1832 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. John Wolcot

William Clarke and Robert Shelton Mackenzie, in The Georgian Era: Memoirs of the most eminent Persons who have flourished in Great Britain (1832-34) 3:378-81.



This talented writer, better known by the appellation of Peter Pindar, was the son of a medical practitioner, and was born at Dodbrooke, in Devonshire, on the 9th of May, 1738. He received the rudiments of his education at Kingsbridge, and was afterwards sent, successively, to a seminary at Liskeard, and Bodmin, whence he proceeded to the continent, and studied there for about a year. On his return, he was apprenticed to his uncle, an apothecary, at Fowey, in Cornwall, where he made no ordinary progress in his profession, though much of his time appears to have been given to poetry. "As my uncle was always averse to my shining," he says in one of his letters, "I used to steal away to an old ruined tower, situate on a rock close by the sea, where many an early and late hour was devoted to the muses." Having gone to London to attend the hospitals, he made such good use of his time as fitted him to enter upon the practice of his profession, and, in 1767, he was appointed the medical attendant of Sir William Trelawney, who was just nominated governor of Jamaica. Previously to his departure, he obtained the degree of M.D. from one of the Scotch universities, and "on my arrival in Jamaica," he says, I acted only as physician." He, however, found so little to do, that upon Sir William Trelawney telling him it was a pity he had not been bred a parson, as he had a living in the island just vacant, Dr. Wolcot requested his excellency to bestow it upon him. His wish being complied with, he returned to England; where "the Bishop of London," he observes, "ordained me; and I held a living in Jamaica, but not of consequence sufficient to detain me in the island; so that, on the death of his excellency Sir William Trelawney, I accompanied Lady Trelawney to England." This occurred in 1768; and, arriving in England the following year, he took up his residence at Truro, where he practised as a physician for about four years. At the expiration of this time, his general satires upon his neighbours, and an unsuccessful lawsuit with the overseers of the parish, induced him to remove to Helstone, and subsequently, in 1780, to Exeter, in company with the painter, Opie, whose friend and benefactor he had recently become.

He had already made his satirical talents known by a poem, entitled A Supplicatory Epistle to the Reviewers; and, on his removal to London, in 1782, he published Lyric Odes to the Royal Academicians. In this he attacked West, and other eminent artists; and, whether justly or not, the public were so pleased with the poem, that the author continued the subject, under the title of More Lyric Odes. The king's having discovered upon his plate a certain disgusting insect, led to the composition of our author's Lousiad, in which he ridiculed that event with inimitable drollery. It is said that there was some intention of prosecuting him for this effusion, but the fear of further satire prevented government from resorting to actual proceedings. "The story of the louse," says Wolcot, in his humorous way, "is a fact — it was a louse; but whether a garden or a body louse was never ascertained. I had this from the cooks themselves, with whom I dined several times at Buckingham House and Windsor, immediately after the shave took place." It was agitated in the privy-council, he observes in one of his letters, "to attack me for my writings, particularly the Lousiad; but 'Are you sure of a verdict?' said a lord high in the law (Chancellor Thurlow); "if not so, by —, we shall look like a parcel of fools.'" The Lousiad was followed by Bozzy and Piozzy, and several other satirical pieces, in rapid succession, of which the principal were, An Epistle to a falling Minister, and Odes to Mr. Paine, Author of The Rights of Man.

In 1793, he sold the copyright of his works for an annuity of 250, the booksellers probably contemplating his decease at no distant date, and imagining that he had done with further composition. Our author, however, having recovered from an asthma, during his residence in Devonshire and Cornwall, returned to London, in the full vigour of his mental and bodily powers, and resumed his pen, with his usual success. The grantors of his annuity claimed, in consequence, a right to the profits of his subsequent publications, but the contrary was determined by a law-suit, which took place after much fruitless negotiation. In 1797, he published a series of his own landscapes, entitled Picturesque Views; and continued to publish, at intervals, poems in his peculiar style, which no one ventured to oppose. At length, in 1800, he was attacked by Gifford, in his Baviad, which so irritated our author, that he applied his cane to the former, who retaliated in the same manner. In 1807, an action was brought against him for crim. con., but he was acquitted. In 1812, the whole of his works appeared in five volumes, octavo; after this time he wrote but little, having completely lost his eyesight, which the operation of couching, in 1814, failed to restore. His last work was An Epistle to the Emperor of China, occasioned by the unfavourable result of Lord Amherst's embassy, which appeared in 1817. He died on the 14th of January, 1819, at his residence in Somers' Town, and was buried in a vault of St. Paul's, Covent Garden; his coffin, at his own request, being placed so near as to touch that of the author of Hudibras.

Dr. Wolcot was undoubtedly one of the most original poets this country has produced; his productions displaying not merely wit and smartness, but a profound knowledge of the world, and of the human heart, combined with a sound and cultivated understanding. His serious poems evince the same command of language, and originality of idea, as are displayed in his satires, and prove him to have been equally capable of the sublime and ludicrous, though excelling in the latter. It has been said that he was actually pensioned by government to purchase his silence, but it does not appear that any sum had been ever paid to him. As to the imputed pension, he himself says, "the fact is this: application was made to me by the friends of the government, that if I would employ my pen in their favour, they would remunerate me with a pension. My reply was, in a jocular way, that as for varnishing knaves, I never could consent to it; I had no whitewash for devils; but if they would give me 300 or 400 per annum to be mute, I might accede. This I said without the most distant idea of the proposal being accepted; however, they did accept it; a half year elapsed, when it was intimated to me that something was expected from me in favour of the administration. My reply was, that they had infamously violated the agreement, and that sooner than write for a set of men I despised, it should be void from that moment; and I pronounced it void: adding, with some acrimony, that rascality might think itself happy in passing without notice. As I had taken up 10 of the annuity, I sent it back to them, and gave the pitiful scoundrels my half-year's due. This is a fair picture of the matter."

The person of Dr. Wolcot does not appear to have been prepossessing, either in his countenance or figure; "he was," says his biographer, "what was usually termed a thick, squat man; his face was large, dark, and flat, and there was no speculation in his eye." Notwithstanding the number of his enemies, which he made by his satirical propensities, he had, in general, the character of a humane and beneficent man; and, by his particular friends, was much esteemed and respected. He was a great patron of the arts, and wherever he found merit, encouraged and supported it; it is well known that he was the first who discovered the genius, and laid the foundation of the fame, of Opie; and was at great pains to extend the reputation of Mr. Bone, the celebrated enamel painter, by recommending him to his principal acquaintances. His manners could not be called elegant, nor did he shine particularly in conversation, in mixed society; but no man was a more agreeable tete-a-tete companion, or a more desirable intimate. His abilities were by no means contemptible as a critic; and in a memoir of him in The Annual Obituary, will be found an excellent criticism of his own composition. upon Dryden's Alexander's Feast, which he used to call "a downright drunken Bartholomew-fair scene." In addition to his poetical effusions, he compiled a selection of the Beauties of English Poetry, and superintended an edition of Pilkington's Dictionary of Painters. He neither possessed ability, nor attained to eminence, as a physician: it was his own observation, "that he disliked the practice of it as an art, and confessed himself entirely ignorant whether the patient was cured by the 'vis medicatrix naturae,' or the administration of a pill." He considered the joints as blocks, the nerves as ropes, and the whole system as a ship full-rigged: in fine weather all was lax, loose, and agreeable, — in wet, every thing being tight and uncomfortable, disease was superinduced. His fondness for music was excessive, and he had himself great taste in that art: speaking, one evening, on the subject, a gentleman observed, "I think, sir, the Germans excel, at least in execution." — "Yes, sir," was the reply; "they execute every thing — they strangle melody." — Alluding to his partiality for the fair sex, he admitted that he had been refused by more than one lady. The following anecdote, is recorded by himself: — "A lovely Anglo-American, whilst recounting her adventures to me, added, that she and her lover had been shipwrecked close by the place she then inhabited: upon which I arose, and with much animation, exclaimed 'I hope to God, madam, he lost his life!' but it turned out that the gentleman in question had gone out to shoot doves for dinner." His treatment from the publishers he did not fail to inveigh against, both in his writings and conversation; and the following anecdote is told of him when dining, one day, at the house of a celebrated bookseller. The host had left the room, when some one proposed his health; "No," said Dr. Wolcot, rising, and at the same time brandishing a bottle of red port in his hand; "No; let us drink a bumper to our own, for this is author's blood." No man, perhaps, ever enjoyed so much temporary popularity as Peter Pindar: he himself says, that when the Duke of Kent was last in America, he took a stroll into the country, and entering a neat little cottage, saw a pretty girl with a book in her hand: "What books do you read, my dear?" said his royal highness. The girl, with the most artless innocence, replied, "Sir, the Bible and Peter Pindar."