour us with any of them, we should much esteem the obligation.